On the ground in Krakow: Helping Ukrainian refugees in Poland

Bruce Jacobson (left), Mike Jacobson (right)

I recently returned from two weeks in Krakow, Poland, where I volunteered with the Jewish Community Center (JCC) Krakow team in their tremendous effort to help Ukrainian refugees. I traveled to Poland with my brother, Bruce Jacobson, who lives in South Carolina.

Our contact was Jonathan Ornstein, Executive Director of JCC Krakow. Jonathan is also a friend and colleague of Todd Rockoff, our Tucson JCC CEO. Todd gave me a pack of greeting cards made by our J’s students to hand-carry to refugee children at the JCC-sponsored school in Krakow.

My hope was to find a way to help the Ukrainian refugee effort through the services provided by the JCC in Krakow. What I found was a heroic effort by staff and volunteers helping Ukrainian refugees meet their basic needs for food, shelter and humanitarian assistance.

Although I’m a retired doctor, I didn’t go there in a medical capacity (although my knowledge helped in one respect). Our biggest handicap was our inability to speak Ukrainian, Russian or Polish.

Since February 24, 2022, more than one million Ukrainians have sought refuge in Poland. In Krakow, five agencies, including the JCC, have helped more than 150,000 refugees. Krakow is about the size of Tucson.

After flying from Phoenix to Charlotte to Munich and then to Krakow, we met Ornstein and his team. Most of the staff spoke fairly good English. Klementyna Pozniak, who was born in Poland but raised in Cleveland, Ohio, was our primary contact. She gave us our orientation on the JCC, its mission and what we could do to help since we didn’t speak any of the necessary languages.

A queue of refugees at the JCC in Krakow

The JCC operates a small food bank in its facility. Refugees, mostly women and children, are allowed to choose a limited number of items each day. Several hundred people go there to stock up on necessary foodstuffs such as evaporated milk, coffee, tea, pasta, cereals, diapers, clothing for their children and for themselves, and occasionally sweets and chocolate and some fresh fruit. They can choose multiple items but only a limited number each time, as that is all that is available.

My “real job” was to break larger packets of sugar, coffee, tea, pasta, hot chocolate into smaller ones so the food could be stretched further. Three times a week, a large delivery of food arrives at the JCC and must be counted, divided and distributed for the days to come. It’s a project they learned to manage quite adeptly, even though they had no prior experience as a food bank or humanitarian crisis center. The weekly cost of food is around $10,000 and even more is spent on housing refugees in houses and hotel rooms.

Another project that my brother and I undertook was to organize large batches of prescription drugs that had been sent from various agencies in the United States. (This is where my medical knowledge came into effect). Various antibiotics, diabetes medications, respiratory inhalers and diabetic supplies were all mixed up in large duffel bags that had to be organized and accounted for. My CPA brother created a spreadsheet while I organized, counted, and told him what each bottle was for.


One of the Ukrainian refugees we spoke to at length had a unique story. Anastasia was born in Ukraine and made aliyah in Israel in his youth. She then returned to Ukraine to study and became a nurse. She is also married and has a 4 year old daughter. Her English is outstanding (as are her Hebrew, Ukrainian and Russian – she is learning Polish.) When the first bombs hit her hometown of Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine, her Israeli instincts told her to leave as quickly as possible. Her husband is still in Odessa, but she, her parents and her daughter fled to Krakow via Moldova – which was not very welcoming to Jewish refugees. Because of her intelligence and language skills, she is now a paid staff member of the JCC and helps other Ukrainians.

I had time to visit the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. There are several old synagogues that are no longer in regular use but are maintained for visitors. I even found the street (Lewkowa) where our own ancestral family (CDO of Tucson J) Fran Katz lived. The Jewish Quarter includes Holocaust memorial areas and several memorials throughout the area that are essential stops on Holocaust tours. Krakow is a beautiful city that was not heavily bombed during World War II, and the architecture remained intact. We visited historical sites, ate at many local restaurants, and learned about Polish cuisine, which is great.

Shabbat dinner

Shabbat dinner was a highlight of my volunteer experience. The Krakow JCC sponsors a weekly Shabbat dinner for locals, visitors, refugees and others. More than 50 people took part. It was a beautiful community meal prepared and served by volunteers and staff.

We took a day to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. These camps are only 60 miles from Krakow. Such a tour is a deeply personal experience which in itself would require much more time to discuss.

Essentially what I saw in Poland was mostly Jewish staff and volunteers working hard and helping to feed, clothe, house and care for hundreds of mostly non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees in a dedicated and loving way. JCC Krakow created these programs without any prior experience and does a wonderful job in helping refugees.

The physical assistance that my brother and I provided was modest, in my opinion. But our hosts found it very helpful for them, for their morale and for the visibility of their program. I am honored to have been able to help their tikkun olam efforts. For more information about the JCC Krakow, click here.

Dr. Jacobson in front of the JCC in Krakow

Dr. Mike Jacobson is a retired physician who has lived in Oro Valley with his wife Wendy for 13 years. They participate in Jewish organizations in Saddlebrooke and northwest Tucson. He can be reached at [email protected] for more information on his experience in Poland.


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