At the Polish/Ukrainian Border
A Lyrical Prose Poem
© Copyright 2022 by Carl Winderl
Przemysl Train Station. Photo courtesy of the author.
. . . where there are No 2 Days Alike.
That’s what I’m thinking about having silk-screened onto a bunch of t-shirts: ‘No 2 Days Alike.’
They’d be for our group of volunteers here at the Przemysl Train Station where we’re aiding Ukrainian refugees & evacuees – fleeing the ongoing mindless madness of the Russian Military “invasion.”
A war by any other name still reeks of the smell of death.
Here though, we are everso intentional in offering help and hope to these mothers, grandmothers, & their children – all women mostly only always because most men from 18 to 60 are part of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence.
Despite the mayhem and maelstrom of each day, we do try to plan & schedule our efforts to “maximize our productivity.”
No matter how business school sounding, that jargon’s not practical in the station’s main hall, at the platforms, and on the tracks when the trains arrive, especially the ones from Kyiv, Odessa, and Lviv: the major get-out-of-town centers in Ukraine.
Too too many variables weigh in on us and the best laid plans “of mice and men.” And John Steinbeck certainly knew a thing or two about a people desperate to flee disasters in their home land. And so too, little Rabbie Burns knew a thing or two about “mice and men.”
Late, oversold, delayed, and even cancelled trains, overcrowded passenger cars, short-staffed train crews & ticket agents cause confusion and contribute to the “normal” crazy busy hectic workdays and ratchet up the stress and turmoil of the passengers and our volunteers.
And then most days now we volunteers need to shift our attention to the evening trains, regularly & famously behind schedule because of multiplied and stockpiled delays all the day long.
Because Przemysyl’s the 1st stopping point into Poland from Ukraine, each train must clear passport control twice at the common border, once upon leaving Ukraine and once again entering Poland.
On a “good” day, clearing passport control “should” only take one hour at each side of the border.
But the number of passengers, the number of passengers with problematic documentation, and the number of available passport control staff can all contribute greatly to several hours’ delay.
Sometimes 4, 5, even 6 hours can be spent just sitting at the border crossing.
But into that chaos & confusion on the platform and throughout the station we know Mother Teresa’s not gonna come walkin’ through the door, so it’s up to us to be her ‘stand-ins’ – anticipating needs and care. Especially for the children,
That’s what happened on a most recent Saturday night when Ronda, my wife, and I joined a handful of our volunteers to work the platforms for those who took the last train to Przemysl, when we’d meet them at the station.
We particularly wanted to be at the station on this Saturday night to welcome Kateryna – familiarly known by all as ‘Katya’ – the newest member of our team.
She was coming from Munich to volunteer with us for 14 days. About half of our current team know Katya from Kyiv, where she and her family are vibrant members & attendees there at the Kyiv 1st Anglican International Community Church.
Of course that all changed for her and the rest of the church at 4:45 a.m. on Wednesday, February 24th when the city was awakened in the pre-dawn darkness by air raid sirens heralding the dawn of a new day.
A new day indeed, in the lives of Ukrainians nation-wide.
A day that shall also live in infamy, when the Russians began their reign of terror with their rain of rockets, hypersonic missiles, and good olde-fashioned howitzer artillery shells.
So, the next day, Katya and her 3 children – 10-year-old daughter Mariya, 8-year-old son Fedir, and 5-year-old daughter Bohdana – moved into the basement of Kyiv1st Anglican Church, along with 15 other church members, while her husband Volodymyr – Vova – and Mariya, Fedir, & Bohdana’s dad was called upon to join the Territorial Defense.
And the family cat, Juno, a sleek & tawny Abyssinian (although she should be more properly called ‘Sheba,’ for all her regal bearing), also took shelter in the church basement.
But after 7 days of shell-shocked living through the rocket launching & missile bombing, Katya and her children, along with Katya’s mom, Tetyana, and Juno the wonder-cat, with backpacks and roller bags in hand found a car-ride to Lviv, pre-‘war’ a 7-hour car ride but in the mass exodus from Kviv could be a harrowing 10- to 14-hour long slow slog. Once finally in Lviv, they trainfared – Besplatno! (Free!) for Ukrainians – fleeing the country in advance of the mounting Russian attacks & notorious atrocities
There they’d join Katya’s sister-in-law in Munich where she’s been living for the last decade.
So, Katya, Tetyana, Mariya, Fedir, & Bohdana, and Juno, joined the swelling ranks of nearly 3 million Ukrainians seeking safety in flight. All under the threat of unpredictable & indiscriminate shelling & rocket launches.
Thus, Katya and her refugee family fit perfectly the profile of Ukrainian evacuees, almost always women: a mother, a grandmother, and 2 or 3 children.
The children, yes, the children.
Our volunteers and I have observed, commented, and tried to explain & understand the behavior of nearly all the Ukrainian children in and around the train station’s main hall, in the public rooms, down the corridors, along the hallways, and especially on the platforms and the tracks.
In essence, they’re so well-behaved.
Often we’re stunned into speechlessness. The kids, of all ages, were ‘kids,’ of course – but then they just weren’t and just aren’t kids “being kids.”
The first thing we noticed that unlike kids in the U.S. they weren’t tearin’ up jack, actin’ out, arguing & fighting with their siblings, just plain flyin’ around out of control, and whinin’, cryin’, beggin’ for this ‘n’ that.
But these weren’t and aren’t just little Stepford kids, with blank faces and thousand-yard stares.
Oh, they are very much ‘in the moment,’ wherever and whenever in and around the station.
But they do evidence a sense of calmness, serenity, acceptance, maybe even compliance, perhaps to an extreme.
And they tend to be wise children, far beyond their years, as if with an intuitive awareness that things are not normal. For it does indeed take “A Wise Child,” as J.D. Salinger wrote in his paean to childhood, Franny & Zooey.
No. They’re not normal at all. Not in the least.
As if the stress, disruption, long train rides, long waiting in place – always in the company of strangers – causes a settlement to be “still.” Alert to the moment, and its possibilities. Like-minded they all seem keenly aware of “if” and “what next”: mothers, grandmothers, their children.
To be sure, nearly all are sleep-deprived. But they take not that as an excuse to “act out.”
As Pete Townshend might croon, “These ‘kids are alright.’” . . . Who?
Noticeably so, almost no fathers, grandfathers, nor any parental authority figures are to be found. Men who have fathered 3 or more kids are expected to be a part of the Territorial Defence. Unless they opt out, which Vova chose not. He didn’t want to sit this one out.
It sinks in then. The New Normal. They accept it, and adjust to it. They have to.
What choice do the kids have. They’re on the move. On the run.
But we as volunteers wonder, we see the short-term effects. What though will be the long-range effects.
That’s not our concern now. We’re after what will meet their current, pressing needs.
Free food, free drinks, free tickets, free passage, and rest, and a safe, secure, sure destination’s in their future..
Anything to keep them from becoming dazed & confused.
For now – a smile, a helping hand, a friendly calm safe space. And a quiet one.
Sometimes eerily so.
But Katya was training alone south from Munich to Przemysl. Why?
She was anxious too to do “something!” important to aid the ‘Cause!’ – to be a specific contributor to the crisis relief work.
That’s why on this Saturday night we were at the station, late in the evening, ahead of time, by a couple hours, well in advance of what would be the expected delays.
In the meantime?
Ronda and I joined the several or so of our volunteers there under the auspices of Nazarene Compassionate Ministries (NCM), our sponsoring organization.
We offered what we try to best provide: help and hope.
In my yellow high-visibility vest, lanyard identifying me, and at 6’3” I stand out easily enough whenever in the crowded station, or anywhere on the premises.
I know about enough of the polyglot languages smattering the air of the platforms – Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, and, yes, English – to get by.
And then some.
As I am wont to say, I stand on the ground floor of the Slavic Tower of Babel, and can pretty much in all 4 languages engage in the basics, one way or another, to answer just about any requisite need, with: how can I help, where do you want to go, what do you need, etc.
Admittedly, in 3 of those languages I probably sound like some “Slavic Tarzan.” Maybe more closely I’m approximating “Tarzan Baby Talk.”
But that might be highly offensive to Slavic infants.
It’s not like we were roaming the platforms aimlessly, unlike the many families wandering about, especially those awaiting the 11 o’clock or later train, depending upon its delays. Oddly enough, despite Vitali Klitschko, Kyiv’s Mayor’s pleas not to return to the capital city, exiled Ukrainians were returning to the homeland in numbers almost equal to those still fleeing the country.
Personally, I’d not want to cross the mayor, a WBC Heavyweight Champion, who retired with a 45 wins against 2 losses record, while earning a Ph.D. in Physical Science from Kyiv University. Clearly he is not one punch-drunk politician.
Even so, despite His Honor’s decision not to pull any punches about the still inherent dangers facing Kyiv, a sort of reverse desperation seemed to be drawing far too many residents to return to whatever they could find of what they’d first escaped from.
To see if any part of their home was still standing, or if their apartment still had any windows in it.
Makes little or no sense to me but who can explain the fickle nature of humanity. Especially when humans are not at their best.
So Ronda and I pitched in as we could, me with my somewhat still strong back, my 2-year-old replacement knees, and my random vocabulary overlapping linguistic borders, as if inventing a ne’er-before-heard pidgin.
Anyway, I was stunned by a youngish, maybe 30-something single mom – but without kids. Possibly she was free-lancing, a huntress gathering food for the fold.
But she struggled. Mightily so: typical over-stuffed backpack drawing down on her shoulders; bulging black & battered suitcase pulled by her left hand; a wildly expanding blue Ikea bag hung off her right shoulder; and a deceptively stuffed-to-the-gills canvas carry-all bag bursting at the seams with the ubiquitous cloth wraps at the handles barely cleared the pavement as her right hand labored to not drag it.
Stunned and amazed, but not helpless, I reached for the black suitcase’s handle, “pomoc, mohze” (“I can help”), I offered.
But she shrugged me off with, “Nyet!” (No need to know Russian to catch this imperative.)
Instead she thrust the canvas bag’s cloth strips into my hand.
“Help us!” I heaved out, as I kept it barely above the pavement. Surely she had packed her pet rock collection or her bowling team’s matched set of bowling balls.
More likely, she’d crammed the bag full of the canned goods impossible to be found in Ukraine with the war at full throttle.
I stood frozen in place, but her pleading eyes found mine. I gulped, re-grouped, and grabbed anew at the tonnage of her weighty not yet contraband goods.
Ronda took the blue Ikea bag the mom offered to her, and she too struggled mightily with a load that Sisyphus could no doubt truly appreciate.
Later we concluded and confirmed she was taking back what she could easily find in Poland but not at all currently in Ukraine. That knowledge gave us some sympathy that we were helping in more ways than one.
She had to have been in her own way replenishing personally for her family what our cargo vans deliver twice-weekly to hungry and basic-foodstuff-deprived Ukrainian families.
She was a nutrition courier.
Not a drug mule but a high-calorie one.
When we finally dragged ourselves and deposited her cache at Platform 5, she fell all over herself lavishing us with “Spasibo’s” from head to toe. (“Thank you.” Derived though from Spaci Bog, which means “God save you.,” in Russian. Sort of like what we do with “Good-bye” – “God be with ye.” Kinda makes one wonder how He feels about being so ‘abbreviated out.’ And wonder too if the Russian ‘invaders’ in Ukraine really mean it when they say it. . . . )
But I digress.
I was borderline ecstatic to be lightened from her load except a heaviness sank in wondering how she’d manage now. No strapping but eager hi-vis volunteer vested in fluorescent yellow would be at her side to hoist her bags aloft, up the several steps to her passenger car. And then down the aisle to her ticketed seat.
And stow her bags where?
With false and empty consolation I mumbled a thought-prayer that some Saint Christopher would be manifested in the flesh and appear to next shoulder her load.
At the same time the thought crossed my mind that maybe I should change the t-shirt wording. Change it to read instead: “No 2 Nights Alike.”
Well, there’d be time to consider and re-consider that wardrobe change.
In silence, Ronda and I retraced our steps to the tunnel connecting all 5 platforms to the steps and stairs upward to the tracks where the trains would arrive.
Katya’s overdue train from Munich was becoming all the more overdue with yet another 40-minute delay tacked on. And I was not ready quite yet for another sysiphean trudge up and down another pair of stairs.
Ronda gave me no argument, as I noticed the unusual sag to her shoulders. It had already been an11-hour day for us.
Platform 3 was totally vacated. Completely vacant. Empty. Not a soul anywhere,
I kinda liked that.
So we strolled empty-handed, down to the middle of the platform. I was afraid to sit down on a nearby worn and slatted bench. Fearing I’d not be able to get up. Or want to.
I looked to the overhead train arrival-departure sign. It remained blank.
Instead of sitting we turned to slow stroll back toward the stairs to the tunnel.
About the time we were turned around an amazingly cheery 5- or 6-year-old little girl came trotting toward us, in a light jacket with a hooded-sweatshirt underneath and a knit cap tucking in her hair. She wore faded jeans and broken-in white Adidas tennis shoes with brightly colored mis-matched socks. She also sported a hopeful helpful look on her face.
Stopping right in front of us, just at our feet, looking up directly and not the least bit shy she immediately started rattling off in what I thought was first Russian but then quickly shifted into Ukrainian when she no doubt saw our puzzled faces.
Maybe she’d shifted into rattling off Polish, but I was confused and unsure.
Ronda responded first into her smiling, eager face, shrugging, “Sorry – only English . . . po Angielsku . . .”
Then I, down into the little girl’s upturned face, brilliantly mumbled, “Moje, prosze” – the universal Slavic air-clearing, “Go on, – if you please, . . . ”
She stopped, mid-babble, but widened her smile, turned around, to trot back to the stairs down to the tunnel.
Ronda and I looked at each other, sheepish and embarrassed at our lack of communication skills: two NYU Ph.D.’s, stumped by a little fairy-sprite slip of a girl.
We continued our walk to the stairs. Once we reached the bottom, we met up with our Ace Ukrainian Volunteer, Iryna, and found ourselves in just the right place, at the right time, to do the right thing, for the right reason.
There too was the cheery little girl, with no doubt her mother, holding an adorable babe in her ams, and no crying he made. With them, too, the requisite travelling bags, and the ubiquitous stroller.
Fortunately for all of us, Iryna our crack poly-lingual translator – Ukrainian, Russian, good English, and ever-improving Polish – having joined us instantly engaged the mom. In flawless Ukrainian, together they solved what needed to happen.
Iryna grabbed the handle of the wheeled suitcase, the mother carried the babe, Ronda shouldered the little girl’s over-stuffed & bulging back-pack sporting a bespectacled unicorn, the little girl pushed the stroller, and I lugged the about to burst-at-its-seams over-packed black canvas bag by its pair of heavy-duty straps.
Together we climbed the stairs to the hallway leading to the main hall of the train station, turned left down the corridor to the mother and small children overnight common area.
As the caboose to this train of women I too cleared the 1st checkpoint to enter the hallway, but at the end of the hall, at the doorway, to the overnight “Women Only” common room, I was stopped by an orange-vested volunteer whose hand palm out reminded me, as a man, I could not enter that area, where lay side-by-side, row-after-row in aisles, spread wall-to-wall, cot after coat after cot after . . .
At that point the little girl turned around to face me.
With a perfectly beatific look on her face and with a celestial spankle in her eyes, she announced to me, in perfect accent-free English, “Thank you.”
The look on her face I still see; the sound of her voice I still hear.
Yes, I see the face yet. And I hear the voice still.
Yes, for . . . forevermore.
Indeed. To what end then our labors. Offering help and hope. Our hands and feet, His.And, to suffer the little children to come unto Him.
Photo courtesy of the author.
Part One of Carl's Ukrainian story. Click here.
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