On the border, war leads to reconciliation

Media Fellowship

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war is transforming the once-strained relationship between Poles and Ukrainians.

Woman plays with child in school

PRZEMYŚL, Poland—In just seven months, decades of tensions between Poles and Ukrainians are fading away.

Lila Kalinowska, a 42-year-old Polish resident of Przemyśl, a city in southeastern Poland with a population of around 60,000, remembers the summer of 2016 when Polish nationalists attacked a Ukrainian Catholic procession in her hometown.

“Przemyśl is known as a xenophobic town with an anti-Ukrainian atmosphere,” Kalinowska told National Journal from Przemyśl’s Ukrainian House, which organizes events and assistance for refugees. “Ukrainians were discriminated against here.”

Now, under 10 miles from Ukraine’s border, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war is transforming the once-strained relationship between neighboring countries.

Przemyśl has long been home to a population of at least a few thousand Ukrainians. Members of the Ukrainian minority lived in Poland for generations, where they continued to speak Ukrainian and maintain their cultural traditions. But they were also the object of deep animosity.

Poles often pointed to an infamous massacre at the end of World War II when Ukrainians killed thousands of Poles in Nazi-occupied regions of eastern Poland and western Ukraine. Polish and Ukrainian officials could never agree on how many people were killed, and the dispute fueled anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Poland for years. In 2016, Poland’s parliament debated whether to label the massacres a genocide.

But the atmosphere began to change after Russia launched a vicious invasion of its smaller neighbor in February, sending around 50,000 Ukrainians a day fleeing across the border into Przemyśl. What was once a sleepy provincial city suddenly became a hub for international humanitarian organizations. U.S. soldiers left their base in the nearby city of Rzeszów and began wandering the city streets while military helicopters flew overhead. Residents were afraid that Putin’s army would reach their border in weeks. They started to receive calls from friends in other parts of Poland, offering them a place to stay.

Amidst the chaos, Poles began to relate to their Ukrainian neighbors. They also began opening their homes, ensuring that the new refugees had food, information, and a place to sleep.

“There wasn’t a lot of chance to build dialogue before. Now Przemyśl has changed a lot. The war created something amazing because people have opened their hearts,” said Kalinowska, who now works at Przemyśl’s Ukrainian House. “There were so many hurt people, and everyone was trying to help somehow. It’s amazing that I can say that something good happened because of this war.”

Most of the Ukrainians who passed through the city eventually continued to larger cities like Warsaw or Krakow. But Przemyśl’s central train station is still bustling with Ukrainians and ethnic Roma families who fled Ukraine. Volunteers roam the station translating for people and giving advice on which trains to take. In Medyka, a small village near Przemyśl where people cross the border into Ukraine by foot, some Ukrainians travel daily across the border to buy groceries or sell small items like cigarettes.

Sławomir Rohan, a Przemyśl resident, said he is happy to see Ukrainian women and children in his city. Before the war, the city’s population was shrinking as young people left for parts of the country with more job opportunities. Now small children run through the city streets, playing and laughing. Rohan’s children attend school with some Ukrainian students. He says the only thing that worries him is that his children might now have to attend larger classes.

“Przemyśl, my hometown, was always multicultural. Between the First and Second World Wars, the community was Jewish, Ukrainian, and Polish,” Rohan said. “Obviously, there are tensions like in any community. But they haven’t increased since the war began in February. In fact, I think they have significantly diminished. All the Poles understand the situation. We aren’t raising the old issues we had before.”

Marcin Piotrowski, a local councilor for the Lubaczów region, which has two border crossings, has long been an advocate for multiculturalism in eastern Poland. Before the war, he ran a cultural organization in the village of Gorajec, about one hour from Przemyśl. Each year they hosted Ukrainian and Belarussian artists and musicians for a festival.

Before World War II, Gorajec had a thriving Ukrainian population, and the nearby city of Cieszanów was home to a Jewish shtetl. But most Ukrainians and Jews either left or were killed during the war, and today both places have only a tiny Polish population.

“We were always trying to tell people about the multicultural history of this area, but right now, the region is very homogenous. It’s mainly Polish, and until recently, there was a huge problem of hate between the Polish and Ukrainian population,” Piotrowski said.

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine this year, Piotrowski worried that the Polish government wouldn’t welcome refugees. He remembered how Polish border guards forced Iraqi and Syrian asylum seekers back to Belarus when dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko tried to use them as a cudgel against the European Union the year prior.

He and a small group of volunteers began traveling across the border into Ukraine with tents, generators, and other items they had from organizing festivals. They assisted the people waiting for hours in the cold to cross the border into Poland, handing out hot drinks and sandwiches.

Throughout the long, arduous days traveling back and forth between Ukraine and Poland, Piotrowski was surprised to witness that his community showed up for their Ukrainian neighbors.

“The locals helped, and they gave everything. In the first week of the war, we sent trucks into Ukraine with assistance,” he said. “It’s changing a bit now. People are tired. You hear more people ask why we are giving so much to Ukrainians. But that’s still a small percentage. Most people are still helping.”

Diana, an 18-year-old Ukrainian woman from the southern city of Mykolaiv, was traveling with her parents to the border when she met Piotrowski. Her father wasn’t allowed to leave Ukraine because the country’s martial law obliges men of fighting age to stay behind. Her mother refused to leave her father’s side. But the couple wanted to ensure their young daughter made it safely to Poland. They were worried she could fall into the hands of human traffickers. When they met Piotrowski, Diana’s mother decided to entrust her daughter into his care.

“She thought he was a good person and had good eyes,” said Diana, who asked to be identified by her first name only.

Diana is now living in Gorajec and working for Piotrowski’s cultural organization. The staff fixed up an old pharmacy and set up bedrooms inside to house volunteers. Diana made one of the rooms her home. While she was initially afraid to move to Poland, she’s glad she decided to cross the border. She feels welcomed even though there are few other Ukrainians in the village.

While relations between Ukrainians and Poles have improved markedly since the start of the war, there are signs that the longstanding tensions haven’t been snuffed out entirely.

The city’s populist right-wing mayor, Wojciech Bakun, gained some attention after Przemyśl became the frontline for welcoming Ukrainian refugees. He famously mocked Italian politician Matteo Salvini for his close ties to Putin when the high-profile Italian visited Przemyśl at the onset of the war. Left-leaning Poles, who usually professed disdain for Bakun’s politics, praised his response to the refugee crisis.

But in recent months, Bakun has taken to social media to complain that some Ukrainians are taking advantage of the Polish welfare system or traveling into Poland only to collect money before returning home to Ukraine. His statements have sparked some skepticism about refugees among his constituents. Long lines of Ukrainians at ATMs—many are using multiple bank cards to retrieve cash they immediately exchange to dollars to offset the effects of the flailing Ukrainian hryvnya—have also frustrated some Poles in Przemyśl and Medyka.

Woman packs backpack
Gana Churkina, accompanied by her dog and her daughter, shows off the backpack she carried when she escaped from Ukraine at the start of the war.

Gana Churkina, a 47-year-old activist from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, fled to Przemyśl at the start of the war with her mother, daughter, and their dog, Pirate. She soon got a job as a social worker helping other Ukrainian refugees in the region. She enjoys her job and gets along with her neighbors, whom she described as “friendly.” But sometimes, when she passes a group of young Polish men, she feels nervous because she doesn’t know what to expect. On one occasion, a Polish woman assaulted Churkina’s 16-year-old daughter and told her to speak Polish or go back to Ukraine.

“This town is quite difficult for the Polish-Ukrainian relationship because of the history,” Churkina said. “There were a lot of Polish nationalists here.”

For the most part, however, Ukrainians and Poles interact without incident. Vlad, a 32-year-old Ukrainian from the Russian-occupied city of Kherson who asked to be identified by his first name only, was in Poland for a weeklong job when the war broke out. He decided to stay in Poland rather than go back to fight. He is now living in Przemyśl, and he’s surprised by the support from his new Polish neighbors.

“Nobody could imagine that Polish people would do so much for Ukrainians,” he said. “It’s really great.”

This article originally appeared in the National Journal on October 25, 2022. The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Washington, DC.