Robert and Stacey Katz and their twins, Noah and Ava, outside their home in Hallowell. The family raised nearly $4,000 in four days to buy art supplies for Ukrainian children who are staying in a refugee center in Poland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

As Robert Katz watched reports of Ukrainian refugees crossing into Poland by the thousands, he was struck by a sense of familiarity.

Katz, an art professor at the University of Maine at Augusta, had crossed the border between the two countries many times during a fellowship after the end of the Cold War that brought him to the remote Carpathian Mountains. While there, he had explored his own family roots in a small village on the Poland-Ukraine border and learned details of the lives of relatives who were killed by Nazis during World War II.

The present-day images of women and children fleeing war, their husbands and fathers left behind to fight, felt both connected to that personal history and like nothing he’d seen before.

At home in Hallowell, Katz, his wife, Stacey, and their children, Shaina, Ava and Noah, thought of all that those children who’d had to flee Ukraine had lost and what might be being overlooked as volunteers rushed to keep them safe and provide them with basic necessities.

The Katz family knew they wanted to help, even in a small way.

Their idea was simple: raise money to buy art supplies for refugee children to help them process their experiences. They would “provide materials for creative expression, to explore color and light at a time of unprecedented upheaval, loss and darkness,” said Katz, who is a sculptor.


In four days, the family raised nearly $4,000 to buy art supplies for Ukrainian children who fled their homes and are now staying at a refugee shelter in Lublin, a city near the border in southeastern Poland.

The art supplies were delivered to the shelter two weeks ago.

Katz is familiar with the perilous route many Ukrainians have been taking to Lublin.

In his 1989 fellowship, he had joined a team of wildlife biologists from the Polish Academy of Science who were gathering data about the thriving wolf population in the Carpathians. He returned frequently over the next decade to make a film and work on educational projects to connect Maine students with post-Cold War research being done in southeastern Poland.

Katz had felt compelled to go to Poland when he first got the chance to explore the history of his parents’ families and try to learn more about family members who were killed in World War II. He knew little about his maternal grandfather’s family until he received a letter from a distant relative.

The relative said that while Katz’s grandfather had left Europe prior to the Nazi takeover of Poland in 1939, his parents, cousins and siblings had stayed behind.


“About your request for family history, I don’t know much, however I do know that your family had many scholars and a pack of characters right out of the paintings of our beloved Marc Chagall,” the relative wrote.  “They lived not far from the Ukrainian city of L’vov. They were, of course, all victims of economic oppression and had very little chance. …  When the German tanks rolled into their village, the Jews, young and old, became fodder for their factories, or if inept or old were sent to the gas chambers. The Holocaust consumed many members of our family,” the relative wrote.

Over seven trips to Eastern Europe in the ’90s, Katz learned that nearly all of the people in his grandfather’s village died at the infamous death camp Belzec, where in 1942 more than 434,000 Jews were killed.

That history was on Katz’s mind when he chose where to send the art supplies.

The shelter in Lublin was organized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in the Hotel Ilan, a stately yellow building with eight columns flanking the front entrance. It was built nearly a century ago as a yeshiva, or school of Jewish study, and was once known for having the best students, teachers and library. During the Holocaust, Nazis burned all of the books and  killed many of the students and faculty.

The Jewish community received the building back through communal restitution a decade ago, and a dormitory on the property was turned into a hotel. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the hotel stopped booking guests and opened its doors to refugees.

“This place had a history of this awful horror to it. Now it’s been turned into a refugee center and a place of hope and safety. There as a beautiful irony in that,” Katz said.


Most of the refugees are women and children who arrive with only the things they can carry in their arms, according to a report from National Public Radio. At the shelter, they are provided with food and medical supplies, as well as donated clothes, strollers, diapers and toys.

Noah Katz, a 16-year-old junior at Kents Hill School, has seen firsthand the joy that comes from replacing lost items for children who have been through a traumatic event. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, he collected and delivered hundreds of pounds of baseball equipment to bring to children who had lost everything in villages near San Juan.

Years earlier, Noah and his twin, Ava, had rallied their community to collect art supplies to send to elementary students at the Wyola School on the Crow Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana.

So they knew how to go about raising money for the art supplies. They set up a GoFundMe page and were pleasantly surprised to raise nearly $1,000 a day.

Money in hand, the family turned to Polish Amazon to order the supplies, which they figured out would be easier. Katz arranged for the boxes to be delivered to the home of a Polish wildlife biologist he had worked with years before.

The boxes were packed with “everything you can imagine,” Noah said – colored pencils, crayons, watercolor paints,  paper and coloring books.

“We were trying to get as many types of supplies as possible,” he said.

After the wildlife biologist delivered the boxes, the Katz family received an email from the distribution committee in Poland, which said it was “really amazing you were able to pull this off.”

“We don’t view this as a monumental project. It really is just making a small difference in the lives of a few children,” Robert Katz said. “We wish that we could raise so much more money and get supplies to refugee centers all over Poland. This is just our small way of sitting in our home in Maine and being able to help in a tangible way.”

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