Warsaw Diary: ‘I wanted to be in Poland, with those who shared my grief over Ukraine’

Warsaw Diary: ‘I wanted to be in Poland, with those who shared my grief over Ukraine’

“Where was Europe when they bombed my city?” Cries the beautiful Ukrainian actress Oksana Cherkashina from the stage of a Warsaw theater.

Cherkashina plays Natasha 3Sisters, a modern adaptation of Chekhov ‘s play. Instead of Moscow, the characters dream of Kiev. Images and sounds of fire and destruction infiltrate the scenes. “Now you are nostalgic for Kiev. My nostalgic family. But where were you when they bombed my city? ”

For the curtain, the actors return to the stage, each holding the Ukrainian flag. Cherkashina is giving a speech. “What’s wrong with this world, where another child just died in the bombing?” she asks. “Please put pressure on the Polish government and other governments to close the skies over Ukraine and shield it from shelling.”

So far, the audience is on its feet. “Everyone is so afraid that World War III will start. But World War III had already begun. “If you don’t stop this criminal regime, the same thing will happen here in a few years,” the actress concludes.

At the exit is a collection of bulletproof jackets for Ukrainian soldiers. The banknotes pushed into the transparent box are between 50 and 100 zlotys, the largest denomination that people carry in their wallets. I have never seen Poles, a nation still advancing on the economic ladder, so willing to give in.

I visit Warsaw, my hometown, for only 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 on people’s faces or hear it in their conversations. I longed to be among those who shared my grief. They are here in Warsaw.

The city is full of solidarity for Ukraine. The posters at the bus stops in the Ukrainian language read: “With you with all my heart.” The Palace of Culture and Science – an imposing Stalinist building that still marks the center of Warsaw – is lit in yellow and blue. School windows are decorated with the same colors of the Ukrainian flag. Metro stations offer free admission for Ukrainians. Online newspapers have pages in the Ukrainian language. Hospitals are full of Ukrainian patients. Volunteers have opened a store offering free goods for recent Ukrainian arrivals in Mokotow, a Warsaw district. People with a passport to enter the passport after February 24 are allowed to enter and take whatever they want.

Every person I meet during my visit has helped in one way or another. And I mean every person.

One night I was in the lobby of another theater. Two young set designers found the mattresses left over from the old production set and exhibited them. The actors brought blankets and clothes, bought the most necessary things: underwear, diapers, cosmetics. Every night, stage managers bring in about 20 people from a nearby train station. While I’m there, newcomers arrive. A woman in her arms carries a sleeping baby. Behind her, two small children walk in silence. Exhaustion painted their faces white. None of them respond to a smile.

As I sit in the hallway chatting with the volunteers, one of them gets a message. “Does anyone have a helmet?” he asks, looking up. “My boyfriend is looking for one for a Ukrainian soldier.” The theater of the absurd has become an everyday reality.

Umbrellas in the colors of the Ukrainian flag on the terrace of a cafe in Warsaw © NurPhoto / Getty Images

“Where are the train and bus stations it all starts for us, ”says Daniel Drelich, who helped organize a network of volunteers at Warsaw East Station and adapt the sports stadium to house refugees. When a train arrives from the city in the southeast, volunteers greet the arrival on the platform.

Newcomers can find a place in a shelter, open in several city 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 with her father – she receives a message from one of the housing sector volunteers. Will she take the mother with the newborn? How old? Three days.

Poles have a long history of mobilizing civil society in times of crisis. During the state of emergency imposed by the communists in 1981 to quell the oncoming opposition movement, people hid foreigners in their apartments, printed underground newspapers and illegal books at home, and created a distribution network. I remember my mother reading samizdat quickly Dr. Zhivago at night. She was only allowed 24 hours before she transmitted it.

This time it is not the Poles who have been oppressed. But Ukraine has become incredibly close to Polish hearts. “It’s as if someone bombed Kielce,” said a friend, calling the city about 200 km from Warsaw. Many Poles bear a historical memory of Russian oppression. When some of my grandmother’s relatives, a family with four young daughters, were deported to Siberia in the terrifying February of 1940, they were given an earthen hut as their home. First, they had to take out the bodies of a Ukrainian family who died of starvation there. “You will be next,” Russian soldiers told them.

A discussion about the consumption of Russian art is in the air. Opening of Mussorgsky Boris Godunov in the Warsaw Bolshoi Theater it was canceled – the subject is a Russian tsar, and some of the actors were Russians. Polish admiration for the dissident Russian writer Josif Brodsky is being questioned because of the evil anti-Ukrainian song he wrote. Alexander Solzhenitsyn is not talked about as a victim of the gulag, but as a Russian nationalist. Meanwhile, poems by Russian poet Natalia Gorbanevskaya, a critic of authoritarianism and imperialism, are circulating on social media.

There were 1.2 million Ukrainians who already lived in Poland before the war, mostly economic migrants. Poles sympathized with their poverty and appreciated their hard work. And we have served as cheap labor in Western countries for decades. We admired the struggle of Ukrainians for freedom in the 2004 Orange Revolution. But we did not respect them as much as they deserved. Now the Ukrainians are again Cossacks, knights of the east. In Polish, when you call someone a “Cossack”, you call him “insanely brave”.

A group of mothers who make sandwiches to send to Ukraine decorate them with slogans of the Ukrainian resistance: the most famous: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.” Rough and defiant language became a symbol of resistance. They identify so deeply with the Ukrainian goal that the Poles have accepted it.

Mural of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Warsaw’s Jerusalem Avenue © NurPhoto / Getty Images

Ukraine is the new Poland. In September 1939, German and Soviet troops marched into Poland, bombing cities and shooting at civilians in the streets and prisoners of war in camps. Although the British are convinced that they came to our aid immediately, the truth is that no one helped us for a long time. Then there was a conference in Yalta in 1945, at which the world powers decided on the fate of Poland without asking for its opinion. Poland was given to the Soviets, along with the rest of Central and Eastern Europe.

Now Poles feel déjà vu, although this time they are not the ones dying from the bombs. Protected by NATO and the EU, they feel safe. More or less. President Joe Biden assured during his visit to Poland last week, when he called NATO’s collective defense a “sacred commitment” – although there were no signs of any move to set up a permanent US 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. It has brought back our collective hour in which we feel safe. It takes three generations to regain confidence in their security. ”

Vira Vashchuk is one mothers at Platerka’s private Catholic school. When the ventilation in the bathroom was turned on, her daughter replaced it with a siren. “She burst into tears. She thought it was another bomb. ”

Vaschuk thanks me for what Poland is doing. Every Ukrainian I meet does that. And every time I think: in fact, we, and the rest of Europe, should thank you. Ukrainians are the ones watching their cities turn into ruins. They are the ones who are dying. To protect Europe from a dark conqueror whose name is increasingly difficult to pronounce.

Magdalena Miecznicka is a Polish writer and playwright

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