Catholic Outlook has been fortunate to obtain a series of messages from Fr Jaroslaw Krawiec OP, the Provincial Vicar of the Dominican Order in Ukraine addressed to Dominicans across Europe and the world.
Fr Jaroslaw details his day-to-day activities living in the Dominican priory in Kyiv, and reports on fellow Dominicans helping citizens across the country by providing shelter, food, and assisting them to flee the country.
Translated from Polish by Jacek Buda, OP
Dear Sisters, Dear Brothers,
Father Igor celebrated Mass today in our chapel. This is his third First Eucharist, after Fastiv and Khmelnytskyi, but the first one in Kyiv. Apart from receiving the graces attached to the special blessing, we also received a wonderful homily from Father Igor. As he spoke about Saint Stephen, about this “something” that makes us happy, and about the Holy Spirit who unites us, I was thinking that it must have been the prayers of so many people around the world that obtained for Father Igor the grace of preaching, this gratia praedicationis so important to every Dominican. Please keep praying for our young priest during this time of war.
Thursday morning, I departed from Kharkiv, accompanied by Father Andrew, who decided to return to his own priory that he had left just before the war. Father Provincial and I had been deliberating about it for a long time and weren’t quite sure if it was the right decision. But Father Andrew insisted that he wanted to be with the people he used to serve. Our priory is in the western part of the city, meaning on the side of Kyiv and not of Russia, which is only 40 km away. Fortunately, we quickly learned that the neighbourhood called New Bavaria was not damaged much. In the priory building we discovered two families who had lost their own houses during the war and had moved into the priory. They greeted us and offered a delightful dinner — consisting of płow (a locally popular rice pilaf) and Ukrainian borscht. The meal was prepared by Mrs. Luda. Her apartment had been heavily damaged when a Russian airplane was shot down in the area. She was very lucky because on her way home from work, she had managed to jump inside the building when the plane exploded. If she had still been on the sidewalk, she would have certainly died like other passersby. She suffered only minor wounds. Her husband, on the other hand, who had been in their apartment, was heavily wounded in his leg. “Since then, I’m afraid when I hear alarms, and even more when I hear explosions. Once I almost even laid down on the sidewalk, I was so terrified; only my husband stopped me.” The other family is younger; they have a two-and-a-half-year-old son. When Father Andrew and I went for a walk, we bought a set of small model fire engines. He was so happy!
The next day, we attended a meeting of priests at the local cathedral. We had to walk a couple kilometres to the local subway station because buses are rare. Father Andrew suggested we take the road around the beautiful lake. I wasn’t familiar with that place. I joked that I might spend my vacation there this year. We finally reached the center of Kharkiv around noon. In one of the city parks, the diocesan Caritas Center was distributing humanitarian gifts to the city’s inhabitants. Crowds everywhere. Father Wojtek, the director of Caritas, told us they supply more than two thousand people with food. Attempting to navigate around the people standing in line, we walked on the grass and were immediately yelled at by the police officers. It felt very funny in that situation.
After the dinner we had with the volunteers, Father Wojtek led us to Saltivka, one of the most devastated neighbourhoods of Kharkiv. First, we stopped at the parish led by the Vincentians. In the church’s basement, almost two dozen people have been living since February 24, mostly elderly women. We went to pay them a visit. They haven’t had electricity for a few days, so we walked in complete darkness. The ladies greeted us warmly. They know Father Wojtek well, and they were very happy with his visit. We managed to convince an 82-year-old lady to sing something for us. Grandma Vera, as she introduced herself, first looked for her purse to get out a comb. She wanted to look presentable because when we had entered the basement, the ladies had been napping. “What else can we do in this darkness?” they said. We listened to our aged vocalist sing an old Ukrainian song about Hala, a girl who went to bring water.
A block farther, we stopped by one of the high rises of Saltivka. The building isn’t significantly damaged, although many windows are broken. “Here in the basement, a few families with children have been living for already three months,” Father Wojtek explained. A moment after entering the basement, people started appearing. First, children running out, squinting into the strong sunlight outside, since their basement has no electricity. Everyone greeted me and Father Wojtek very warmly. The children immediately began telling us what they’re doing, bringing balloons and apologising that they couldn’t make any drawings for Father Wojtek because it was too dark. I asked them if I could see their living space. They showed me the way downstairs. “Be careful; it’s very dark,” my guides advised me. We were saved by cell phones and little flashlights that Father Wojtek had given the children. The basement doesn’t have a solid floor, so the air was filled with dust. The women showed me different rooms where they live with their families. They have mattresses or very basic cots. In one of the rooms, they had set up a “bathroom” consisting of a primitive shower and a hole dug into the ground. I came out of there very moved. I still keep these people in my heart and in my memory. Why did they decide to stay? Why didn’t they leave like others, or why wouldn’t they simply go back to their apartments upstairs?
Father Andrew, Father Wojtek, and I discussed this. Many people are afraid of more bombs and rockets dropping on their heads. Although it seems to be quiet now, on the day we arrived in a different neighbourhood in Kharkiv, 8 people were killed, including a five-month-old child. People living in basements and subway stations are afraid of leaving because they have nowhere and nobody to return to. Some of them hope the war will end soon. One can tell that more and more people are losing a little of their resolve each day. “I spoke with some boy and his parents yesterday,” Father Wojtek told us. “His whole class left. They’re now in Germany, Poland, or western Ukraine. They still call each other and participate in classes online. I asked if they had thought about leaving. They responded, ‘This is our home.’ What could I tell them?” Father Wojtek added, “For these people, our presence is very important. The fact that they are not alone, that we are here, that we shake their hands, that we hug them. This is the greatest support and help we can offer these people.” After three months of war, I easily understand Father Wojtek, and I know these aren’t just empty words. I spent half a day in Kharkiv, and I can tell he truly gives himself to his work, that for those people in need, he became a true brother and sometimes even a father.
On Saturday I met up with the wife of the Polish ambassador, and we went to Fastiv. Monica and her children moved to Warsaw at the beginning of the war, while her husband is the only diplomat besides the apostolic nuncio who stayed in the bombarded capital. In Warsaw, Monica was very involved in the aid for Ukraine, mainly with the volunteers from the group Charytatywni Freta, helping the House of Saint Martin in Fastiv. Only God knows, and maybe Father Misha too, how much real help was offered thanks to her efforts. She couldn’t wait until she could finally return to Ukraine. It was truly amazing to see her joy when we finally reached Fastiv. The joy grew even greater when we were joined by Father Misha. “We’ve been talking online, we’ve been hearing each other’s voice every day since the beginning of the war while organising help, and now we can finally actually meet!” she told me in the car. After breakfast and a short briefing, Monica, Father Misha, the volunteers and I went to visit some destroyed towns. A kaleidoscope of people telling us their stories. In Makariv, we stood in front of a completely ruined and burned house. People told us about phosphorus bombs, whose explosions left fires that couldn’t be suppressed. Was it really that or rather some other kind of munition, I don’t know. But the fact remains that the houses are completely burned down. A woman pointed to a tiny heart painted on what is left of the smoke-covered wall. “My daughter cries a lot,” she told us, “because together with the house, she lost the only souvenir she had from her father who died tragically a couple years ago. He was the one who repainted her room, and everything in it reminded her of him. Now her dad is gone, and also everything he did with his own hands.” The brutality of war shows itself even in this unexpected dimension — it steals memory, family souvenirs, and other things that can’t be repurchased or rebuilt.
In Andriivka, we watched the volunteers finish the construction of the roof over the storage building that is now being turned into apartments. Next to it are ruins of a house. We spoke with an elderly couple. Amidst the burned property, two sewing machines. Monica was interested in their story. It seemed that her interest sparked a disagreement between the couple. “Why are you telling about this stuff?” the older man became irritated. “You’re not sorry for the house, just for those two sewing machines.” “I’m telling because they are asking,” the woman responded with a bit of embarrassment. However, a moment later the old man proudly showed us the place where his garage and car used to be. Everything had burned completely. Everyone here has his treasures, smaller or greater, that have been taken away from him. Another man survived the Russian occupation in basements. Originally in his own basement from which he had been physically thrown out by a Russian soldier, then later in his neighbour’s. In the next few days, he and his wife will be able to move back to their own house. Father Misha promised to get them a refrigerator. “Just a little one. The big one wouldn’t be very useful to us,” said the older man, lighting a cigarette. This isn’t the first time I’ve visited those villages, and it isn’t the first time I’ve seen that our volunteers always have cigarettes to offer the locals. Well, we have different dreams. Some dream of coffee, others of something to smoke.
Father Wojtek in Kharkiv told me that he recently sees more people who come and say, “Since we’ve been helped, we would like to offer help to others. What can we do?” It reminds me of a quote from theology classes: bonum est diffusivum sui, which means that good by its nature pours itself out. Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that God gave us not only existence and life, but also the ability to act independently and to be his coworkers. I recognise the depth of this way of thinking; when I see daily the wonderful people in Ukraine and throughout the world, I know that it’s also true. We can be God’s coworkers when we do good.
With warm greetings and request for prayer,
Jarosław Krawiec OP, Kyiv,
Sunday, May 29, 2:40pm
If you wish to provide monetary support to the Dominicans in Ukraine, this document has information on where to send money, otherwise, you can support Caritas Australia’s Emergency Ukraine Appeal by visiting caritas.org.au/ukriane.