An Ode to Przemsyl
A Lyrical Prose Poem

Carl Winderl

© Copyright 2022 by Carl Winderl

Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.

When Humanity’s at Its Worst . . . . . . what evil can entail.

So, I’m standing just outside the train station in the little town of Przemsyl, Poland. ( pronounced: shemma-shuh )

Today. March 25th, 2022. One month and one day since Russia invaded Ukraine, while atrocious and horrifying unimaginable acts of the invaders continue to be too too fresh in the hearts and minds and on the retinas of people all around the world.

All that puts me in the mind of Mark Twain, no stranger to ‘man’s inhumanity to man,’ as when his adolescent mouthpiece Huckleberry Finn observed, “Human beings can be awfully cruel to one another.” And I also ponder these lines from an e.e. cummings’ poem: “pity this busy monster, manunkind. // not.”

Around me here on the sidewalk between the cobblestone parking lot and the Communist-era double heavy wooden front doors, I stand a little off to the side, so I don’t get in the flow of those entering – volunteers, NGO-reps., police, military, food-and-healthcare workers, family & friends; and those exiting – Ukrainian evacuees from the war, mostly mothers, children, grandmothers . . . women of all ages escaping for their lives while their men remain in Ukraine as part of the Territorial Defence.

This morass of everso many moving human parts – no doubt everyone around the world’s oh-so familiar with, from the glut of still and video images saturated by real and imagined media outlets. Nonetheless the carnage and devastation flows unabated on screens of all sizes world-wide: featuring the fearful faces of refugee families destitute and desperately on the run for their lives.

In the midst of this stricken milieu, I stand, as a volunteer, in my yellow High Visibility vest, on it emblazoned in black block letters ENG (for English speaker, although I do struggle mightily and haltingly with Russian & Ukrainian, even though I did live for two years in Kyiv, and before that for two years in Zagreb, Croatia, where I went to language school for basic Croatian).

And my Polish is even more marginal, in spite of my bigos ancestry (hunter’s stew, heavy on the sauerkraut and kielbasa).

Oh how this polygot makes me think I’m really standing at the foot of the Slavic Tower of Babel.

Evenso, I do stand trying to look helpful, and hopeful with NCM also emblazoned in bigger black block letters on my back, identifying my sponsor organization as Nazarene Compassionate Ministries. To the evacuees and refugees ‘NCM’ might as well stand for “Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!” except my yellow vest announces loudly to them, “I am here to help!”

A lanyard hangs around my neck, sporting a white placard in Polish, Ukrainian, & English announcing my NCM affiliation and that I am officially recognized as a ‘qualified’ “Helper.”

Oh, and I also wear a sky-blue mask with the logo of the Kyiv “Dynamo” soccer team in gold adorning my left cheek – an immediate ‘tell’ to any Ukrainian that “sports-wise”: I am ‘in the know.’ And with them.

In particular on this day, I stand hopefully looking helpful, when a rather non-descript medium-size hatchback edges between two larger SUV’s. Once settled in place, the driver’s door opens, and what I would guess to be a soccer mom back in the States, slips between the cars and opens her hatchback to retrieve a folded-up stroller.

No doubt everyone today’s seen the images of Polish train station platforms where strollers, car seats, booster seats, and various baby carriers have been left for the evacuees to take as their own.

That’s the backdrop for what this vignette’s about.

After the Polish soccer mom extends the stroller upright she pushes it slowly but purposefully bumping across the cobblestones, more or less in my direction.

Behind me, two strollers are parked up against the station wall, at-the-ready for anyone to claim. She stops in front of me, just at the curb, looks at me, then over at the strollers, then back at me.

To – tam w porzadku?” (This – over there, okay?)

I don’t need to be fluent in Polish to know her intent.

Dobry.” (Good.), I brilliantly mumble through my mask.

She tips the stroller back a little, enough to lift the front wheels onto the sidewalk, then pushes it ahead to nestle it between the other two, in place, their seats facing out, her handle faces out. With the front wheels touching the wall she leaves it in place, but before walking away – she appears just a bit hesitant – to run her fingertips along the handle, as if remembering something. Then with just her index finger she traces it along the handle, lingering for one last touch.

When she turns around to walk past me, a tear slides down her cheek, which she lightly brushes aside as she passes me on the way across the cobblestones to her car.

She backs out gently, then eases her way through the foot traffic of families, volunteers in yellow and orange hi-viz vests like mine, various van and bus drivers, and the few police officers strolling among the passersby.

But the refugees and evacuees single themselves out by their furtive looks and occasional false starts as they try to figure out which way to go.

The soccer mom navigates her way to exit the parking lot while I turn to look at where now three strollers rest in place.

I return my gaze to the parking lot where two double-large city buses disgorge their cargo of still more refugees who’ve crossed the border either by foot or auto at Medyka or Budomierz. Mostly they are families, led by women and children, trailing their bags of worldly possessions crammed into their few back-packs, roller bags, and various assorted stuffed-to-the-gills plastic grocery bags, usually double- and triple-bagged, with strips of cloth woven through the handles to minimize tearing and stretching out of shape. And easier to hold onto. I know. I’ve carried many of them for them.

Many times: that’s my best ‘help.’ Along with a smile, sometimes a grin, behind my mask.

I nod to several families and point and gesture to the food trucks and tables laden with supplies and toward the many language helpers.

I step aside to let the flow pass less impeded, by me.

I notice in particular though a family of three adults: a woman about the age of the soccer mom, and an obvious grandma, two girls about 6 and 9, a pre-teen boy looking over-hard to be cool and non-plussed by it all, and a travel-weary guy, apparently the dad, exempt though from serving in the Territorial Defence, since he’s fathered the requisite three or more children.

Each family member carries much more than their weight in bags packed to the max: a back-pack, a roller bag, and at least a bag or two in the off-hand, especially the adults and the pre-teen.

But what the mother carries so differently catches my eye. In addition to her back-pack, a rollerbag, and a stuffed belly-pack strapped across her chest, with her free hand she steadies a toddler girl straddling her neck while gripping her mother’s braids.

Dorothea Lange’s timeless Depression-era b-&-w photo, “Migrant Mother,” two children at her side escaping the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, rolls across my retinas.

And that grainy image causes my mind to wander further to remember what one of the first-ever and original refugees, Moses, wrote in his book of the ‘Exodus’ about being “A Stranger in a Strange Land.” I continue my pause to recollect just how that worked out for him and his fellow evacuees.

I’m jarred out of my reverie when this new little entourage stops just to my left. I smile from behind my mask, but the mother’s eyes do not meet mine.

She’s looking over my left shoulder, at the strollers.

She finally looks at me, then chances a polite but informal “pyrvit,” (hello), followed with a chin-nod at the strollers.

I step back over to the strollers and wheel out the polish soccer mom’s to the mother and toddler, handle first toward her.

She mouths what in any language any one would know, “Diya mene?” (For me?).

I nod, and reply, “Tak” (Yes), and roll it over to her, while the rest of the family edges eagerly closer to the mother and me.

She swings down her toddler girl, deftly into the stroller, and nestles her, snugging her in, while the babusya (the grandma) produces a couple of baby blankets, as if out of thin air, to tuck her in with the universal grandmother’s touch.

The rest of the family crowds in even closer, ‘oohhing’ and ‘aahhing,’ the universal expressions of love and approbation. No translation needed now.

Tam, tam” (there, in there), in my baby Ukrainian, pointing to the inside of the station for more specific help, travel info, free rail tickets, free food and drinks, free baby and kid supplies in abundance, and places to rest. At last.

Truly, the word for the day is “Besplatno!” – (Free!).

But first I see the mother place her hands upon the handle, then with her right hand she fingers it, feeling its texture, and maybe remembering. Then looks around at her family – the babe, her little girls, the now not quite so aloof pre-teen, the agéd world-weary grandmother, and the exhausted and equally over-tired father. All seem a little less stressed.

I noticed then, a tear sliding down the Ukrainian soccer mom’s cheek, followed by another, which she doesn’t brush away but lets them flow, to roll down her cheek, unchecked, to slide down to her neck.

She grips the handle with both hands and leads her family through the olde double doors.

Assured, welcomed. Confident.

I watch them squeeze into and through the crowd inside, and turning around I step out into the parking lot, amid the mix and gaggle of the refugees, amassed in their comings and goings.

Then I notice a tear’d been sliding down my cheek, unabashed and untouched.

And I realize . . .

When Humanity’s at Its Best . . . such Good can prevail.

Part Two of Carl's Ukrainian story.  Click here.

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