A letter from Warsaw

A letter from Warsaw

Ukraine and Poland have a long (and strained) history. In the face of a common Russian adversary, few mention the past

In Warsaw, May is usually the kindest month. Poles bust out of hibernation to visit the city’s freshly verdant parks, bicycles swarm the streets as if fleeing a kicked hive, and sidewalk cafés pop out of nowhere to quickly fill as daylight lingers late into the evening.

Returning this month to a city where I’ve lived intermittently as a U.S. diplomat since the 1980s, I found the place still crackling with the same springtime energy as before. But it is a city now transformed by war, refuge, and an undercurrent of fear as Putin’s war in next-door Ukraine grinds into its fourth month.

Warsaw’s international airport teems with arrivals and departures of foreign-aid workers, military personnel, and adventure seekers of every kind. I had arrived from Vienna, where mask wearing is still much in evidence, to a city with nary a mask in sight on its crowded streets and buses. Former defense minister Tomasz Siemoniak told me that most Poles have simply stopped paying attention to COVID (though low-grade infections continue apace) to concentrate on the war’s more pressing urgency. “Now we have a new infection to fight,” Siemoniak said. “Putin!”

Now an opposition leader in parliament, Siemoniak takes quiet pride in Poland’s central role in providing refuge to an estimated 3.5 million Ukrainians and facilitating NATO’s massive resupply of the Ukrainian military. He acknowledged the effort puts Poland at some risk, but it is a risk he said Poles are ready assume.

“If Putin succeeds in Ukraine,” he said, “we’re next in line, so we must do all we can to help them.” He jokes that Poland’s border town of Rzeszow, which hosts the bulk of newly deployed U.S. troops and is a hub for Ukraine support, has become a kind of “Polish Peshawar,” comparing it to the Pakistani city’s central role in coordinating resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

If Putin succeeds in Ukraine, [Poland] is next in line, so we must do all we can to help

Until recently, it would have been difficult to imagine Poland as a hospitable refuge for so many of its neighbors. In 2016, Poland’s normally fractious parliament voted 432–1 to declare Ukrainians guilty of genocide in the deaths of tens of thousands of Poles in the disputed Volhynia region in 1943 and 1944.

Since then, the nationalist politicians who run Poland’s governments these days have repeatedly conditioned good relations with Ukraine on atonement for the killings. More recently, the Polish government heavily militarized its border with Belarus to block the transit of Middle Eastern refugees the Lukashenko regime has been attempting to push into Europe.

Today, in the face of a common Russian adversary, few mention the past, as Polish society embraces the millions of fleeing Ukrainians. Warsaw’s population alone has surged by about 20 percent with the influx, and it is impossible to miss them. Ukrainian women with towheaded kids are everywhere—single moms out running errands with no one else to look after their children.

One Polish friend told of riding a crowded bus a few days earlier with an obviously exhausted young Ukrainian mother juggling a cranky baby and a toddler in her lap. A pair of skinheads on the bus accosted them, screaming that “Ukrainian pigs” need to “get out of our country.” At once, some passengers on the bus—old and young alike—leapt to the woman’s defense and hounded the thugs off the bus at the next stop, as others rushed to comfort her and her children.

The Polish government works feverishly to take care of the refugees by, for example, guaranteeing free health care and public transportation. But it is the quiet tales of personal sacrifice that make the deepest impression.

The Polish government works feverishly to take care of the refugees, but the quiet tales of personal sacrifice make the deepest impression

My taxi driver Jacek rushed to the border several times a week for the first two months of the war to join hundreds of other private drivers to ferry Ukrainian refugees across Poland for free. Young professionals have moved back with their parents and turned over their apartments to refugee families. Restaurants offer free meals to any Ukrainian who’s hungry. A retired diplomat is mobilizing Polish industry to prepare to support Ukrainian reconstruction. And schoolteachers are pooling their own money to hire Ukrainian speakers and buy Ukrainian books to help teach the throngs of refugee children who show up at school not speaking a word of Polish.

One Polish-American couple I’ve known for 30 years who live in a small apartment in downtown Warsaw have already hosted six strangers (and their pets!) since the outbreak of the war. Among their current guests are a gay couple—a doctor and a choreographer who managed to escape from Bucha with their lives in the wake of the mass slaughter there.

Despite the lingering effects of PTSD after seeing their neighbors brutally murdered, they pitched in to work upon arrival in Warsaw, cooking, cleaning, and running errands for the household, while communicating with a rocky mix of Russian, Polish, and English. Meanwhile, the couple has activated their business networks to collect thousands of zloties for Ukrainian relief.

With the passage of time, Poles are getting used to the crisis. The influx of refugees has slowed, but with surging inflation—now running at 12 percent on average, but as high as 80 percent for fuel—people are wondering anxiously where this is headed. How long can they accommodate tens of thousands of Ukrainian kids who don’t speak Polish in schools this fall? How long will the health care system withstand the surge of refugee patients? And how long will they be safe from Russian revenge for Poland’s facilitation of massive arms shipments to the Ukrainian army?

With the passage of time, Poles are getting used to the crisis

Despite these anxious doubts, Poles largely agree on one certainty that comforts them: U.S. leadership and support. New U.S. Ambassador Mark Brzezinski has been everywhere in the country assuring Poles with the simple message that Poland is both “safe and protected,” which he has backed up with a steady stream of high-level visitors over the past two months—including the president, vice president, multiple Cabinet secretaries, congressional leadership, and most important, a doubled U.S. military presence on Polish soil. The high-intensity engagement has gone far in erasing longstanding worries that America would abandon Poland, as Poles believe so many allies had in the past.

The war in Ukraine has obviously changed Poland, but it also puts into sharp relief the qualities of which Poles say they are proudest: boundless hospitality, defiant good humor in the face of adversity, and a spirited devotion to underdog causes.

The war in Ukraine puts into sharp relief the qualities of which Poles say they are proudest

On my last night in Warsaw, I walked more than three miles after dinner back to my hotel. It was a cool and breezy evening, and tens of thousands of people were on the streets to participate in Warsaw’s annual “Night of the Museums,” when museums, the presidential palace, and government ministries open their doors to the public. The atmosphere on the streets was vibrant and unceasingly good-humored, leaving a lasting impression that despite the pile of troubles on its doorstep, Poland will be okay as it does more than its part to help its Ukrainian neighbors. After all, it has survived much worse in its tortured history.