A distance of 400 km and 82 years separates Bucha from Katyn. Only a little more divides Mariupol from Warsaw.
.Nowadays, people are talking about the possible division of Ukraine. And yet in the past, Poland found itself similarly partitioned four times by Germany and Russia. I can assure you that today we Poles will do everything in our power to help Ukraine escape our fate, to make sure it is not erased from the map of Europe by the same forces.
When I look at photos from Mariupol I am overcome by emotion. I see Warsaw, my city, in them, a Warsaw that was systematically razed to the ground in 1944 by the Germans, while the Russians on the other side of the Vistula looked on, silent witnesses as the city burned for 63 days, waiting for the Poles to be punished for the Uprising. In the same way, Mariupol is now being punished for its resistance, house by house, street by street, ravaged by the “special operation”. Both then and now it is the same: residential buildings several storeys high reduced to rubble; people, small children, and women shown with their hands raised; piles and piles of human bodies and others still living, managing to get out from underneath them. If you look closely at the photos of the Polish capital, razed to the ground after the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, and Mariupol, razed to the ground in 2022, you will spot no differences. Not even in the slightest.
I am overcome by emotion when I look at the photos of the mass graves in Bucha. After all, every Pole is familiar with images of human corpses being dug up and bearing the marks of a shot to the back of the head at close range, of bodies pulled from the sand, from lime-filled mass graves in the middle of a forest, designed to quickly eliminate any traces of a crime. However, these photos that Poles are familiar with were taken in 1940, not 2022. These images come not from Bucha, but from 400 km away, in Katyn, Ostashkov, and Smolensk. Every Pole, every citizen of Central Europe, knows these names. The Russians killed 25,000 Polish officers, professors, doctors, and priests by shooting them in the back of the head. And it was not the only mass crime committed by the. Russians at the time. After all, their rifles and tanks were used not only against Poles. Every nation in Central and Eastern Europe has its own story, including Czechs, Slovaks, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians, to mention only those nations that today are part of the European Union.
We – the people inhabiting those Central European countries that lie in between Russia and Germany – have already seen it all. More than once.
Kidnapping Ukrainian children from Mariupol, taking them away from their parents and embarking on a policy of forcible russification do not in any way differ from the experiences of Poles deported en mass to Siberia, transported in cattle cars to places where it was impossible to live. Read the accounts of those who nevertheless survived that hell, a hell for which the perpetrators have never been held accountable.
Russian soldiers who in 2022 unashamedly stole domestic and audio video appliances from conquered Ukrainian towns and later sent them to their families deep in Russia are no different from the soldiers who did the same thing in Central Europe, including in Poland, over half a century before. No different! Today they steal computers, skateboards, wi-fi equipment – back then they seized carpets, furniture, gold teeth, and watches.
The widespread rape of Polish women by Russian soldiers is well documented. That is why I am overcome by emotion when I read documents detailing Russian crimes in Ukraine, such as those gathered by the Raphael Lemkin Centre for the Documentation of Russian Crimes in Ukraine. Despite the 80 years that have passed, the words of the women who fell victim to the sexual violence of the Red Army or Wehrmacht over half a century ago are no different from those officially recorded in Ukraine over these last weeks. Herd behaviour, bestiality, and official license to commit the most abominable mass crimes against small girls and boys are fuelled equally by both alcohol and ideology identical to the one in the past. Poles in the past like Ukrainians today were not seen as a nation but as subhuman beings. Like Ukrainians today they were not treated as a nation at all; its culture was deemed not to exist. Russian propaganda operates at full throttle. Both then and now, its victims can be raped, killed, and sent to gas chambers and mass graves. Then, as today, it was seen as none of the world’s concern.
We have witnessed it all. Some even managed to get into the German concentration camps and Russian Gulags and raised the alarm with the Americans and the British, saying: help us. Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, is doing the same thing now. His appeal is similar to those of Poles – Witold Pilecki and Jan Karski – who asked for the railway line to Auschwitz to be bombed. No one wanted to listen to these appeals. No one wanted to believe them, just as now when no one wants to believe the Ukrainians. “Cut economic ties with Russia” appeals Zelensky. “Make sure that at least the skies are safe. At least give us humanitarian corridors so that the civilian population can flee the war. Send weapons, for we truly know how to defend ourselves”.
The worst part is that we know very well what is going to happen next. We know that in the past the existence of a sovereign country – be it Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine, or Georgia met with a German “nein”, or a Soviet “niet” . And this is still the case today. Children are still being used as human shields, the mass slaughter of civilians and prisoners of war still happens, homes for the elderly are still being attacked. To stop the madness of war, there is a Potsdam, a Yalta, a roundtable in a Normandy, Bavaria, Geneva, or Valdaysky format. It will only result in negotiations that in turn will lead to the partitioning of Ukraine. But it will be presented to the world as a negotiated peace, and thus will de facto conform to the Kremlin chief’s scenario.
In the past Poles experienced similar arrangements, partitions, and divisions of their country four times. Other Central European countries have also not been spared by history. No, we will not accept such a repetition of Poland’s fate, which on this occasion it is the Ukrainians misfortune to face.
Today, more than 3 million refugees have been warmly welcomed to Poland and without the need to build camps for immigrants, as today every refugee has found a place in a Polish home, a job in a Polish company, a bed in a hospital, and an education for their children in Polish schools, despite the overcrowded classes. We have shared the enormous success that Poland has achieved in the last few years with our Ukrainian guests. Ukrainians are receiving the same social help for mothers and support for families as Poles. Trains and buses all over Poland are free of charge. What is most important is that we were not forced to do this in any way by the European Union. On the other hand, it is rather unfortunate that the EU has not provided us with any financial support in this endeavour!
I think that today our support of Ukraine (by aiding Ukrainians in Poland, but also by supporting the Ukrainian military) proves to the world how important it is to show our human face in moments like these. This is how the world should have acted in September 1939, when Germany attacked Poland.
If the civilised world had come together and thrown its collective weight behind Poland it could have put a halt to the hecatomb of German and Russian madness. If Western Europe had helped Poland back then, no gas chambers and German death camps would have ever been built. There would have been no Siberia, no Gulags, no division of Europe into zones of influence in 1945-1989, akin to how Poland was repeatedly divided in the past.
After causing the Second World War Germany had to face the consequences for the crimes it committed against Poles, Jews, Russians, and other nations. The country was disarmed and divided into zones. Despite the tremendous loss of human life and enormous losses in the 1939-1945 war, despite the heroism of Polish soldiers on all fronts, and fighting alongside the Allies, Poland received no zones in Germany. What is worse, in 1945 the West handed Poland over to the Russian orbit, where it would remain, as it turned out, until 1989. The only solution that can check the expansion of an aggressor and its attempts to subjugate other countries of the free world is demilitarisation, a process that Germany underwent post 1945
.We have already lived through it all. We know those photos very well. Every Pole knows them. Every Polish family lost someone, slaughtered either by the Germans or the Russians. Ukrainians, we will not abandon you. We call on you, Europe – unequivocal sanctions on Russia and military aid to Ukraine are the only solution.
We know what will happen next.
This text, “82 ans et 400 km séparent Boutcha de Katyn”, was published in “Le Figaro” on 6 May 2022.