Notes from War-torn Ukraine

Fr. Jarosław Krawiec, O.P. wrote this Christmas greeting on December 22, 2022. It is a humbling tale of the struggles and incredible faith of the people of Ukraine through the eyes of a Dominican friar.

Translated from Polish:

Dear sisters, dear brothers, I never thought that one could long for lights. When I got off the Kyiv train in Warsaw, I was surprised by the festival of brightly lit streets, buildings, and, above all, colorful Christmas decorations. When you add to it the snow that just fell in Poland in abundant supply, it all looked like a New Year’s fairytale. In Ukraine, the last couple months have been getting colder and darker. The longer this lasts, the more I squint my eyes in disbelief when looking at the bright streets and storefronts as well as entering warm houses and priories abroad.

On the day of Saint Nicholas — which in Ukraine is celebrated on December 19 following the Eastern calendar — a new Christmas tree was officially unveiled in the center of Kyiv. It was placed, as in previous years, on the square in front of the Saint Sophia Cathedral, the oldest and most important Christian church in Ukraine. The Christmas tree is much more modest and 60 feet shorter than last year. There is no market place surrounding it, which  in Ukraine used to be a necessary element of the “New Year holiday,” as Christmas is frequently called here.

Over the last couple weeks, a great discussion has been taking place in Ukraine on the subject of whether Christmas decorations and trees should be displayed in public places during the time when so many millions of people suffer daily because of war and lack of power. The opinion is divided. The mayor of Chortkiv, a small city in western Ukraine where the Dominicans have been present for over 400 years, had already announced in mid-November that: “This year, the Christmas tree and New Year celebration in the city center will be canceled!” To avoid misunderstandings, he immediately added that the most important thing is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and the decorations and loud festivities can wait until the war is over. Many people think similarly.

The capitol decided differently. “We must have the Christmas tree!” stated the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko. “Our children should be able to have festivities! Despite the fact that the Russian barbarians are trying to rob Ukrainians from the joy of Christmas and New Year.” I understand the opponents of Christmas trees, but my position is decisively closer to the attitude of the mayor of Kyiv. I heard the opinion of a frontline soldier who was unhappy that his children would be deprived of Christmas. “But this is exactly what we are fighting for, a normal life for our families!” he argued.

Near the Kyiv Christmas tree, I spotted a strange contraption. Cement blocks that until recently had been positioned across the street as a barricade were now painted red, and large eyes were attached to them. It’s part of an artistic project called “Children shouldn’t see the war,” whose authors want to spare the youngest inhabitants of the city the painful experience of seeing a landscape of war during the holidays. This is important since Kyiv now hosts a couple hundred thousand people who have escaped from destroyed cities and villages. This is also the way in which the initiators of this project want to raise funds to help children who have lost one of both parents as a result of the war. Sadly, this number is also growing daily.

Amid war, doves replaced lights on Ukraine Christmas tree.

This year’s Christmas Eve will mark exactly the tenth month of war. On February 24 we all woke up in Ukraine early in the morning to the sound of air raid sirens, explosions, text messages, and phone calls from the terrified friends and family members attempting to find out if we are okay. On the evening of December 24, billions of Christians around the world will begin the celebration of the birth of Christ. This number will include a handful of Roman Catholics in Ukraine, since a majority of the citizens of the country are Christians of eastern traditions and begin celebrations two weeks later. War, however, is causing many of them to demand with increasing intensity the transition to the “Gregorian calendar,” and the bishops of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which is independent from Moscow and led by the Metropolitan Epiphanius, are allowing some parishes to celebrate Christmas together with the western world.

This Christmas will be a different one, quieter and wrapped in darkness. Even if we tried to forget for a moment about the hard times and lose ourselves in Christmas shopping, visiting, and decorating, we can’t. Many people have lost their jobs and are in a very difficult economic situation. They will not be able to afford a plentiful Christmas table and gifts. Apart from this, for the last two months there has been a shortage of power and light. Some people have power only periodically; others, like people from Antonivka, don’t have it at all.

Ukraine’s children and the trauma of war.

Antonivka is a village outside of Kherson, with a huge bridge connecting the shores of the Dnieper River that was first attacked by the Ukrainian army and then by the Russians. We delivered humanitarian supplies there two weeks ago. The bus with boxes of food was unloaded very quickly. The village is located right on the bank of the river, and on the other side is the Russian army.

“My friends, don’t stay in groups. Do not create a gathering, so that drones won’t detect us and start shooting,” yelled the ladies coordinating the distribution of humanitarian aid. A couple hours earlier, artillery had destroyed a nearby house, and we helped an older woman get out of her basement and transported her to a safer location. While Father Misha talked with the inhabitants of Antonivka, I saw tears in their eyes. They cried out of disbelief that someone came to them. This is another time that I realized that one of the worst things in war is the feeling of being abandoned. I remember the first days of fighting around Kyiv, when Maryna had asked me to bring supplies to a single mother of a son. When we were leaving the woman had asked, “When it gets really bad, will you help me? Will I be alone?”

The war taught me that the best thing I can give to my neighbors is not things, money, shelter, wise homilies or comforting words, but my presence. It doesn’t take a war, however, to know how bitter the taste of loneliness is and how much it means to give oneself as a gift. Many people don’t need anything from us, but they long for us, for our presence.

David is 14 and, for the last year and a half, has been living with his older brother Roland at the House of Saint Martin. He had arrived here when his health got worse and the doctors hadn’t given him good chances of survival. God’s plans were different though. In Fastiv, he was able to recover enough to be accepted into one of the best children’s hospitals in Ukraine and to survive a serious many-hour-long operation. He recently came back to Fastiv. I know how much heart, care, and persistence Vera put into the fight for his life and health. I was not surprised to see her joy after a successful operation.

“It’s a real miracle,” she said. It is the best Christmas gift for all of us. When Vera, Marzena, Roland, and I took David to the pre-operation room, we passed Scott Kelly a couple times in the hospital corridor; he’s an American astronaut who is helping to raise funds for the victims of war. He’s the undisputed record-setter for the longest stay in space. God has a sense of humor, so maybe in this way, that Sunday evening in Ochmatyd, the Kyiv hospital, he gave us a sign from heaven that David will be okay? When we sit down for the Christmas Eve traditional meal after the appearance of the first star in the sky, it’s sometimes good to look around because this Star of Salvation can appear in another man. To see it, however, one probably needs a little bit of a child’s sensitivity and hope.

“Love is very womanly, faith is very manly, only hope is still like a child. Only thanks to this hope will the Christian commandment begin to be fulfilled: You must become like children.” (Franz Rosenzweig)

On the night before Christmas, people in Ukraine sit down to a festive supper. The Holy Evening, which is what they call Christmas Eve here, gathers the whole family at the table. One of the customs still practiced here is the tradition of leaving an empty space at the table for an unexpected guest. I am convinced that this year there will be many empty spaces at tables. In many families, men and women fighting on the front lines or serving as doctors and corpsmen will be missing. There will be tears of pain remembering the dead, missing, and imprisoned. There will also be phone calls to those who had to leave their homes and are far away from their loved ones. This will be a very difficult Christmas.

Ukrainians are a singing nation. They sing in churches and at home. I’m sure there will be no shortage of Christmas singing this year. Father Misha told me they used to sing a Christmas Carol in his home that was officially forbidden in the Soviet Union, titled “Sad Holy Evening of 1946.” It tells the story of the tragic times after the Second World War when the communists were conducting mass arrests and deportations of Ukranians to Siberia. The carol ends with the call to God:

Jesus our God,
reach down to us.
Let us see all our loved ones,
around the holiday table.
To those killed fighting,
our heros,
grant, merciful God,
eternity in your kingdom.
Sad Holy Evening,
in nineteen forty-six
across our Ukraine
crying everywhere.

Dear sisters, dear brothers, I feel like thanks to these letters describing the daily Dominican life in Ukraine, we have become close to each other. You’ve gotten to know our names and the places where we serve. We also carry you in our hearts, in our minds, and in our prayers. We are grateful that you are with us, that you support us and those we serve.

In this symbolic way, I would like to follow with you the Ukrainian and Polish traditions, break the host and share the kutya, wishing each other a true peace. Recently Sister Damian brought a great cake for the children she teaches catechesis. After all, Christmas is the memorial of the birthday of our Savior! Let’s not be sad and disappointed, but always full of “hope that cannot fail” (Rom 5:5). Let us celebrate the coming of the Lord with joy.

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