“Earth, do not cover my blood” — Finding a way to Ukraine

Reporter Gregg Brekke journeys to Ukraine via Poland, visits with a Ukrainian refugee and walks the grounds of a former Nazi extermination camp.

Bełżec death camp memorial in Poland. An estimated 500,000 Jewish people were killed here between February and December of 1942. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

This article is the first in a series of dispatches from Ukraine. Follow Presbyterian Outlook or sign up for email updates so you don’t miss a story.

As a journalist often working internationally, I’ve learned not to plan too far ahead when on assignment. There are so many factors contributing to plans changing on a moment’s notice: transportation options, peoples’ availability, power outages, conflict, etc.

We arrived in Krakow, Poland, on Monday. It’s now Friday (February 3, 2023), and today we’ll journey into Ukraine via Slovakia. I’m on assignment – primarily as a photographer and videographer – with Chris Herlinger of Global Sisters Report and National Catholic Reporter. I’ll be sending some dispatches to Presbyterian Outlook as well.

Svetlana Kruchinska is from Eastern Ukraine and has lived in the guest house of Dominican Sisters in Krakow, Poland, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Our reporting objective is to tell stories of how people of faith have endured the war and continued to minister to people since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

We’ve spent the last three days preparing a tentative itinerary for Ukraine. For security reasons, we’ll be sharing updates after we’ve left a city. If anything written here seems vague it’s on purpose, but who doesn’t love a cliffhanger?

Beyond the extended game of planes, trains and automobiles, we’ve seen a bit of Krakow, visited a Ukrainian refugee in the city and spent time at a WWII-era death camp that was set up during Germany’s occupation of Poland.

First, Krakow seems to be a great city – modern in every way and less “Soviet” looking than many Eastern-bloc cities. Much of the pre-Soviet architecture remains and is reminiscent of other European cities I’ve visited like Paris and Frankfurt. Although the main soccer stadium stands a reminder of the USSR’s building influence, there are few other signs. Food options are plenty with international variety including American, Indian, Italian, Middle Eastern and more. Of course, a meal of traditional savory pierogis with sour cream was a priority and well worth the search.

On previous trips, Chris had met Svetlana Kruchinska, a Ukrainian refugee living in a Dominican Sisters’ guest house in Krakow. Kruchinska arrived shortly after the Russian invasion from Eastern Ukraine. A teacher in Ukraine, she has sustained herself with domestic work since her arrival. She calls it her reverse Cinderella: “I lived a charmed life in Ukraine and now I clean houses,” she said with a chuckle.

Ever hopeful for a return to her currently occupied city, she recently began work as an assistant at a Montessori school. Yet she worries. Her daughter Aroslana remains in Ukraine as a soldier. Though they talk twice a day, Svetlana says the anxiety over Aroslana’s safety never truly leaves her.

Yesterday we drove to the site of the Bełżec Nazi extermination camp. Lesser known than Auschwitz or Treblinka, Bełżec was not liberated by Allied forces — it was the third largest death camp in Poland. The site is a memorial to the estimated 500,000 people killed here.

Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

The entrance leads to a flat 200-yard path dug into the hillside with walls ascending on either side as we processed toward the memorial wall. There was a slight smell of sulfur and burned coal in this trench – pollution from a nearby factory – which increased the ominous nature of walking the same path Jewish people were forced to walk on their way to the gas chambers. Our driver – who has visited several Holocaust memorials – called the experience “spooky.” I agree.

The feeling of being crushed increased with each step as the walls climbed to 40 feet on either side of the path, releasing into an open area with names etched into a covered grotto and the main wall – reaching up 60 feet – engraved with the words from Job 16:18 in Hebrew, Polish and English: “Earth, do not cover my blood; let there be no resting place for my outcry!”

Climbing out of the grotto – again, where the gas chambers were located – we discovered another installation of the site. Dates, along with corresponding city names from where trainloads of Jewish people were transported, are highlighted around the quarter mile permitter of the memorial, beginning with “II/III 1942” (February/March 1942) and ending with “XII 1942”(December 1942). Dozens of cities around Poland and Northern Ukraine, which at the time was part of Poland, remember the cities that lost their Jewish populations because of the Nazi’s “final solution.”

It was surprising to read the camp remained operational only from February to December of 1942. The museum contains communications between Nazi officials on the efficiency of Bełżec’s operations. A display translates a letter from the camp commander to Heinrich Himmler, the lead architect of Hitler’s plan to exterminate all European Jews, in January 1943, saying over 465,000 Jewish people (along with an unspecified number of Roma “Gypsies” and other supposed enemies of Nazi Germany) had been exterminated and the camp would close, with all traces of its activities destroyed.

Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

The reason for the death camp’s closure was simple, he said. There were no more Jewish people left to kill in Poland.

Although the camp structures were destroyed, remains of those killed burned to ash, and the land plowed and replanted with trees, future excavations would find caches of discarded clothing and shoes from those executed, Star of David armbands and remnants of the gas chambers.

As we watch the news of the war in Ukraine and plan our trip accordingly, these reminders of callous dehumanization and unimaginable cruelty resonate in my mind and heart, and I pray history does not repeat itself.

Responsive prayer

“Earth, do not cover my blood; let there be no resting place for my outcry” (Job 16:18)

Eternal God, lover of justice, hear our cries for mercy on behalf of the people of Ukraine, and all those who suffer the brutalities of oppressive, warring regimes. Our earth has known too much blood. May souls warped by the lust for power be realigned. May people who have been cruelly treated know healing, peace and reparations.

And lest we excuse ourselves from foreign, faraway atrocities, we pray for the courage to look within and reckon with our own shameful, terrifying past — the genocide of Indigenous peoples, the institution of American slavery, the subjugation of Black people through terrorizing, sanctioned violence (all studied and emulated by the Nazi regime).

Lord, have mercy upon us. Our siblings’ blood cries out from the ground. May we repent of our sins, remember the suffering, and commit to the hard work of your kin-dom to come. And may we do all of this while we carry your grace, acceptance and forgiveness — a true gift.


Prayer by Outlook Editor Teri McDowell Ott