Poland’s history with Russia inspired some Poles to join the fight in Ukraine: NPR

Citizen-soldiers join the new Ukrainian International Brigade of Foreign Fighters. Among them, Poles compare the invasion of Ukraine by Russia to the brutal occupation of Poland by the Soviet Union.


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said thousands of volunteers from around the world had joined a newly formed international brigade to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia. Many more are signing up, including Poles, who have their own terrible history with Russian invasions. NPR’s Joanna Kakissis tells our story from a small town outside of Poland’s capital, Warsaw.

ANDRZEJ RYMUT: (speaking Polish).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Andrzej Rymut looks like everyone’s favorite middle-aged dad. Think glasses, a welcoming smile, a Mister Rogers-style zipper sweater.

A RYMUT: We are at home in the pretty little town of Kobylka, near the capital of Poland, Warsaw. I have worked for 25 years as a flight attendant for LOT Polish Airlines. I am married. I have two children and also a cat.

KAKISSIS: And like most Poles, he and his wife Ela watch news about Ukraine 24/7.


PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: You are looking at Zelenskyy.

A RYMUT: Part of Ukraine was Polish before World War II. So Poles and Ukrainians, we are like brothers and sisters, like a family.

KAKISSIS: Do you have the impression, when you watch this, that the war is also very close to Poland?

A RYMUT: Yes. You know, I was in Toronto a few days ago, and I took an Uber, and the driver, when he found out I was from Poland, he said, you know you’re gonna be next . Putin will take Poland as his next country.

KAKISSIS: Poland has a traumatic history with Russia. The Soviet Union, an ally of Nazi Germany in 1940, invaded Poland. The Soviets imprisoned and murdered the country’s entire officer corps and then blamed the Germans. Poland was under the control of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and the Rymut family suffered from communist repression. His mother was imprisoned for resisting the Soviets. His grandfather was executed.

A RYMUT: He was shot four times in the head. His body was found five years ago. I feel deep in my heart that I have to do what my grandfather did, what my mother did – fight for freedom.

KAKISSIS: Rymut sees Ukraine facing the same kind of onslaught from Russia, so he wrote to the Ukrainian Embassy in Poland.

A RYMUT: Listen, guys. I want to go to Ukraine and help you fight. I can take care of your wounded. Do whatever you want with me. I want to be with Ukraine and the people there.

KAKISSIS: Rymut is a trained nurse and served as an Army medic supporting US and Allied troops during the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s. He unpacked his old fatigues for his new assignment. The only thing he is waiting for is an exemption from Poland to serve in a foreign army.

TO RYMUT: It could happen tomorrow or the day after. Once the authorization obtained, I am in Ukraine.

KAKISSIS: Not everyone is waiting for permission.


KAKISSIS: In a sleepy motel near the Ukrainian border, we find a secret meeting point for foreign volunteers heading for battle. Minibuses idle in the parking lot.



KAKISSIS: I’m Joanna.

A few men in military fatigues are waiting outside for the OK to board the buses and go to Ukraine.


KAKISSIS: Inside, in the motel pub, about 20 men, young to middle-aged, all in military gear, are drinking hot tea at 3 a.m. No one wants to be registered except Curtis, a tall and imposing ex-soldier from the United Kingdom.

CURTIS: We have South Americans. We have Germans, Swedes. And we also had Irish people.

KAKISSIS: Do you also have Americans?

CURTIS: Yeah. I believe so, yes.

KAKISSIS: He won’t reveal his last name, but he’s open about his goals as a volunteer soldier in Ukraine.

CURTIS: Stop the Russians, you know, from advancing as fast as they are and absolutely annihilating Putin.

KAKISSIS: He calls Vladimir Putin a tyrant and he says he feels close to the Ukrainians.

CURTIS: Ukraine is kind of like the UK, so the same type of people doing the same type of work, you know, watching children, women, children running across the border crying. You know, hundreds of thousands of them have to go.

KAKISSIS: International volunteers can be problematic for Ukraine if they feel they are owed something for having fought or if they refuse to leave, says Polina Beliakova, specialist in civil-military relations at the University Tufts. But she adds that volunteer soldiers from Poland and the Baltic states are fighting for the same goal.

POLINA BELIAKOVA: They see Russia as a threat to their homeland. For example, Poland will be next or Lithuania will be next. And they really want to engage more in this fight in Ukraine so that Russian soldiers don’t knock on their door tomorrow.

ELA RYMUT: (Speaking Polish).

KAKISSIS: Back at Andrzej Rymut’s home outside of Warsaw, his wife, Ela, bites her lip as she talks about her husband and his plans to fight in Ukraine.

E RYMUT: (Through an interpreter) We first met at summer camp, and we’ve been together ever since. I know my husband. I’m not surprised he wants to do this, but I’m really scared.

KAKISSIS: Her husband shakes her hand. He calls her his angel.

TO RYMUT: I’m scared, you know. I may not come back here, but I will take that risk. I’m not trying to be a hero. I want to fight with the Ukrainian army because if we don’t involve the international army, Putin will take Ukraine. And then who will be next?

KAKISSIS: He hopes NATO leaders ask themselves the same question.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kobylka, Poland.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: The Soviet massacre of Poland’s officer corps took place in 1940. The Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939.]

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