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Iryna, Kharkiv

“We pushed the car for the last 50 km to the border. I was doing an online report from the road for those who were driving behind us and did not know what lay ahead”.

Iryna, 56 years old, from Kharkiv. Escaped from the war with her 84-year-old father and 15-year-old nephew, whose father and elder brother remained behind to fight.

It wasn’t a trip. It was an escape. At five in the morning, my nephew, who is now on the front, called me and said that he heard explosions. We live in different parts of the city, and I didn’t hear anything. We agreed to wait and see what would happen next. As soon as I finished this phone call, my cousin from Canada, living in a different time zone, called me. He said, “Iryna, you have an hour to leave. There is war in Ukraine”. I asked, where did he get the information? “We’re seeing it right now on TV news. Cities all over Ukraine are on fire.” Then I called my father and asked him to pack his things as soon as possible and asked my sister-in-law to bring her son to me. We didn’t think we were going abroad at the time; we were just getting away from Kharkiv.

My daughter works for an American IT company. About two weeks before the war, a letter was sent to all employees saying that they believed everything would be fine but insisted that families should be prepared for the worst-case scenario. My daughter asked me to be ready, but I refused. I couldn’t accept this reality. I didn’t even want to think about it. My daughter was very persistent and asked me to do it for her sake. She made lists for the whole family for how to pack our backpacks, then came and checked if we had done everything right. So, these backpacks were already sitting in our car when we left. 

The trip to Poland took a week. The last four days were the most difficult. The traffic jam started 54 km from the border. It was impossible to sleep. We moved 1.5 meters in an hour. But if you don’t move, someone will pass you and you’ll be pushed out. There were four of us in a small car.

In the queue at the border, we ran out of fuel and had to push the car for the last 50 km. After crossing the border, I had to get to a gas station. We were not in the worst position, because there were people walking with children, suitcases and animals. People carried suitcases for the first 15 km, then they simply left them along the roads. Dad didn’t deal well with the trip and said, “If I die now, what are you going to do with me? You better leave me here.” When we arrived in Kraków, he started reading and watching the news. He analyzes the situation and believes that this war will last a long time. “But I won’t live that long,” he says. The fact is that my mother died during the pandemic, and when we ordered a gravestone for her, my father asked to be put close to his wife. They lived together for 50 years, and he wanted to be with her after his death. But now I can’t promise him that. I know that this cemetery was bombed, and we do not know the condition of my mother’s grave.

My dad was so worried and anxious that he forgot to take his dentures with him. And we noticed it only in the second part of the day when we had to eat something. When we arrived in Kraków, I urgently needed to solve my dad’s problem. We found the nearest orthodontist’s office. They treated my dad with incredible warmth, flatly refused to take money for services and materials. We assured him that we could pay for ourselves, but the Polish doctors said that it was an honor for them to help Ukrainian people. It moved me to tears. 

The owner of the apartment where we were accommodated said that we could live for free for as long as we needed. He brought everything – from bed linen to dishes. However, in the beginning, when the owner came to visit us, my father was terribly worried that we were about to be evicted. Dad flatly refused to buy anything like T-shirts, slippers. He said: “I have everything! At home, in Kharkiv. Why should I buy something here? I will go home soon.” Buying things for him means acknowledging that he will be here for a long time.

My nephew studies in two schools – Polish and Ukrainian. It is very important for him not to get behind in his education. The first weeks he did not sleep. It is difficult for him because his father does not call – his father is at war and his brother is as well. The area where his mother lives is bombed regularly. The house where my mother-in-law lived is gone. For a young guy, it’s constant stress. But he met a Ukrainian girl here and is already thinking more about his future. He wants to study.

Text by Vira Baldyniuk

An exhibition by the Galicia Jewish Museum,

Krakow, Poland

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