Three weeks ago, Gary Wasserson wasn’t aware he had relatives in Ukraine, let alone that he’d be there when they fled the country to Poland.
“It seems like a year has passed in a week,” Wasserson said.
The Montgomery Country businessman recently returned from an eight-day trip to Poland and Ukraine, where he organized an extraction team to help five of his cousins leave Lviv, Ukraine, and enter Poland.
“When I looked at their eyes when I met them at the border … they had that same blind stare that you saw in the concentration camp survivors when they were liberated,” Wasserson said.
The family was relocated to Krakow, Poland, where Wasserson rented them a home to stay temporarily.
During his brief time in Eastern Europe, Wasserson, with the help of his daughter’s partner Kevin Rowell, a disaster relief specialist, organized a network of volunteers and nonprofit leaders to build a “structured grassroots efforts” to help extract hundreds more Ukrainians, both Jews and non-Jews.
A WhatsApp group originally with four members has ballooned to more than 200 people. Now back home, Wasserson has been receiving hundreds, if not 1,000, texts a day. He hasn’t gotten more than four hours of sleep since the endeavor started. Wasserson’s wife, Ellen, describes their home as “Grand Central Station” in all its busyness.
Wasserson learned of his cousins in Ukraine from Steven Blotner, a relative whose father was interested in family history. Blotner reached out to Wasserson shortly after Russia
Blotner and Wasserson’s original plan was to raise money to send over to the family members; Wasserson initially invested $100,000 in the effort. But after an hour of pondering how else to help out, Wasserson was struck by the similarities of the situation to World War II, when many Ashkenazi Jews were trying to cross borders to escape from authoritarian rule.
“This is a ‘never again’ moment,” Wasserson said. “I can’t leave anybody behind, whether they’re Jewish, Muslim, Catholic — I don’t care. We’ve got to do everything we can to get as many humans to safety as possible.”
While at the border, Wasserson witnessed families, mostly women and children, waiting in a five-kilometer line for three-and-a-half days to cross the border. What Wasserson didn’t see was a tremendous effort by organizations and government bodies to lead the extraction or evacuation efforts.
“There’s no government showing up here. There’s no Red Cross; there’s nothing,” Wasserson said.
Particularly for the women whose husbands were drafted into the military, human trafficking threats loom, Wasserson said, increasing the urgency of extraction efforts.
According to Rowell, who helped coordinate efforts back home, efforts to evacuate in Ukraine have been tenuous.
“The situation in Ukraine was, at the time, devolving quickly,” he said. “With the randomness of the Russian assault, it was very hard to understand what life would be like, especially in the major cities from day to day.”
Relief efforts in times of war rarely feel successful, Rowell admitted. For the dozens of Philadelphia-area friends or community members reaching out to the family, finding ways to help can feel insignificant or futile, he said.
Donations to relief organizations in Ukraine have gone toward transportation, housing, medical assistance and personal protective equipment, as well as protective flak jackets, according to Rowell. For those donating money, it can be difficult to see where their dollars are going.
“I can’t stress it enough. It’s not about the individuals. It’s not about us,” Rowell said. “It’s about the fact that if everyone gets in and pushes, we can save everyone. We can get everyone out of there.”
Wasserson has also worked with U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, a Jewish Democrat representing Pennsylvania’s 7th District. Wild was in Rzeszow, Poland, the weekend of March 5 with members of a bipartisan congressional delegation.
One of Wild’s constituents, Alla Kligman, reached out to Wild, saying that she, too, had relatives in Ukraine, who Wasserson eventually helped extract.
Kligman also has connections to an orphanage in Ukraine, which was home to 600 children, which Wild is taking responsibility for extracting and relocating.
“My office has been working relentlessly with the Department of Defense and the State Department and DHS (Department of Homeland Security) to make sure that we can get these children here to the United States,” Wild said.
Wasserson has promised additional financial help.
However, for a large-scale extraction, some elements are out of an individual’s control. According to Wild, there has been extensive contact with the Ukrainian embassy about extracting the orphans. The Department of Defense has to work to find temporary, short-term housing for them, likely on a military base.
“It’s one thing for a group of private citizens to want to do good and do the right thing,” Wild said. “It’s another thing altogether to try to make it happen by literally getting all of the pieces in place.”