08 April 2022

Jewish Museum in Kraków
takes practical steps to help
refugees fleeing Ukraine

Inside the Galicia Jewish Museum in the Old Synagogue, Kraków … practical suggestions to help refugees fleeing Ukraine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

As the war continues in Ukraine, with millions fleeing their homes, the World Jewish Congress reports this week that, eight decades after World War II and the Holocaust, dozens of Holocaust survivors in Ukraine have been forced to flee war again. Many have received refuge in Germany. They have been brought to safety with the help of the JDC and the Jewish Claims Conference, which negotiates compensation for Nazi victims and their descendants.

Reports say Jewish organisations have helpedto evacuate around 50 Holocaust survivors from Ukraine since Russia’s invasion on 24 February.

Meanwhile, Jewish Heritage Europe (JHE) this week shared an open letter sent recently to Jewish museums in Europe by Jakub Nowakowski, director of the Galicia Jewish Museum, in the Old Synagogue in Kraków.

In his letter, he questions the role of Jewish museums in this time of crisis, urges assistance to refugees — and he proposes concrete ways that Jewish museums and other institutions can do so.

In his letter, Jakub Nowakowski asks what is the role of a Jewish Museum during a humanitarian crisis, particularly during a bloody war in a neighbouring country.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, over 150 000 refugees have arrived in Kraków, a city of 900,000 inhabitants, and over 2.2 million throughout Poland.

The situation of most of these people is dramatic, Jakub Nowakowski says.

He points out that at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków, they have been trying to help both the refugees, and people on the other side of the border, since the beginning of the crisis. This has included collecting funds, sending medical supplies, but also opening a day-care centre for the Ukrainian children.

‘Those children and their parents needed much help. From simple creation of a safe and welcoming space, to offering regular meals, to creating opportunities to play with pairs, to providing supplies, clothes, shoes (most escaped in a heavy winter clothes and shoes), to offering medical support, to offering English and Polish classes, to providing physical and psychological therapy.’

He goes on to say that at the Museum ‘we understand that it is not only the children who are in need of help. The underage escaped Ukraine, in most cases, only with their mothers, who are now equally lost, traumatised and vulnerable. While some of these people have a shelter, offered by inhabitants of Kraków or in the night shelters run by the municipality or various NGOs, some are homeless. The vast majority of them are unemployed, and living off whatever little savings they have.’

The museum staff are also trying to help by providing paid jobs. This includes hiring two full time teachers to run the day centre, but also hiring those who can provide additional activities for the children in that day-centre. ‘This includes all sorts of programming like drawing classes, gymnastic, dance lessons, but also physiological and emotional therapy.’

He says that all of these people are refugees who escaped Ukraine since the outbreak of the war. ‘All in all, at this point we have eight refugees on a pay list, three of them full-time, five of them part-time. This number is likely to go up, if only we will be able to secure the necessary funds. All of the contracts, with exception of one, are short term (month long), but will be prolonged for at least another month, and further, again – depending on the situation in Ukraine and the available funds.’

At this point, most of the costs related to hiring these new employees are covered through generous support from foundations and individuals all over the world.

The museum is receiving applications and messages every day from refugees who are looking for temporary jobs. He suggests other museums and partner institutions could offer such an opportunity. ‘Perhaps you could use a person working at the reception or bookstore? Or perhaps in the Education Department.’

On this Friday evening, it might be worth asking: Do you know a museum or foundation that could help with preparation for relocation or getting necessary permits for refugee status or working in another country?

Shabbat Shalom

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