By Bud Haley
I was in Lodz, Poland, sitting at a breakfast table looking into the eyes of a modern-day Oskar Schindler and his fearless wife … Marcin and Dominika Sobiepanski were their actual names. My life will never be the same because of that chance encounter.
Within hours of the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the couple began a grassroots relief effort after responding to an urgent call for help from a Ukrainian employee of Marcin’s whose family was attempting to flee the conflict. Sobiepanski and other selfless volunteers — the best and brightest minds and hearts in Poland as well as the EU, who are mostly graduates of the prestigious Copernicus school in Lodz — comprise The Copernicus Group. They are opera singers, professors, artists, doctors, and the like, all of whom are volunteering 100% of their time as the driving force of the group’s Copernicus for Ukraine effort. You’d be hard-pressed to find the gritty yet creative city of Lodz on a world map. Yet it is the adopted city of surrealistic filmmaker David Lynch of Eraserhead and Blue Velvet fame.
The outpouring of support for the Sobiepanskis was immediate and overwhelming. Their house was turned into a warehouse brimming with diapers, food, feminine hygiene products, medications, baby strollers, and other supplies. Before they knew it, they were in. All in. Committed to helping their brothers and sisters in solidarity and humanity. There was no ego and there were no heroic acts among this group, just ordinary people doing extraordinary feats at a critical time in history. They rose to the occasion and are inspiring Poland. I wouldn’t be surprised if the world will soon know about their efforts, regardless of them being the most selfless and humble people I have had the honor to meet. They do not want any accolades shined upon them, they just want to see results.
When I traveled to Lodz, via San Francisco with stops in Zurich and Warsaw, I wasn’t exactly sure why I was on this journey. Something unexplained was pulling me to go to the region. I was going there because I had to … It was deep inside me. It wasn’t long before my “why” came into focus.
Why? Because of the powerful Annas in my life. My sister, Christy Anna; mother, Draga Anna; and Grandmother Anna, all with roots that began in Kiev, Ukraine. I saw their faces in so many of the resilient and proud Polish and Ukrainian women I encountered during my time there.
I had been searching for the most effective ways to help. My sister, Christy, a prominent architect out of Washington D.C., had been on the design team for several restaurants opened by José Andrés. The celebrity chef has facilitated multiple disaster relief food efforts through his World Central Kitchen, which was on the ground in Poland and Ukraine. Andrés’ effort is already an established well-funded and staffed organization, so I didn’t believe I could make the long-term impact that I was hoping to provide for the refugees in most need. I soon learned The Copernicus Group was accomplishing big lasting things, and it was the perfect fit.
Unbeknownst to me, after brainstorming a bit more, my sister had a colleague in New York City by the name of Peter Wilk who happened to be part of the Copernicus community. I was certain this is where I needed to be. Once introduced to Marcin and Dominika, I jumped on the first available flight to Poland.
After our initial meeting at their breakfast table, they reviewed the immediate needs and requirements that they saw as the most imperative actions for the most vulnerable of people — the women and children of Ukraine. Safely crossing the border from Liviv, Ukraine, into Poland, and providing lodging, medical care, food, supplies, legal assistance, counseling, and integration into society, were of highest priority. The Ukrainians are cultured and proud people; they don’t want handouts and many left home without anything but the clothes on their backs and their dignity. I witnessed traumatized people taking Polish language classes within days of arrival in their new country. It was remarkable seeing their commitment, resolve, and appreciation for their gracious hosts in the people of Poland. They all hope to go back to their homeland someday but recognize this may never be possible, so they have no other choice but to survive and forge on in life.
There were so many instances in Ukraine and Poland that impacted my life, creating an emotional toll that will stay with me forever. However, the brave, powerful, determined, passionate, selfless, and humble women of Poland and Ukraine have left a lasting imprint on my being. This cannot be overstated.
One of my most memorable experiences was driving with Dominika from the Polish border to Warsaw with a young mother named Ruslana and her two young daughters who had just arrived safely from Liviv.
Four-year-old Nika had recently undergone a kidney transplant from a donor, a 44- year-old man from Belarus. She needed dialysis treatments and had to start soon. Ruslana made the agonizing decision to leave their home as air raid sirens and missile strikes were closing in on Liviv. She could not risk staying even though little Nika wanted to remain in the only home she had ever known. On the long journey to Warsaw, which lasted into the night, Nika sang Ukranian songs like an angel from above. She relieved the stress and tension of everyone in the car and brought smiles and joy to all. She is now receiving proper medical care and her family is doing the best as can be imagined under the tragic circumstances. They will live in my heart forever.
I have traveled much of the world and never thought Poland or Ukraine would be on my horizon. I am grateful to have had the honor to help my new, lifelong friends, Dominika and Marcin, in a small way with their life-changing grassroots organization, The Copernicus Group. They are acting locally and making a difference globally. And now that I am back home, my son, Graham, and his partner, Claire Hall, have gone to Poland to also work with this amazing organization. Learn more about it at copernicusgroup.org. You can also show your support through the group’s GoFundMe campaign, Copernicus 4 Ukraine.
~ Bud Haley is a Reno/Tahoe restaurant owner and real estate developer.