Stay Alive

May 5, 2022

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Karina Filonenko evacuated from Ukraine to Poland with her two children just after the start of the war.

A challenge for each person who lived in Ukraine after February 24, is to ‘stay alive.’ Could you ever expect that in the 21st century, the word “genocide” will be heard and seen? The Jewish Holocaust and mass shooting of World War II in Kiev’s Babin Yar, and across the entire territory of Ukraine, took away the lives of more than half of Ukrainian Jewry. And now in Ukraine, there is again genocide, but now the Ukrainian people die at the hands of the Russian soldiers.

‘Stay alive’—this is life, when you can’t plan, predict, you don’t know—where you will live through the day, will your relatives be alive and will you be deprived of your life?

Imagine that you have a house, which was repeatedly paid on credit, nurtured, repaired, and filled with personal items and trinkets, and suddenly you receive the news that your home no longer exists.

Or maybe after hiding in a bomb shelter, you realize that your house was hit by a rocket, and there is no longer your favorite sofa, TV, kitchen, or favorite pink rabbit.

My daughter and I are currently reading a wonderful work by children’s writer Judith Kerr, How Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit, about the family of a Jewish girl who had to flee Germany in 1933 when Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. It resonates with our lives in Poland now. I think that 89 years have passed since Hitler, and there are people in the world who are committing genocide of another nation—for whom neither their life nor another’s is important. But, evil will be defeated, as good people won then, so it will be now.

The atrocities committed by the Russian occupiers near Kyiv and other cities, rockets falling on us and our children day and night, forced Ukrainians to go abroad and seek temporary refuge in other countries to preserve the most valuable thing—our future, the future of Ukraine, our children, their health and psyche, and to continue their education.

That is why I, with my two daughters ages 7 and 3, together with a relative and her 4-year-old son, after another air alarm, gathered things, children, and thoughts together: one suitcase and a backpack each. We said goodbye to our husbands and parents and boarded a cold evacuation train that took 15 hours to Lviv, passing all the dangerous cities that had already been bombed to pick up future refugees and take them to a safer place. So, we were in Lviv at 6 am, it was still curfew, we couldn’t get out of the station, and there were a lot of people there. We were lucky that the train went so long and arrived only in the morning.

We waited for three days for a bus to Krakow to be with relatives, because it was impossible to buy a ticket every day, and it was impossible to wait for the evacuation train in a live queue several kilometers long with three children in the cold.

When we got on the bus, we waited in huge queues at the border, and at 3 am, we crossed to the Polish side. Everything went so quickly and easily that we could not believe our happiness. Polish volunteers greeted us so happily with treats, delicacies, hot drinks, baby diapers—all at 3 am!

The warm welcome in Poland did not end at the border. Wherever we had to go—the market square in Krakow, the hotel in Muszyn, or the social welfare center in Krynica-Zdroj—everywhere people helped us with things, food, and housing. We feel supported and protected—we are infinitely appreciative and we will never forget.

Apparently, the Jews had the same feelings when Poles rescued them from German concentration camps and hid them, providing all possible assistance.

Poland was the only Nazi-occupied country in Europe to host the Zhegota organization, aimed solely at helping Jews. More than 50,000 Jews survived the Nazi occupation of Poland, and half of them received some form of assistance from Zhegota.

Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is based on real events in Poland, when at the factory in Krakow, the owner hid more than 1,000 Jews from the Nazis. It is symbolic that one of the actresses in this film, Olivia Dabrowski, joined the volunteer movement and is helping on the Polish-Ukrainian border, sending humanitarian aid.

Support of countries, peoples, mutual assistance and kindness, is what will win the war. Unity is our strength.

Karina Filonenko’s aunt, Stella Krenman emigrated from Ukraine to Tidewater in 1994.

-Karina Filonenko


Letter to the Editor