War in Europe; a trip to Warsaw
History will likely make the 24th of February 2022 as the beginning of the Ukrainian War, but for me it was 22.2.22. On that morning Putin declared the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine as independent which gave his tyrannical mind the logic to make war. Two days later I protested in front of the Russian consulate in Munich and then two days after that I turned off my heat for the rest of the season to further reduce any chances of funding Putin’s war machine.
On my way into the office that Monday morning I passed by three grown men chatting in front of the Siemens headquarters building on Wittelsbacherplatz. One was idle, the other two each had a long pole with a small hook at the end and were lazily cleaning the crevasses between the cobblestone. With the potential of war in wider Europe brewing, this lavish use of manpower was too much for me. I had to get out!
Let’s avoid the psychological analysis of why I headed toward a war, but history is happening now in my backyard and as a writer I felt a duty to document it and tell the story. With Warsaw, Poland being a primary hub for fleeing Ukrainians; I booked a train ticket for the next day and a hotel for three nights. There was nothing heroic here—for I stayed safely within the bounds of NATO—but I was nervous with having no experience of seeking out stories and information in emotional situations.
As an editorial note, I am sensitive to identities so I have changed names and will only be providing generalized backgrounds. In all my interactions I always introduced myself with, “Hi—I’m Tom, a writer from America, living in Munich, and making this trip to Warsaw to collect firsthand information for my newsletter from people directly impacted by the war.” The business card I handed out probably didn’t boost my credentials but it was all had. I did not record or take notes for it would have been too formal and would have made people uncomfortable. So this is all from my memory and I used my best efforts to accurately write everything down that I learned.
I departed for Warsaw early Tuesday morning, had a delay in Berlin with the connecting train, but during the trip’s second leg, I was able to ease into my research when a fellow leaned over and asked if he could borrow my MacBook charger. I gladly passed it on and asked if he was from Warsaw. It just so happened that he is Russian but lives in Berlin and was on a business trip to Warsaw.
Dmitriy is thirty-three, originally from a city of 300,000 in western Russia, married and they have no children. He is the CEO/co-founder of a marketing firm that has a presence across the globe. I asked him for his thoughts about America and Germany. He expressed only good and warm feelings toward both. Regarding Russia though he is completely against Putin and the war, but said “I love my country, but not the government.” Just ten days prior he was in Russia and considered protesting but decided against it for fear of not getting back to Berlin. He felt a duty to keep his business going because many people depended on the salaries he paid.
He had protested years before against Putin and said the big problem has been, like many situations with no change in leadership, people get too comfortable. I imagine Dmitriy was lost for the correct word in describing Putin’s extended rule, because he has gotten a little more than comfortable. He told me his father was retired from the army and is also against Putin. His mother though was the opposite, which he attributes to both of them getting news from different sources.
His recent trip back to Russia was to get his braces tighten, which brought a little levity to our chat by describing Americans’ big perfect white teeth. It also expressed some realities about life and this war. Like, that it’s cheaper to fly to Russia every 45 days to visit the orthodontist over getting braces in Berlin. He now though will have to fly through Moldova for his regular checkup.
His drive to keep life moving forward and friendliness was abundant. He invited me to lunch the next day to meet some of his colleagues, which I of course accepted. (The two of us coincidently stayed at the same hotel so we shared a couple breakfasts and got to know each other even better.)
This was my first time in Warsaw, and Poland for that matter, so when I emerged from the train station that evening I was immediately accosted by the monstrous 778 foot art deco building called Palace of Culture and Science. Originally prefixed as Joseph Stalin’s palace, the darkness of the night and the colors radiating from its walls made me think I was about to witness Dr. Peter Venkman on the roof vanquishing the ghost of Gozer with his proton pack.
I tossed and turned that night, but the next morning, Wednesday, March 2nd, I ventured out to get the mood of the city. I walked down Krakowskie Przedmieście, which is the northern section of the city’s Royal Route that connects the historic Old Town and other landmarks. The activity on the streets were those of any normal fresh workday. The most obvious mark of the times were all the Ukrainian flags adorning buses, streetcars, and buildings.
I had read that the Warsaw East Station was a primary landing spot for refugees, so I made my way there by crossing the Vistula River—a wide, muddy and swift moving body of water much like the Missouri. Upon arrival I found a calm, organized, and friendly environment with a smattering of police officers at ease and giving directions. This mood would be like every place I visited the next couple days. I believe this peacefulness existed because Ukrainians had found safety in this European Union capital city and a local citizenry that is ready to help and make sacrifices.
My guess is that there were just over 100 refugees at the station. This was surprising considering the hundreds of thousands on the move, but it also confirmed reports that this initial wave of Ukrainians have relationships in the EU and were quickly moving west.
I went up to a group of five people holding signs with “JW” written in big letters. After a friendly hello, I learned from one of the women who could speak English that they were Jehovah Witnesses. I gathered no prearrangements had been made with incoming refugees but rather they were just being present for a possible follower to arrive and know they could find a safe and warm place to rest. She was from Poland so I asked how she felt about America in general and Germany’s announcement to grow its army. Regarding America, there was little said, but regarding the German army, she went straight to referencing the Bible and said something to the affect that all war is bad. She didn’t budge on this opinion after I expressed that sometimes a country needs to fight a war to protect its values and society. Naturally I was encouraged to check out their website for more information on their faith.
Society tends to snicker at groups like the Jehovah Witnesses—I typically ignore the man on the corner making proclamations—but we should give these groups and other organized religions a break for it is likely that our established and large institutions will make it possible for us to survive this war and all its related ills. And in this same vein, enough with the Polish jokes. What I saw of their capital city and countryside was a beautiful country with intelligent and loving people. I’m not much of a joke teller, but these days I try to reserve my jabs for people in power and the monied elite who think they can game the system.
I then talked with a group of four standing along the glass wall with luggage piled close by. The mother, who was about my age and spoke decent English, was with her son of about fifteen. They had been traveling for three days from Ukraine and heading to Krakow, Poland to stay with friends for two weeks. They did not seem weary. Their eyes were radiating and both in a stance that projected the energy needed to keep persevering. Ultimately, she said they want to reach the U.S., but when she learned I lived in Germany, it seemed like that could work as well. We traded contact info and she thanked me for everything I was doing. That seemed a little too generous for just making a train ride and talking to a couple people, but I suppose her gratitude was toward my ability to further tell the story of this war’s affects and to be sure everyone is making the utmost sacrifices to end this conflict. My only regret that day was my failure to find out who they might have possibly left behind.
I needed to get these couple of interactions down on paper, so I scooted over to the coffee kiosk on the opposite side of the station. After finding a seat, I was approached by a man that was sitting next to me. With no shared language (my German would not be of any help during my trip) he signaled the need for a phone charger, which I happily handed over my battery pack.
He and his wife are Ukrainian and live in the Czech Republic. They were in Warsaw to receive their daughter who was fleeing Kiev. Again, I found them to be in good spirits despite the additional worry for a son who is a front-line cameraman for the Ukrainian army. All this was communicated through Google Translate and simply looking into each other’s eyes for emotion.
I asked about Germany’s growing army and the man only expressed himself with hand and arm movements, which told me he was concerned that two big armies standing against each other could result in something bigger and more horrific. I nodded in agreement. We sat for a while longer and tried our best to communicate as we sipped our coffees. As they were saying goodbye, the wife handed me a Twix bar—that could not be refused—as a thank you for the phone charge. I followed up this week with the man and he said his daughter is safe with them but their son has decided to stay in Kiev.
As I finished my coffee and notes a woman asked me to watch over her luggage as she went to buy some goods. Apparently, she was on the run to meet a friend from Ukraine and drive her to a secure place. I was quickly learning that it was the small things that were being helpful with my presence in Warsaw.
I zoomed back into the city for lunch with Dmitriy and his colleague Alex. We met at their office, which was not far from the site where the Warsaw Uprising began. This two-month battle in 1944 was the largest resistance fight against Nazi Germany, and had a chance to accelerate the end of the war, but the Soviets undermined the efforts resulting in Germany winning the battle and destroying the city.
So much of what is happening today stems from all the outcomes of the Second World War. I came to Warsaw to make this report but also to keep broadening my perspective of the European continent and seeing the places that connect the atrocities of the Twentieth Century to those that are unfolding now.
At lunch Alex gave me the rundown on the effects of Covid-19 in Warsaw—basically same stuff, different day. We talked about the Afghan withdrawal, the roles our grandfathers played in World War Two, and how the sanctions were affecting their business. You know—just your typical 2022 lunch conversation.
Alex is from Warsaw and married with an 11-year-old daughter. On the German army question, he didn’t want to give me a straight answer. I gathered from a bunch of half sentences that a big German army was not a great idea and said ninety-percent of Poles would agree.
Now what about my post from last month about Germany becoming a neutral state? I was wrong on a couple points: a) that the Germans didn’t have a fighting spirit in them considering the past two world wars; and b) that Russian gas would flow through Nord Stream 2. History is happening very quickly, but German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s historic speech on February 27th declared an immediate €100 billion to bolster the Bundeswehr and a commitment from Germany to spend MORE than 2% of its GDP on defense. With the potential of Nord Stream 2 never coming online and the possibility of an embargo on all Russian gas and oil by Europe and America, a new era for Germany has certainly begun and likely a change in the global order of security, energy and finance.
I champion these decisions and have no qualms over a larger German army for three reasons: 1) America should not be the primary defender of Europe after this conflict; 2) as I stated in that previous post, Germany has one of the world’s strongest democracies, so a maniac is not going to be running the Bundestag; and 3) the Ukrainian documentary director Sergei Loznitsa said recently in a FT Weekend article that Germany has “…undergone a healing and cathartic, truth-and-reconciliation process…” from its past follies of war. Basically, we can trust now that Germany will not invade France.
What I will offer up though is a new idea, one that is counter to my previous essay. With Switzerland backing the sanctions against Russia, it is negating some of its neutrality but also better reflecting it democratic values. This makes me wonder if we should even have neutral states? I mean—are you with us or not? Finland, Sweden, Austria and Ireland are all wiggling around now. A lot of these statuses were results of past conflicts going back centuries, but can we also say that the modern neutral state of Switzerland was created, in the smoke filled, scotched drenched lounges, by men trying to protect their money? Peace doesn’t need to be made in Alpine tax havens. A secure conference room with forthright, honest and productive conversations is all you need. For better or for worse, this war could get big enough to force everyone to resolutely pick a side. Afterwards who knows how the chips will ultimately fall but I was also wrong by saying that Germany should be able to have their cake and eat it as well.
I went to WeWork that afternoon and on my way I bumped into a young guy seeking donations for Ukraine. I have no idea where my two Polish Zlotys (about $0.50) went but he was Ukrainian with parents in a city that was currently being bombed. I asked if he thought NATO should enter the war now. He said no and that the Ukrainians need to fight this alone. He recognized that if NATO enters the war it will turn into World War Three. If his sentiment is the same across the majority of Ukrainians, then when this is all over, or if World War Three begins, then I believe Ukraine’s ascent to the EU and NATO should be automatic.
I ended up spending two productive afternoons at WeWork. The energy and amount of people working in this space was awesome. I found that Warsaw is a big-time city with glimmering skyscrapers and new construction all around. It has made me even more resolute that this war cannot move an inch into Poland or NATO territory for that matter. There is too much that has been rebuilt and developed these past eighty years to let it all be destroyed again. Maybe it is my American confidence, but I’m certain that the fortified and growing NATO defense wall is going be the biggest, most beautiful defense wall we have ever seen. And in some way, we are going make Putin pay for it.
I resisted my habit both nights of doing a grab-and-go dinner and found some good local restaurants. The flavor of Warsaw being an international city was apparent by the vast majority of people speaking English in the restaurants—a lot different than my German-heavy home of Munich. I luckily got some good sleep that night for the next day I wanted to cover much more ground by visiting the U.S. Embassy, the Multicultural Center in Warsaw, and a return trip to Warsaw East Station.
At the US Embassy the next morning I found a long line of Ukrainians waiting outside. I approached three gentlemen between twenty and thirty years old and then a group of five. The stories I gathered from all were much the same, they were fleeing the horrific scenes we are witnessing on television and hoping to make it to the United States. Nobody was crying or in anguish, but patiently standing there with folders filled with paperwork.
I didn’t like this place to connect with people. I imagined how nervous I usually am while approaching a government official and then multiplied that by a thousand for these refugees. My instinct was to leave and let them be amongst themselves as they mentally prepared for a meeting that would likely change their life.
As I walked away a car jumped up on the sidewalk in front of me with a big Uber sticker on the windshield. Out poured a woman and her small daughter tugging along a Minnie Mouse suitcase. How American they already were, and my hope is that they can find their way to its shores.
I passed by many more embassies with hardly a soul in view and went through a park on my way to the closest subway station. A man with his daughter on his shoulders stopped me as I turned a corner to ask me where he could find a playground. Like a native, I confidently pointed him to where I had just seen one at the far side of the park. He was Ukrainian with a U.S. passport and was making efforts to get his wife (or maybe partner) a visa. I didn’t want to keep them long but asked how they were doing. He seemed in control but concerned for the long term. He has already been a refugee once while living in Istanbul and after one year he felt no longer welcomed. His worry is that wherever they land, this could happen again. I wished him luck, which seemed so empty considering the gravity of what he was likely facing, but isn’t that what we are hoping for in life, just a little luck.
The local news site said the Multicultural Center in Warsaw was a place that provided services to refugees and thought I could show up and start lifting boxes or do something. (My email into the official city portal for volunteering ultimately was never answered.) I walked in and again there were no masses of people or chaos but a center bustling with purpose. I talked briefly with an administrator and offered my help. She said without Russian/Ukrainian language skills there was nothing I could do. What I saw were people huddled around tables working through paperwork and my English and German would have been rendered useless. I asked if I could make an appeal to my readers for funds and again there was no need because they are fully funded by the city. She said the best place to direct donations is to Ukraiński Dom (Ukrainian House). Here is their website https://ukrainskidom.pl/ and at the end of this post I have copied the Google Translated bullet points describing their services. I thanked her and got out of the way to not clog up of their machine.
She did mention that Warsaw East Station could possibly be a place to find work so back I went as planned with hope I could be of service. There I found a large group of yellow vested volunteers (more than actual refugees it seemed) working a kiosk full goods and paperwork. I approached a woman standing alone and asked if I could help but again, the language was the problem. I asked for her perspective on the refugees. She said every Polish city is taking them in, but Warsaw is more of a launching pad to move further into the country or EU. Refugees had frequently asked her if she knew how things were in Berlin. They were wondering if they would find open arms like they have in Warsaw. She says the people of Poland are opening their houses up and she also wondered if Germany was doing the same. Unfortunately, I could not give her any concrete intel on that yet. I asked a geopolitical question and that got a little beyond her English skills. I thanked her and found an open area on a bench to take my notes and make a last-ditch effort to just be present for an instance of helping someone out.
After wrapping things up, I leaned over to say “hi” to the family next to me. They were going to Berlin and wanted to stay there. I saw more weariness in their eyes then those I talked with yesterday. I know it was just a one-day difference, but my guess is that this current wave of refugees will have the least amount of friction. This will likely end soon and places like Warsaw East Station are going to be much more stressful. It also can be reported that I witnessed primarily just women and children at all the stages of my trip. I’m sure Jordan Peterson has already made a TikTok post to this affect.
That early afternoon I walked through parts of the former Warsaw Ghetto. I can hardly give this area the reverence and respect it is due, but one of the most formative movies for me on the Holocaust was The Pianist—the survival story of the famed pianist Władysław Szpilman while he hid in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation. Evidence of this former terror still exists with a grounded down memorial site of a former Gestapo interrogation and execution prison, then known as Pawiak.
The section of the former ghetto I explored showed no evidence of blight and a vibrant neighborhood full of people walking around with purpose. The central focal point is the elegant Museum of the History of Polish Jews. To give you some perspective, the Warsaw Ghetto was about 1.3 square miles large and Mission Hills, Kansas is 2.04 square miles in size. Mission Hills today has about 3,500 residents giving them a comfy 16,241 square feet per person of breathing space. At the height of the conflict, as many as 460,000 Jewish people lived in the ghetto area or 78 square feet per person.
I think this perspective matters now, and although the dynamics are very different, with already over 2 million Ukrainians almost entirely moving west, and future estimates ranging from 4 million to 10 million, we are going to need to get a little closer to each other for a period of time. I believe one of Putin’s tactics is to try and tear at our societies with immigration pressures. All of our cities were experiencing a housing crisis before this, and the only way to not let this explode is to open up empty bedrooms and add a couple place settings during dinner. It’s a long way away, but my reporting says Ukrainians want to come to the U.S. As a guy that now contently lives in single room of 300 square feet (Munich as a whole has 2,323 square per person), but once lived in suburbia, there is plenty of existing space in American cities to welcome home Ukrainians.
After some Polish style pork ribs that night (mainly all rub and no sauce), I had a beer at the hotel and chatted with the bartender. Jan said that Ukrainians were staying at the hotel and have the financial resources to more than survive this initial phase. This was barely a week ago, and the BBC reported this morning that Ukrainians crossed the border last week in Porsches, but now the poor are arriving. As I mentioned earlier, this first wave is going to be the easy one, what will likely come later will put much more strain on communities.
Jan is Polish so I asked my German army question again. He said Scholz’s speech was a game changer, and he was surprised by this because he figured Germany would stay on the side of Russia. I thought this was interesting how he considered Germany tilted more toward Russia. Maybe I have been naïve to think up to this point that Germany was totally in Camp Democracy. I’m confident that that has all changed now for the better, and he too was glad Germany was growing its army. He also said Poland needs to expand its military because he thinks the country could only defend itself for up to three days. I pushed back saying Ukraine has rallied to make it a lot longer against Russia, but he countered by saying that Ukraine has a more charismatic leader. I don’t know Poland’s Prime Minister, so I will just take his word for it.
The platform the next day for my train to Berlin was very crowded but calm. It seemed half of the passengers were refugees and when I arrived in Berlin I had to cross a wall of volunteers with flowers to reach my connecting train. I wish I had known this existed so I could have confidently told the volunteer in Warsaw East Station that Germany is ready and their arms are open. (Currently anybody with a Ukraine ID can ride Deutsche Bahn for free to several other large German cities)
When I got to the deep platforms for my ICE train to Munich, I walked half of it and saw no evidence of refugees waiting to board. In typical Munich fashion there were skies, snowboards, colorful Arc'teryx jackets and Louis Vuitton bags. But these past several days have shown me that beyond this sheen, Munich is also ready with open arms and sending large convoys east into Ukraine with goods.
If you have made it this far, thank you! I’ll leave you with this final thought about what I believe we can all do and prepare for a worse case scenario. I believe Putin waged this war because he thinks Europe and America have grown far too decadent to make personal sacrifices to stop him. Evidence is showing that he might be wrong. We might not be technically at war, but we are in a full-on economic war. There is going to be a resource crunch coming—both in raw materials and finished goods—and we are not going to be able spend our way out of this crisis like 9/11 and Covid-19. Our supply chains are already messed up from the pandemic, so the less pressure we can put on them, the less energy we can use, the better we can fight this economic war, and just maybe end the physical one without it getting any bigger.
[From Ukraiński Dom website]
In the light of the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian House has today turned into a crisis response center. Today, the Ukrainian House is:
Providing an infoline with advice and support for Ukrainians arriving in Poland. The infoline is open daily from 9-21.
Providing information about changing conditions and procedures at the border.
Finding accommodation for Ukrainians arriving in Poland.
Coordinating volunteers wishing to help in the crisis response.
Providing advice for Poles wishing to provide assistance to Ukrainians arriving in Poland.
Coordinating the distribution of aid and support to Ukraine.
Giving commentaries and providing information on the latest developments for the press.
Providing psychological support for Ukrainians in Poland.