Poles Step Up for Ukraine Refugees

The two nations have a long and not always friendly history. But the invasion and the waves of refugees have changed the way Poles perceive Ukrainians, especially against the backdrop of Russian imperialist aims

Poles Step Up for Ukraine Refugees
Women and children who had just crossed into Poland from Ukraine are fed in a tent shelter on a freezing day in the border town of Medyka on March 7 / Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Every hour of every day, a five-note bugle call known as the Hejnal can be heard from Krakow’s main cathedral. The midday performance has been broadcast on Polish radio since 1927, making it a Polish national symbol. On March 3, those tuning in to the radio or those finding themselves on Krakow’s picturesque main square heard something special before the Hejnał: the first verse of the Ukrainian national anthem.

Fittingly titled “Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished,” the name is familiar to Poles, whose own anthem is called “Poland Has Not Yet Perished.” Poland’s solidarity with Ukraine echoed from the bugler’s horn across Krakow’s square, where massive Ukrainian flags are draped over the square’s immaculately renovated Renaissance façades.

Across Poland and beyond, Poles have shown an almost unthinkable level of solidarity with and compassion toward their eastern neighbors fleeing Russia’s brutal invasion. “It’s like everybody is united for Ukraine,” one friend told me. “We understand that we might be the next to suffer.”

About 1 million people have fled to Poland since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. The government, lacking the resources or infrastructure to help settle these refugees, has called on Polish society to do all they can to help. And help they have.

On the day of the invasion, the Facebook group “Help for Ukrainians” was created. Within a few days it had over 400,000 members, with over 10,000 posts a day. People request transfers from the border, housing for themselves or people they know, offer childcare for parents who need to work and much more. This group is just one of countless examples of how Polish society has mobilized to help Ukrainian refugees — largely women and children — streaming into their country day after day.

“It’s a matter of necessity,” Tomasz Cebulski told me over the phone while driving to the border with Ukraine. “For a lot of people, it was just an impulse to do the right thing at the right time.” Cebulski was on his way to pick up some friends of friends who were fleeing. They were only arriving in the evening, so he would ferry six unknown refugees back to a town near Krakow in the meantime.

Cebulski’s case is perhaps even more common than the anonymous help being provided over platforms like Facebook or on the ground near Poland’s eastern border. Since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, over 1 million Ukrainians have gone to Poland to study and work, taking advantage of relaxed visa requirements and a Polish economy hungry for cheap labor.

Before Feb. 24, this could be felt at Krakow’s main bus station, where a massive billboard simply reads “Work for Ukrainians” in Polish and Ukrainian with a phone number alongside. Since then, the bus station and the adjoining train station have been transformed. There is now a large reception center inside where exasperated and tired refugees, as well as those who simply look happy to be safe, are offered warm drinks and other essentials.

Even before Russia’s renewed invasion, Ukrainians were an integral part of Poland’s social fabric, filling many roles in society Poles themselves traditionally fill for western European countries. But for Poles it was more than that. Ukrainians became friends, colleagues, family. “By now everyone knows someone from Ukraine,” Agnieskza Sadecka told me. “So it really touches close to home.” Like so many Poles nowadays, Sadecka is hosting a Ukrainian woman and her children.

Similarly, Bartosz Pawlowski, whose aunt is Ukrainian, said, “You would have to be super isolated not to have any Ukrainian friends or relatives.” While it may be a slight exaggeration — especially as Ukrainians have thus far been concentrated in cities — it is true that the deep connections made between the two societies have made Ukraine feel much closer than it once was.

The two countries have had a troubled history. Interwar Poland had an enormous Ukrainian minority that they tried to “Polonize.” In other words, the minority’s culture and language was suppressed. During World War II, Ukrainian ultranationalist organizations were responsible for the mass slaughter of thousands of Poles, which many Poles feel amounted to genocide. Many of the figures involved in these massacres have been celebrated as national heroes in Ukraine in recent years, straining Polish-Ukrainian relations.

After World War II, Poland fell under the Soviet sphere of influence, and Stalin forcibly moved its border several hundred miles westward, transforming Poland from a multinational state into one of the most homogeneous in Europe. Ukrainian-Polish relations de facto ceased to exist.

Up until the 21st century, there was “not much of a reference point for Ukrainian-Polish relations other than World War II,” Pawlowski told me. He is from Warsaw, and his family has likewise welcomed a Ukrainian family into its home. “The reason [Poles] get involved is that everyone knows someone from Ukraine. … We feel their tragedy. It’s in the atmosphere; you can feel it clearly.” He does not see history as an obstacle to moving forward. Quite the contrary. He thinks that “Ukrainian identity will be thoroughly reformed by the events post-2014,” and by extension, so will Polish-Ukrainian relations.

There is evidence for that in how the Jewish community in Ukraine and abroad has responded to the war. For many Jews from Ukraine, the very notion of Ukrainian nationalism conjures up images of the Holocaust and the suffering the Jewish people endured at the hands of the same ultranationalist militias that killed so many Poles. But seeing Ukraine led in such a moment of crisis by a Jewish president in Volodymyr Zelenskyy has changed their relationship with Ukraine and Ukrainian nationalism almost overnight.

The same is true for Poland. Adam Boniecki, editor-in-chief of the Polish Catholic weekly magazine Tygodnik Powszechny, wrote in its latest issue that “in the place of the old, bad memory [of Ukraine], simple human compassion has emerged. … Our hearts opened up for those who sought shelter, safety and human understanding in our country.” Everyone, he wrote, has “gathered together in solidarity. And in this terrible time solidarity is most precious.” Even the government finally stepped up, announcing a bill on March 7 to legalize the stay of Ukrainian refugees, giving them access to healthcare and schooling as well as paying those hosting them.

That everyone in Poland is gathering together to support Ukraine and Ukrainians may seem like a slight exaggeration, but it isn’t. Every Polish person I spoke with expected some level of support and solidarity in the event of a Russian assault on Ukraine. But, as Sadecka put it, nobody expected “the scale of it, this kind of overwhelming response that has been really huge.”

Sadecka is a lecturer at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, Poland’s oldest and most prestigious university, which provides a fantastic example of the full-scale mobilization of Polish society in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe. In the first days, she told me, the university was focused on helping Ukrainian students enrolled at the university get out of Ukraine safely. Some lecturers volunteered to pick them up from the chaotic scene at the border.

“Very quickly,” she said, “we started observing these more widespread, collective actions.” As much as the university itself has been doing to help refugees fleeing Ukraine, various faculties and individuals at the university have quickly set up their own initiatives. Old dorms are transforming into housing for refugees, language teachers are volunteering to help with translation, and other buildings are now collection points for donations to help those in Ukraine and in Poland. Even international students who have fled Ukraine will be able to finish their studies at Polish universities, though the logistics of this promise have yet to be worked out.

This is a microcosm of what has been happening not only at universities across the country but in nearly every social organization. Schools offer another example. “Pretty much every school in Krakow, as far as I’ve heard, has some sort of activities for Ukrainian children,” Sadecka told me. They need to, since the Polish government has pledged every Ukrainian child can attend Polish schools. Polish state TV broadcaster TVP has also stepped in to help Ukrainian children, running programs in Ukrainian on its channel for preschoolers.

Similarly, TV channel TVN24 has added a Ukrainian section to its website that provides information for those coming to Poland on where to cross and what to do once they arrive. Ukrainian TV channels can also be streamed from their website. Those who arrive and open up Jakdojade, an app used to buy tickets for public transport, will see an alert in Ukrainian at the top of the screen reminding them that Ukrainians can ride free. The same is true on Polish railways, where a Ukrainian passport has become a ticket for unlimited travel.

Even private companies have stepped in to help. The country’s largest car rental company, PANEK Car Sharing, announced the day after the invasion began that it would set aside 1,000 cars for transport from Ukraine. Volunteers signed up to drive the cars, and the convenience retail chain Circle K footed the bill for the fuel.

Prior to Russia’s invasion, Polish officials estimated 1 million Ukrainians might seek refuge in Poland if Russia were to launch a full-scale offensive. That figure was disputed by many observers, as was the Polish government’s stated readiness to accommodate such a large number of refugees.

Another is that people around the world were quick to accuse it of turning away non-white people at the border when people of color struggled to enter Poland in the initial days of the invasion. It later became clear it was the Ukrainian border guards that were prioritizing Ukrainians. Poland has been allowing everyone fleeing Ukraine to cross. Some have nonetheless been met with racist harassment by Polish far-right hooligans, encouraged by disinformation being spread on social media.

Somewhat paradoxically, for years under its current right-wing government Poland has been the EU’s top issuer of residence permits to non-EU nationals. Most are Ukrainian, but tens of thousands of people from India, Bangladesh and other non-European countries have settled in Poland in recent years as well. Poland is not as homogeneous as it once was, nor is it the closed-off society that many people seem to think it is.

That being said, Poland’s overwhelming humanitarian response has not been borne entirely out of altruism.

Much of Poland’s sympathy for Ukraine is rooted in the country’s own fear of Russia and what a Russian conquest of Ukraine would mean for Poland. As Jakub Jaraczewski, a researcher at Democracy Reporting International, put it: “The Polish drive to help Ukrainian refugees and support the country in its battle against Russia is a mix of natural compassion, enmity towards Russia and Polish sentiment towards ensuring that nations to the east of Poland must be democratic, free and independent.”

Not long ago I turned on the TV to see how TVP was covering the invasion and saw a clip from a speech that Poland’s then President Lech Kaczyński gave in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 2008 on the last day of Russia’s invasion of that country in which he said: “Today Georgia, tomorrow Ukraine, the day after tomorrow — the Baltic States and later, perhaps, time will come for my country, Poland.” This may have seemed alarmist at the time — especially to Western Europeans — but Poles have long feared what a renewal of Russian imperialism might mean for their country.

“There has been this centuries-long fear of Russia [in Poland],” Cebulski said. “This is something we have been trying to communicate with our partners for decades, and sometimes they viewed us as lunatics.” Now, there is “a profound sense of ‘we’ve been right all along,’ ” Jaraczewski said.

For centuries, Poland was one of Europe’s most powerful states. Mostly it was as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which joined together the Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania in a single noble democracy. Most of today’s Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states were part of it. Over the centuries Russia slowly encroached on its territory, first taking over most of Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltics and eventually Poland.

Cebulski was keen to point out the shared history of Poles and Ukrainians in the commonwealth, saying, “It was a much longer and broader period of unity and living together, and resolving conflicts together, than the period of division” in the 20th century.

In a sense, the fact that Ukrainians are once again integral to Polish society as compatriots rather than strangers is a return to how many think it should be, despite nationalist protestations from both sides of the border. Likewise, it is largely the community of Ukrainians who came to Poland following the events of 2014 that has made it possible for Poland to accept such a large influx of refugees today, both emotionally and in practical terms.

One of the institutions in Krakow that has become a makeshift reception point for aid is Nić café and bookstore. In normal times it already served as an unofficial cultural hub for young Ukrainians in Krakow, with its sizable library of Ukrainian books. Nowadays it feels like an extension of Ukraine. Bags upon bags of military gear and medicine — the only items being received there — fill the corridor leading up to it, and in the garden in the back hangs a massive Ukrainian flag. The café no longer feels like a café but like some sort of tactical information center. Ukrainians within Poland and beyond have been helping their fellow citizens — whether they are friends, family or strangers — settle into their new surroundings.

The level of compassion, solidarity and unity Poles have displayed thus far has been exceptional. But the country cannot sustain this state of exception forever. The day-to-day realities of what Poland faces have yet to sink in for most. But some are already worried about what comes next.

“As a scholar, I know this kind of enthusiasm may also end at some point,” Sadecka said. “People may be fatigued by providing aid, because that’s usually the case.” She does not mean material aid but the kind of emotional challenges inherent to hosting refugees from an active war zone.

There are also fears that the right-wing Law and Justice government that currently rules will exploit the crisis for its own gain. “I absolutely expect the Polish government to play the current situation as a card in its conflict with the European Union on the rule of law,” Jaraczewski said. Since late 2021, the EU has been blocking coronavirus recovery funds from reaching Poland because of the government’s breaches of the rule of law. “The narrative will be: We’re facing a massive crisis and need money to handle refugees, energy prices, defense, zloty [the Polish currency] losing value — and you’re chasing us around because of some imaginary rule of law problems?”

This issue has faded into the background for now, but blatant attempts to exploit the situation for the government’s benefit could sour the otherwise commendable efforts of Poland as a whole. “Poles are always good to act together in a crisis, but when it comes to longer-term unity and solidarity, that is a little more problematic,” Sadecka said. Everyone else I spoke with expressed similar sentiments, pointing to a flood in 1997 and the Smolensk plane crash in 2010 that killed Kaczyński as moments when Polish society momentarily came together before people returned to their bitterly divided camps.

Jaraczewski takes a slightly different view. He sees the existential threat of Russia as so great to Poles that “there’s a rather high chance of them remaining united in the duty of wariness against Russian advances and supporting other Eastern European countries which might soon face a direct threat from Russia.” Whether Poles are able to sustain their sense of unity and how they will cope in the long term with the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians they have welcomed into their homes is yet to be seen, but there is plenty to be optimistic about.

Ukrainian flags are displayed in the windows of bookshops, cafés, theaters, museums, and other establishments. And posters advertising “Help for Ukraine” or “Aid for Ukraine” with information on where donations can be dropped off are even more prevalent. A local antique bookshop has replaced the entire display case with books about Ukraine and Lviv. Shows of solidarity with Ukraine both small and large are everywhere.

At Krakow’s largest stadium, a huge collection point has opened where dozens of city employees unpack and organize the countless donations. On each of the packages, there is a sticker with the message, “A Gift From the Residents of Krakow.”

Barely a 10-minute walk away, the department of international and political studies at Jagiellonian University has also been converted into a collection point for donations. In normal times, students would be rushing through its doors to class, friends would be sharing cigarettes out front, professors would be chatting in the café. Now volunteers organize toilet paper, bottled water and canned food to send eastward or to various reception points for refugees in Krakow.

Poland is not at war, but it does not quite feel at peace either.

The Polish government has deployed the slogan “Poland first to help,” reminiscent of how Poland was “first to fight” in World War II. Then, it was Poland fighting an aggressive imperialist Germany with no neighbors to help. Today, it is Ukraine facing an aggressive imperialist neighbor, but Poland is one of many countries ensuring the Ukrainians will not have to stand alone, even if the fear of nuclear war precludes direct military involvement.

Of the support Poles have shown to Ukraine and Ukrainians throughout this crisis, Ukraine’s ambassador to Poland said it “will stay in our hearts forever.” After 11 days of war, “we lost our older brother, which was Moscow, but we regained our sister, Poland.” Historians will look kindly on the compassion displayed and self-sacrifice offered by Poles to their neighbors in need. They may even say that this was Poland’s finest hour.

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