“Where was Europe when they were bombing my city?” cries the beautiful Ukrainian actress Oksana Cherkashyna from the stage of a Warsaw theatre.
Cherkashyna is playing Natasha in 3Sisters, a modern adaptation of Chekhov’s play. Instead of Moscow, the characters are dreaming about Kyiv. Images and sounds of fire and destruction infiltrate scenes. “You are now nostalgic about Kyiv. My nostalgic family. But where were you when they were bombing my city?”
For the curtain call, the actors come back on to the stage, each holding a Ukrainian flag. Cherkashyna gives a speech. “What is wrong with this world, where another child has just died in a bombing?” she asks. “Please, put pressure on the Polish government, and other governments, to close the sky over Ukraine and shelter it from the shelling.”
By now, the audience is on its feet. “They are all so afraid that world war three will start. But world war three has already started. If you don’t stop this criminal regime, in a few years the same will be happening here,” the actress ends.
At the exit, there’s a collection for bulletproof jackets for Ukrainian soldiers. The banknotes pushed into the transparent box are 50 and 100 zlotys, the highest denomination people carry in their wallets. I’ve never seen Poles, a nation still working its way up the economic ladder, give so readily.
I’m visiting Warsaw, my home town, for just four days. In a way, it’s a relief to be here. In London, where I live, I felt that my grief for Ukraine was an exception. I didn’t see it in people’s faces or hear it in their conversations. I longed to be among those who shared my sorrow. They’re here, in Warsaw.
The city is awash 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 centre of Warsaw — is lit yellow and blue. School windows are adorned in the same colours of the Ukrainian flag. Metro stations offer free entry for Ukrainians. Online newspapers have pages in Ukrainian. Hospitals are full of Ukrainian patients. Volunteers have opened a shop offering free goods to recent Ukrainian arrivals in Mokotow, a Warsaw neighbourhood. People with a passport entry stamp after February 24 are allowed to come in and take whatever they want.
Every person I meet during my visit has been helping in one way or another. And I mean every single person.
One night, I’m in the foyer of another theatre. Two young stage managers have found mattresses left over from the set of an old production and laid them out. Actors have brought blankets and clothes, and bought what is most needed: underwear, nappies, cosmetics. Every night the stage managers bring in 20 or so people from the nearby train station. While I’m there, newcomers arrive. A woman is carrying a sleeping baby in her arms. Two little children are walking behind her in silence. Exhaustion has painted their faces white. None of them responds to a smile.
As I sit in the corridor and chat with the volunteers, one of them receives a text. “Does anyone have a helmet?” he asks, looking up. “My boyfriend is looking for one for a Ukrainian soldier.” The theatre of the absurd has become everyday reality.
“Train and bus stations are where it all starts for us,” says Daniel Drelich, who has helped organise the volunteer network at Warsaw East station and adapt a sports stadium to host refugees. When a train chugs in from a city in the south-east, volunteers welcome arrivals on the platform.
Newcomers can either find a place in a shelter, opened in several of the city’s sports or exhibition arenas, or in private homes. When I talk to one of my friends, who has already hosted a family in transit to Italy — in her daughter’s room while her daughter is at her dad’s — she gets a message from one of the housing section volunteers. Will she take in a mother with a newborn? How old? Three days.
Poles have a long history of mobilising civil society in times of crisis. During martial law imposed by the communists in 1981 to crush the budding opposition movement, people hid strangers in their flats, printed underground newspapers and illegal books at home, and created a distribution network. I remember my mother speed-reading a samizdat Doctor Zhivago at night. She was allowed only 24 hours before she passed it on.
This time it’s not Poles who are oppressed. But Ukraine has become incredibly close to Polish hearts. “It’s as if somebody was bombing Kielce,” says a friend, naming a city some 200km from Warsaw. Many Poles carry a historic memory of Russian oppression. When some relatives of my grandmother, a family with four young daughters, were deported to Siberia in the terrifying February of 1940, they were given an earthen hovel as a home. First they had to carry out the bodies of a Ukrainian family who had been starved to death there. “You will be next,” the Russian soldiers told them.
A discussion about the consumption of Russian arts is in the air. The opening of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at Warsaw’s Grand Theatre was called off — the subject is a Russian tsar and some of the cast were Russian. Polish admiration for the dissident Russian writer Joseph Brodsky is being questioned because of a vicious anti-Ukrainian poem he wrote. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is discussed not as a victim of the gulag but as a Russian nationalist. Meanwhile, poems by the Russian poet Natalya Gorbanevskaya, a critic of authoritarianism and imperialism, circulate on social media.
There were 1.2mn Ukrainians already living in Poland before the war, mostly economic migrants. Poles sympathised with their poverty and appreciated their hard work. We had served as cheap labour in western countries for decades too. We admired Ukrainians’ struggle for freedom in the 2004 Orange revolution. But we didn’t respect them quite as much as they deserved. Now Ukrainians are again Cossacks, the knights of the east. In Polish, when you call someone “a Cossack”, you are calling them “crazily brave”.
A group of mothers making sandwiches to be sent to Ukraine decorates them with slogans of the Ukrainian resistance: most famously: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.” Rough and defiant language has become a symbol of resistance. So deeply do they identify with the Ukrainian cause, Poles have adopted it too.
Ukraine is the new Poland. In September 1939, German and Soviet troops marched into Poland, bombing cities and shooting civilians in the streets and prisoners of war in camps. Though the British are convinced they came straight to our aid, in truth for a long time nobody helped us either. Then there was the Yalta conference in 1945 where 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.
Now Poles are feeling a sense of déjà vu, though this time it is not they who are dying from bombs. Protected by Nato and the EU, they feel safe. More or less. President Joe Biden reassured on his visit to Poland last week, when he called Nato collective defence “a sacred commitment” — though there were no signs of any move to set up the permanent American military base that many in Poland are hoping for.
“I despise Putin for what he’s doing to Ukraine,” Witold Jurasz, a former Polish diplomat in Moscow (2005-09) and Minsk (2010-12) tells me. “But I also can’t forgive him for what he has done to Poland. He has set back our collective clock of feeling secure. It takes three generations to regain confidence in one’s security.”
Vira Vashchuk is one of the mothers hosted in the Platerki private Catholic school. When the ventilation snapped on in the bathroom, her daughter mistook it for a siren. “She burst into tears. She thought it was another bomb.”
Vashchuk thanks me for what Poland is doing. Every Ukrainian I have met does that. And each time I think: it is actually we, and the rest of Europe, who should be thanking you. It is Ukrainians who are watching their cities turned to rubble. It is they who are dying. To shield Europe from the grim invader whose name I find it harder and harder to say.
Magdalena Miecznicka is a Polish novelist and playwright
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