Poland has been in the news lately due to accepting the largest number of Ukrainian refugees in the world (some 1.7 million according to the guardian.com, 'Poland's door is wide open to Ukrainians . . . .' ) as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And the article goes on to say that it is the citizens, themselves, that are opening their arms and their homes to the Ukrainians, providing food, shelter, and transportation.
In 2017, Poland was our starting point for exploring some of the post eastern-bloc countries. And it was here that I started the phrase, “They ain’t goin’ back". Aside from the well-appointed 30 to 40 year old generation who I believe will lead the way to continued democracy, we learned (from the amazingly graphic museums) that Poland has fought hard to extricate itself from autocratic control. A look at it's history might provide some insight into why they are so willing to open their doors to the Ukrainians.
Eastern European history is complicated, and any internet search will give more information than you want or need but, in short, according to britannica.com, ‘Poland’, Poland’s history dates to the Middle Ages, and Poland was the largest state in Europe in the mid 1500’s, remaining a powerhouse until the 1700’s when it was "parceled out” to Russia, Prussia (Germany), and Austria in a manner that, I am sure, was not peaceful. Regardless, Poland kept it’s revolutionary hopes and traditions (their arts and culture such as literature and film making had an influence on the world) and formed the oldest constitution in Europe, dating to 1791. In 1918, Poland again became a nation but was “ravaged” by two World Wars including losing almost the entirety of it’s large Jewish population in the Holocaust and then losing it’s independence to Russia for almost a half century until 1989. As the Britannica.com article states, Poland “suffered tremendously throughout the course of the 20th century". (the picture credit is en.wikipedia.org, 'History of Gdansk' - the downtown of Gdansk, known as Danzig at the time, obliterated by bombing and fires in 1945)
From the same article, it is identified that one of the most significant 'recent' events was the Polish workers uprising in the shipyards of Gdansk in the late 1970’s and forming a movement called Solidarity (Solidarnose) - we all remember leader Lech Walesa in the news. The key here is that this was started out as a worker ( which I interpret as the every day citizen) revolt. The communist government fell in 1989. By the start of the 21st century, Poland had become a ‘market-based economy’ and a member of both NATO and the EU.
(These pictures are my own, all taken at the site of the Lenin Shipyards: two commemorative plaques, the Monument of the Fallen Shipyard Workers of 1970, and the Solidarity Museum)
It's worth doing a 'search' on Polish history - it's fascinating. I'm not sure that we, who have been so fortunate to be born into democracy, truly understand how far people will fight for freedom.
So, history shows that the Polish are fighters. As far back as the Middle Ages, other groups were fighting for the land and towns, and Poland has been "ravaged" by harsh world wars and innumerable human losses. They fought hard, as citizens, to overcome communism. They know who they are, and did not lose who they are, even during centuries of harsh territorial wars.
Even if Poland is now accepting what could be millions of Ukrainian refugees, not all of the news has been positive, with criticism for Poland’s previous unwillingness to accept refugees from other war torn countries in the Middle East. In fact, in 2016, according to usnews.com, 'Inside Poland's Drastic Immigration Reversal', 73% of the Polish population viewed refugees from Middle East countries suspiciously, even going as far as to brand them as terrorists. The article goes on to quote Marta Kindler, of the University of Warsaw's Migration Research, who hypothesizes that the issues of race and ethnicity come into play. Ironically, my husband and I had commented that Poland was one of the 'whitest' societies we had ever seen. Maybe when you have fought for centuries, your identity becomes deeply embedded in your soul with little room for deviation. I have no doubt that this debate will extend to all the democratic countries who are accepting Ukrainian refugees while reluctant to accept so many from other countries.
Meanwhile, Ukrainians are not 'strangers' to Poland. The article identifies that Ukrainians make up 57% of foreigners in Poland, some one million before the current migration. They share cultural similarities, some linguistics, a border, past sufferings, and a fear of Russia next door. And there have been previous Ukrainian migrations to Poland for reasons such as bad economic times.
So, when you look at Poland's history and the shared world view or reality with Ukraine, it is understandable why Poland is opening it's doors to such high numbers of Ukrainian refugees, right or wrong. The Ukrainians probably feel Poland is closest to 'home' and 'family', not just in physical proximity, and the Polish probably see something of themselves in the Ukrainians. Who knows? We might do the same thing if our neighbouring country was in such dire need.
Please stay tuned for my "Poland-Part 2" to read about our exploration of Poland’s three main cities, Gdansk, Warsaw, and Krakow (and to see what Gdansk's 'Main Street' looks like now!)