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Near the Polish border, a musician plays music to welcome those fleeing Ukraine

Davide Martello, an Italian man living in Germany, plays the piano for people who have fled Ukraine at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland.
Kacper Pempel
Davide Martello, an Italian man living in Germany, plays the piano for people who have fled Ukraine at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland.

As bombs fell and people fled, pianist Davide Martello watched the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfold on TV. Unlike those racing to leave, however, Martello decided to head toward Ukraine. He put his cat in the car, hitched up his baby grand piano and began a long, 15-hour drive from his home in Germany.

"It's definitely better than staying at home in front of the TV and watching the news, you know?" Martello said.

Martello's destination was the Medyka border crossing, the busiest one between Poland and Ukraine, where a sprawling aid station had sprung up on the Polish side. Since he arrived a few weeks ago, Martello has watched as the aid station — and its needs — have grown. According to the United Nations, more than 3 million people have left Ukraine since the invasion began; as of earlier this week, more than 2 million of them had entered Poland.

"The people coming in, they need food, they need clothes," Martello said.

While speaking with NPR earlier this week, he gestured at piles of donated clothing and firewood stacked behind him. Volunteers passed out tea, food and toiletries.

Martello provided the music, playing soft songs like "Let It Be" by the Beatles and "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen. The notes he played filled the air and mingled with campfire smoke, inviting people to gather around him and listen. Sometimes they requested Ukrainian songs, which he tried his best to play.

"We people, we're made of emotions basically. We're thinkers. If we only think negative, that affects us. Our health, anything else. We need to stay positive. We need to try and think positive."

A Duet of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah'

For Martello, the experience has been especially moving. On one memorable occasion, an elderly woman held a blanket over Martello's head to shield him from the falling snow.

"She was singing with me, next to me, with the blanket on me, and it was snowing," he said. "That was a crazy moment."

For now, Martello has no plans to pack up and leave.

"People here still need some positivity, some art, music," he said. "I wish there were more musicians here, but I guess I'm the only one."

With that, it was time for him to go. A small crowd had formed, waiting for him to begin. And so, piano parked on the dirt at the Polish border, Davide Martello played.

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ayen Deng Bior is a producer at NPR's flagship evening news program, All Things Considered. She helps shape the sound of the daily shows by contributing story ideas, writing scripts and cutting tape. Her work at NPR has taken her to Warsaw, Poland, where she heard from refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. She has spoken to people in Saint-Louis, Senegal, who are grappling with rising seas. Before NPR, Bior wore many hats at the Voice of America's English to Africa service where she worked in radio, television and digital. Bior began her career reporting on the revolution in Sudan, the developing state of affairs in South Sudan and the experiences of women behind the headlines in both countries. In her spare time, Bior loves to kayak, read and bird watch.