Julia Ovcharenko stood on a long platform at Warsaw’s West Station with her four-year son Daniel on Saturday, eagerly waiting for a bus to arrive from Ukraine with a special package from her husband.
“He’s sending us paint for our Easter eggs,” Ms. Ovcharenko said with a smile. “We’ll try to have some traditions.”
Like millions of Orthodox Christians around the world, Ms. Ovcharenko would normally be spending this weekend painting eggs and preparing a special meal for Easter, which is on Sunday. But her family has been torn apart by the war in Ukraine.
She, Daniel and her mother, Helena Volkord, left the family’s home in Kyiv shortly after the Russian invasion began Feb. 24. They’ve been living in Warsaw ever since and while Ms. Ovcharenko has found a home and work as an architect, she knows Orthodox Easter won’t be same this year. “At least we’re together,” she said hugging her son. “This is the most important. We hope that we will be back together as a family soon.”
Easter is the most important date on the Christian calendar and it’s supposed to be a celebration of life, renewal and hope. That message will take on even more significance this year as Sunday marks the second month of the war in Ukraine.
There had been calls from the World Council of Churches and United Nation’s Secretary General Antonio Guterres for a halt to the fighting over Easter weekend, which is also celebrated in Russia. But no truce could be reached and Russia has stepped up its attacks in an effort to seize control of much of eastern and southern Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials have issued a curfew from 7 p.m. on Saturday to 5 a.m. on Sunday across most of the country, effectively ruling out late-night Holy Saturday masses.
For many Ukrainians living in Poland – which has taken in more than one million refugees since the start of the war – Easter will be bittersweet this year and some want nothing to do with the celebration.
“It’s not possible to celebrate because of the war,” said Elena Derzhynytska, as she prepared to board a minibus to Lviv at the West Station. “People are dying. Normal people will not celebrate.”
Ms. Derzhynytska left her home in Dnipro, in central Ukraine, on March 11 with her eight-year-old son Amir. After arriving in Poland they went on to Frankfurt, but she couldn’t find work in Germany and she struggled with the culture. She also had a falling out with her husband, Shadi al Sadeik, who had relocated to Frankfurt earlier. They are now in the midst of a divorce and Ms. Derzhynytska said she wanted to be home in Ukraine helping her neighbours. As for Easter: “I won’t be celebrating.”
Vira Vierodina also had little enthusiasm for the holiday. She’s from Kharkiv, which has been under almost constant bombardment from Russian forces, and although she has been living in Poland for a couple of years she has family and friends in Ukraine who are just trying to stay alive.
“We feel a lot of emotion,” she said Saturday as she stopped to chat with a group of refugees in central Warsaw. “We feel a lot of hatred,” she added referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ms. Vierodina said she would struggle to go to church this Easter knowing how angry she feels about the war.
There were signs in Warsaw of some Easter joy. The main food market, Hala Gwardii, held a special Ukrainian food festival on Saturday with several Polish chefs cooking a variety of Easter specialties. A group of 15 women refugees also assembled in a downtown square and sang popular Ukrainian songs, including the upbeat tune “As In Our Ukraine” by singer Kateryna Buzhynska.
The women came together through social media and they only met each other on Saturday, explained Olha Bennyk, one of the singers. They wanted to raise money for the Ukrainian army and as they sang one woman asked people passing by for donations.
“At least we feel like we are doing something,” said Ms. Bennyk, who came to Poland from Kropyvnytskyi, in central Ukraine, with her five children. She has managed to find work and a place to live in Warsaw. And she’s planning to keep as many Easter traditions as possible this weekend, including attending Saturday mass and preparing an Easter basket.
Others had more important things to consider Saturday than Easter celebrations. Tanya Smtuk and her 13-month old daughter, Violeta, were facing a 13-hour journey as they got on a bus in Warsaw that will take them to Zhytomyr in western Ukraine. Ms. Smtuk didn’t mind. She was off to see her husband Andreii, whom she hadn’t seen in a month. The family has been separated since the war began and Ms. Smtuk was hoping to return home for good. “I want to stay in Ukraine,” she said. “It’s my country.”
When asked about Easter, Ms. Smtuk shrugged. She wasn’t heading to Ukraine especially for the holiday, she just wanted to go home. As she gave her father-in-law a last goodbye hug, Violet waved and smiled. “She’s so happy because soon she will see her father,” said Ms. Smtuk.