Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Poles Shed ‘Old, Bad Memory’ to Express ‘Simple Human Compassion’ for Ukrainians

Reflecting the mood of the country, the Polish press has been unusually unified in support for its “eastern neighbors.”

By , a freelance journalist who writes about Central and Eastern Europe.
Children from primary and high schools hold banners and flags during a protest for Peace in Ukraine in Przemysl, Poland, on March 1.
Children from primary and high schools hold banners and flags during a protest for Peace in Ukraine in Przemysl, Poland, on March 1.
Children from primary and high schools hold banners and flags during a protest for Peace in Ukraine in Przemysl, Poland, on March 1. Omar Marques/Getty Images

Putin’s War

WARSAW, Poland—In this week’s edition of the Polish Catholic weekly magazine Tygodnik Powszechny, editor in chief Adam Boniecki wrote that considering their history, “it is difficult to find reasons why Ukrainians would love Poles.” Poland ruled over large swaths of Ukraine for centuries and as recently as the 1930s, where it suppressed expressions of Ukrainian identity. Many Ukrainians, meanwhile, collaborated with the Nazis and massacred thousands of Poles during World War II. In recent years, many of these figures have become celebrated as national heroes in Ukraine, unsurprisingly straining Polish-Ukrainian relations.

“How much it is changing now,” Boniecki, who is also a priest, wrote. “In the place of the old, bad memory, simple human compassion has emerged … our hearts opened up for those who sought shelter, safety, and human understanding in our country.”

The magazine’s entire cover, front and back, displays the Ukrainian flag and is emblazoned with the words, “We are with you, Ukraine.” The magazine calls it a “symbol of our support for the Ukrainian nation” in a note for readers. “Let our eastern neighbors see that we support them.”

WARSAW, Poland—In this week’s edition of the Polish Catholic weekly magazine Tygodnik Powszechny, editor in chief Adam Boniecki wrote that considering their history, “it is difficult to find reasons why Ukrainians would love Poles.” Poland ruled over large swaths of Ukraine for centuries and as recently as the 1930s, where it suppressed expressions of Ukrainian identity. Many Ukrainians, meanwhile, collaborated with the Nazis and massacred thousands of Poles during World War II. In recent years, many of these figures have become celebrated as national heroes in Ukraine, unsurprisingly straining Polish-Ukrainian relations.

“How much it is changing now,” Boniecki, who is also a priest, wrote. “In the place of the old, bad memory, simple human compassion has emerged … our hearts opened up for those who sought shelter, safety, and human understanding in our country.”

The magazine’s entire cover, front and back, displays the Ukrainian flag and is emblazoned with the words, “We are with you, Ukraine.” The magazine calls it a “symbol of our support for the Ukrainian nation” in a note for readers. “Let our eastern neighbors see that we support them.”

As of March 2, over 500,000 refugees have arrived in Poland from Ukraine. From the day of Russia’s invasion last week, Poland opened up its borders to all those fleeing, setting up reception points along the border to provide arrivals warm drinks and food.

This is a policy implemented and supported by the government, but Polish society has also mobilized to help, with people across the country donating food and other essentials, offering their homes as shelter, and helping refugees get away from the border. “Everyone—average people, Law and Justice supporters, oppositionists, laypeople, bishops and simple priests, local government officials and bureaucrats—have gathered together in solidarity. And in this terrible time solidarity is most precious,” Boniecki concluded.

The response in media across the political spectrum has reflected the Polish people’s unity of purpose. Jerzy Baczynski, editor in chief of the center-left weekly magazine Polityka, praised the response of ordinary Poles to the humanitarian crisis. In this week’s issue, whose cover reads “Putin’s Stalinesque war,” he wrote that Poles “have met the war in Ukraine, the humanitarian disaster, and the crowds of refugees flowing to Poland with an extraordinary response: solidarity, self-sacrifice.” This, he wrote, is thanks not to the national government but to “local governments, social organizations, companies, and private citizens.”

It is largely thanks to Russia that so much is now changing. Since the early 2000s, Poland has helped Ukraine on its pro-Western path, sympathizing with a neighboring country attempting to escape Russia’s imperial grip. “Today Georgia, tomorrow Ukraine, the day after tomorrow—the Baltic states and later, perhaps, time will come for my country, Poland.” These are then-Polish President Lech Kaczynski’s words from a speech he made at the main square of Tbilisi, Georgia, on Aug. 12, 2008. It was the final day of Russia’s invasion of Georgia, the implication of which was already clear to many countries in Eastern Europe then, even if their Western counterparts refused to accept it: Russian imperialism did not die with the Soviet Union.

As Russian missiles rained down on Ukraine and troops moved into the country, that fact became impossible to ignore. Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014 led more than a million Ukrainians to go abroad to Poland to work and study, bringing the two nations closer together than they had been for many decades. What tensions did exist between the two were erased almost overnight on Feb. 24, when Russian troops began their assault on Ukraine. Excerpts of Kaczynski’s speech have been broadcast across Poland on Polish state TV broadcaster TVP since then, reminding Poles of the prescient words of their former president, the twin brother of the leader of today’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice party. The message is unambiguous: If Poland does not help Ukraine today, it may be next.

For years, Poland and other Eastern European NATO members have warned about the dangers Russia’s autocratic President Vladimir Putin posed to the region. Now, they feel vindicated—but also terrified. A recent poll showed that 78 percent of Poles are now afraid of war, with 64 percent also fearing Poland’s own territorial integrity being affected.

The right-wing pro-government weekly magazine Do Rzeczy’s cover this week simply read “Aggressor,” above Putin’s steely gaze. Its editor in chief Pawel Lisicki wrote that the most important conclusion to be drawn from the current crisis is the importance of “strengthening the Polish army as soon as possible, above all its rearmament.” Two days before Russia’s invasion, Poland’s government sent a “homeland defense draft bill” to parliament aimed at dramatically increasing the defense budget. Now, the government may already be looking to go further in strengthening Poland’s military.

Meanwhile, the editor in chief of the even further-right pro-government Gazeta Polska, Tomasz Sakiewicz, wrote a piece titled, “For Putin, there can be no more forgiveness.” In it, he lamented that Russia had never gone through the process of “deimperialization” that Germany had and wrote, “if we forgive [Russia] again, in a few years an even bigger war awaits us, which this time will reach Poland.”

Baczynski, of the center-left Polityka, sees less of a direct threat to Poland, as it would be “far beyond Russia’s economic and military potential,” but he pointed out that “after the vassalization of Belarus, Poland has already become NATO’s front line.” This is a position Poland has tried to avoid ending up in for decades by supporting Ukraine’s Western orientation. But with the shock waves of Russian rocket strikes already being felt in Poland, it is clear that a new strategy is needed. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, for his part, wrote in an opinion piece for the Financial Times that “Russia can be stopped only by Western solidarity with Ukraine.”

That feeling and message of solidarity has overwhelmed Poland in recent days. On TVP, the presenters all wear ribbons in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, and the phrase “In solidarity with Ukraine” in the colors of the Polish and Ukrainian flags floats on the screen on every TVP channel, news or not. Round-the-clock coverage celebrates Ukraine’s fight against Putin’s “banditry,” as well as Poland’s humanitarian mobilization to help hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians seeking refuge in Poland.

Poland’s opposition press has been quick to point out the hypocrisy of Poland’s current Law and Justice government, which has been cozying up to pro-Russian politicians in the EU for years while being “at war with the democratic West” itself. That is what Newsweek Polska editor in chief Tomasz Lis wrote, adding that Law and Justice’s Poland is not “an official ally of the Kremlin, but a poor ally of the West.”

Baczynski similarly concluded that it has never “been so clear as now that Poland’s security depends on Western values and their two most important existent forms: NATO and the European Union,” criticizing at length how the Polish government has undermined the latter while fawning over an American president, Donald Trump, who threatened to destroy the former. For years, Poland’s government has fought with Brussels over the rule of law, LGBT rights, and, ironically, migration and refugees, to the point where the country has become one of the black sheep of the union along with Hungary.

Poland’s largest center-left daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, has added a Ukrainian flag to its masthead, alongside a quote from the Polish Pope John Paul II that serves as its slogan: “There is no freedom without solidarity.” There is certainly no shortage of solidarity in Poland. But will that be enough to stop Putin’s westward march?

Luka Ivan Jukic is a freelance journalist who writes about Central and Eastern Europe. Twitter: @lijukic

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