Refuge in Vienna: Where Resiliency Thrives Despite The War in Ukraine

By: Erica Sultan  |  April 6, 2022

By Erica Sultan, Social Media Manager

Throughout my one-week stay in Vienna, I was at a loss for words. Now that I’m back on American soil, I think I’ve found them. I’ve had to push away the thoughts of the beeping monitor hooked to a young, frail woman during her chemotherapy session, of an older woman’s elegant smile in the face of the sharp pains shooting up her leg, andand of hearing a 79-year old man tell me that he cannot wait to rebuild his home. With my mind cleared, there’s the underlying emotions of great empathy, my heart swelling at the love I’ve encountered, and the clear understanding that it is my responsibility to share the stories I’ve come to witness. 

I was ecstatic yet unnerved to have been selected to go to Vienna, Austria with our school. One part of me was jumping up and down and exclaiming,  “You get to be on the ground! You get to make a difference by physically helping!” But another part of me was much more cynical, sneering, “What can you really do for these people? You won’t even be able to communicate with them!” I later came to realize that I was not the only one with these fears, and most importantly, I was not the only one to refuse to let these fears stop me. And so I went with 27 other Yeshiva University undergraduates on the plane to Vienna. Vice Provost Dr. Erica Brown, the mashgiach of the trip, Rabbi Josh Blass, and the Sacks-Herenstein Center founders, Terri and Andrew Herenstein, also accompanied us on our trip. We arrived with 60 suitcases full of donations (all from people in our own communities and from those in our YU community, which was collected within the span of two days): 65 electronics (including tablets, phones, and computers), 555 children’s toys, over 2,300 pieces of Judaica, and over 300 costumes for Purim. 

Upon arrival, we visited the Stadttempel (famously, the only synagogue in Austria that was not destroyed during Kristallnacht), the home of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien (IKG), otherwise known as the Jewish Community of Vienna. These were the people leading the humanitarian mission, giving refuge to the many Ukrainians fleeing from the war. 

There, we met President Oskar Deutsch and Secretary-General for Jewish Affairs Benjamin Nägele who  debriefed us on the situation: there were 500 refugees with 500 more on the way and 40% of the refugees were children. IKG pays for buses to be sent from Vienna to Poland, that meet refugees with Jewish heritage. These refugees were immediately upon crossing the border, given three meals a day and housing. These children are put into school within 48-hours of their arrival, and all of their medical costs are covered (including those for physical needs and those for mental, PTSD-related needs). It was clear that they were taking on a monumental task, which was complemented with a massive bill per week that the community could not afford. 

A student on the trip asked the Secretary-General, “What is the cap number on how many refugees you’re able to take in?” Mr. Nägele, earnest and direct, said there’s no such number and expressed, “We will keep taking in people because it is our responsibility to.” At that moment there was an overwhelming sense of awe felt by everyone in the room. We were face to face with human kindness in its rawest form and its unwavering power. I heard everyone sniffling and smiled my own tears away. There was work that had to be done.

My specific task from IKG’s PR department was to go to different events taking place throughout the week to take pictures, interview refugees, and interview volunteers. My first stop was at a gemach, a charitable institution, where I met Yehudit Uri. She, along with a volunteer, was folding children’s clothes. Yehudit and five other volunteers worked at the apartment bought by IKG for three days a week for the past three years. They were collecting and organizing clothes, toys, and utensils, specifically for infants. There were shelves upon shelves on each wall filled with clothing. There was a long walk-in closet filled with toys, books, and strollers for the fleeing refugees. I was amazed at their work and asked if I could be of any help. But Yehudit shook her head and exclaimed, “We’ve got it covered!”

Another event that I attended was a job fair, run by IKG, to prepare for the possibility that most of the Ukrainian refugees will have to stay in Vienna for the foreseeable future or even become permanent residents. There, I met 79-year old Yakov. I interviewed him, with a Ukrainian translator and found out that he traveled five days from Kharkiv to Vienna with his wife, Yelena, his daughter, Tanya, and his grandson, Max. He told me that he could not wait to rebuild his home, his country. My heart tightened at that. Then I interviewed Tanya, who spoke English very well, and who also attended the fair. She revealed to me that her family had actually planned to visit Vienna this summer to celebrate her father’s 80th birthday. Based on current events, however, they will most likely be staying way past the summertime. She shared with me that her husband Bob Basset, a world-renowned artist recognized by Vogue International and New York Times Fashion Magazine,  was still fighting in Ukraine. Tanya shared with me  a picture that her husband had sent of a disco hall before a Russian raid, and then the aftermath of it lit up in flames. Despite the gruesomeness of the messages, Tanya smiled at me, saying that she was blessed to at least still be in contact with him. 

The days passed quickly, and suddenly it was Purim night, my favorite holiday. This is when we, as Jews, focus on the displacement of our people and the dangers of living in the Diaspora. I myself have never experienced this sudden displacement in that larger sense–that experience was felt by my grandparents and even my father who is an immigrant. And while I can’t speak for the others on the trip, I imagine they too haven’t been displaced in the same way our ancestors have been and in the same way as the people we would be celebrating Purim with have been. I wasn’t oblivious to the parallels at play.

Everyone dressed up: one friend in a tutu, another in a blow-up dinosaur costume, and I as Princess Anna. We didn’t know what to expect. All we knew was that Dr. Brown had spoken to a man at the local Chabad who had invited us to his Purim event that he was preparing to throw for the refugees. We were all excited to spend more time with them during a nice sit-down seudah [festive meal], but wow, we did not expect the party that ensued when we reached the event hall. We entered a ballroom adorned with strobe-lights, gorgeous chandeliers and stone pillars decorated with floral designs, and tables upon tables with fruits and vegetables laid out in beautiful displays. A DJ was on one side of the ballroom while another massive room was connected on the other so that the children could have their own party. It’s safe to say that the entire group was in awe as were the refugees who were donning either the costumes we had brought with us or their fanciest clothing. We all piled in close to listen to the Rabbi read the megillah, and when the name Haman was read aloud, the name Putin was yelled out too by the children in the room to which everyone in the event hall booed at. The parallel was not lost on the refugees as well. But there was something else paralleled: resiliency. Passed down from our ancestors, resiliency and persistency in the face of all odds is an innate trait that exists in all Jews. 

After a beautiful Shabbat, it was time to leave, which was something that no one in the group wanted. As we tried and failed at convincing Dr. Brown and President Berman that we should stay a few more weeks, we came to the realization that home was awaiting us. Coming back to America was extremely hard as I understood the impact we had on the refugees, some of them still in contact with us and asking when we will be coming back, and I pondered how I, and the rest of YU, could still make an impact. We had already created a fundraiser so that we could help with the massive expenses of this operation; I knew YU was having weekly Zoom seminars about the rich Ukrainian Jewish history and the current events. But I knew there was more that could be done: that understanding I had mentioned at the beginning of this article. Once one bears witness, it is their duty to share their story. Now that I’ve shared mine, I’m challenging you, dear reader, to be a storyteller yourself. Find an audience, it can be as little as one person, and discuss with them what you’ve witnessed while reading this. How resilient the Ukrainian refugees are, how strong the Viennese Jewish Community is, and how they need your help. 

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Photo Credit: Erica Sultan