• Krakow, Poland: Flag of Ukraine and Poland tied together during public demonstration to support Ukraine against Russian aggression
    Shutterstock.com | Wiola Wiaderek

It has been a grueling, soul-stirring, intensely satisfying eight days on the border. I am back in Krakow to re-charge for a bit. The team left for Texas early this morning.  Miss them so much already, and I also miss the work we were doing. Very soon I will be ready to meet the next team and tackle the work again, but that team won’t come in until “mid-May.” I return to Warsaw in a few days for a meeting with Allison and Warsaw lawyers about getting their help to create a longer-term presence in Eastern Europe for Unbound, allowing it to better fulfill all three aspects of its mission. Then back to Krakow and then to border again. 

After last Sunday, the team spent the first part of the week in Ukraine next to the border, but right after Easter (Orthodox) it was still pretty slow, with more refugees returning to Ukraine than leaving. So Tuesday we moved our efforts back to the Przemysl train station, where it was very crowded with refugees, usually in surges as trains would come in from Ukraine or depart for Kyiv and Lviv (and even Odessa, which is very close to the war). Meanwhile, a new team from AOM-Norman (mostly) was covering the border (and helping at the train station), so we left them cards to hand out to the trickle of refugees flowing both ways on the Ukraine border. 

Our work at the train station was wide-ranging, from baggage handling to handing out our cards to simply answering questions—wearing the yellow or orange vests meant we were often giving hand directions, or walking the refugees to specific train platforms, or to the van to the Tesco refugee center in Przemysl, or more commonly, funneling them to our fantastic translator(s), Erika and Liza—while still having a table with necessities and the ever-popular chupa-chupas. On Wednesday, while I was back in Hrebenne confirming that crossing point too had slowed down, the team was tipped off that a couple of trains were coming in full of refugee orphans from Odessa—the schedule purposefully did not show these arrivals in Przemysl, for obvious reasons that dove-tailed with our mission. Beefed up security was present, and the kids ranging in age from 6 or 7 to 17 or 18 were fed (World Central Kitchen, of course) on the platform, then heavily escorted under watchful eyes to nearby buses that would transport them for fifteen hours to Italy. The rest of the week was spent at the train station, where we felt we could do the most good.

I will pass on this pointer: never under-estimate the arm strength of a Ukrainian mother—these were most definitely the heaviest bags I have ever lifted or carried (to get to the foreign train platform from the ticket office, one had to go up and down two separate sets of stairs—Kathy might call that a “design flaw”). 

I returned to Krakow on Friday, after dropping off a couple of volunteers from AOM-London at the Krakow airport, Victoria and Heidi. Victoria and her husband are from Texas (actually honeymooned four years ago in Marfa and had been to one of my favorite West Texas haunts, El Cosmico), and felt called to move to London last year. Her close friend Heidi grew up outside of London and now works with children at a church in Southwest London. Heidi is trying to find church-related work in the US. Both (along with Matt) had been over in March with an AOM team from London, when the lines at the border were much longer, 500+ at a time. We had a great discussion during the 100 mph trip from Przemysl to John Paul II airport in Krakow ranging from the “Calais Jungle,” to Brexit, to Polish history. Made their flight with 2.5 hours to spare. Apparently, I “smashed it” in terms of driving, after a bit of confusion about their pick-up spot that morning (“two countries divided by a common language,” indeed—Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw, depending on one’s sourcing).  

Lest I leave you with an impression the work is totally serious and heavy, I need to say this: there is so much joy, laughter and smiling in our little group. The core team of four has known each other for years now, and their teasing is good-natured and right on. When they started to tease yours truly, I felt I had made the grade. Even Erika was in the spirit at timely junctures, zinging me with just the perfect irony. At dinner Tuesday night, I was teasing Cade, who has been in charge of our ever-changing accommodations every night (until we finally spent the last four nights near Przemysl at the same place, $35 a night, meaning three good night’s sleep in a row for yours truly), that he should never, ever try to be a travel agent. As you will see below, boy did I get that one wrong. Also, I lost a bet last Saturday with Cade (the proposition is not important, but suffice it to say I bet on Jeff to do one thing, and he surprised us all when he did not do that thing). The wager was: whoever lost had to stand up at dinner and sing for the group and entire restaurant. I kept putting off my paying up, until our last night together, when after dinner I taught them the chorus to “The Weight” (“Take a load off…and put the load on me…”) and I sang, standing, three verses a cappella, with rousing chorus after each verse from the entire team—that had the restaurant staff smiling, and the other patrons wryly bewildered. Cade saved me by doing perfect harmonies on the chorus, but the entire group was into it. Like that. When Olivia started to video yours truly at the first verse, I posed the question: “Olivia, are you familiar with a concept called ‘consent’?” [See last Update]. The group called it “getting George’d,” whatever that means. Needless to say, there is no lingering video evidence of this wonderful moment, to my current regret (one of those rare evenings when my unreliable baritone was sort of in voice). 

If you thought you could get through this update without some discussion of some historical aspects of Poland, well, you really knew better. 

The team has a “missionary flexibility” attitude, especially about its accommodations each night; part of this was because we were still figuring out where our work was most needed, and part of this was for strategic reasons of safety. That first Thursday arrival evening we worked at border until almost dark, then found a pizza place in Przemysl still open, crowded with other volunteers. Still no idea where we were staying that night. Austin had delegated accommodations to Cade, and he finally found a place a few miles away, with primitive twin beds, shared bath, shared separate shower—a cross between an old dorm, a hostel, and a bed and breakfast run by an ex-marine sergeant. Ostensibly a “wedding venue” near the border, its one outstanding trait is that it is cheap. And so it went every day, with Cade finding some new, inexpensive place for us (we had to split up a couple of times for room-space reasons) at the last minute, usually a bed and breakfast or “AgrikulturaTourist” accommodations, built as a bed and breakfast/small dorm. A different (twin) bed every night, which was not the way I like to roll (they kept teasing me we would be checking in to a Four Seasons the next day, but amazingly, never happened). Until the last four nights, when we stayed in a place called Kalwaria Paclawska, a very small town fifteen miles from Przemysl towards the Carpathians, with one looming feature: a very old “sanctuary,” (Sanktuarium”), and a dorm for cassocked monks, and “pilgrimage lodging.” It was late when we got in, and the proprietor of this dorm-like bed and breakfast was a delightful woman who reminded me of my gregarious, world-traveled Grandmother, if my Grandmother had spoken only Polish (and if she could have had lengthy, laughing conversations using Google Translate). 

The next morning, I awoke early to explore the Calvary structure on the hill behind us. Here I need my Catholic friends reading this to bear with me, as I explain what a Calvary location is, and a bit of [C]hurch history. There are “calvaries” all over Europe. These are holy places almost always built on the top of a hill, and to which pilgrimages are made. This one was almost 250 years old, a frequent place visited by the Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Josef Wojtyla, who would become the first Polish Pope. He was chosen in 1978 at a second conclave on the third ballot as a “compromise” selection, and the first non-Italian Pope in more than 400 years. There is a statue of him in a corner of the garden grounds surrounding the calvary structures, and I could not keep from taking one picture of that, so moving was the place and history. And the adjoining benches were the perfect place for reflection, reverence and prayer. Yes, Cade later received the apology he was due from your faithful correspondent.

This location gave me a chance to explain some history to the rest of the team. By then Emma and Matt had come over from Scotland for four days to join the Unbound team (they have another month working with a church there and then return to US for a short break, then move to Israel where Matt will attend medical school and Emma will work). They were the first victims of my history lecture that morning since they joined me on the bench soon after I found this sacred place. 

The Polish communists were barely tolerant of the Catholic Church, sublimating it to doctrine and exigencies of power. Though not as repressive as the Soviet Union, the communist state in Poland required loyalty to the state before loyalty to the Church.  Earlier attempts to liberate themselves from communism in other Eastern European countries had been brutally repressed, almost always with Soviet tanks and troops. But this Pope had come from Poland, was a scholar, and had a vision for his country that aligned with his universal call to holiness. He was Polish, but now from outside Poland in a powerful way.

Within a year of his election as Pope, he arranged to visit Poland. The communist authorities viewed his visit as benign but set strict rules to be followed during his visit. Crowds of millions of Poles greeted his visit, and after one particularly moving statement by the Pope (“God is the only source of goodness…Be not afraid”) the crowd peacefully but forcefully began to chant: “We want God! We want God! We want God!” And from that point the days of communist rule were numbered. The next year the Solidarity labor movement gained steam (supported by President Reagan, President Bush and Prime Minister Thatcher in multiple ways, public and surreptitious). In my view, President George H.W. Bush never gets the credit he deserves for his deft handling of the deterioration of communism and his own skillful visit to Poland and meetings with Solidarity’s leader, Lech Walesa, in 1989. The Catholic Church strongly supported Solidarity, and within ten years after the Pope’s visit, Solidarity won free democratic elections, Gorbachev decided that the Soviet Union would not use force to retaliate, and the dominos and walls and fences started to fall. To Putin’s chagrin.

I had lived to see all this from the US perspective years ago, and it was a pleasure sharing this history with the Team. One sees very few vestiges left of the communist suppression that ended in Poland more than thirty years ago. A few ugly buildings here and there, and not much else. Today is a holiday in Poland, the Polish equivalent of Labor Day; how fitting that I write this today about the labor movement Solidarity that helped to force the fall of Polish communism.