Opinion |

Ukraine War: Will Putin Come for Poland Next?

'Tell me, am I crazy for thinking we should start planning our evacuation?' I asked my friend, a third generation Holocaust survivor living in Warsaw. In Poland, watching the Ukraine conflict so close to our borders, fear and old traumas are rising

Marta Szulkin
Marta Szulkin
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The Ukrainian and Polish flags reflected in the window of a bus where a boy waves after crossing from Ukraine into Poland last week. Two million Ukrainian refugees have crossed the border into Poland alone
The Ukrainian and Polish flags reflected in the window of a bus where a boy waves after crossing from Ukraine into Poland last week. Two million Ukrainian refugees have crossed the border into Poland Credit: WOJTEK RADWANSKI - AFP
Marta Szulkin
Marta Szulkin

Tell me, am I crazy for thinking we should start planning our evacuation?

This is the question I asked my friend last week, a third generation Holocaust survivor living in Warsaw, Poland, like me.

You know, he answered, Jewish pessimists ended up in Hollywood, optimistic Jews – in Auschwitz.

At the time, we were three days into the brutal invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army. Since then, I heard both the question and the answer in conversations again and again, from multiple sources. Clearly, I was not alone in this line of thinking.

I am watching history unravel in front of my eyes as I am trying to make sense of this new historical landscape. It is already transforming my understanding of historical legacy, and it is clear how deeply it will permeate my life, that of my children, and of Polish and European citizens from this point onwards.

I watch despair and pain on the news, and listen to the accounts of Ukrainian colleagues about bomb shelters with WiFi but no heating, queuing at borders, and escaping cities with only a backpack and a pet in one’s arms.

In the course of a few days, I still cannot make sense of how suddenly my vision of linear evolution towards progress and prosperity has been replaced by that of historical entrapment, a constant reset towards brutal conflicts, so often played out in Central Europe, torn between East and West over the centuries. Stories that I never thought would make such a comeback in the twenty-first century.

Since the start of the invasion, nearly two million Ukrainian refugees have crossed over the Polish border alone. While exhausted from the political conflict that has fractured our society over the past six years, Poles have mobilized impressively to help in whatever way they can – hosting refugees at home, offering transport from the border into cities, dispatching food at borders and train stations –and to Ukraine itself, donating food and medical supplies, helmets and bulletproof vests.

But as we watch the conflict unravelling so close to our borders, fear is rising.

A woman with her child checks her mobile phone as she waits for relocation outside the main shelter in Przemysl, Poland. Around half of the three million refugees are minors, according to the UNCredit: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI - AFP

Most millennials lived with fairly little apprehension of Russia, in contrast to the older generation, which always warned us against complacency towards this very particular military and economic force. We, a younger generation, would wave the elders’ comments away. While social capital and trust in the system were never the strong suit of Eastern European nations, we wanted to move on, build careers, and face the future with trust and hope. We believed that our hard work would allow us to shape a safe future in return.

In just three weeks, a sizeable proportion of that millennial optimism has evaporated. As Putin is carrying out his own, peculiar and deadly plan, it is very difficult to discuss the future of Ukraine or its neighbours in a pragmatic, geopolitical framework. Putin’s actions are in many ways unpredictable, which is unfortunate as he both has the will, and the means, to do whatever he sets his mind to.

At a human level, this has resulted into a major shift in thinking: we are trying to do whatever we can to support Ukraine, but we are also aware that this war may trigger real-life repercussions for us, too.

As a result, petrol is running out in gas stations, as too many of us wanted to have a full tank "just in case." Cash machines are regularly out of money, while our currency is only slowly recovering after the initial crash prompted by the Russian invasion. Since then, candles have been disappearing from stationery shops.

Demonstrators protest Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Poznan, Poland: Alongside an impressive civil society mobilization to help refugees, fear is rising that Putin could threaten Poland, tooCredit: PIOTR SKORNICKI/AGENCJA WYBORC

Iodine, which was drunk by every child in Poland when Chernobyl exploded in 1986 to protect them from radiation, was sold out from all pharmacies in a 20km radius from Warsaw. The pharmacist I discussed with about this broke down and said: The nuclear plants will explode anyway, and iodine will not help us. This may or may not happen, but her emotions, her assessment of the situation, were certainly real enough.

It is impossible to predict how much further the situation will deteriorate in Ukraine. But one thing is clear: All the effort dedicated to breaking transgenerational war trauma experienced by so many families in Poland is now resurfacing. A new generation of children is now building tanks out of cardboard boxes, and bringing food parcels to humanitarian collection points. We are bracing for what is yet to come.

Marta Szulkin is an urban evolutionary biologist and Associate Professor in Biology at the University of Warsaw. She holds a PhD in Zoology from the University of Oxford, and moved back to her home country, Poland, to start the Wild Urban Evolution & Ecology Lab at the University of Warsaw in 2015. Twitter: @MartaSzulkin

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