WARSAW AND KRAKOW. Making my way through traffic from Warsaw Chopin Airport to the city center, I noticed something different after my last visit to the Polish capital two years ago. Now there is one Ukrainian flag for almost every Polish flag flying. Paper flags, polyester flags, neon flags, large and small. Signs of solidarity. Symbols of support for neighboring Ukraine and for the Ukrainians fleeing their homes who continue to arrive by bus and train in the thousands every day in Warsaw.
And I noticed something else: a giant tent set up right outside the Warsaw Central Railway Station. After negotiations with the soldiers guarding the entrance, I entered a gigantic free kitchen with wooden tables and benches, which I was told was large enough for 400 people. Neat, organized and well maintained, it was created by Polish corporations in conjunction with World Central Kitchen, a food aid organization that often cooks food in war zones and border crossings.
Over a pot of bubbling goulash, I spoke to Lukasz Palka, an experienced chef accustomed to the stresses of catering. Since March 8, Lukash has been in charge of overseeing giant vats of soups and stews prepared for Ukrainian citizens fleeing the war. In the first days of March, he and his team prepared 20,000 meals a day. He told me it was about 10,000 a day. Soldiers outside check passports: if you arrive from Ukraine, you are escorted inside. At the beginning of the war, almost all Ukrainians arriving at the tent were from the Azov port city of Mariupol, Lukash told me, a once-prosperous place now in ruins after relentless Russian bombardment.
“At first, this task did not frighten me, because I thought I would only be here for two or three days at the most,” Lukash said with a quick, if weary smile. It no longer works 24-hour shifts, although the kitchen is still open 24/7 and donations are coming in all the time. One day, 300 cakes; on the other 1200 kg of oranges. On the busiest days, the kitchen crew baked 800 pancakes an hour and cooked 600 liters of soup.
Now Lukasz has a constantly changing team of about 50 volunteers. Some of the most helpful, he explained, are chefs who are used to running huge canteens elsewhere, people like his assistant Jana, who usually works in the kitchen of a giant copper smelter. Some of his other volunteers even came from Hong Kong and the USA.
In Poland, Russian invasion of Ukraine feels close, not only geographically but also emotionally. Many coffee houses donate their drink sales to Ukrainian charities. There are countless fundraising events, and a portrait of the Ukrainian president, Vladimir Zelensky, hanging on the wall in some of the chicest restaurants. A taxi driver from Warsaw told me that in the early days he took one of his regular customers to a hotel where the passenger paid for ten nights in advance to whoever needed it. The generosity here is sincere and touching. But amid this strong sense of united effort, there is also a simmering tension.
In Krakow, I met a friend, a teacher who is hosting a Ukrainian family, and I asked her if Poles were starting to feel stressed by taking in more than three million refugees. She told me that the concerns voiced were unusual, but she heard strange grumblings about Ukrainians being favored in medical centers and hospitals. She added that she also heard some older people reminisce about the massacre in Volhynia — between 1943 and 1945, members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army killed tens of thousands of Poles. “Some say you forgot what the Ukrainians did to us?” My friend told me she vehemently dismisses such questions before going into detail about how well the Ukrainian kids at her school are adjusting and how most of the people she knows make sacrifices to help the common cause.
Another friend of mine in Krakow, a local journalist, told me that others accused the resolution of the recent border crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border of hypocrisy. Human smugglers dared by the Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko – who is blamed production of an emergency in response to the sanctions imposed on him after he cracked down on pro-democracy protests, to encourage thousands of asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan, Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria, to fly to Minsk before being pushed into Poland. In return, the Polish government declared a state of emergency, and those in the “red zone” on the border were trapped in the sprawling forest between the two countries during the winter without food, heat or water. Many were beaten and more than 20 people died while trying to cross the river. Some Poles protested in front of parliament against the horrendous treatment of these refugees, while some nationalists marched in border towns in support of the Polish security forces.
However, the vast majority in Poland have a strong desire and sense of responsibility to help Ukraine; be good neighbors and help desperate refugees who arrive with a small suitcase. The Poles have known all too well and for a long time what Russia is capable of. So far there has been little sign of waning interest or war weariness, but rather a general understanding that aid must continue for as long as needed.
[See also: Europe divided on Ukraine war]