Leaving Ukraine: Former Refugee Polina Spirt’s Story


Polina Spirt

I woke up last night barely being able to breath, hearing sounds of bombs and ammunition. Luckily, I was in my own bed in Pikesville, and it was only the news blaring in the background. 

Born in Odessa to two parents who both lived through the horrific German invasion and  massacre of 1941 – all the stories I’ve grown up with came rushing back. These past two weeks have triggered memories that many of us have wanted to forget and never imagined that we would be reliving again in our lifetime.   

In 1975, I too was a refugee, seeking asylum from the oppressive, antisemitic, dictatorship of the former Soviet Union regime – the difference, I was not fleeing a country under attack. Nevertheless, the anguish of leaving behind loved ones, with no money to your name, and all your worldly possessions, seems almost unimaginable to me today. 

I still wonder, how we muscled the courage to do it. However, looking at my fellow Ukrainians today, I now know the power of my countrymen and women – we are made of fortitude and grit.    

My parents passed these traits down to me because of what they had to endure. Under German and Romanian control in 1941, my mother fled Odessa as the troops surrounded the territory. My grandmother, put both her daughters on a train in hopes of making it to Uzbekistan, however their voyage was filled with horrific events. It was only because of the kindness of others, as well as luck and timing, that kept these three alive.   

Polina Spirt

My mother’s experience was not unique. My father, who lived seven hours north of Odessa, became an orphan at age 12 when the Nazis invaded his small town. The terrors that he experienced are unimaginable – seeing his grandparents hung and his parents shot. And, only thanks to his older cousin, he too escaped and survived – also put on a train to seek refuge.    

Both taught me, to never forget and to retell the stories so history wouldn’t repeat itself. But here we are, again, in 2022. I have been asking myself daily – what will we do to make sure that children are not orphaned, and wives and husbands are not separated or widowed. What will we do to prevent the pain and the tears?   

The one thing that I know for certain, just like my Jewish community helped my family when we immigrated, I know that we will be there for the thousands of Jewish Ukrainians trying to find safety and peace. The kindness of others, and the deep-rooted Jewish values that have been ingrained in the blueprint of my family and in the blueprint of our community continues to be evident.  

Our Baltimore community and Jews around the world have heard the call to action. So let us not forget that history cannot repeat itself and we need to continue to be there for those who need it most.   


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