Confronted by a shocking Russian invasion of a neighboring country, the Polish government and Polish society-at-large had offered and are currently extending tremendous amounts of help to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees pouring in daily.
One hundred and twenty Polish hospitals opened their doors to treat wounded or sick Ukrainians for free, Health Minister Adam Niedzielski told news portal Wirtualna Polska.He added that a medical train, staffed with caregivers and sanitary supplies, would be “made from scratch” and deployed.
On Sunday, such a train arrived in Warsaw, bringing mostly women and children to the Polish capital.On Monday, a special Ukrainian language edition of Gazeta Wyborcza, working with Ukrainian outlet Ekspres, containing all the information refugees might need was distributed at the eight processing centers opened by the government. All offering hot meals and medical care to those seeking shelter in Poland from Putin’s aggression.
Every day Poles flock to the border to offer help with transportation, food, and money in such great numbers Przemyśl Mayor Wojciech Bakun begged people not to come unless they are coming to help specific people they already know.
His concerns were amplified by human rights activist Anna Alboth, who turned to social media on Monday and explained that, unless one has specific skills as a translator or humanitarian aid professional, there is no need to show up in person.
“There are enough drivers for now,” she wrote, “there is enough food and blankets.”She suggested those eager to help donate to professionals who are already on the ground. Among them are the Polska Akcja Humanitarna and the Polish Red Cross (PCK).
The reasons behind this outstanding principled support, which cuts across all political and social divisions in the country, must be addressed if we are to fully appreciate just how different Poles view things when compared to Western or Israeli perspectives.
For starters, when the Russian army bombs Volodymyr, Ukraine, Poles living in Hrubieszów can hear the boom and see the smoke. Hrubieszów currently hosts 250 refugees in its sports center, Ben Koschalka reported for Notes from Poland.
The other factor at play is a deeply rooted Polish romantic notion that when Poles fight, they do not do it only for their own sake, but also to aid others.
Michigan University Prof. Brian Porter-Szucs noted in his remarkable 2000 study When Nationalism Began to Hate that 19th-century Polish revolutionaries genuinely believed rank and file Russian soldiers would join them in the fight for a more democratic society against the corrupt and brutal Russian Czar.
Coined during the 1825 Decembrist Revolt, the slogan “For Your Freedom, and Ours” had been repeatedly used by Polish fighters in the fight against Fascism during the Spanish Civil War and by Jewish Labor activists (Bundists) who stood against the nightmare Hitler imposed on the Jewish residents of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust.One of them, Marek Edelman, would be a tremendous force for Polish humanitarian efforts, thanks to his brave work in war-torn Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Today, there is no doubt that, for Poles, the current Russian-Ukrainian War is a clear-cut situation of a free society defending its right to exist against a totalitarian system.
Poles are not alone in this emotional, intuitive understanding of the conflict. From the Israeli Opera, which now begins performances with an expression of solidarity with the people of Ukraine, to the Shibuya district of Tokyo, where thousands stood shoulder to shoulder against Moscow’s policy, most people today denounce the Russian invasion.
YET, FOR Poles, who only recently regained the freedom to discuss the crimes they endured at Soviet hands, this current state of affairs is tainted with fear those in Tel Aviv or Tokyo do not share. From the Nazi-backed invasion and partition of Poland to the Katyn massacre and the transportations of entire families to the East, Poles have endured much and are right to be deeply concerned.
“What is there to assure us Putin would not be able to form a puppet regime in Ukraine in a few years?” Pawel, a good Warsaw-based personal friend asked.
“The Russian military is already in Belarus,” where talks between Russia and Ukraine are now being held, “then it would be our turn.”
Israelis who live in Warsaw and Poles who live in Tel Aviv have opened their respective homes, raised money, and stood in protests in support of Kyiv’s brave stand against a tragically much larger opponent.
While Poland, as a culture, is deeply connected to the West, Warsaw always suspected that when it warned Paris, London, Rome, and Washington against Russian plans to harm them, it encountered disbelief.
Indeed, when Jan Karski brought evidence to Washington that the Nazis are committing crimes against humanity in occupied Poland, he was suspected of attempting to gather sympathy for Poland with outlandish claims.
Likewise, the Katyn massacre was disbelieved when news of it first leaked out. Even earlier, when British reporter Gareth Jones exposed the Soviet-planned starvation of Ukraine, he was faced with allegations he was exaggerating.
Poles point to the success of the 1980’s Solidarity movement in changing Poland from a Socialist state backed by the USSR to Western democracy. This transformation was achieved without bloodshed, and many assert this was attained when so many everyday people became members of the new way of doing things, turning the tide was no longer an option but a certainty.
The entire free world, a term so outdated it might lift an eyebrow among more cynical readers, is hoping the combined pressures of public opinion, economic sanctions, material aid, and regular people, including thousands of Russians, opposing the bloodshed will be enough to stop a possible new czar being born.
If this is not attained, it is feared future generations would inhabit a similar mindset to that described by Teresa Toranska in her masterful collection of interviews Them: Stalin’s Polish Puppets.
In it, she brought to the reader the perspective of those Poles who accepted the notion that, if Poland is to survive, it must bow down to its powerful Eastern neighbor.From Jakub Berman to Stefan Staszewski, they argue Poland cannot and will not survive if it does not do as Russia wants.
The best it could hope for, they said, is to negotiate while understanding its allegedly real position.The remarkable thing a reader would notice now is how each moral argument is squashed by a cynical form of Realpolitik.
When Toranska points to how she and her family lost their homes in Vawkavysk (now Belarus) due to this acceptance of Russian interests at the expense of Polish ones, she is met not with sympathy but a survivor’s logic: Be thankful this is all that was lost, without our efforts, things would have been much worse.Indeed, Wojciech Jaruzelski claimed that by imposing martial law, he saved Poland from a planned Russian invasion, similar to the 1956 one endured by the Hungarians.
In the 1980s, the Orange Alternative got started in Wroclaw by Waldemar Fydrych, Poland’s answer to Abbie Hoffman. It offered imaginative ways to poke communist ideology, which appealed to young students and made their parents, at least many of them, smile in agreement.
In our own times Polish gaming company CD Projekt Red, which turned the Witcher game series into a global hit, gave PLN one million (around $220K) to help Ukrainian refugees.
This symbolic fusion between the visually stunning fantasy world first imagined by writer Andrzej Sapkowski and the dark designs Russia has for Kyiv, it reinforces the moral call for action right now, for killing monsters.
The writer previously worked for Polish Radio, is a founder of the Israelis in Warsaw Facebook group, and currently works at the culture department of the Polish Institute in Tel Aviv. The views expressed here are his own.