PRZEMYSL, Poland – Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the elegant town of Przemysl, less than 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the Polish-Ukrainian border, has been transformed into a huge auxiliary machine.
Restaurants feed refugees instead of regular customers. School gymnastics organize Ukrainians instead of football matches. The local newspaper is raising money for psychological help for Ukrainian and Polish children traumatized by the war.
This city has catered to just about every possible need of those fleeing Russian bombs — even taking in their pets.
“We need to help,” said Radek Fedaczynski, a local vet who has worked day and night to rescue as many Ukrainian dogs and cats (and a stork and a baby goat) as possible. “It is our destiny.”
This generous attitude may seem surprising, given Przemysl’s complicated and violent history. This part of Poland has suffered terrible bloodshed in the 20th century, including at the hands of Ukrainian nationalists.
But after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this city seems to have made an instinctive and collective decision to leave the bad blood behind. Like much of Poland itself, Przemysl (pronounced PSHEH-mihsh-ul)) sees the struggle in Ukraine almost as its own, and has welcomed Ukrainian refugees with a torrent of support, marking a poignant reset in the long and complex Polish-Ukrainian relationship.
During World War II, which is now on the minds of many of Przemysl’s 60,000 residents, Nazis and Soviets took turns invading the city, exterminating civilians. Przemysl’s Jewish community, once a third of the population, was reduced to a few families. When the war finally came to an end, the bloodshed between Ukrainians and Poles exploded, with Ukrainian nationalists massacring Poles in droves and Poles backing out in revenge.
Przemysl has reapplied his war paint. His trains take Ukrainian fighters into the conflict; the bridges carry weapons and equipment to the front; and foreign troops stomp through the charming, windswept, cobbled streets. But this time it’s Americans, part of the NATO force in Poland.
The main focus is on helping the 500,000 Ukrainian refugees who have traveled through the city, mostly women and children, said the mayor, Wojciech Bakun.
Mr Bakun co-founded a nationalist political party accused of spreading anti-Ukrainian views before the Russian invasion. But he’s traded in his suit for a khaki military jacket and his office in a 16th-century yellow mansion in front of the city’s train station, a major transit point for refugees, to lead the growing relief effort.
“I’m not going to explain history to a three-year-old who has just crossed the border,” he said of his changed attitude.
Many residents said the same thing: Times have changed, and with more than a million Ukrainian workers already in Poland before the Russian invasion, that sense of differentness between Ukrainians and Poles has gradually diminished.
The relief efforts also have therapeutic value. Helping others, several residents said, helped them distract their minds from the war.
A large part of the population, especially older residents, is preoccupied with the idea that the Russians could storm the border. Every time the Russians bomb deeper into western Ukraine, sometimes just a few miles from Polish territory, this fear grows.
“Anything is possible,” says Jan Jarosz, head of the National Museum of Przemysl.
Staring out the windows of his office overlooking the city and the San River, he said, “If I were Putin, I’d bomb those two bridges. Everything goes through those bridges.”
He referred to Przemysl’s main railway bridge (which has been used by many fighters going back to Ukraine) and a highway bridge over the San River that serves as one of the busiest lines for supplies and equipment to western Ukraine.
Under a secret pact during World War II, Nazis and Soviets divided Poland and Przemysl among themselves. The San River that winds through the city formed the boundary. It separated the Nazi-occupied part, where the Jews were put into a ghetto, from the eastern side of the city, which was incorporated into the Soviet Union as part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, where all signs of Polishness were brutally suppressed .
Divided families stood across the river, shouting news to each other. All around them, Russian and German troops stooped, sometimes into ancient fortifications built by generations of invaders to control this area.
Today the new soldiers are in town from the 82nd Airborne Division. The other night, a busload of Americans, dressed in camouflage and combat boots, marched to Przemysl’s most popular donut shop, which serves hunky oblong pastries (without a hole) filled with Nutella or rose jam. The United States has doubled the number of troops it usually deploys in Poland, a member of the NATO alliance, to about 9,000. When asked what they were doing here, a soldier replied, “To assure and deter.”
Despite all the conflicts it has endured, Przemysl is still a beautiful small town with a 13th-century fortified castle, ornate Baroque churches, cobbled stone streets and antique charm throughout. The town even plays an ancient bugle call from the clock tower three times a day to mark the passing time.
For centuries, Ukrainians have played an important role in shaping the city’s multicultural heritage. A sizable community of ethnic Ukrainians has lived here for decades and now numbers about 2,000. Relations between them and ethnic Poles have steadily improved. But if there are problems in Ukraine, problems can arise here too.
A few years ago, not long after Russia invaded the Crimean peninsula and wrested it from Ukraine, nationalists in Przemysl attacked a Ukrainian church procession. The police were able to quickly arrest the perpetrators. But ethnic Ukrainians suspected that some Przemysl city officials had instigated the crooks and that Russia was using Facebook and other social media to incite hatred between Poles and ethnic Ukrainians.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
Russia’s shrinking power. The Pentagon said Russia’s “combat force” in Ukraine has fallen below 90 percent of its original strength. The assessment reflects the significant losses suffered by Russian troops at the hands of Ukrainian soldiers.
“As long as Russia and Ukraine are at war, Russia will continue to do so,” said Kasia Komar-Macynska, a young ethnic Ukrainian community leader.
For Dr. Fedaczynski, the vet, and his four-legged patients, this makes little difference. His center, the ADA Animal Hospital, is the closest animal hospital to the border, and the first logical stop for any living creature in need of shelter from the war.
Almost every day he sends a rescue squad to Ukraine or receives a truck full of frightened animals that have come out of the war.
His hospital works closely with animal shelters in Ukraine to rescue animals from large shelters, private homes and nearly abandoned apartment buildings, even military airports. Some Ukrainian pet owners have sent their animals out of besieged cities while they themselves are left behind, in the hope that they will be reunited someday.
After the animals arrive at Dr. Fedaczynski, they are examined, vaccinated and microchipped by his employees. They have rescued more than 600 so far: Chihuahuas, German Shepherds, an Egyptian cat, hundreds of other cats, a mutt named Rocky Balboa, the stork with a broken beak and a 10-day-old goat named Sasha.
The animals are often too traumatized to move. To ease their suffering, hospital staff take them for walks, let the dogs romp together in special playgrounds, and play classical music in a room full of caged cats to help them fall asleep more easily.
dr. Fedaczynski said it really helped Ukrainians who stayed in their war-torn country to know that their pets were safe. But it also helps him.
When the war broke out in Ukraine, he said, it was like “the worst dreams came true”.
“If you think about it, you can go crazy, so you have to do something,” he explained. “It gives you a good feeling.”
Erin Schaff contributed reporting.