Together with her husband, Slovakian Chief Rabbi Baruch Myers, Chanie Myers serves as Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Bratislava. Over the past few weeks, the Myers family has welcomed a stream of Ukrainian refugees into their home. Here, she shares a letter, originally written to her friends, describing some touching moments, as well as her reflections on what it means to host refugees who have left everything behind.

To my dearest friends,

It's been really busy here, but I finally have the time to share my thoughts and feelings, along with a tiny glimpse of what you've all been part of …

I have learned more in the past two weeks than I have in my whole life. About giving and receiving. About values and priorities. About maintaining a person’s dignity and respect. And most of all, about the tremendous effect—taught to us over and over again by the Rebbe—that even a seemingly small, positive action can have.

When I was a little girl, the Rebbe spoke at farbrengen one night, saying that many of our brothers and sisters would be leaving the Soviet Union, and that they would need help, both material and spiritual.

My Zaidy (Professor Paul Rosenbloom) came home, and when he relayed this to my Bubby (Rivelle Rosenbloom), she asked what was being done in response.

“Nothing yet,” my Zaidy told her. “The Rebbe only said this an hour ago.”

Undaunted, my Bubby called the Rebbe’s staff and asked that they tell the Rebbe that she had lots of contacts, and wanted to start an organization for those leaving the Soviet Union and even suggested a name: “The Organization for Helping Russian Jewry.”

In reply, the Rebbe expressed his gratitude for her alacrity, and his support for the project as a whole. He had, however, “a few suggestions” regarding the name:

  1. When people leave behind their homeland, all they have and everything familiar, said the Rebbe, they don’t need an organization. They need friends—people who will truly care about them. So the first word of the organization should be “Friends.”
  2. Some people, he further explained, will be too shy or embarrassed to ask for help, whereas they’re not embarrassed of being refugees—a status clearly not of their making—and as such, would more likely accept temporary assistance as refugees, just to help get them on their feet again. Thus, the next word became “Refugees.”
  3. He then stated that many Jews would be fleeing parts of the Soviet Union outside of Russia, so it would be more all-encompassing, inclusive, and indeed, accurate, to replace the word “Russia” with Eastern Europe.

Thus a new organization was born, immediately joined and spearheaded by Rabbis Okunov and Levertov: “Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe,” now known as FREE, which, the Rebbe stressed, has a purely positive (as opposed to “charitable”) connotation, as all people want to live freely.

The very first “branch” of FREE was in the basement of a shul near my grandparents’ apartment in Manhattan, and I grew up first hearing about, then seeing for myself, how my Bubby dedicated her life to “her” refugees.

Her last action on their behalf, on the day before she passed away, was asking my uncle to make a call and ensure that all the refugees she knew, on a list she had brought with her, had a place to celebrate the upcoming Purim holiday.

I remember seeing her at work and thinking of her as my heroine, thinking, “Wow, she’s so lucky to be able to give and give. When I’m a big girl, maybe I can give like that one day, too.”

Chanie Myers with her father, Eli Magy, in 2019 at the dedication of the first sefer Torah to be written in Slovakia since the Holocaust.
Chanie Myers with her father, Eli Magy, in 2019 at the dedication of the first sefer Torah to be written in Slovakia since the Holocaust.

Well, guess what?

Living in Slovakia for nearly 30 years now, I’m a big girl. And Hashem has blessed me (though in ways completely beyond our understanding) to be able, in some small way, to give. To be a friend. To refugees. From Eastern Europe.

And to muster all the energy, the love, the smiles, the care, the respect and the material ability to welcome these brothers and sisters of ours, and to try to make their lives even a little more peaceful.

Our home is in our Chabad House, including comfortable hospitality suites, which we have been able to open for refugees.

They come from different cities, and the later they’ve left Ukraine, the more trauma we witness in their eyes and their stories. Not a single one of them has a regular suitcase. Without exception, they have carry-ons, and maybe a backpack or small duffle. And the kids walk in, holding a blanket and stuffed toy, a sole reminder of home and comfort.

We have an 8-year old guest whom I realized on the second day was wearing not the same clothes as he came in, but the same pajamas. Due to their frigid winters, all Ukrainians do tend to own warm clothing, and the lack thereof in this case led us to assume (later confirmed), what time of night and under what conditions he and his mother left the house. Pajamas, boots and coat, and out the door.

His mother and I have been communicating through a unique type of charades, but I understood that her husband and 22-year-old son not only had to stay in Ukraine by law, but that they were drafted to fight (neither are soldiers).

I'm not even asking what her plans are, and, to be honest, don't even know her last name, and it doesn't matter. She is a Jewish sister with nowhere to go, so here she is.

We have a family here that came separately in several cars: The father took one daughter (that week, but not now, fathers who were sole caregivers of young children were allowed out), the mother took another vehicle, and the grandmother drove alone—27 hours nonstop from Kharkov, missiles in view overhead, until she crossed the border. Why, I asked her, did you make that exhausting trip in your car and not go with your daughter?

“It’s all I have,” she told me. “It’s the most expensive thing I could take with me to sell if I need to.”

A sweet 4-year-old girl, on her first day here, was running around my living room hugging two dolls and yelling Vaina! Vaina! (“War! War!”). I commented to the mother that that’s a sad game for a toddler to be playing. She answered, “She doesn’t really know what it means. She just thinks it’s what people have to yell when they’re running fast and holding babies.”

We are hosting a family from Kharkiv, whose girls are students in the Chabad school there. At our pre-Purim celebration for women, it was announced that the Slovak government has opened Ukrainian classes, so the kids can go to school here for now. Immediately the girls—ages 10 and 11—turned to their mother and said, “No! We’re only going to a Jewish school!” Due to the kindness of our neighboring shluchim, the Bidermans, the children living with us have since started attending the newly-formed school classes in Russian in the Chabad school in Vienna.

There’s a family that lived in Ukraine in a building near the train tracks—a location universally recognized as not the poshest neighborhood. This, however, is now a guarantee that their building will remain whole, since the Russians are trying not to bomb the train tracks, in case they need the railways. Armed with this information, when the family fled, they first collected whatever food they could, stocked up their house and invited another family whose apartment had been destroyed to come live in their home, and told them: “We’re going, and have no idea where or for how long, but whatever you see, take it and use it.”

We’ve been inspired by the busloads from Zaporozhye, Odessa and other cities, which we met at the border to give food for their continuing journey. We were shocked to hear that this was their first real food in 44 hours, not only because there was no time to pack food. There was no food to pack food, and whatever they did have was left for those staying behind, who would undoubtedly need it even more.

We saw incredible rabbis and communal leaders, themselves fleeing, who would not leave without their communities and would not rest until those in their care were cared for, even miraculously arranging visas and airline tickets for orphans without birth certificates.

Where are they heading from here? No one knows. In our limited experience, most people arrive too shell-shocked to even think about the future beyond today or tomorrow, so we never ask. Most want to go back home, whenever possible. Most had 15 minutes to an hour, some less, to pack up whatever they deemed essential, and ran. So we give them a home, food, lots of smiles and friendship, and the space and privacy to just think and reshape their lives the way they see fit.

At my 14-year-old daughter’s initiative, we took the whole group shopping this past Sunday to buy clothing, shoes, sweaters, hair clips—whatever basics they didn’t find or couldn’t use in the various public collections. One of the women asked if there were any “conditions.” I said, “Yes, you should only buy something you feel pretty in.”

It was so obvious that they wouldn’t abuse the opportunity, so we just sat in a corner of the store, told them to browse and bring the clothes to us when they were finished. Their shy smiles of gratitude—and their feeling, however fleeting, of doing something “normal”—were worth far more than anything they brought home that night.

I have been forever indelibly enriched by the precious people who have come through our doors in this past month.

One family left a few days ago. I’ve only cried that much when I leave my elderly parents. My new friend couldn't stop crying either. One would think we've known each other forever. There are no words to express the depth of my feelings (especially in Russian, though I’m learning a few new words a day). Spasiba bolshoya—thank you Rebbe, for the gift of ahavat Yisrael you’ve bequeathed to us; I hope I’m worthy of passing it along.

With much love,