Fifty people gathered at E.U. headquarters in Brussels for the opening of an exhibition highlighting the world's response toward refugees from Ukraine, Dec. 22, 2024. Photo by Nicolas Lobet.
Fifty people gathered at E.U. headquarters in Brussels for the opening of an exhibition highlighting the world's response toward refugees from Ukraine, Dec. 22, 2024. Photo by Nicolas Lobet.
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EU exhibit celebrates Jewish aid efforts amid horror of Ukraine war

“This is a display that shows that Jewish organizations came together to help Jews and non-Jews.”

Two days before the second anniversary of the start of the Ukraine war, key E.U. personages gathered at European Union headquarters in Brussels on Feb. 22 to inaugurate an exhibit depicting an all-too-rare example of man’s humanity to man. It honors the moment when the world flung open its doors to Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war-torn country.

The exhibition focuses especially, though not exclusively, on Jewish aid efforts, highlighting the rescue of the Odessa Jewish orphanage, the creation of a shelter for Ukrainian Jews at a former communist resort in Hungary, and a camp set up by the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, Poland for non-Jewish refugees.

The exhibition consists of six, roughly seven-foot-tall accordion panel displays with descriptions and photographs describing the refugee crisis and depicting specific aid efforts. A screen in one corner played a loop of testimonies of individual refugees.

“Your work has been an example in helping and supporting Jewish and non-Jewish alike,” Olivér Várhelyi, European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement, a position responsible for strengthening ties with E.U. neighboring countries, including Israel, said in his address at the exhibit’s opening.

“You were there from the very beginning to help the most vulnerable,” Várhelyi added referring to the many Jewish groups that continue to take part in relief efforts.

Rabbi Shlomo Köves, chief rabbi of the Chabad-affiliated Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities, which sponsored the event, told JNS: “Antisemites claim that Jews only think about themselves and are not there for others, which is the exact opposite of the truth. This is a display that shows that Jewish organizations came together to help Jews and non-Jews.”

Jews helped everyone, agreed Yitzhak Mais, the exhibition’s curator, noting that “there was no genetic test to walk into Sheba hospital,” referring to the 66-bed field hospital set up by Israel in Ukraine.

One of Mais’s favorite photographs in the exhibit is that of a Christmas tree at the camp run by the Krakow Jewish Community Center for non-Jewish refugees. “What you see here is a worldwide phenomenon of a human response to a human tragedy,” Mais said. “I’m a historian. I’m not naive enough to think that this will become the model. It’s something that hopefully will be emulated.”

Rabbi Shlomo Köves, Hungary
Rabbi Shlomo Köves, chief rabbi of the Chabad-affiliated Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities (or EMIH) at the exhibition’s opening in Brussels, Dec. 22, 2024. Photo by Nicolas Lobet.

Mais noted that human tragedy occurs because of a “lack of caring or sympathy,” as with the Vietnamese boat people or the voyage of the St. Louis, the 1938 German liner filled with some 1,000 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, but which couldn’t find a friendly port.

The exhibition was the brainchild of Mais, former director of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center and founding chief curator of New York’s Museum of Jewish History: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

Mais had been working together with Köves on the new Holocaust Museum in Budapest when Köves told him the story of the refugee camp at Lake Balaton, Hungary, through which 5,000, mostly Jewish, refugees had passed.

Köves related how he had called Rabbi Meir Stambler, chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, the morning after the Russian attack to ask if there was anything he could do to help. Stambler asked if there was a place in Hungary that could house 1,000 Jews and be able to maintain their Jewish religious observance.

Köves admitted he was skeptical he could find such a place but he made some calls and within hours Hungary’s government offered the resort at Lake Balaton, (Hungary, whose behavior was praiseworthy throughout, subsequently declined to charge any fee for the use of the facilities).

The exhibition featured six panels depicting aid efforts for Ukraine at the exhibition in Brussels, Dec. 22, 2023. Photo by Nicolas Lobet.

Mais realized that nobody knew about these efforts. That the refugees were not passive victims but took an active part in their rescue, was another aspect of the Lake Balaton visit, which impressed Mais.

“I sat down and spoke with several refugees and what immediately came across were the efforts that they made to find a way to get out,” he said. “We always look at the victim as someone who’s being taken care of. Here, they wouldn’t have been able to get to the border without finding out about various buses, paperwork, bureaucracy, etc.”

He was particularly impressed with some Chabad efforts. In the case of the Chabad-run Odessa orphanage, the group managed to cross five borders in 28 hours to Germany with “little documentation, including a three-month-old baby who didn’t have a birth certificate.” (The orphans have since returned to Ukraine, feeling it’s safe enough.)

The experience inspired Mais, who returned to Budapest and convinced Köves they should put together an exhibit on Jewish aid efforts.  One panel listed the number of refugees involved, and the sheer scale is astonishing. More than 6 million have fled Ukraine.

While the exhibit focuses on Jewish efforts, Mais stressed that many organizations and countries had done wonderful things, from the Red Cross to the E.U. to the United States. “We want to make it clear it’s not Jews, or Israel, who are the only ones. We’re not trying to eclipse any of the other organizations or take the limelight for ourselves.”

Yitzchak Mais, the exhibition’s curator, speaks to JNS’s reporter at the exhibition’s opening in Brussels on Dec. 22, 2023. Photo by Nicolas Lobet.

Even so, Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Commission’s coordinator on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life, expressed her admiration for the Jewish umbrella groups with whom her office works, typically on antisemitism.

“They immediately switched. They said, ‘We need to be there now. We need to help. And we want to do this in a coordinated manner.’ And to me, this was amazing, to see this Jewish engagement,” she told JNS.

The story of the Lake Balaton refugee camp, where Jews could keep kosher resonated with Von Schnurbein, who noted that combating antisemitism is just a part of her office’s mission. It’s also to help Jewish communities thrive.

“This aspect of fostering Jewish life is key. It’s the heart of everything,” she said. “In the end, it is about making sure that Jews can go about their lives in line with their religious and cultural traditions.”

The exhibition will now travel to France where it will be displayed for two weeks at the Jewish Consistory of France in Paris before returning to Brussels for an extended stay.

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