February 1943: The region of Volhynia, then part of Nazi-occupied Poland and now part of Ukraine, saw a wave of violence unleashed on the Polish population by Ukrainian nationalists. It's estimated that by August of that year, up to 120,000 Poles were massacred in Volhynia by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Eighty years on from this bloody chapter in Polish-Ukrainian history, Poland has now helped millions of Ukrainians fleeing Russia's invasion.
Among those providing support are Beata and Karol Popko, who have made one of the three bedrooms in their Warsaw flat, which they share with their 2 1/2-year-old daughter, available for refugees. "I wonder what my grandmother would say if she were still alive," said Karol Popko, 32. "She survived the Volhynia massacre, and my entire childhood was marked by stories about the atrocities committed by the evil Ukrainians."
Nevertheless, he believes Ukrainian refugees should be helped regardless of the old wounds in the relations between these two countries. Over the course of the past year, 12 refugees have lived with the Popko family — some for days, others for weeks — until they were able to find their own accommodation or left Poland altogether.
Karol Popko often gathered up the refugees at the railway station in Warsaw where he worked as a volunteer helping Ukrainian arrivals alongside his regular job. He has also driven trucks in aid convoys to Ukraine.
Poland now a country of immigration
Popko, a search machine expert, also runs one of the most popular websites for Ukrainian refugees in Poland, ukrainianinpoland.pl. "Our texts are written by Ukrainians living in Poland who know exactly what their compatriots need," he said. "We want to help people who suddenly have to build a new life here."
The website tells refugees how to get a Polish driving license, where to find a dentist or what help is available for Ukrainians from international organizations.
From the word go, Ukrainian refugees in Poland have been able to rely more on private and social initiatives than on the authorities. The sudden arrival of millions of people in a short space of time was a massive challenge for Poland — one for which no one was prepared. Within weeks of Russia launching the invasion on February 24, 2022, Poland — which had previously refused to take in refugees at EU level — had become a country of immigration.
Language, proximity make Poland attractive to refugees
Millions of Ukrainians have come to Poland over the past year. Although many have since returned to Ukraine or left Poland for other countries, over 1.4 million have registered to stay.
Once they have a Polish insurance number, they get state health insurance and are allowed to work. The state gives them the equivalent of €70 ($75) in welcome money and €110 in monthly child benefits. Adults without children do not receive any support. Nevertheless, far more Ukrainian refugees have fled to Poland than to any other country.
According to surveys three-quarters of the refugees hope to go back home some day, which is why they prefer to stay in neighboring Poland rather than move to a more distant country.
For many Ukrainian refugees, the Polish language is also a decisive factor. Polish and Ukrainian are similar enough to allow both sides to communicate easily with one another.
Some refugees also had relatives already living in Poland and were able to find work through them.
'Wave of solidarity surprising'
Even before the Russian invasion, about 1 million Ukrainians worked in Poland. Many of them moved there when Russia occupied Crimea in 2014. Of this group, many men returned to fight for Ukraine after Russia invaded their country on February 24, 2022. At present, there are about 2.2 million Ukrainians living in Poland.
The extent of solidarity shown at the start of the war was surprising, said Dominika Pszczolkowska, a political scientist at the Center of Migration Research at the University of Warsaw.
"The Poles never rank very highly when it comes to European surveys about active citizenship. Business and family matters count more to them," she told DW. Nevertheless, she added, when it came to helping Ukrainian refugees, the Poles demonstrated a phenomenal ability to organize quickly from the bottom up.
Anti-Ukrainian attitudes spreading
But the willingness to help is starting to recede. In late 2022, surveys indicated that 63% of Poles — or someone close to them — were supporting refugees out of their own pocket. By January, however, the Warsaw-based Center for Public Opinion Research discovered that this had dropped to just 41%.
"It was to be expected that fatigue would set in," said Pszczolkowska, adding that prices have risen in Poland, too, and people are able to afford less and less. "And if, for example, someone has to wait longer for a doctor's appointment because there are also Ukrainians in the queue ahead of them, then that person might easily vent their anger at those Ukrainians."
According to the Racist and Xenophobic Behavior Monitoring Center in Warsaw, the number of verbal and physical attacks on Ukrainians has risen sharply. During last year's annual demonstration by nationalists on Poland's national holiday, November 11, people carried banners and shouted anti-Ukrainian slogans like "The Ukrainian is not my brother," "Stop the ukrainization of Poland" and "This is not our war."
Fear of Russia on the rise
However, the influx of Ukrainian refugees has not been the only thing shaping Poland over the past year. So, too, has a growing fear of Russia. According to the Center for Public Opinion Research, 43% of Poles consider the prospect of a Russian attack on their country to be realistic, and 78% see Russia as a threat.
Karol Popko is afraid, too. "I think that Putin could attack Poland. If he has already mobilized hundreds of thousands of soldiers, he can't just send them home again; he has to do something with them. So, he'll attack somewhere and then see what happens," he said.
In future, Popko may seek refuge for himself, his family and his company abroad. But he intends to stay in Poland as long as possible. "Thousands of Ukrainians who need help are still coming to Poland every day," he said.
This article was originally published in German.