SPRINGFIELD, Massachusetts — On March 7, Catholics in western Massachusetts listened to the words of Jesus in the day’s Gospel reading from Matthew: “For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink.”
This is just what a Catholic business owner from Hadley and his parish pastor were doing for Ukrainian refugees crossing the border into Poland.
“I feel it’s the least I can do,” Paul Kozub, founder of Hadley-based Valley Vodka Inc., told iObserve, the online news outlet of the Springfield Diocese, in early March as he got ready to go to Poland.
He traveled there with Father Piotr Pawlus, pastor of Most Holy Redeemer Parish in Hadley, and the priest has plans to go again in late June to help these refugees.
During their March trip, Kozub and Pawlus spent several days providing money, food, water, clothes and other items to women and children who had fled their home country as Russian forces continued to attack military, commercial and residential areas.
“It was shocking and moving when we heard the stories of civilians being bombed,” Kozub said in an interview March 10 from Poland, after three straight days of distributing the aid.
A lifelong Catholic of Polish ancestry, he had arrived there with $5,000 to donate to the relief efforts and pledged to donate $1 from each bottle of V-One Vodka sold during the month of March to refugee assistance. While in Poland, he and Pawlus also visited Kozub’s V-One Vodka distillery in Kamien, about 100 miles from the Ukrainian border.
“We hope it will be a signal that people care about them,” said Kozub.
He added that the refugees are scared and some said Russian reports warned them that their children would be taken from them if they crossed into Poland.
But on the contrary, the refugees have been welcomed and supported by both the Polish people and the Polish government, said Pawlus, a native of Poland. “I’m proud to be Polish right now,” he said.
He and Kozub stayed at Pawlus’ home parish of St. Martin in Radziechowy, his hometown. The parish had taken in more than 20 refugees, who were living in the parish rectory and a pilgrim house next door to the church, and the parish was expecting 10 more refugees March 10.
“They have come here because of the bombs,” said Pawlus. He recounted the story of one woman who said she wanted to stay in Ukraine with her husband and die with him there.
Both Pawlus and Kozub said they were moved by the volunteers and support coming from the United States. Kozub said he met a young man who flew to Poland from Texas to help, and a young Polish-speaking woman from Seattle who is serving as a translator.
Both Kozub and Pawlus spoke about encountering two men who were renovating an apartment building and a hotel where they welcomed 80 refugees. Kozub said he “literally went door to door there, handing out money.”
They also spoke about providing support for an orphanage that is two hours from the Ukraine border and is run by Polish nuns.
During their third day of helping refugees crossing over the border, Kozub said volunteers could not get to the border itself and processed people at an old mall about one mile from the border. But he is undeterred in his desire to help the people of Ukraine. “I want to repay God for all he has given me,” he said.
For Pawlus, the response to the refugees’ needs illustrates a comment made by St. Teresa of Kolkata: “There is never an evil that God cannot bring some good from it.”
He said people of faith must be “angels” to support the Ukrainian refugees.
“The people are terrified, they are losing faith,” he said during the March 10 interview. “We try to restore faith. We are doing God’s work here. Volunteers are coming from around the world. … It’s amazing.”
Despite the evil of the attacks on Ukraine, Pawlus said that, in the volunteers, “we also see the goodness. The light of faith will destroy the darkness.”
Of the Ukrainian people, Pawlus said, “Their spirit will not be broken.”
After previously sending $10,000 in aid to Poland to help Ukrainian refugees, his parish in Hadley has now raised an additional $18,500 to be sent to organizations in Poland that are helping refugees and also sending aid to Ukraine. The religious education students at his parish also planned to hold a car wash to raise money for Ukraine.
When he travels to Poland again at the end of June, Pawlus told iObserve, it will a longer trip this time and he plans to “help as much as I can.”
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Editor’s Note: A video interview with Kozub and Pawlus can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uoc3qyo1d44.
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Drake is editor/news director of the Catholic Communications ministry of the Diocese of Springfield.