“Where was Europe when they bombed my city?” shouts the beautiful Ukrainian actress Oksana Cherkashyna from the stage of a theater in Warsaw.
Cherkashyna plays Natasha in 3Sisters, a modern adaptation of Chekhov’s play. Instead of Moscow, the characters dream of kyiv. Images and sounds of fire and destruction pervade the scenes. “You are now nostalgic for kyiv. My nostalgic family. But where were you when they bombed my town?
For the encore, the actors return to the stage, each holding a Ukrainian flag. Cherkashyna delivers a speech. “What’s wrong with this world, where another child has just died in an attack? ” she asks. “Please put pressure on the Polish government and other governments to close the skies over Ukraine and shelter it from bombardment.”
Now the audience is standing. “They are all so afraid that World War III will break out. But World War III has already begun. If you don’t stop this criminal regime, in a few years the same will happen here,” concludes the actress.
At the exit there is a collection of bulletproof vests for Ukrainian soldiers. The banknotes pushed into the transparent box are 50 and 100 zlotys, the highest denomination people carry in their wallets. I have never seen the Poles, a nation always climbing the economic ladder, give so easily.
I am visiting Warsaw, my hometown, for only four days. In a way, it’s a relief to be here. In London, where I live, I felt my grief for Ukraine was an exception. I didn’t see it on people’s faces or hear it in their conversations. I dreamed of being among those who shared my grief. They are here, in Warsaw.
The city is flooded with solidarity for Ukraine. Posters at bus stops proclaim in Ukrainian: “With you wholeheartedly”. The Palace of Culture and Science – an imposing Stalinist building that still marks the center of Warsaw – is lit up in yellow and blue. The school’s windows are decorated with the same colors as the Ukrainian flag. Metro stations offer free entry to Ukrainians. Online newspapers have pages in Ukrainian. Hospitals are full of Ukrainian patients. Volunteers have opened a shop offering free goods to Ukrainian newcomers in Mokotow, a district of Warsaw. People with a passport entry stamp after February 24 are allowed to enter and take whatever they want.
Every person I meet on my visit has helped in some way. And I mean every person.
One evening, I am in the lobby of another theater. Two young managers found mattresses left over from the set of an old production and laid them out. The actors brought blankets and clothes, and bought what they need most: underwear, diapers, cosmetics. Every evening, the managers bring in around twenty people from the nearby station. While I’m at it, new ones are coming. A woman carries a sleeping baby in her arms. Two small children walk behind her in silence. Exhaustion painted their faces white. None of them respond to a smile.
As I sit in the hallway and chat with the volunteers, one of them receives a text message. “Does anyone have a helmet?” he asks, looking up. “My buddy is looking for one for a Ukrainian soldier.” The theater of the absurd has become a daily reality.
“The train and bus stations are it all starts for us,” says Daniel Drelich, who helped organize the network of volunteers at Warsaw East station and adapt a stadium to accommodate refugees. When a train arrives from a southeastern city, volunteers greet the arrivals at the platform.
New arrivals can either find a place in a shelter, open in several sports or exhibition arenas in the city, or with private individuals. When I speak to one of my friends, who has already accommodated a family in transit to Italy — in her daughter’s room while her daughter is at her father’s — she receives a message from one of the volunteers in the section lodging. Will it welcome a mother with a newborn? How old? Three days.
Poles have a long tradition of mobilizing civil society in times of crisis. During the martial law imposed by the Communists in 1981 to crush the nascent opposition movement, people hid strangers in their apartments, printed underground newspapers and illegal books at home, and created a distribution network. I remember my mother was quickly reading a samizdat Doctor Zhivago the night. She was only cleared 24 hours before passing it on.
This time, it is not the Poles who are oppressed. But Ukraine has become incredibly close to the hearts of Poles. “It’s like someone bombing Kielce,” said a friend, naming a town about 200 km from Warsaw. Many Poles carry a historical memory of Russian oppression. When my grandmother’s relatives, a family of four young girls, were deported to Siberia in the terrifying February of 1940, they were given a dirt hovel as a home. They first had to transport the bodies of a Ukrainian family who had died of starvation there. “You will be next,” the Russian soldiers told them.
A discussion about the consumption of Russian arts is in the air. Mussorgsky’s Overture Boris Godunov at the Grand Theater in Warsaw was canceled – the subject is a Russian tsar and some actors were Russian. Polish admiration for dissident Russian writer Joseph Brodsky is challenged because of a vicious anti-Ukrainian poem he wrote. Alexander Solzhenitsyn is not described as a victim of the gulag but as a Russian nationalist. Meanwhile, poems by Russian poet Natalya Gorbanevskaya, a critic of authoritarianism and imperialism, are circulating on social media.
There were 1.2 million Ukrainians already living in Poland before the war, mainly economic migrants. The Poles sympathized with their poverty and appreciated their hard work. We had also served as cheap labor in western countries for decades. We admired the Ukrainians’ struggle for freedom during the Orange Revolution of 2004. But we didn’t respect them as much as they deserved. Now the Ukrainians are again Cossacks, the Knights of the East. In Polish, when you call someone “a Cossack”, you call them “crazy brave”.
A group of mothers preparing sandwiches to send to Ukraine decorate them with Ukrainian resistance slogans: the most famous: “Russian warship, fuck you”. Crude and defiant language has become a symbol of resistance. They identify so much with the Ukrainian cause that the Poles have embraced it as well.
Ukraine is the new Poland. In September 1939, German and Soviet troops entered Poland, bombarding towns and shooting civilians in the streets and prisoners of war in camps. If the British are convinced that they came straight to our aid, in truth, for a long time no one helped us either. Then there was the Yalta conference in 1945 where the world powers decided the fate of Poland without asking its opinion. Poland was given to the Soviets, along with the rest of Central and Eastern Europe.
Today, the Poles have a feeling of deja vu, even if this time it is not them who die under the bombs. Protected by NATO and the EU, they feel safe. More or less. President Joe Biden reassured during his visit to Poland last week, when he called NATO’s collective defense “a sacred commitment” – although there is no sign of any decision to establish the permanent American military base that many in Poland hope for.
“I despise Putin for what he is doing to Ukraine,” Witold Jurasz, a former Polish diplomat in Moscow (2005-09) and Minsk (2010-12), told me. “But I can’t forgive him for what he did to Poland either. It has rolled back our collective clock of feeling safe. It takes three generations to regain confidence in one’s safety.
Vira Vashchuk is one mothers received at the private Catholic school in Platerki. When the ventilation went off in the bathroom, her daughter took her for a siren. “She burst into tears. She thought it was another bombshell.
Vashchuk thanks me for what Poland is doing. All the Ukrainians I have met do this. And each time I think: it’s actually us, and the rest of Europe, who should be thanking you. It is the Ukrainians who see their cities reduced to rubble. They are the ones who die. To protect Europe from the sinister invader whose name I find it increasingly difficult to pronounce.
Magdalena Miecznicka is a Polish novelist and playwright
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