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A building in Poland is being used for a purpose its designers couldn't have imagined

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And I'm Ari Shapiro in Lublin, Poland. This is a beautiful old city with winding, narrow streets, and there is a large building in the center of town that is impossible to miss. It is bright yellow, with eight columns in front and big carved wooden doors. It was built almost a century ago as a Jewish house of study, and today it's being used for a purpose that nobody who designed this building would have ever imagined.

MICHAEL SCHUDRICH: I started looking for places where to house refugees because it was clear that Putin was going to do something.

SHAPIRO: This building has been through a few transformations in its life, and Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, started laying the groundwork for its most recent rebirth a few weeks ago, before Russia invaded Ukraine.

SCHUDRICH: And I said, I prefer to have places for people to shelter and nothing to happen than not to be prepared and have a disaster.

SHAPIRO: Better to be overprepared than underprepared.

SCHUDRICH: Right. But I, and almost the rest of the world, never dreamt that Putin would actually do what he did.

SHAPIRO: As he looked for places that Poland's Jewish community could have as Ukrainian refugees, the rabbi in Warsaw thought of this grand yellow building in Lublin. In the 1930s, this was a renowned center of study. The Lublin yeshiva had the best teachers, the best students, the best library, and then the Holocaust nearly obliterated Poland's Jews.

SCHUDRICH: The vast majority of the students were killed, and most of the library was destroyed. And then the Jewish community received the building back as part of communal restitution about 10 years ago. And the question was, what are we going to do?

SHAPIRO: They decided to restore the old synagogue and turn what used to be a dormitory into a working hotel. Today, the sign on the facade of the building says Hotel Ilan, feel the tradition. But two weeks ago, this hotel stopped booking tourists and corporate groups.

Wow. We've just walked into the basement, and there are boxes and boxes of clothes. There's strollers. And there are a bunch of teenagers volunteering, folding up clothes for the Ukrainians who are going to arrive with very little, whatever they were able to carry.

AGNIESZKA LITMAN: There were conferences here in this room. This is a conference room.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

LITMAN: And then just in two days it was changed into, like, this huge place where we help people.

SHAPIRO: Agnieszka Litman (ph) is a 28-year-old volunteer surrounded by piles of clothing stacked five feet high on the tables around her.

LITMAN: They need all the basics. We also have some toys for kids just to make their lives a little bit better, a little bit more fun.

SHAPIRO: There's a little girl playing with a stuffed toy doggy while her mother finds shoes to try on, little boots.

Volunteers tell us about 100 people come through here each day. The hotel has 40 rooms, all full, so the staff also help refugees find other rooms in town. One recent arrival is a 48-year-old woman named Neham (ph), who asked us to only use her first name. She's still trying to comprehend the way her life has transformed in the last week.

NEHAM: We thought that we will stay there, that we can't leave Kyiv. One woman from community phoned us and told that we have a bus from Kyiv till the hour and half.

SHAPIRO: She had 90 minutes to get to the bus that was leaving from the synagogue in Kyiv. She took her 18-year-old-daughter, her husband and her elderly parents.

NEHAM: And forgot documents and forgot the money and forgot all of the things. I had the only passport in my bed.

SHAPIRO: Birth certificates, diplomas, all left behind.

NEHAM: My father is an invalid (ph), and he is very, very sick.

SHAPIRO: The bus left Kyiv at a crawl. Police frequently stopped them and took Ukrainian men of fighting age off the bus. Her husband was allowed to stay on the bus because he's an Israeli citizen. The ride that's usually five hours took 18 hours. And when they reached the border, they waited in line another 12 hours in the freezing cold.

NEHAM: Amazing. Amazing. It is amazing that we are alive till now.

SHAPIRO: How is your daughter?

NEHAM: Not good. She's afraid very much.

SHAPIRO: She was valedictorian and got into a prestigious university in Kyiv. Now she doesn't know if she'll ever be able to attend.

The staff at the hotel are still doing the same jobs they did when paying guests were staying here. Anastasia Beretski (ph) works behind the bar, and she is also Ukrainian. She came to Poland in 2017 to study. Hearing about what these refugees have gone through makes her afraid for her own family. She begins speaking in English and then switches to Polish with our colleague interpreting.

ANASTASIA BERETSKI: My mom, she said, all is OK. We are safety. But I know that it's not true. Today I am speaking with my mom, and she said to me (speaking Polish).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: OK, so she's supporting her family, and family is supporting her. And they're trying to convince each other that everything is all right.

SHAPIRO: Do you think your family will try to escape or stay where they are?

BERETSKI: No, he stay in territory of Ukraine because my mom is a nurse, and my father and my uncle want to serve his country. (Speaking Polish).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: I am proud of them, but I would prefer them to come here and stay safe.

SHAPIRO: The director of the hotel, Agnieszka Kolibska, never thought she'd be using her skills as a hotelier to help Ukrainian refugees.

AGNIESZKA KOLIBSKA: (Through interpreter) It's very hard because workers still need to get paid. We gave up a lot of money when we stopped taking big groups.

SHAPIRO: Do you connect the history a century ago with what is happening now with the refugee crisis? Do you see a kind of harmony there?

KOLIBSKA: (Through interpreter) Yes. We owe a debt. My father survived the Holocaust. I'm second-generation.

SHAPIRO: When I asked Rabbi Michael Schudrich about how he reflects on this history, I misspoke. I accidentally referred to people fleeing Poland, and he caught that slip of the tongue.

SCHUDRICH: This is one of the great historical ironies that, for hundreds of years, we are used to the stories of Jews fleeing Poland. Now Jews are fleeing into Poland, and they're safe. So...

SHAPIRO: Wow. How do you think about that?

SCHUDRICH: I try not to. It's too overwhelming. And it does show the human capacity for change, that we need to be aware of the fact that history is important but does not dictate the future. We dictate the future.

SHAPIRO: He says sometimes he has the feeling that this is the reason the building was constructed almost 100 years ago, for the purpose it is serving today. Before we said goodbye, I had one more question for Poland's head rabbi.

How long do you think you'll be doing this?

SCHUDRICH: That's a very easy answer. As long as it's necessary.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARRIS COLE'S "GONE FISHING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Courtney Dorning
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.