Letter From Ukraine, June 11, 2022

Dominican Shield

Dear Sisters, Dear Brothers, 

Today I made a phone call to an older woman whose son fights on the frontlines. “Good morning, this is Father Jarosław…” On the other end: silence. I introduced myself again and explained why I’m calling. After a while, she told me that the unfamiliar male voice in the receiver had surprised and frightened her. How true; during wartime a phone call like this could have brought bad news about her son. Mrs. Nadia isn’t the only mother though, or wife or daughter, who picks up the phone with apprehension. 

A week ago I traveled by train from Kyiv to Khmelnytskyi. Across from me was sitting, or practically laying down, a young girl. She drew my attention because she reminded me of Maryna, a volunteer and actress from the Kyiv theater “Silver Island,” who had worked with us at the beginning of the war. This girl, though, was on crutches. The day before, she had severely twisted her leg, tearing some ligaments. I could sympathize, since I’ve also had problems with walking recently. My seatmate was going to visit her boyfriend who is serving in the military. She clearly cared about this meeting, since even a serious injury didn’t prevent her from traveling. On the platform in Vinnytsia, a young soldier was waiting for her. It soon became clear that I wasn’t the only one who had been watching the couple. “If he took her purse, it would be easier for her to walk,” the women sitting near me observed dryly. The young man was clearly inexperienced and looked like he didn’t quite know what to do. I hope the war will be gentle to them and that they’ll still get time to enjoy together and learn how to care for each other. 

The war causes people to show their emotions. I see it almost every day on the streets of Ukrainian cities. Our priory is surrounded by military bases, so there’s no shortage of men and women in uniform walking around. People here instinctively feel that we can’t waste our time since there’s not much of it left. Especially when a boyfriend, husband, or wife could be sent any second to the frontlines. Unfortunately we’ve been hearing more and more about the painful losses on the Ukrainian side. Father Tomek recently took a picture of the Field of Mars in Lviv. It’s a large square next to Lychakiv Cemetery. The new Ukrainian heroes have begun to be buried there. “It’s a tragic calendar measuring the days and months of war,” I wrote to Tomek. “The last time I was there in the winter, the square was empty,” he responded. 

Many people who had left Kyiv while it was under fire and besieged by the Russian army are now returning. It’s easy to tell that the young people were missing their own city, and above all, each other. As I was walking along Khreshchatyk Street, I stopped for a bite in a world-famous restaurant chain. Whether it was out of hunger or joy that it’s finally open, I don’t know. There was no shortage of customers. Standing at a screen where you order, a teenager was explaining to her friend how she had been able to order things in Poland that aren’t available here. I’m happy these young people have come back and that the metropolis has very recently come alive again. I agree with Ruslan Gorovyi, a Ukrainian author whose books I’ve been reading, that we’re winning this war as long as we’re staying alive. After 108 days of daily battles, of bombs and rockets falling in practically the whole country, most Ukrainians have accepted the war as a fact of life. “It’s a very important experience,” Ruslan explains. “In moments like this, you don’t save your life for later. You don’t say that when we have won, then we’ll go on with our lives. No. It is now that is our life. And there will be no other for us. Whatever is happening around us, we are to live our own life as long as we are able to.” 

On May 24, which is the liturgical memorial of the Elevation of the Relics of Saint Dominic, Father Gerard, the Master of the Order, established a new Dominican priory in Khmelnytskyi. Obviously the act was of a formal nature since the brothers have been living and serving there for a couple of years already. Now our presence in this city has achieved an official status. I’m happy this happened, and I’m convinced that the Master’s decision will always be a sign of hope, a kind of confirmation “from above” that as Friars Preachers, we are needed in Ukraine. Especially now. 

I went to Khmelnytskyi to personally thank Father Jakub for his service, since he’ll be leaving for Poland. I hope he’ll put to good use his command of the language and the experience he gained in Lviv and Khmelnytskyi; he’s going to take over a Ukrainian language ministry at the priory of Saint Hyacinth in Warsaw that’s already existed there for four years. After the Sunday Mass, a number of people stopped by the sacristy to say goodbye. A couple with two kids thanked Jakub for his humility in ministry and daily life. It’s always beautiful to hear that a Dominican brother is seen for his humility. The brothers in Khmelnytskyi, apart from their ministry in the priory, also help at the biggest diocesen parish in Ukraine, the parish of Christ the King. 

The next day, I read the assignment of Fathers Wojciech, Włodzimierz, and Igor, who just became the community of Khmelnytskyi. An assignment is a formal document in which the prior provincial orders the brother to live in a designated priory and orders the superior of this priory to accept the brother with kindness and treat him with love. I hope that Father Wojciech will be a good superior of the new Ukrainian priory under the patronage of Saint Dominic.

In my letters, I frequently write about animals. It’s unavoidable, since they’re victims of this war too. During my most recent trip on the train, I felt a little like I’d stepped onto Noah’s ark. One lady was walking along the car with a dachshund, and another lady, afraid of the possibility of an animal fight, requested, “Please, don’t come near, because we have cats.” To finish, let me tell you the story of the dog Masha, which was first told to me while driving in the car and then published by Father Misha in Fastiv on his Facebook page:

“Last week I joined the volunteers from the House of Saint Martin de Porres and a team from San Angelo Café, and we prepared another street festival for the people of Borodyanka. Near our food truck with burgers and hotdogs stood a woman with three dogs. She was wearing a winter coat. People were looking at her with disdain, and she herself clearly didn’t have the courage to stand in the line. A friend I was talking to explained, ‘She’s our local crazy-woman, but she and her dogs saved twelve people.’ The rest of the story was told by the woman herself after we offered her three hotdogs and a delicious coffee. The lady had her own style, and when she took the cup in her hands, she said that real coffee should be without sugar because with sugar, it’s not coffee anymore. ‘The first days of March were terrible. The main street of Borodyanka was completely ruined. It was all happening after March 8. I was walking on the street with a handcart and my dogs, and one of them, Masha, bit my pants and started pulling me toward a ruined house. I told Masha what I thought of that behavior using very strong vocabulary, but she would not let it go and kept barking. Ignoring my disappointment, she kept pulling me in the direction of the ruins. Finally we got there. The dog ran ahead and kept barking in one specific place. I went over with curiosity, bent down, and heard human voices coming from below the rubble: “We’ve been here for six days, we need food and water, please help!”’ Masha later found four more people in a different ruined house. Since the woman herself looked very unusual, she managed to walk the streets despite the Russian army’s presence in Borodyanka. She walked with dogs and a cart in which she had water and food. When the occupying soldiers asked her what she’s doing, she always responded that she’s feeding the dogs. Meanwhile, for a couple weeks, she continued bringing water and food to the people under the rubble.” 

By accident, or maybe not by accident at all, I found a poem online, “Sleep my little child,” by famous Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan. It’s a moving war lullaby written a few years ago to commemorate the life of the 15-year-old boy Danylo. He died tragically in February 2015 in Kharkiv during the Russian separatists’ terrorist attack at the March of Unity. The poem ends with a simple but true statement: “The longer the war goes on, the more courage is needed.” 

Don’t forget about Ukraine! With greetings and request for prayer, 

Jarosław Krawiec OP,
Kyiv, June 11, 4:10pm

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