(October 3, 2022 / JNS) On Sunday, Yiddish music could be heard from the Jewish community center in the center of Warsaw, which wove Ukrainian songs in and out.
dr Yuri Vedenyapin, a professor of Yiddish at McGill University and a musician, conducted a concert for Ukrainian Jewish refugees ahead of Yom Kippur. Of course, none of them suspected in February that they would gather here during the Days of Awe. Vedenyapin was determined to make it meaningful.
“I have never been a Ukrainian-speaking artist. But in the last few months, because of all these events, I really started listening and playing Ukrainian folk songs, which I always knew were very beautiful. And then, after a while, I noticed striking similarities with Yiddish songs. So I decided to build this program to make it a kind of musical dialogue between these cultures,” Vedenyapin, who has been living with the refugees in a Warsaw hotel since arriving last week, told JNS.
He said he considered recording only upbeat, fun and happy songs, but decided against it after speaking to the refugees themselves.
“Sad songs are also very appropriate,” he said. “Even songs that talk about loss and orphans and stuff like that. Yiddish has a lot that appeals to people, and sad, tragic songs can, paradoxically, be a source of comfort when they are good songs, when they are beautiful, and of course when they are played well. I will do my best.”
This seemed to reflect the general sentiment among the approximately 600 refugees who are being cared for by volunteers from the Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA), the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and their partner organizations in Poland.
“In the early months of the war, we focused on saving the lives of the refugees by providing emergency shelter, food, medicine and schooling. Now that we have saved the refugees from death, we must give them life, work and long-term housing – and above all, a sense of home and of people who still care about their lives and struggles,” said Chief Rabbi von Poland Michael Schudrich versus JNS. “I am deeply grateful to JFNA for remembering us and finding the right volunteers for the situations needed. Our volunteers have made and will make a real difference in the lives of our refugees.”
JFNA sent a group of seven Russian-speaking volunteers from the US and Canada, including Vedenyapin, to lead High Holidays activities for Jewish refugees in Poland. All volunteers are former Soviet refugees who now serve their local communities as educators or ministers.
“When we worked with people at the very beginning of the war and picked them up from the Polish-Ukrainian border, everyone said they wanted to go back, and that will happen. And the truth is, unfortunately, we’re hearing that less and less,” Karina Sokolowska, JDC’s country director for Poland, told JNS.
Sokolowska said refugees are increasingly telling her that it will take generations to rebuild Ukraine. But, she said, that doesn’t represent a sense of despair.
“The refugees are much stronger than we are in many ways, and they have a spirit that we sometimes just can’t get enough of. We fall or break more than they do during the work we do with them,” she said.
She added that the most heartbreaking stories come from elderly people and a number of Holocaust survivors who have fled for their lives before and now fear their lives will end in unimaginable circumstances.
The High Holidays, of course, bring an extra level of emotion. Sokolowska said the refugees she works with express the importance of being motivated, remembering the importance of the season and that life goes on.
“This is the cycle of life, the religious calendar, the cycle of life, and it is universal. If you practice something in Judaism, it’s more or less the same anywhere in the world,” Sokolowska said.
Holiday activities in Warsaw are organized by the Office of the Chief Rabbi of Poland in partnership with JDC, in Kraków by JCC Kraków and in Lodz by the Office of the Chief Rabbi of Poland. Special Rosh Hashanah meals, educational programs and a musical pocket The service was conducted in Warsaw under the direction of Vedenyapin. In Kraków, Russian-speaking Rabbi Ilana Baird and artist Marina Paz led a Rosh Hashanah meal and educational program. Volunteers will also build a sukkah with refugees and lead the program during the Sukkot holiday. In Lodz, the educator Alexander Katz conducts high festival services and community meals.
“I see a very strong need for community and being together and sharing experiences. Just going around in circles and sharing their stories makes a difference for [the refugees]’ said Sokolowska. “It’s not necessarily about the Jewish community in that sense. It’s only human that they just need to be with someone who can understand their experiences and the terrible things that the majority of them have been through.”
Yulia, mother of two, works with Sokolowska. She began her conversion to Judaism in Odessa and recently completed it in Poland.
“She is the only very attentive person on our team. And she got them beit din [a rabbinical court procedure to oversee and verify conversion] just before Rosh Hashanah. It’s very obvious that it’s important to her and it helps her through her experience and makes her a lot stronger,” noted Sokolowska.
Vedenyapin noted that most of the refugees are not religious and have very little experience in celebrating Jewish holidays.
“But at the Rosh Hashanah dinner, I thought the atmosphere was very festive. They may associate the concept of the New Year celebrations with December 31st. It was such a wonderful surprise that now, at the end of September, we can celebrate the start of a new year. I think everyone, no matter how educated they are in Judaism, was happy to embrace that concept,” he said.
Vedenyapin, who teaches the refugees Hebrew and English in addition to music, interrupted the conversation for a moment when there was a knock on his hotel room door. He later determined that it was probably a young girl who wanted to continue her guitar lessons, which were interrupted that morning. She is among a large group of children who meet Vedenyapin for classes in the hotel lobby.
“A girl was very sad yesterday and I asked her what was going on. She told me that she misses her guinea pig, which had to stay in Ukraine, and now her family is thinking about moving to Israel,” Vedenyapin said, adding that the girl wants to return to Ukraine.
“She says no one will bother to arrange for their guinea pig to be shipped out of Ukraine, let alone bring it to Israel,” he said.
Vedenyapin never imagined that he would be in Warsaw this year helping refugees on Rosh Hashanah. The young girl he was talking about certainly hadn’t imagined that she would be one of those refugees. But she and all the refugees and volunteers will continue to band together during Days of Awe, a traditional Jewish mix of sweet and somber.