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A Long Island rabbi’s journey to deliver supplies turns into a rescue mission for Ukrainian refugees

The American rabbi living in Poland had planned to help Ukrainians — Jews and non-Jews — but from the safety of Polish soil.

But this week, heading to the border to distribute food and medicine, he wound up crossing over into Ukraine, emptying his convoy of vans in Lviv, and then filling them up with 60 Ukrainians to take back to Poland with him.

“We packed them in like sardines,” said Avi Baumol, an Orthodox rabbi from Long Island who lives in Efrat, an Israeli settlement not far from Jerusalem, who has been working in Poland since 2014 with the country’s chief rabbi.

Rabbi Baumol

Rabbi Avi Baumol unloads supplies in Ukraine on Tuesday, March 1, 2022. Courtesy of Rabbi Avi Baumol

“I was a little nervous, not knowing that I would be driving 100 kilometers into Ukraine,” he continued. Thousands of Ukrainians in the past week have fled to Lviv, in western part of the country, to escape Russian troops advancing from the east, north and south.

In Krakow, where he lives part time, Baumol had organized collections of — in addition to food and medicine — diapers, feminine products, toys and other supplies. He left the city on Tuesday with five large vans, packed full.

They stopped at the border and unloaded some of the supplies. Then a Polish volunteer working with him suggested they keep driving, across the border and another 90 minutes to Lviv.

That volunteer, a Christian who had been working at the border for days, convinced him that they could get there and back to Poland safely, Baumol said.

War meant the trip took longer than it normally would.

“There were major traffic jams with people going every which way,” said Baumol. “And for the first hour, the roads were not great.”

Baumol, 51, who is originally from Great Neck, on the North shore of Long Island, said that when he and his volunteers arrived in Lviv, they planned to unload all of the supplies at one location. But they found that they were not needed at that site, so the trucks split up. Three went to a church in Lviv and the other two unloaded their supplies at the Chesed community center, which serves the 2,000 of the city’s Jews.

“We filled a whole warehouse and the people were very appreciative,” he said. “At the end, we had five empty trucks.

Then Romek had another idea, to fill the trucks with refugees, and take them to Poland. “I didn’t know we were going to do that,” Baumol said.

The trucks then headed to Lviv’s train station, where refugees were disembarking from points to the east. There is no train service into Poland.

Baumol refugees

Natalia, in foreground, holding phone, and who did not give her last name, sits next to her two children. They are among the Ukrainian refugees that left the country in a convoy of vans that Rabbi Avi Baumol had organized, originally, only to carry supplies, on Tuesday March 1, 2022. Courtesy of Rabbi Avi Baumol

“It was a scene out of some kind of apocalyptic movie,” Baumol said. “There were thousands of people. It was zero degrees Celsius and there were bonfires with people gathered around them in different groups. Free food had been set up for the refugees and people kept coming off trains.”

Baumol and Romek waded into the chaos. “We just grabbed women and children and said, `Come into the vans.’” Emblazoned across each van were the words “Humanitarian Aid.”

Natalia’s story

One woman who took Baumol up on his offer to flee, Natalia, was accompanied by her 14-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. She told Baumol they had just come from Kyiv and that the train ride took 10 hours. She told the rabbi that she had a new apartment in Kyiv, but when the bombs started falling, and her daughter saw a missile hit a building, she knew they had to leave.

Natalia also told him that her husband is British, an English teacher in Bahrain, and that he plans to meet them in Warsaw, and resettle the family in Bahrain.

“But Natalia, who represents the spirit of many Ukrainians, said the war will be over soon, they will defeat Putin and she wants to return home,” Baumol said.

Of the 60 people the rabbi brought to Poland, all were women and their children. Two of the vans had seats. In the other three, the refugees sat on mattresses. “The people were thrilled to be able to find a way to safety,” Baumol said.

Baumol who works for Warsaw-based Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, as his rabbinic representative in Krakow, said said he wore his kippah during the trip and met some Israelis at the border.

“I went there with the intention of helping humanity and not caring about race or religion,” he said. “I just wanted to help them get over this madness.”

map of Baumol's journey

Rabbi Avi Baumol lives in Krakow, Poland. He picked up refugees in Lviv, Ukraine, and crossed back into Poland at Koscowa, on Tuesday, March 1, 2002 Courtesy of Google Maps

On the drive back the trucks stopped once to pick up more women and children refugees. They crossed the border at the Polish village of Korczowa, and after the refugees passed through border control the vans headed to different cities, where the refugees had indicated they wanted to go.

Baumol said they didn’t see any Russians on their journey. “I saw a country preparing for the inevitable, not being resigned but prepared to fight,” he said.

“Some of them had guns that looked like they were from World War I,” he continued. “They were organized and blocking the major arteries. There were checkpoints before and after each city. They were resolved to defeat the enemy and we pray they succeed.”

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly suggested that Rabbi Avi Baumol lives full time in Poland. He splits his time between Krakow and Efrat, an Israeli settlement near Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank.

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