Sunday Morning ~ Gdansk
May 8, 2022
After two weeks in the border town of Ustrzyki Dolne in the Bieszczady Mountains I headed back to Warsaw by local bus to Krakow then train to Warsaw. I loved the landscape in those mountains. They were not massive or steep. They were soft and old, rounded and rolling; perhaps worn down over millennia. The highest of the peaks is in Ukraine. I found them welcoming. I knew nothing about that part of Poland before going there. I didn’t know how many times the borders changed and inhabitants were suddenly of a different county: Poland, Austro-Hungary, Poland, Russia, Germany, Ukraine, Russia, Poland––strangely, like a bargaining chip or piece of clothing being passed around, as if no one lived there. The region is so rich in oil they used buckets to draw it up out of the ground. It bubbled out of the surface. Almost all the jews who did not flee in the 1930’s were exterminated. The camps weren’t far away. Their train ride was short. The whole area is dotted with old wooden orthodox churches sitting singularly in beautiful mountain settings. I wondered why a church would be set in such an isolated place, then learned there were villages surrounding them at one time, all destroyed. The churches were rebuilt. The whole region is now the wildest in Poland. As the forests grew back so did the wildlife. One of the sisters told us of coming face to face with a bear as she walked in the foothills. I’m hoping my next visit there will be as a tourist and the heaviness of the current situation lifted, though the generational trauma is palpable.
I’m grateful for the wonderful people I met there, giving their time to volunteer in many different capacities. Local restaurant owners routinely brought soup for the volunteers working at the border. College students took shifts covering 24 hours in the fireman’s tent. The firemen transported Ukrainians to the refugee center, and the people at Caritas provided supplies and support. It was a privilege to work with them for this short time.
Since I arrived in Poland I have been working on ways to get money directly to some who need it and I want to let you all know how that money has been used so far. Many of you gave generously and it has been enormously appreciated. A woman just south of Kyiv organized a system to get food, goods, and support to women who are not able or willing to leave the country; a chunk of money went to her. Some has paid for fuel a man needed to transport people safely to border crossings when trains were full. Some went to a man who lost three limbs in an explosion; he survived and the money will help him and his family. Some went to a woman with young children and no friends or family to rely on in Poland. Some has gone to a woman transporting people into Poland where she buys specifically needed supplies then transports them back into Ukraine. All of them are incredibly grateful and gracious, not only for the financial support, which is a godsend, but for the spirit and solidarity in which it was given. I believe it is making a difference. I stand in awe of the efforts and strength I’ve seen. I wish I could have done more.
The bus ride to Krakow was long and uncomfortable, and that was with little luggage and a home to return to. I constantly imagined myself fleeing and what that would be like. I was happy to hold my granddaughter again. We took a family trip up to Gdansk for the weekend and here I sit listening to church bells ringing waiting for everyone to get up. Gdansk is a city I’ve wanted to see for a long time. My interest started in1980 when there was a new Polish pope and a shipyard electrician in this city who inspired me. I had a new baby at the time and was a Peace Corps volunteer living in a remote Malawian village. Time magazines came weekly via diplomatic pouch and, being our only news source, I devoured every story of the solidarity movement. Being a new mother made me look at the world in a different way. Every world event was highlighted as a life or death possibility. Every action we each took could be significant.
This completely rebuilt city is inspiring to me. It’s location near the Baltic is stunning. It’s blend of old and new design is beautifully done. I can see a weekend here will not be enough as I could roam these streets for hours and days. We visited the World War II museum yesterday and that was sobering, as if we needed more sobering. It is so well done and powerful. It is a lesson in facing history full on and gave me a deeper understanding of the Polish determination to protect itself and it’s neighbors. I found it hopeful, actually. Clarity of purpose and solidarity does that to me. There is always a tipping point.
On Monday night I will take an overnight train (sleeper car!) to Budapest to visit a friend who was doing a Fulbright in Ukraine and is now displaced to Hungary. When I planned this trip last summer my intent was to spend a couple of weeks in Ukraine with him. I thought it would be a great opportunity to see a part of the world I hadn’t experienced. How things change.
Love to all,