‘The need for supplies is overwhelming,’ says Temple Emanu-El cantor
By Sharon Wisch-Ray
Vicky Glikin, senior cantor of Temple Emanu-El, lent her hands, voice and compassion to Ukrainian refugees in Poland earlier this month. During her time in Warsaw, Glikin led two Passover seders, played with refugee children and connected with myriad refugees at the Warsaw Central Train Station.
Glikin will share details of her eight-day experience at Shabbat services at 6:15 p.m., Friday, April 29 at Temple Emanu-El in the Stern Chapel. The service is open to the community and will also be streamed on Temple Emanu-El’s website at https://live.tedallas.org/.
Glikin learned about the Warsaw seders from her friend, a fellow Wexner Fellowship alumna and Columbia University professor, Dr. Rebecca Kobrin.
“She was going to lead the seder, but she’s not a native speaker. She said, ‘Oh my gosh, you have to come because you’re a native speaker’ and your help is going to be needed in leading the seder,” Glikin explained.
Glikin’s first language is Russian, and she also speaks Ukrainian. Her family emigrated from Kyiv to Chicago in 1992 at age 13.
“There’s such a tremendous need for Russian speaking or Ukrainian speaking volunteers, and especially people who can provide pastoral support for folks, who have just experienced tremendous trauma” Glikin said.
It was with the support of her fellow Temple Emanu-El clergy and their Good Works funds as well as contributions to the Temple Emanu-El Disaster Relief Fund that enabled Glikin to make the trip.
As an emissary for the synagogue, she brought medical supplies with her including medicated bandages that can be used for burns, tourniquets, other bandages and first aid supplies. Once in Warsaw, she purchased underwear, socks, undershirts and other basic clothing to be distributed to Ukrainian refugees in Poland. She said the need for supplies and resources is overwhelming because many people brought very little with them or what they did bring was for winter and now it’s spring.
“They ran away with nothing because they were literally running out of burning apartment buildings,” she said.
Through the volunteer network she met on the ground in Warsaw, Glikin was able to allocate some of the funds she brought to providing food for people back in the Ukraine.
Seders in Warsaw
Glikin co-led two seders in Warsaw with Kobrin. On the first night of Pesach, the seder was large, about 130 people at the Hampton Inn, which is housing many Jewish refugees. The seder was sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish community of Columbus, Ohio. The seder was divided and of her group of about 70 people, predominantly women and children, only about 10-15 had attended a seder before.
The group used Haggadahs printed in Russian provided by the JDC. Glikin said that toward the end of the seder a little girl came up to her and asked her if they were going to search for the afikomen.
“She said, ‘wait we are going to search for the afikomen and I’m going to get a prize, right?’” Glikin said.
The second seder was a much smaller group held at the Nozyk Syngagogue. The synagogue is the oldest surviving synagogue in Warsaw and was part of the Warsaw Ghetto. About 25 refugees attended the seder.
“It was much more intimate. We were sitting around one table and we could really, really talk and it was really, quite powerful for me to have the opportunity to help them create connections between each other.”
With war comes trauma
After preparing for and leading the seders, Glikin spent the next few days pitching in wherever she could. That included working with children at a makeshift play area at the Hampton Inn open for a couple of hours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and greeting refugees and connecting with them at the Warsaw Central Train Station. Trains arrived as late as 11:20 p.m. By the time passengers disembarked, it was late.
She said it was evident that the further east in the Ukraine someone was from, the more severe the trauma they had experienced.
“The hardest thing for me was hearing people’s stories. Just recognizing the tremendous trauma that all of them had lived through and are continuing to be impacted by. They spoke about the tremendous fear — fear while they were hiding underground,” she said.
Other themes included not having anything to eat for weeks and rationing potatoes and dry bread; the perilous journey to the border; crowds so large that mothers worried that they would get separated from their children or trampled; and being packed into trains like sardines and not being able to use the toilet for hours upon hours.
“One of the women I spoke with said, ‘the smart ones wore diapers,’ she said.
Glikin shared a story of another woman who had traveled to Warsaw with her son and great aunt. Her husband stayed behind in Ukraine and she had just learned that several days earlier, he had been wounded and was in critical condition in an ICU. The woman’s grandmother had died six months earlier.
“She said, ‘You know, I was so sad when she died, and now I’m so glad she doesn’t have to live through this.”
Glikin said that there were several things that struck her.
One, was the enormous scope of the humanitarian crisis that is happening.
“For every person I spoke with, there were a thousand that I didn’t speak with,” she said.
Another was how quickly refugees started helping others once they were in Warsaw. One woman, who had been living in the underground in the Metro in Kyiv and whose family was still in a very bombarded suburb of Kyiv, was volunteering at the train station within five days of her own arrival.
Two other women, who had been Jewish educators in their hometown were staffing the playroom at the Hampton Inn. Glikin said the importance for the children to be able to play and connect through play was crucial. Their countenance changed within days.
“One little girl who I later learned had been there just two days… it was my first time seeing her and her whole body was curled up, as if she was closing in on herself. I was speaking to her and she wouldn’t look me in the face. Her head was pointed toward the ground, her eyebrows drawn together, and she would just glance at me briefly, from underneath her gaze. Her whole body was just in this traumatic posture. Then, I saw her a couple of days later, and she was smiling and talking a little more, her shoulders were more relaxed. It was gratifying to see that change in her.”
Glikin said the grit and determination of the Ukrainian people was profound.
“I think the entire world has been so inspired by the courage of the Ukrainian people and I experienced and saw this firsthand, both in the way that they are committed to rebuilding their lives, and the way that they’re continuing to carry the stress and the reality of the current moment with family members who are still in Ukraine and are not safe, even as they themselves might be safe, physically.”
She added, “I feel really fortunate to have been able to go and to witness it and to help the people that I was able to help in however small a way.”