Since the invasion of Ukraine more than eight months ago, Poland has aided the neighboring country and millions of its refugees — both to ease their suffering and to help guard against the war spilling into the rest of Europe.
But a missile strike that killed two men Tuesday in a Polish village close to the Ukrainian border brought the conflict home and added to the long-suppressed sense of vulnerability in a country where the ravages of World War II are well remembered.
“The thing that I dread most in life is war. I don’t want to ever experience that,” said Anna Grabinska, a Warsaw woman who has extended help to a Ukrainian mother of two small children.
One of the men killed in Przewodow was actively helping refugees from Ukraine who had found shelter in the area.
NATO and Polish leaders say the missile was most likely fired by Ukraine in defense against a Russian attack. Now shaken Poles fear for their future, and political commentators warn that the strike should not be allowed to hurt relations with Ukraine, which have recently grown closer through Poland’s solidarity.
“There is fear, anxiety for what will happen the next night or the next day,” villager Kinga Kancir said. When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, millions of Poles dropped what they were doing to help. They took time off work and rushed to the border to offer strangers rides in their cars and places in their homes. They stood in the cold and served soup. Polish mothers left baby prams at a railway station at the border for fleeing Ukrainian mothers they would never meet.
People acted on humanitarian impulse, but their generosity was also a conscious contribution to the Ukrainian war effort. By keeping Ukrainian women and children safe, the Poles ensured more men could fight Russian forces.
Poland has a long history of conflict with Moscow.
Russia was one of the three powers that divided Poland in the 18th century and — jointly with Austria and Prussia — erased it from Europe’s maps for more than 100 years, brutally suppressing drives for freedom. After World War II, Poland was an unwilling part of the East Bloc and remained under Moscow’s domination for over four decades, until the Poles peacefully toppled the communist government. In their current solidarity with Ukraine, many Poles put aside historical grievances rooted in ethnic conflict, including oppression of Ukrainians by Poles and a brutal massacre by Ukrainians of some 100,000 Poles during World War II in regions not far from Przewodow.
The Polish government offered temporary accommodations and financial aid to refugees and gave money to Poles who housed them. The refugees also receive access to free state medical care, school for their children and help finding jobs.
The war changed a lot for Poland too. It drew the world’s attention to Warsaw, where top leaders including U.S. President Joe Biden came to show their support for Ukraine and for Poland’s aid efforts.
The conflict has strengthened Poland’s ties with its NATO allies, especially with the U.S., which sent thousands of troops to southeast Poland, close to the Ukrainian border, as Poland became a conduit for weapons sent from the West to Ukraine. The world’s humanitarian and medical efforts also pass through Poland.
Russia’s aggression has pushed Warsaw to increase the country’s defense budget and spend billions of dollars on weapons from the U.S. and South Korea. Poland is also actively supporting Ukraine’s aspirations to strengthen its ties with the West and become part of the European Union.
But as the war has dragged on, some Poles have become exhausted. Many are tired of hosting strangers in their homes and paying skyrocketing energy costs. They complain that Ukrainians have taken jobs from Poles and left some families without places in public kindergartens. The huge demand for housing has pushed up rents in big cities.
As winter approaches, there are concerns that the grumbling could grow louder.
The deputy editor of Rzeczpospolita, a major daily newspaper, voiced concerns that bitterness over the missile deaths could become a pretext to weaken Poland’s commitment to Ukraine or to drive a wedge between the two neighbors.
“Unfortunately, there are already voices that would like to use this tragedy to make Poland and Ukraine quarrel. And that would be absolutely against our national interest,” Michal Szuldrzynski wrote in an opinion piece published Thursday.
“By defending their independence, Ukrainians defend the West, including Poland. Therefore, our response to the tragedy in Przewodow should be not sulking at Ukraine, but even stronger support to increase its chances of driving the aggressor out of its country,” Szuldrzynski wrote.
A spokesman for Poland’s main ruling party, Radoslaw Fogiel, on Thursday reiterated Poland’s support for Ukraine and stressed that responsibility for the war rests entirely with Russia.
Fogiel warned that any discord between Warsaw and Kyiv would be in Moscow’s interests.
Polish President Andrzej Duda visited the site of the missile strike and talked to investigators. “There is a war across our border. Russia fired hundreds of missiles, Ukraine was defending itself. Nobody wanted to hurt anyone in Poland,” Duda said. “This is our common tragedy.”
In Przewodow, a farming community of some 500 people about 6 kilometers (4 miles) from the border with Ukraine, villagers were in shock when the missile killed two employees of a grain-drying facility, men they had known, at least by sight.
“Today we have a new situation that is very hard for us, and especially difficult for our children,” said Ewa Byra, the director of the village school.
The children kept asking: “Are we safe here so close to the border?” and “Are our parents safe?” Byra told The Associated Press.
The primary school suspended classes and offered psychological counseling for families.
“There is sadness because two people were killed here, and that is not a regular thing to happen in such a small village,” observed Kancir, 24, a mother of two small children who said one of the men who was killed lived just across the road from her apartment building.
The two men, ages 60 and 62, shared the same first name: Bogdan. One was the husband of a school staff member, and the other the father of a recent pupil. One was a warehouseman at the grain-drying facility; the other was the tractor driver.
One of them helped bring food and clothes to Ukrainian refugees and drive them to local offices to help them with the paperwork, said Stanisław Staszczuk, the county secretary.
In the aftermath, villagers are intimidated by the huge police presence in their usually quiet home.
“It is very hard to accept this, what happened, because it has always been quiet, quiet. Nothing was ever going on here, and all of a sudden there is a world sensation,” Kancir said.