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A Polish hotel recovering from its own tragic past has become a refuge for Ukrainians

Two weeks ago, Hotel Ilan, in Lublin, Poland, which was built almost a century ago as a Jewish house of study, stopped booking tourists and corporate groups. It now houses refugees from Ukraine and donations for them.
Ryan Kellman
/
NPR
Two weeks ago, Hotel Ilan, in Lublin, Poland, which was built almost a century ago as a Jewish house of study, stopped booking tourists and corporate groups. It now houses refugees from Ukraine and donations for them.

In the city of Lublin, between winding cobbled streets, stands a bright yellow building that's impossible to miss.

It has eight columns out front and a wide staircase that leads to large, carved wooden doors that let out a long moan as they swing shut.

It was built almost a century ago as a Jewish house of study, but today is being used for a purpose that no one who designed it would have ever imagined.

"I started looking for places to house refugees, because it was clear that Putin was going to do something," said Michael Schudrich, Poland's chief rabbi.

This building has been through a few transformations in its life. Rabbi Schudrich started laying the groundwork for its most recent rebirth a few weeks ago — before Russia invaded Ukraine.

"I said 'I prefer to have places for people to shelter and nothing to happen, than not to be prepared and have a disaster,' " he said. "But I, and almost the rest of the world, never dreamt that Putin would actually do what he did."

As he looked for places that Poland's Jewish community could use to house Ukrainian refugees, the rabbi in Warsaw thought of this grand yellow building in Lublin.

In the 1930s it was a renowned center of study. The Lublin yeshiva had the best teachers, the best students, the best library. And then the Holocaust nearly obliterated Poland's Jews.

"The vast majority of the students were killed," Rabbi Schudrich said. "Most of the library was destroyed ... and then the Jewish community received the building back as part of communal restitution, about 10 years ago, and the question [became] what we're doing to do."

They decided to restore the old synagogue and turn what used to be a dormitory into a working hotel. Today the sign on the facade of the building says: "Hotel Ilan: Feel the Tradition."

But two weeks ago, this hotel stopped booking tourists and corporate groups.

The basement is now crowded with boxes of clothes, strollers and diapers for babies, as well as food and medical supplies. A swarm of volunteers fold up clothes for the Ukrainians who arrive only with the things they were able to carry.

In one corner a little girl plays with a stuffed toy dog while her mother goes through a box of shoes for her to try on. Across the room a woman digs through a box of jackets for something that might fit.

A young Ukrainian refugee traveling with her mother and sister searches for warm clothes and a few toys among the hotel's donated supplies.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
A young Ukrainian refugee traveling with her mother and sister searches for warm clothes and a few toys among the hotel's donated supplies.

It was once a conference room, but it was transformed in two days into a place to give those fleeing war the most basic things to survive.

Agnieszka Litman is a 28-year-old volunteer, surrounded by piles of clothing stacked five feet high on the tables around her.

"They need all the basics," she said. "We also have some toys for kids, and just to make their life a little bit better, a little bit more fun."

On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Jacob Hincza heard about this operation. He dropped everything in Warsaw and came to Lublin with his girlfriend to help out.

"I'm really glad I came here. Actually, I might lose my job but I think it's worth it to experience the help that we can give to people," he said.

Jacob Hincza dropped everything in Warsaw and came to Lublin with his girlfriend to help out."I'm really glad I came here. Actually, I might lose my job, but I think it's worth it to experience the help that we can give to people," he said.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
Jacob Hincza dropped everything in Warsaw and came to Lublin with his girlfriend to help out."I'm really glad I came here. Actually, I might lose my job, but I think it's worth it to experience the help that we can give to people," he said.

"There are people coming here that lost their whole life. They are still smiling, they are still nice. Rich people with expensive breeds of dogs, and they just are looking for warm clothing. They don't care about how it looks, it just needs to fit them. They need Pampers. They need baby food."

Jacob has seen about 100 people come through here each day. There are only 40 rooms, all full, so the hotel staff and volunteers help the rest find other rooms in town.

One recent arrival is Natalia Mishchenko. As she entered the building, she put her passport on the front counter then dissolved into tears.

She had fled with her two children while her husband stayed in Ukraine. Men of fighting age are not allowed to leave.

"I feel very scared, because I don't know what to do next," she said.

Another refugee is a 48-year-old woman named Nechama, who asked us to use only her first name.

She's still trying to comprehend the way her life has transformed in the last week.

"We thought that we will stay there, that we can't leave Kyiv. And one woman from the community phoned us and told us we have a bus from Kyiv in an hour and a half," she said.

"My father is an invalid, he's very, very sick."

Nechama had 90 minutes to get to the bus that was leaving from the synagogue in Kyiv. She took her 18-year-old daughter, her husband, and her elderly parents.

"I forgot documents and forgot money and forgot all the things. I had only my passport in my bag," she said.

Birth certificates, diplomas — all left behind.

Lublin, a city with winding, cobbled streets in eastern Poland.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
Lublin, a city with winding, cobbled streets in eastern Poland.
Left: A man walks with a ladder down a hallway piled with donations. Right: Donated baby food is piled in a box.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
Left: A man walks with a ladder down a hallway piled with donations. Right: Donated baby food is piled in a box.

The bus left Kyiv at a crawl. Police frequently stopped it and took Ukrainian men of fighting age off. Nechama's husband was allowed to stay on because he's an Israeli citizen.

The bus ride that is usually five hours took 18. And when they reached the border, they waited in line another 12 hours to cross.

"It's just amazing that we are alive till now," she said.

Nechama said her daughter was scared. She was valedictorian of her school and got into a prestigious university in Kyiv. Now she doesn't know if she'll ever be able to attend.

A refugee, recently arrived from Ukraine, walks the halls of the hotel.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
A refugee, recently arrived from Ukraine, walks the halls of the hotel.

The staff at the hotel are still doing the same jobs they did when paying guests were staying here.

Anastasia Boretski works behind the bar. She is also Ukrainian and came to Poland in 2017 to study. Hearing about what these refugees have gone through makes her afraid for her own family.

"My mom, she says 'All is OK, we are safe.' But I know that it's not true," she said.

Anastasia said she was supporting her family and her family was supporting her, and everyone was trying to convince each other that everything was alright.

"They will stay [in Kyiv] because my mother is a nurse and my father and uncle want to save their country," she said. "I'm proud of them but I would prefer them to come here and stay safe."

Left: Agnieszka Litman a volunteer, surrounded by piles of clothing stacked five feet high on the tables around her. Right: Anastasia Borets, a student from Ukraine who works in the hotel.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
Left: Agnieszka Litman a volunteer, surrounded by piles of clothing stacked five feet high on the tables around her. Right: Anastasia Borets, a student from Ukraine who works in the hotel.

The director of the hotel, Agnieszka Kolibska, never thought she'd be using her skills as a hotelier to help Ukrainian refugees.

"It's very hard because workers still need to get paid," she said. "We gave up a lot of money when we stopped taking big groups."

Still, she connects the history of the building and the Holocaust with what is happening with the refugee crisis now.

"We owe a debt. My father survived the Holocaust. I am second generation," she said.

The director of the hotel, Agnieszka Kolibska, never thought she'd be using her skills as a hotelier to help Ukrainian refugees.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
The director of the hotel, Agnieszka Kolibska, never thought she'd be using her skills as a hotelier to help Ukrainian refugees.

This moment is not lost on Rabbi Schudrich either.

"This is one of the great historical ironies, that for hundreds of years, we are used to the stories of Jews fleeing Poland. Now Jews are fleeing into Poland and they're safe," he said.

"It's too overwhelming ... and it does show the human capacity for change, that we need to be aware of the fact that history is important but does not dictate the future. We dictate the future."

He says sometimes he has the feeling that this is the reason the building was constructed almost 100 years ago: For the purpose it is serving today.

As for how long he will keep doing this?

"That's a very easy answer: As long as it's necessary," he said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Piotr Mastalerz, exhausted from days of working around the clock as a volunteer, sleeps among piles of donated clothes and fabric.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
Piotr Mastalerz, exhausted from days of working around the clock as a volunteer, sleeps among piles of donated clothes and fabric.