Updated: Apr 19
Ha Lachma Anya, the bread our ancestors ate in Mitzrayim.
Every one hundred years or so, the world confronts a pandemic.
We observe public health dictates and hope to survive.
The pandemic leads news broadcasts, while ways of life are disrupted.
A hundred years ago, perhaps it was even toward the end of such a pandemic that my grandmother emigrated to the United States of America as a young lady, barely out of her teens. Though she told many stories, it is interesting that her stories did not ever mention the pandemic she must have experienced, perhaps obfuscated by lingering pogroms and impending military actions. This week I spent 44 hours in Warsaw, Poland, not far from her childhood home, in a region once again touched by the shrapnel of war. I observed that the current pandemic no longer seems to be the lead story. Masks are visible but mostly donned by foreigners. The Ukrainian refugees we met, mostly women, children and elderly have so much on their plates there is no bandwidth remaining to deal simultaneously with two major calamities. War trumps everything.
In addition to fear for their own wellbeing and futures, those we met, separated from husbands, parents and loved ones, were additionally traumatized by not being able to communicate with those left behind. We heard stories of small towns being surrounded and cut off, of devastation and destruction.
A hundred years ago when grandma traveled from Poland to the shores of the United States the journey must’ve seemed endless. She went on to build a beautiful family, but the fear of not knowing her future would be good and the pain of forever longing to see her parents one more time would cast a lifelong shadow. She had been free to make the choice. These people are not free to choose. It is frightening to imagine that in a different reality this could happen to any of us.
My grandma left her large family behind, most of whom were eventually killed during WWII, because they were Jews. She crossed the Atlantic not in steerage, like many from her socio-economic demographic, but with a ticket and a stateroom. Her older sister had arrived a decade earlier and had scrimped and saved in order to send passage. When grandma left, she had been sure she would see her parents again. That was not to be. They did not come to America. It was not long till war overtook that part of Europe, and there was nothing to return to. No family, no family home. Though there is clearly a Jewish revival in Europe, one hundred years later the memories of towns like hers can now only be found inside the likes of The Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Grandma would often tell stories, many so funny she could hardly make it to the end without laughing. I remember the tears of laughter rolling down her cheeks as she tried to catch her breath before another bout of laughter would seize her and her audience. I grew up hearing stories of all sorts. Stories from that long arduous journey crossing the Atlantic were overshadowed by colorful stories from her first few years as a new immigrant. From the moment she landed she worked hard to learn and improve her English. By the time I came along, decades had passed, and my grandma's English was fluent. She was very proud of her language prowess. And though she pronounced every syllable (think: veg-e-ta-ble), she had a rich vocabulary and like many of us today, enjoyed playing along with Jeopardy nightly.
Grandma lived about an hour’s drive away. We visited at least weekly looking forward to gobbling some potato pierogi or enjoying a bowl of chicken soup. There would often be a letter from a relative in the old country or from a cousin who had escaped to Israel or Sao Paulo, Brazil. We'd gather around as she shared the most recent news. The crinkly, thin airmail paper filled with Hebrew script and updates of family and community in Yiddish, told of births, deaths, readjusting to life in a new place and about some of the new horrors in a language I did not understand. Though I did not comprehend the words, the tears needed no translation. It was incomprehensible how horrible humanity could be. I felt grateful and blessed that my grandma had chosen to make the journey, setting up roots in a place far from unrest.
This year, with Eastern Europe once again besieged by war and the pandemic of this century hopefully waning, I boarded a flight heading to Warsaw with my husband to participate in and bear witness to a very special Passover Exodus. Throughout the journey, on the plane, in the hotel, while eating pierogi and especially while serving food at the World Central Kitchen the earworm HaLachma Anya, this is the Bread of Affliction- the bread our ancestors ate in Mitzrayim looped through my head. We packed lightly, intending to fill our luggage allotment with supplies. We filled our bags with letters of hope written and collected in a matter of days from individuals across the United States addressed to someone they might relate to amongst this newest refugee community.
The Seder of Hope, organized by the chief rabbi of Poland, was especially poignant as many newly displaced Jews were in attendance. Not looking to highlight our privilege, and aware that this could happen to anyone, anywhere, our small group in deference to the attendees chose to wear simple garb. We were keenly aware that freedom means choice, and many of the people we were to meet are no longer free. Ukrainian refugee guests would wear whatever clothes they received from donations. I decided to wear a garment which has been hanging unworn in my closet for about a year, my blue jacket, the one with the bright white JDC insignia.
The tchelet colored jacket is recognized all over Europe as the garment worn by people engaged in humanitarian efforts on behalf of vulnerable populations around the world. My prized jacket was gifted in recognition of my involvement with The Joint, as JDC is known in Europe and elsewhere. Wearing it helped me feel connected to the important work our group was witnessing. The symbolic jacket not only lets people know JDC is on the ground today, it links to JDC activities from previous eras and other countries. JDC can be there to help today, because they were there yesterday. Like a welcome sign, when I wore the jacket people approached. Some had been helped in the past by JDC volunteers, others were JDC volunteers, supporters and staff.
While in the WCK a smiling young lady volunteer from California approached, "Are you with the JDC?" she asked? When I replied in the affirmative, her smile intensified, Hannah quickly identified herself as Jewish, and said how meeting us made her feel more connected to the work she came to do. That she thought she was the only Jewish person around. She was unaware that the gentleman managing the kitchen was Jewish, too. We invited her to a Passover Seder which encompassed 8 rooms spread throughout four hotels, each with its own unique way of telling the Passover story, all with kosher for Passover cuisine.
I wore my blue jacket, and glad I did. Like a magnet, the other blue jackets gathered. One woman, a JDC staff person, shed tears when we explained about the letters we brought, and was so happy to take them, promising to share with those in need saying “this is better than therapy.”
While in Warsaw I noticed that it is difficult to differentiate between the regular population and Ukrainian refugees. They blend in and look alike, and in some cases even speak the same language. All over the world traumatized people, through outside forces are forced to start their lives anew, learn languages and skills. This war erupted on the heels of the United States withdrawal after 20 years from Afghanistan, creating yet another situation where people are displaced from their homes. Refugees from places like Afghanistan do not look like the people or share customs of their new communities. They do not blend in, which makes the acculturation even more challenging. Thankfully all over the world caring people are stepping up to help.
Often before Passover my grandma recanted how each year as part of the family’s Passover preparation her mother, Yocheved would take the brood of children on a journey to the closest big city, Warsaw where they bought fabrics, and clothing preparing for the new season. The family spoke Yiddish amongst themselves and Polish in public. I neither speak Yiddish nor Polish. I arrived one hundred years later, after sitting on a comfortable seven hour flight to walk those same fashionable streets. My Jewish grandma, beautiful, blue-eyed and blond, could have surely blended in. She left before she was forced out. I am indebted to her for making the choice she did.
And when I was ready, unlike my grandma, or any of the refugees I met in the past 44 hours, I chose to board a flight returning to New York in time to celebrate the second seder with my family in America. To that seder I proudly wore my blue jacket, removed my k95 mask and sang HaLachma Anya, the bread my ancestors ate in Mitzrayim.
Thank you for reading.