War Diaries, April 16, 2022

Jews will eat unleavened bread at Passover to symbolise their exodus from Egypt. In their haste to freedom, the ancient Hebrews didn’t have enough time to wait for the bread to rise. But they still ate bread in the form of what we would call today crackers, or Matzos. They were practical. There was no waste.  


My favourite Rabbi was Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Before he died, he and his very close friend Father Thomas Keating walked together to talk about God. It was a sensible conversation about the next generation and where will they take things when they feel so much that they have to move from the outside to the inside. Father Keating says, “Prayer of the heart presupposes some movement of trying to translate the symbols of the liturgy to some kind of experiential touch or awakening of the mystery that is present…it’s not a good idea to get rid of ritual altogether, but to go through it, not around it, leads you to the mystery that’s contained there to which it points.”  


Reb Zalman offered his thoughts: “The people saw and they went backward but Moses went into the dark fog where God could be found…the Lord is in His holy temple. Be silent before Him all the earth.”  


What does it mean to feel so much that one is compelled to go from the outside to the inside, and what does that have to do with the residents here at Sichów? I cannot say directly what it has to do with the residents here because I don’t know specifically what troubles them. What I do know is that each of us have been thrust together in a destiny none of us could have ever imagined before the war. (Before the war, by the way, is a common expression in Poland used to delineate what had once been a life of dreams and possibilities to what became a life of hardship and unthinkable loss.)  I was told that Marek Rostworowski said to his daughter, “Everything that was sweet was before the war, is no more.”


Julia and her son arrived on Wednesday night, late. She was coming from Zaporizhzhia by bus, train and foot before she was collected at the border. She had to leave behind her mother, who stayed to care for the elderly grandmother who was not strong enough to make the journey. According to Julia, there is fighting in this area. “Does she have a husband?” I asked Paul, who replied, “I don’t know. I don’t ask those kinds of questions.”


On the same day, we found out that Sasha, Natasha’s son, has an inoperable brain tumor and was declined chemotherapy because his iron levels are not good. He is not strong enough to withstand the treatment. The doctor wrote out a prescription for hospice care, but our preference is that he be cared for here. He is only thirty-six years old.


I took Kasia to the vet on Friday because she had found a tick on her dog and wanted to get medicine right away. I thought we were just going to run over and get the tablets, but she climbed into the car with the dog. When we got to the clinic, Kasia took her dog right into the examination room. She was in there for about thirty minutes, most of which this time, I presumed, was spent in translation. (We use our phones a lot for this.) When she emerged, she was clearly holding back tears. I was very confused. She insisted on paying for the medicine herself, and before we could even get to the door, she had to sit in the waiting room chair because she was so overcome by emotion. I finally managed to get her into the backseat of the car, and together we spent another thirty minutes in translation, tears and embrace. I held her for a long time. When she calmed down, she said I was like Babcia.  Pani Babcia Amber. (Babcia means grandmother in Polish; Baba or Babus’a in Ukrainian).


The vet told her that she would give her the medicine for ticks and fleas but, even so, with medicine, there was a chance the dog would die in ten days.


This dog is Kasia’s lifeline. She escaped with this dog, her son and her mother all the way from Kharkiv. “Pani Amber. I don’t know what I would do if my little dog died. She is eleven years old, and I love her so much.” Poor Kasia happened to have a run in with a woman who is probably a good veterinarian but obviously one without an ounce of emotional intelligence.


Yesterday, a hairdresser came to the house and cut most everyone’s hair, including the children. Now, all the women feel especially gorgeous, and the children, properly shorn.


Today we are having an Easter Egg painting party. Olesia’s (the chess master) family dyed the eggs; some in onion skins. The Ukrainians know their way around eggs at Easter as they are known around the globe for painting some of the most beautiful and decorative.


Jordan (my nephew) and I will contribute our traditional family plate of delicious deviled eggs.


Where will they take things when they feel so much?


Prayer, silence, faith, hope, stillness, awe: ‘Know that I am God’.  Psalm 46:10


My favourite day during Holy Week is on Saturday. It is the day following the lighting of the candles on Shabbat and the day I imagine that Mary Magdalene; Mary, mother of Jesus, Mary Clopas; Mary, mother of James; and Salome would have kept close, spending their time together grieving. In prayer, no doubt. In periods of silence, alone with the memory of their beloved.


Hope would come later for them, but not on the day of grieving. Not on a day of loss. Here at Sichów, one never knows from moment to moment what the next loss will be. The contacts back home are active and their information, direct.


We are all connected in the tapestry of human compassion. Fifty-two days ago, we were complete strangers. Today, we live side by side. We eat together, sleep in the same building together, we cook in the kitchen together, we walk outside together, we grieve together.


Next Sunday is when the Ukrainians celebrate Easter. Paul has found a Polish Orthodox church in Kielce. It was very important not to find one that is Russian.


To tell you the truth, I don’t know what hope really means. My life has been fairly privileged. There has only been once in my life that I was called to bring the word hope into question and that was when I almost lost my own son. Curiously, it didn’t manifest as hope, but rather as acceptance. Like in the Serenity Prayer ‘to accept the things I cannot change’. For me, this is what it means to go inside and do the spade work.