Never underestimate the ordinary and the unexpected
Update on the war in Ukraine from a neighbouring country
A notice: as a non-native English speaker, I’m always concerned about language issues and do my best to write in proper English. Nevertheless, some irregularities may happen.]
[I started writing this post on Feb 24th and eventually posted on March 5th]
I could tell the story of the war in Ukraine so far with numbers: 60 tons of supplies collected within less than 12 hours in the city of roughly 800 000 inhabitants. 450 000 refugees coming to Poland over the course of 5 days since the war has started, at a pace of almost 100,000 a day. Or with an impressive map where accommodation for refugees is offered at the hotels, hostels, B&Bs, and at people’s homes and apartments. Or with supply shortages: on the 5th day of the crisis, I had serious difficulties finding any store where sleeping bags or blankets would still be available for purchase. Or – if I had at least half a day free – with a screencast of my Facebook newsfeed, filled almost exclusively with offers to help, information about how to help, what kind of supply is needed where, who is driving to Ukraine or to the Polish-Ukrainian border and how many people they could take, who offers free health care, where to find psychotherapists and trauma specialist speaking Ukrainian or Russian, who is willing to translate between Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian, about dozens of databases and websites gathering all the necessary information, hundreds, thousands, tens and hundreds of thousands of posts, phone numbers, names and nicknames, hashtags – each of which is an opening into inexhaustible suffering and equally boundless field of benefaction.
Everything here in Central Europe has been changing so fast over the last couple of days, there is so much turmoil, so much suffering, so much misery. It’s breath-taking and heart-breaking. Like the conversation I overheard on my way back home from one of the refugee centers. A young man in his 20s apparently was navigating a driver on his way to pick up yet another family stranded somewhere on the outskirts of Europe. In this land seemingly deserted by wireless communication, decent state institutions and almost all good spirits, except for this young bodhisattva tirelessly explaining intricate nuances of a rural road far off the beaten track which any minute could get shelled.
Over the course of a half a day spent running between shopping mall and refugee center to deliver some essentials (I don’t have a private car so I use only public transport), I was seeing people in various stages of distress and was carrying my own load of distress with me too. In this part of Europe, a long time ago, when I was a kid, a threat of Russian invasion within the Soviet bloc was always real. It had already happened twice: in 1956 in Hungary and in 1968 in then Czechoslovakia (my father very narrowly avoided being drafted and sent there with the troops of the Warsaw Pact). It constituted a grimy background of my childhood. The theme was regularly brought up at family gatherings and birthday parties. Along with the atrocities of WW2, they were a common topic of conversation. Somehow, everyone in the family was very cautious and paid attention not to even hint at my paternal grandfather being Jewish, whose parents’ (my grand grandparents) names’ were Abraham Nacher vel Nachor and Gitla Thieberger, of which I learned a good 40 years later and I still have no idea whether they lived long enough to see the Holocaust and what really happened to them.
So sitting comfortably in a light rail (we call them tramways in Kraków), I’m carrying inside a 10-year old me, frightened at the sight of symptoms of panic that overwhelmed adults in December 1981, when in one winter Sunday morning all that was on TV was this man in a military uniform announcing martial law having been implemented in Poland (in Polish it literally read “a state of war”). Until today it is a shared experience of Polish Gen Xs, known as “That one Sunday morning without Teleranek”. Teleranek was a favorite TV program for children, the only morning in the week when Disney cartoons were offered, which we loved. A significant part of our grievance towards the then-regime and not a trivial motivation behind our enthusiasm when it crumbled 8 years later, in 1989. Or so it seemed.
The history of the former Soviet bloc is very complex and we’re still working on re-telling it to ourselves and to the world outside. After the bloc has dissolved, almost peacefully, it seemed – unlike former Yugoslavia – for years to come we were ashamed of its legacy. Reluctant to admit that we have more in common than we were willing to see, despite all the differences between countries and regions: almost united in our distrust towards state institutions and taxes, in our enthusiasm for private property and capitalism, in our eagerness to shed troubled heritage and to compete with one another who would faster become “Western” or “European”. We looked with despise towards closer East. The East closer to home was suspicious and dangerous and inherited all the vices of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires or, as is commonly framed in this part of the world, of the hordes of Central Asia. Being civilized meant to belong to Europe. Europe meant the West (who often despised us as well, because, of course, we were the East to those west of us). A narrative that has been haunting us for decades. It still does to some extent.
Tons and tons of transgenerational trauma caused by wars, invasions, occupation, persecutions and state terror, hunger, gulags, anti-semitism, alcoholism, terrible health care, you name it. Diving into all these histories is so difficult. Who in their sane mind would like to dig in the darkness of such proportions and scope? So we work tirelessly to forget, sometimes in a very sophisticated manner: packaging the complex and painful history into tidy narratives of martyrdom and/or heroism. And as no healing is possible without attending to the real story and bringing it to the surface, for too long now we have been prisoners of our own collective unconscious.
That is why seeing the sheer scale and magnitude of a collective relief effort and willingness to help Ukrainian refugees in Poland has such a transformative edge to it. Because we have had our share of tragic and painful history, marked with Ukraine being part of Poland in the interwar period and treated in a colonial manner (something that is often vigorously disputed by historians) and bloodshed of an epic scale, known as the massacre of Poles in Volhynia during WW2 (another point of disagreement and a subject of resentment, almost habitually brought up in any discussions on all things Ukrainian). To complicate things further, both topics have long been up for grabs and a notorious goldmine for political (ab)uses of all sorts.
In the meantime, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, thousands of ordinary people have just started moving across the borders. Ukrainian cheap and sometimes semi-legal labor powered the growth of Polish cities after EU access; numerous Polish tourists fell in love with Crimea, the Ukrainian Carpathians, and Lviv (the city with a university that once was the best university of Poland, just as two significant Polish poets, XIX-century Mickiewicz and XX-century Miłosz, were Lithuanians); Ukrainian students saved Polish universities in the times of acute demographic crisis; Ukrainian medical staff replaced Polish one who in turn went to seek greener pastures within the EU; we were more and more often served by Ukrainian waiters and employees at the groceries; our apartments were cleaned by Ukrainian women, often better educated than their employers. The employees from Ukraine were paid the lowest wages, often humiliated and sometimes abused. On the other hand, we were meeting more Ukrainian artists, writers, designers, software engineers. Movement across the borders has significantly increased after the crisis of 2014 when Kremlin annexed Crimea and backed two quasi-independent, insurgent entities in eastern Ukraine.
Over the course of those 5 shocking days of Putin’s aggression on Ukraine, it turned out suddenly that all of us have SOMEONE THERE. A friend; a colleague; an employee; a client; a collaborator; a friend of a friend; a student; a former student; a girl whose smile we can’t forget; a favorite band; a choir whose performance touched us deeply; a B&B owner whose kindness was unforgettable; an artist who worked as a volunteer at our organization; a family who gave us a shelter when we got lost in the mountains; folks who were awesome comrades at the beach; a guide who showed us another side of Lviv… the list goes on and on (and it is taken from my Facebook feed, like pretty much everything these days). Some of us have also someone in Russia and they are against the war. Suffering in silence in a country where police detain 12-year kids at a rally for peace or protesting, getting arrested and beaten when detained. And they all need us.
So we dashed to help overnight, putting aside almost everything else. In my wonderful, resilient, and magical hometown of Kraków / Cracow / Krakau / קראַקאָוו / Краків / Краков, the whole city, it seems, is busy with organizing help for refugees who are coming in droves every hour, at a pace of 100,000 crossing the Polish-Ukraine border daily since the war has started. They say the fastest migration in Europe since WW2. And my town is helping as tirelessly and gracefully, as it parties in better times and loves theatre and literature (something that connects it to Minneapolis, which always warms up my heart). All those stories from Facebook and from my tramway trips. Shared over a cell phone whose owner is visibly stressed because the battery is running dangerously low and there is still this last crucial section of a dusty rural road at the end of the world, difficult to handle if you don’t know the exact details boiling down to what certain tree where you need to turn left looks like and where there is this red house… A man standing nearby is silently passing a laptop and a charging cable fitting the very same model of a cell phone that a young bodhisattva is keeping in his hand. So conversations can go on.
– A red house, there is a red house on the left.
– See them, with their backpacks and suitcases, and two cats..
– Cats? No way, you can’t bring cats across the border without documents!
The conversation in Russian does not sound like the obligatory course of Russian all of us had to absolve at a school.
– Actually, you can. In Korczowa, as of this afternoon.
A man with a backpack – still open – after having uttered this information in a broken and rusty Russian, is nodding approvingly, as if this gesture was the ultimate memo from the center of the universe, hereby confirming that Ukrainian cats are allowed to find their way to safe haven. And the communication is continuing in Russian, a forgotten once lingua franca (even if genuinely hated) across the vast area between Moscow and Berlin. The ability to speak and read Russian does not mean any kind of political belonging nor is any declaration. Sometimes it’s the most convenient tool of communication in this part of the world.
– OK. Yes, take the cats, but go to Korczowa, a little bit farther but they will let them through, even undocumented.
We’re all exchanging smiles and, a while later, cell phone numbers. Just in case. Because cats will need food when they arrive and a young bodhisattva has no experience with cat food whatsoever.
Barely a few weeks ago I was amused having spotted a word μεταφορά (metaphorá) on the side of a small truck in one of the streets of Athens, a capital city of Greece. It means “transport” and shares the core meaning with the term “metaphor” (a truck belonged to a moving equipment local company). The literary devices, including stories, indeed do “transport”. They are able to move our minds and spirits, and they are very powerful agencies across space and time.
The shared stories I’m embroiled in these days, while also transporting my body around the city in many shared vehicles, keep me awake at night and push me out of bed early in the morning. Because there is SOMEONE THERE who needs our help. I may not even know them, but someone else does and cares for them, and would lead anyone on the dusty road at the end of the world with any means possible to go and grab them and bring them into safety.
We are all connected, through thick and thin, through the ordinary and the unexpected.
To be continued. Sadly.
Rev. Anna Myosen Nacher
Help the Ukrainian Refugees
If you can, please consider supporting this important work. All funds will be used for direct support of Ukraine and Russian refugees seeking safety in Poland. Thank you!
Rev. Anna Myosen Nacher
A novice Zen priestess, Myosen has been practicing with the Zen Garland Order since 2019. She is an Associate professor at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków (Poland) specializing in digital culture, communication studies, and contemporary art. She taught one semester as a visiting professor at Winona State University. That was when her path crossed with the Dharma River and she happily confluences with it ever since. She likes orchids and clouds. The Mississippi will not let her go.
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