Two weeks ago, my two oldest sons and I walked past the balcony of the Hofberg Palace in Vienna. It was on that balcony on March 15, 1938, that Adolf Hitler announced the Austrian Anschluss to Nazi Germany. I showed my sons the grainy black and white video of his speech as we stood there, chilled with disbelief. Moments later, we met with Wolfgang Sobotka, the president of the Austrian National Council, whose grandfather was a Nazi. Sobotka has forged his own path as a leader in the fight against anti-Semitism and as a champion of the Viennese Jewish community. Today, Sobotka and his country are sheltering 1,000-2,000 new Ukrainian refugees a day, including hundreds of Jews.
My sons and I, along with twenty-eight Yeshiva University students, were in Vienna to assist Ukrainian refugees. Virtually every Jew I know is a refugee or a descendant of refugees. And so, when we saw Ukrainians forced to pack their bags and flee their country, we knew it was time to pack our own bags and go where we were needed.
Our group was in contact with many of the Ukrainian refugees traveling through Vienna, but spent a significant amount of time with the Jewish community. As Abdulrazak Gurnah writes in the novel After Lives, “If we don’t look after each other, who will look after us?” We must begin with our own mishpacha, or family, but we can never end with our own.
The Viennese Jewish community of 8,000 has already taken in 500 Jewish refugees from Ukraine and is expecting an additional 1,000 in the weeks ahead. Oskar Deutsch, the president of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wein, Vienna’s Jewish community, told our students that his council see it as their obligation to shelter as many refugees as they can. Most of the refugees are women and children, since men ages 18–60 have either been drafted into the Ukrainian army or are awaiting notice. We met boys and girls who were not sure whether they would ever return to their apartments or see their fathers again.
Before going, our Yeshiva University students raised money and collected items that we took with us for the Ukrainian refugees: laptops so they could process papers and look for employment, and phones so they could be in touch with loved ones. Currently, it costs approximately $110,000 a week to feed this community of refugees. Our students created a fundraising campaign, and in three days raised that amount and more. While there, our students played games and did arts and crafts projects with Ukrainian children, who represent 40 percent of the Jewish refugee population in Vienna. They also mopped floors, cleared out garbage, and prepared new hotel rooms to house incoming refugees. They sat with refugees at meals and tried to bring comfort.
Our visit took place during the week of the Jewish holiday of Purim, a celebration of how Queen Esther saved her people from an attempt to rid the ancient Persian empire of its Jews. Purim is typically celebrated in costume, so when we traveled to Vienna, our students brought close to 500 Purim costumes and duffle bags full of toys and decorations. Mostly, they brought spirit; they danced and sang so that refugees, many of whom had only been in Vienna for a few days, could still experience the holiday in its fullness. A mother took me aside and said that she had only arrived in Vienna a few days before Purim. When her children were told in school that everyone was to come in costume, they were distressed; they fled Ukraine with only the shirts on their backs. But that night our students suddenly appeared with gifts of costumes. For this mother, seeing her children smile for the first time since they left Ukraine was its own Purim miracle.
Before our trip, our students had also collected Sabbath candlesticks, wine goblets used for sacramental purposes, and mezuzot—small prayer holders for the lintels of door posts. Vienna's Jewish community had asked for these items because most refugees will be moving from hotels to apartments in the next few weeks, as the refugee crisis intensifies. Helping refugees set up their Jewish homes with these ritual objects was a way of connecting refugees to the global community of caring, letting them know they are not alone.
During our trip, we read the book of Esther twice, reminding ourselves that God and human beings work together to bring redemption. It is not upon us to finish the work, our ancient sages taught us, but neither are we free from our responsibility to try.
Humanitarian work can feel overwhelming. More than one of our students broke down during the trip, wondering how they could possibly make a difference in the lives of so many refugees, whose needs are so great and increase every day. Their volunteer work brought some insight to the answer. Narrowing millions of faceless refugees to a few hundred people with whom we had regular contact throughout the week enabled our students to forge a connection not with “refugees” but with one person at a time. We could not help everyone, but we could be present for the individuals in front of us, at this moment in their lives.
I opened with the Hofberg Palace balcony—what the Viennese call “Hitler's Balcony”—and want to return to it. Another Nobel Prize laureate, Elie Wiesel, gave a speech there on June 17, 1992. “The balcony is nothing,” he said. “It is a symbol, nothing more. The purification, the change cannot come from the balcony. It must come from below.” Last week, my sons and I stood below that balcony and pondered how salvation comes from on high and from below. In that spirit, we ask that God bring peace, shelter all refugees, and return them home as soon as possible to a rebuilt Ukraine. But I also call upon each of us not to leave it to God. There is an expression in the Talmud: “Do not rely upon a miracle.” Our job is to create small miracles for others. By seeing the divine in the face of every stranger and every refugee, we partner with God in the work of salvation.
Ari Berman is the president of Yeshiva University.
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