Dr. Luc set off towards the museum, his checked tweed jacket trailing behind him, leather satchel in his hand. We headed down the steep cobbled streets of Przemyśl, Poland; streets he walks daily to and from his jobs as history professor and museum director. He’s in his early sixties and walks at quite a clip. Me and my good friend Krzysztof had been trying to meet him for a while.
When we arrived into the light-drenched foyer of the National Museum of Przemyśl a group of seven museum assistants wearing white overcoats were grappling with a huge canvas. A chaotic cubist mural was painted across it, in greens, yellows, purples, blues; I could make out the bodies of pianists and violin players being contorted into positions of anguish as an explosion in the sky tore the scene apart. About ten feet high, 25 feet wide, it looked like it’d been painted onto bed sheets stretched across some found plywood boarding.
Tables and museum signage were getting knocked over and some assistants — they couldn’t watch — had their heads in their hands, cringing and laughing, as the others tried to get the thing under control. Dr. Luc rolled up his sleeves and helped carry the painted contraption up some stairs, around a corner, and into position under the light of the museum atrium. « It’s a replica of Guernica, » he said. « It’s just arrived from Ukraine. » The Mexican painter Roberto Marquez had been traveling across Ukraine painting a series of cubist murals, inspired by Picasso’s 1937 original. On his Instagram you can see uncanny photos of him working on his canvases among the ruins of destroyed bridges. One video shows a dead body lying on the street next to a single packed suitcase left ownerless among the rubble.
from a Baedeker (1891)
The mural had just arrived into Przemyśl via the border crossing at Medyka. Every day in March, 50.000 refugees made the same journey via Medyka to Przemyśl and by May the town had become an important way station for millions of refugees. It was May 4th, and of the near seven million refugees who fled Ukraine, more than half of them had crossed into Poland. « You can see what bad condition it’s in, » said Dr. Luc as he heaved the painting into position. « It’s crap, but it has some value in itself. » I took a portrait photo of the doctor with the giant mural in the background. But this wasn’t the thing he wanted me to see. He wanted to show me the war rooms.
We walked through room after room of black and white photography depicting life in Przemyśl during World War II. We stopped at a framed print showing lines of people walking across a railway bridge, their arms in the air, barbed wire along the sides of the river. When Germany and Russia invaded Poland in 1939, they split the country in two along what’s known as the Curzon line, and Przemyśl was caught in the middle, divided along the river San. « You could only cross the river through the railway bridge, » Dr. Luc said. « On one side you had the Gestapo, on the other you had the Soviet secret police. » On the west side, the German secret police were rounding up people into ghettos or forced labour. To the east, their Russian counterparts were arresting anyone they didn’t like, sending them to work in Gulag camps, or executing them without trial. « Here’s a photo that outrages everyone. » Dr Luc pointed to a photograph of a Greek Catholic priest blessing Ukrainian soldiers wearing Waffen-SS Nazi uniforms. The Ukrainian nationalist cooperation with Nazis was a marriage of convenience at the time, as a counterforce against, as they saw it, Polish and Russian aggression.
It’s this kind of photo that Putin’s propaganda machine dredges up when constructing false-flag narratives about « de-Nazifying » modern day Ukraine. It's a spurious connection but Dr. Luc is well aware of the power of a story. « There are mechanisms of terror, and there are mechanisms of propaganda. And what dies first in the war? » he asked. « Truth, of course. And the truth is like arseholes. Everyone has one. »
Dr. Luc was in a rush. He had to leave soon to deliver a lecture about, of all things, the history of decapitation. As he left, I asked, what does he make of the current Polish support for Ukraine. He said: « Let me tell you a story. » One day toward the end of World War II, a unit of Ukrainian nationalist guerrilla troops settled in a grove of trees outside a nearby village called Wyszatyce. Wyszatyce was Ukrainian-Polish commune, with a Roman Catholic church standing a few steps from an Orthodox church. The head of the village was summoned, as was the local Orthodox priest. The soldiers told them to stick newspaper in the windows of the houses where Ukrainians lived. If there is newspaper in the window, they said, these people will survive. The other houses, Polish households, would be burnt to the ground in the night. The village leader and the priest consulted the villagers and returned to the soldiers with a decision: The villagers said there would be no newspapers in the windows, not that night, not ever. The soldiers, furious, blindfolded the priest, told him to kneel as if in prayer, and loaded their guns. There was silence, and then more silence. The priest soon realised the troops had left the scene, angry and powerless. « These are people from fucking Wyszatyce! » said Dr. Luc, looking back through the soft-focus lens of local folklore. « When a common enemy comes to the village gates, they stick together. » Then with one flamboyant turn, he stomped out of the room, up some stairs, and disappeared.
Nazi soldier overlooking a destroyed bridge over the river San.
I had come here to find out what happened to my grandad’s family during the war. He once told me — it was clearly a painful memory — that when the war came, he was stuck on the wrong side of the river San in Przemyśl, and he never saw his parents or brothers again. Soviet troops were approaching his village. Crowds of refugees were fleeing in dust, dirt and panic. Nearby villages were burning. He had since tried to find them through the Red Cross in Ukraine and Poland, but there was no sign of them. The regular rhythms of their life, with all its small-town dramas, had been wiped out in an instant, and only a mute nothingness remained. They could’ve been sent to a gulag in Siberia. Many people who made that journey never came back.
That evening Krzysztof and I went out looking for somewhere to drink. We caught up to a man walking slowly in front of us and asked him how far we were from the main square. « It’s five minutes if you’re sober, » he said, and only then did we notice his drunk, glazed-over eyes, the skin on his face weathered by hours on the streets under the scorching Polish summer sun. He had something important to tell us: the cheapest beer cans in Poland used to be 2.4 Zloty (45p), but now they are 4.2 Zloty. « You know lads, with all this inflation, » he asked, « how can we live? »
When did you arrive? Where are you from? What are you drinking?
When we reached the main square, this sleepy border town had the buzz of a remote backpacker destination. The atmosphere was full of lively conversations in a flurry of accents and languages. When did you arrive? Where are you from? What are you drinking? Humanitarian workers, volunteer cooks, delivery drivers, medics and social workers — from South Africa, Italy, Sweden, US, Britain and other places I couldn’t discern — were all letting their hair down after a long day.
It was a warm evening. The paving stones of the square were still radiating the day’s heat and the dewy smell of chestnut tree blossom filled the air. Live blues music drifted on the gentle breeze, the lonely English words were sung by an American with a deep south accent. I got talking to a British man in his early fifties, with long Black Sabbath hair and lots of piercings. He was having a beer and getting ready for « another day on the road ». As he’d done every day for the last month, he was getting ready to load his VW Multivan with medical supplies and drive four hours into Ukraine to a school near Lviv, where supplies are stored in the basement and then distributed to military hospitals. The last time he’d made a delivery, a major road had been bombed and he had to take a different route back.
I asked him what kind of training did he get, what kind of safety advice, what kind of communications did he have, what kind of support? « We’re on our own, fella, » he said. « The big organisations, they don’t send anyone in. It’s us independents and small charities that actually go in and deliver things. And we’re on our own. » In his frantic first-person experience of the war, he wasn’t aware of the major USAID and UN agencies that had been operating on the ground in Ukraine since 2014 and before. « We get in, and then we get the hell out, » he said.
At about 10pm the crowds started to disperse — everyone had long days ahead — and the central square of Przemyśl returned to its usual tranquility. The sky turned a deep purple and the square’s nineteenth-century lanterns created patches of warm light across the cobble stones. An old babushka in a headscarf, who’d been staring out from her apartment for much of the evening, finally closed her window.
« The sky’s edge bursts ablaze »
Before Poland or Ukraine had gained their independence in the early twentieth century, my grandad’s family lived in what was known as Galicja. A romantic borderland region, now found only in old maps and in vanishingly-few memories. It’s a land that produced the surrealist fictions of Bruno Shultz, and the folkloric radicalism of serf-poet Taras Shevchenko. Schevchenko wrote in A Dream (John Weir’s translation):
The sky’s edge bursts ablaze
In shady glades the nightingales
Sing out the new sun’s praise.
The breezes softly, lightly wake
The steppelands from their dreams.
Galicja once spanned from Krakow to Lviv, stretched across belief systems and geography, where people prayed to different saints under different crosses but drank in the same taverns, with the same old arguments, all hoping for the same rich harvest. My grandad identified as Polish-Ukrainian. His life was a short line connecting two worlds, always hyphenated between two churches, one facing west the other pulling east. His family had a good life in the Galicja borderlands. They had status and a livelihood. They dug clay from the earth and fired it into bricks and tiles which they sold to the local villages. But my grandad’s ID card from the end of the war shows a haunted man, with a distant marbled glaze in his eyes, the look of someone who’s seen too much, too young. I think he felt cheated by history. He’d lost everything he held dear and it made him angry, he found it difficult to maintain friendships. He worked low-skilled jobs, in mills, scrap yards, and warehouses in the north of England. The work was punctuated by Sunday mass at the local church. Gradually he retreated into solitude and when he died, he hardly had any friends. There was still so much I didn’t know. What happened to his family? Did they survive? Why did he never talk about it?
The past either slips through our fingers or traps us in it. I was trapped. For years I’d been travelling to Poland and Ukraine. The war echoed inside me, as if loss reverberates across generations. I’d always felt drawn to this border landscape, with its strange yet familiar territory. When I went back, I had a feeling of reclaiming the history of a land simply by being there, with my feet in the earth and my heart in my mouth, looking out across those undulating yellow blankets of rapeseed flowers under that huge melodrama sky. Yet the more I came back, the more fractured that image became. I was, as Galicja resident Bruno Shultz once put it, « picking up the fragments of a broken mirror ».
Every other guy on Tinder was a huge specimen with a profile in English — and he wasn’t called Stanisław.
One of the first signs that the US army had arrived into Rzeszów airport was that the local garages had sold out of whiskey. You couldn’t get a kebab; the lines of troops outside the takeaway shops were too long. Scrolling through Tinder, every other guy was a huge specimen with a profile in English — and he wasn’t called Stanisław. I had an appointment with someone who works at the airport. He told me the car rental companies were earning record amounts renting out cars to soldiers, for taking girls from dating apps out into the countryside. « What else is a young boy gonna do? » he told me. « We might have to start putting on direct flights to South Carolina for all the new American families here! » He was only half joking.
Not many people outside of Poland could tell you where Rzeszów is, let alone pronounce it, but the airport is a major hub for the aviation industry. Many Poles from this area settled in the US since the World War II, and as a result, Rzeszów airport runs the third-most direct flights to the US after Krakow and Warsaw. Companies based here produce drones, Chinooks, Black Hawks, and other war machines that remain classified. The airport usually serves around nine international flights a day, including freight and passenger flights. But in early February — a couple of weeks before the invasion — the number of arrivals doubled. The enormous matte-gray bodies of the US army’s A400M cargo planes started to occupy the runways, and like most of the traffic that has flown into the airport since, they had their tracking devices disabled. My contact got out his phone to show me. His Flight Radar-app showed only about half of the planes that were coming into the airport. « We get about twenty arrivals a day now, » he said. « Half of these are incognito. »
Since February, the airport has gradually come under the control of the US army. Temporary tented villages have been set up on the runways. Little air hangers for hobbyist flying clubs have been converted to store weapons. A makeshift NATO base has been set up and Ukrainian troops arrived here by land to receive weapons training. As we spoke, I could see more people in military uniforms than not — troops from the US, Canada and the UK. At the time, about 5000 were stationed here.
I asked my contact, are you scared? « I was scared when it started, everyone was, » he said. « The question was whether Putin would dare to attack us or not. He’s crazy, anything is possible. » But the more he spoke to the military at the airport, the calmer he felt. « I can see what’s here and I talk to people, so I know what’s going on, » he said. « I know more or less what the equipment is, I know what toys they have here. » When I asked how this presence will affect the airport itself, he smirked, slightly, and rubbed his fingers together.
As we drove around the compound, I could see Patriot missile launchers scattered across the runway complex. I counted at least eight batteries, with eight warheads each — all pointed towards Ukraine. They can destroy anything that flies within a radius of 160km, creating what’s known as a protective « shield » that reaches as far as Lviv.
They were immune to my sentimentality
In the arrivals area, I met three soldiers. One US paratrooper was booking a hire car, the other two — they were Canadians — were waiting for convenience store hotdogs. I told them my grandad was liberated by allied troops in 1945. The American said « Oh cool », which was the most emotion any of them showed. This US soldier was very likely from the 82nd Airborne, an infantry division of the US army specialising in parachute assault operations, most recently deployed in Afghanistan. They were all big imposing figures with baby faces and immaculate skin. Their responses were polite and short, kind of cagey.
I wanted to tell them how my grandad walked west for about 200km as Allied infantry moved the opposite way, liberating camps, villages, towns and cities as their air forces blazed across the sky. I wanted to tell them how he made it to the British controlled zone, met my grandma, got married and had a kid in a refugee camp near Hannover. But they were immune to my sentimentality — their indifference just another part of the mechanics of this remote NATO outpost.
For the last couple of months, humanitarian aircraft had been landing here in Rzeszów, on double missions: bringing supplies in and getting people out of Ukraine. One example — my contact described it with a lump in his throat — was a group of school kids, about the same age as his own children, that needed treatment for cancer and had been driven from Ukraine in ambulances. A makeshift oncology ward had been set up in the airport terminal, and the private jets of entrepreneurs were landing here, to take the kids to speciality wards in Germany. The day we met, three Antonov aircraft had landed with supplies destined for Ukraine. « That’s 300 tonnes of gear, » he said. « And these planes are coming from everywhere, not just Europe. »
Outside the airport, troops in civilian clothing were loading up UN vehicles with suitcases and boxes — their destination, written in black marker pen, was Lviv. I asked my contact how long he thought the NATO base will be here. He says he doesn’t listen to pundits on TV, but he does speak to military experts here on the ground. « Even if the war ends, » he said, « the NATO troops will stay here for quite a long time. I think now, Poland and the Americans, we’re inseparable for several years. »
That evening, we made our way into the city centre, but it was impossible to find a room in a hotel. Like many cities and towns in south east Poland, almost all the hotel rooms had been booked by the US army. They pay upfront to book out the rooms indefinitely, just in case they’re needed for troops at short notice. On booking.com, almost every listing had been removed. My friend Krzysztof called his mate who owns a hotel in the main square. He said: « Okay guys, it’s possible for one night, but I can’t do more. »
It was hard to find a table at any of the many bars and restaurants that lined the square. The police presence seemed to be more than usual, their vans were patrolling the streets. Big American men in cargo pants and baseball caps, the sort of guys that you notice from a distance, were having beers and burgers. They all seemed to have a tattoo sleeve.
From the city tower, a bugle call rang out across the main square. Historically, this was a call to arms, to alert the citizens of an imminent attack. These days, it’s played on the hour, every hour, giving the city an ambient sense of elapsed glory. Two flags — one Polish, one Ukrainian — now hung from the top of the tower and danced in the late evening breeze.
Lubaczów is a quiet town in eastern Poland, 6km away from the Ukraine border. I was speaking with Joanna, in her modern open-plan home in a hamlet on the town’s outskirts. She wore a baggy dress and her many bracelets jangled as she moved. On the mantelpiece were three photos, all of her daughters. Her conversation came out in extroverted bursts of nervous energy as she ran around the kitchen, preparing some eggs that she’d just been given by the neighbours.
The table then started to fill up with bottles of moonshine. « Try, you must try, » she said. « It’s brewed by the house next door. » It seemed like everything on the table had been produced on her street.
In the week before Russia invaded Ukraine, Joanna was out walking her dogs with a neighbour when they heard gunshots. She didn’t know then, but it was a training exercise at Yavoriv military base, 30km away away in Ukraine. As they passed along their usual track, a huge explosion went off in the next field, and they both jumped. A farmer had exploded a gas canister to chase away some deer. Things were tense. She asked her neighbour, « will you help when the refugees arrive? » The man, in his eighties, shook his head, as if he didn’t know what to say. Joanna pressed him: « If a mother and her child turn up at your door, will you not give them soup? » He finally answered Yes, but it became clear to Joanna that many people were afraid of how dramatically life in this quiet border town was about to change.
For a few days there was no cash in the ATMs and no petrol at the petrol stations. Then the Yavoriv military base was bombed, and things felt a lot closer to home. Joanna bought herself mace gas, and her husband applied for a gun license. The school where Joanna works as a psychologist and support worker had to be evacuated multiple times due to bomb threats. It wasn’t clear whether this was part of Russia’s « hybrid war » or just mindless people spreading confusion.
But if one thing stuck in her mind more than most, it was her journey to the border, two days after the invasion. She was driving, with her Ukrainian friend Victor in the passenger seat, but she didn’t know exactly what the plan was. The only thing that was clear was they needed to find Victor’s family. He’d been working in Poland for a few months when the war came, and he was trying to stay calm.
On the day Russia invaded, Victor’s wife Irina and their daughter packed their bags and fled Lviv. Their car was out of petrol and the petrol stations didn’t have any to sell. So they went out onto the streets to find a way to make the 100km journey to the border. As Joanna and Victor drove, they were trying to contact Irina. There was some confusion about where to meet. Joanna told me Victor kept asking himself « what will happen to our apartment, will it be destroyed, will it be looted? What will happen? »
Under the cover of darkness, you couldn’t quite make out all the tank guns that now peppered the roadsides, hiding and waiting beneath camouflage nets.
It was about 10pm, and dark. Victor and Irina were in touch by cell phone. Irina said she’d been dropped off, with her daughter, somewhere near the border crossing at Medyka, and from there they had to walk. As they got closer to the border, they were picked up by another van. There were eight seats, but eighteen people were inside. Irina was surprised that a woman was driving. Almost no men were allowed to leave the country at this point. Irina let Joanna and Victor talk to the driver over the speakerphone: they were trying to get them to drive across the border and into Przemyśl. The city was not yet buzzing with the humanitarian volunteers I would eventually meet.
Joanna knew it would be difficult at the border — it could be quick, it could take ten hours — and thought it would be less crowded to meet in a specific spot in Przemyśl: the carpark of the supermarket Castorama. But when Joanna and Victor arrived there, at 11pm, the huge car park was already full of cars and vans from southeast Poland. « It was the middle of the night, » she told me, « shops were closed but there was no place to park. All the people were waiting, sleeping. »
It was 3am when Irina and her daughter made it to the Castorama carpark. No one spoke. No one slept. Joanna drove the newly-reunited family slowly through the narrow forest roads back to Lubaczów. It was pitch black. During the daytime, these roads are usually backed up with cars trying to overtake combine harvesters and tractors, but since the war began they’d become the main routes for army vehicles to bring equipment to the border. Under the cover of darkness, you couldn’t quite make out all the tank guns that now peppered the roadsides, hiding and waiting beneath camouflage nets.
Joanna was exhausted and took a wrong turn. They passed through Korczowa — « it’s a shithole, there’s nothing there » — and she suddenly saw a car in the middle of the road. « And I’m thinking, shit, it’s 4am, in the middle of nowhere, what’s going on? » There was a young woman and an older woman, they’d made it across from Ukraine but their phone had stopped working and they were lost. They were looking for a hotel in Wrocław but had been driving the wrong way: Wrocław was 500km away. Joanna pointed them in the right direction. « Maybe, » they joked, « there’s a reason I took that wrong turn! »
Many other cars would arrive and get stranded around Lubaczów. Joanna’s husband, in fact, owns a car garage and when the war started, business more or less doubled overnight. After spending hours in the border queues, cars just give up, their particulate filters get clogged up and the engines won’t start. People step out of their cars here having driven for three or four days. They park in the middle of the street or they crash into the side of the road. Some of them can’t walk, their bodies finally letting go after making it across the border. Joanna saw someone take a baby from someone’s arms when they pulled over, and their arms were locked into position as if still holding the baby.
As Joanna told me her tale, I felt drawn to the intimacy of this anguish. I’d been back to Poland close to thirty times by now, compelled to search for the « trauma » that my grandparents didn’t pass on to me, for a window into their former lives, something I could mourn and therefore cherish. I was completely unburdened by their past, free to forget. And yet I was back here, in a village I’d never heard of, listening intently to second-hand accounts of a different war, from a different era. It was 5am when Joanna, Irina, Victor and Victoria arrived at her place, where they were greeted by Joanna’s dog.
One day in 1996, my grandad got on a bus from Bradford, England, and made the three-day journey back to Rozubowice, his village on the Poland-Ukraine border, or as he used to call it in broken English, his « place ». The Soviet Union had collapsed. It was the first time in sixty years he felt safe to visit. Passing through western and central Europe, he didn’t take a single photo in France or Belgium, Holland or Germany. Clutching his cardboard suitcase, he sat and slept in his seat, holding his new passport — his first passport, for this one and only trip — tightly in his hands.
When he arrived, an old woman called out to him, recognizing who he was, and even walked him to the spot where he had planted an apple tree with his dad before the war. That’s what he told me, anyway. Whether or not this is true matters less to me than the fact he went back at all. He’d survived and he’d returned. He’d outlived the brutality. When I look through his old photo album now, I see him speaking in his mother tongue, surrounded by kin, two feet on his own soil, moonshine running through his veins.
As we approached the village, my phone pinged ‘Welcome to Ukraine!’
It was the 7th of May when we arrived in Rozubowice. We knew spring was here by the bugs that were splattered across our car’s windshield. The storks had returned, having made their migration from the south of Africa, arriving back to their same nests on the same telegraph pole where they had nested the previous year.
As we approached the village, my phone pinged « Welcome to Ukraine! » and switched itself to the Star Kyiv network. Almost as soon as that happened, two motorbikes pulled up behind us. It was the Polish border guards.
« What are you doing here? » one of the two guys asked us in Polish. They wore black bulletproof vests. Each had binoculars strapped to their chest, camouflage rucksacks with sleeping bags, and what looked like Glocks in the holsters around their waist. « You can’t stop here, » the other said. « Can you show us your ID? » We were less than 500 meters from the border, in an ambiguous zone that you can enter but not without good reason. We told them we were researching my family history and visiting my grandad’s old village. One of the guys didn’t listen, he was busy checking our details against various police databases. The other, a young man with kind eyes, seemed to warm to us. He fiddled with his wedding ring as we spoke. « We get all kinds of people trying to come through here, we need to check who you are. » He didn’t give much away, but he said people come here with « different motivations ». He said most people they’d seen at the border were trying to get in, not out of Ukraine, and from what we heard from other people locally, they were mainly vigilante fighters but many were war tourists — some just wanted to grab a handful of soil from the warzone, or simply wanted to say they’d been there. After about twenty minutes of police checks — it felt much longer — we were allowed to continue on our way.
Rozubowice, like a thousand other Polish villages, is just one street. We wanted to get to the cemetery at the far end. As we walked past the side of an old bungalow, an old woman in a headscarf was trying to feed some chickens that were escaping through her garden fence, spilling out onto the road. On the other side of the street there was a model of the Virgin Mary, painted in vivid blues, housed in a wooden box. Roses of various colours were growing around the Virgin, white blossom petals had scattered over her from the trees above, like confetti.
As we reached the end of the street, we met a guy — he looked about sixty — working in his garden, sawing pieces of wood in an aimless kind of way. He had a slightly off-kilter walk, his eyes a bit out of focus. He was singing some vague lines from a pop song, he was clearly buzzed. « Chłopaki! » he called out to us. « Boys! What you doing here? » We told him. « Kurwa! » he said « Oh shit! The Kowalczyks, they lived at the house on the corner, no? Damn they sold that house so cheap! Wait no, that was Stanisławczyk, or no, that was the traction engine, wasn’t it?... » It was hard to tell what we were learning from the carpenter. But he seemed happy to see us. « Boys, do you want a drink? » We told him we were looking for the cemetery. He said something under his breath and continued with his work.
The cemetery gates were rusted over when we got there and we had to force them open. The place had been reclaimed by ancient trees that had burrowed deep into the graves and covered the deceased in quiet shade under a canopy of branches. There were no gravestones to place flowers by or light candles. Nothing in this place spoke of the violence that had happened here. There was no sign of the sudden invasion, the land that was taken away, the persecuted churches. Nothing remained of the people sent to exile in Siberia or the unnamed victims that were shot and thrown into the bottom of nearby lakes. Of course, nothing remained of my grandad’s parents and brothers. The trees swayed above us, unable to disclose what they saw.
At the far end of the cemetery, we stepped over a wall and out into a clearing that gave us a view of the whole valley stretching miles in every direction. We were just meters from the border. The rolling hills of the valley, with their continuous fields of rapeseed, blurred the lines between the two countries, creating a seamless bright yellow carpet of flowers in bloom. A pair of storks took off from their nests and circled high into the sky, brazenly moving in and out of Ukrainian airspace, completely at home.
Four months later I was back in Poland. The war in Ukraine had become a grim drudgery. It was around 4.30am on the 1st of September when I walked with my two cousins towards the center of Wieluń, my grandma’s hometown. Prime Minister Morawiecki had been helicoptered in, military police vehicles blocked the streets, and a cluster of national television crews were setting up their cameras. The edge of the night sky was just starting to burn a hazy orange. We were there to commemorate the same morning in 1939 when Luftwaffe aircraft dropped 380 bombs on this sleeping, unarmed market town. Around 1,200 civilians were killed. It was the first bombing of World War II, and is known as « Polish Guernica ».
The day before, I’d visited the town’s museum to speak to the director. Gorbachev had died and the news was just reaching Polish media. « Gorbachev dismantled the Soviet Union very skilfully and intellectually, » the director said. « The legacy of this has meant the tyrant, Russia, has been relatively friendly to Europe for the last twenty years. » He suggested that Gorbachev’s reforms brought about a period of relative peace that was now coming to an end. « Then sometimes autocrats like Stalin or Hitler come to the fore, that’s what Putin is now. »
As the ceremony began, the town’s air raid sirens reverberated around the streets. Red and white light was projected onto the rebuilt turn-of-the-century buildings. There were about 300 people there, less than in previous years. The town’s mayor — who’d been implicated in a bribery scandal involving mixed martial arts and a mafia boss — was trying to redeem his image. Some people in the crowd chatted amongst themselves as the mayor repeated a populist mantra that a strong independent Poland needs to spend more money on its army because it cannot rely on other countries to come and help when they need it. He said the ceremony « warns us against excessive trust and faith in the alliances and treaties we have made ».
Zelensky then appeared on the big screen and said the opposite. In a prerecorded video, with his army fatigues and TV-trained cadence, he said this time around there were no secret pacts between countries. « From the first minute of this war, we received real help from true friends and brothers who have our backs. » The Ukrainian woman reading a printout of the Polish translation continually stumbled over her text and struggled to pronounce some of the Polish words.
Around the same time, at a similar ceremony on the Westerplatte peninsula near Gdańsk, President Duda formally asked Germany for reparations. Later that day, at a press conference in the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the ruling Law and Justice party, demanded reparations from Germany. Over 5 million people from Poland were killed during the war and over 6 million displaced. He demanded 1.3 trillion Euros. A new bronze statue had been commissioned to commemorate the Warsaw uprising almost 80 years ago.
When I got to the departure lounge of Kraków airport later that week, I saw a Polish kid, about twelve or thirteen years old, with blonde hair and big headphones around her neck, queuing for a coffee. Printed in white all-caps letters across the front of her US varsity-style hoodie was the English word « remembering ». There was nothing printed on the back.