In Przemyśl

Ada Wordsworth

For the last three weeks I have been volunteering at the Polish-Ukrainian border as a Russian interpreter. Every day I spend up to fourteen hours meeting refugees off trains, directing them to their next destination, and advising those who have come without plans on what to do next. This often involves taking them to the station café and settling them down with a coffee or a hot meal to discuss their next steps. There aren’t many volunteers here who speak Ukrainian or Russian. There are even fewer who speak either Russian or Ukrainian and Polish. In order for refugees to communicate with the police or local government officials, we often have to form a translation train: the refugee tells me what they need, I translate to an English-speaking Pole, and they pass it on to the relevant authority.

As well as the millions of refugees arriving from Ukraine, and thousands of Polish and international volunteers, there are Americans and Western Europeans who have turned up in their vanloads, erecting colourful tents, playing music, and handing out sweets and teddy bears to children who have not cleaned their teeth for days and are unable to carry any more toys than the treasured items they have brought from home.

I’m often reminded of the passage in The Unbearable Lightness of Being in which Milan Kundera’s narrator describes an American senator’s feelings on seeing children from Czechoslovakia playing:

There was more than joy at seeing children run and grass grow; there was a deep understanding of the plight of a refugee from a Communist country where, the senator was convinced, no grass grew, or children ran.

If Ukrainian refugees enter Poland by foot, their first experience of the European Union is likely to be the Medyka border crossing. They then walk down a short path to get a bus either to the Humanitarian Centre, in an abandoned Tesco, or to Przemyśl railway station. A man who has driven a piano from Germany plays sad music. There is a candyfloss machine, and a Frenchman dressed as pirate handing out crêpes. Members of religious sects strum ukuleles, sing kumbaya, and pray loudly at people. Turn your back on the refugees and you could almost imagine you were at Glastonbury.

I make my way to the station each day past a man playing a wooden flute, and push through a crowd of American evangelicals trying to hand out postcards with cartoon drawings of rainbows and castles. When English-speaking volunteers arrive at the station they tend to be directed to me. I ask about their language abilities, and find out if they have a car or minibus. If it transpires, as it often does, that they speak only English and do not have transport, I wonder what has made them come all this way instead of donating the hundreds of pounds it has cost them to one of the relief funds. What do they have to offer that is worth their taking up a bed desperately needed by a displaced person?

The kitsch circus isn’t helped by the photographers who swarm around every exhausted babushka and crying child with foot-long camera lenses. Some are journalists; others are bloggers or film students who tell me that they ‘simply had to be here’. I have lost count of the occasions I have been asked by a man with a camera to get out of a shot or to adjust my position while I am trying to advise a mother and her children where to go next, or how to find somewhere they might spend the night.

War tourism is nothing new. During the Franco-Prussian War, people would follow the fighting, collecting souvenirs. After the Crimean War, Mark Twain led tours through Sevastopol where the sightseers collected shrapnel. And Benjamin Robert Haydon recorded in his diary that an English button manufacturer from Birmingham rode through the smoke and carnage of Waterloo on a cob. He had always wanted, he told the Duke of Wellington, to see a battle.


  • 1 April 2022 at 1:24pm
    Ian Sheperd says:
    This is why I read the LRB, I always get something deeper here, thank you

  • 2 April 2022 at 5:04pm
    Sergey Bolmat says:
    "In the Crimean War, Mark Twain led tours through Sevastopol where the sightseers collected shrapnel."
    Samuel Langhorne Clemens known by his pen name Mark Twain was born November 30, 1835.
    The Crimean War was a military conflict fought from October 1853 to February 1856.
    When the Crimean War started Mark Twain was 18. At this age he left his native Hannibal and worked as a printer in New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. Later, he became a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi. He continued working on the river and was a river pilot until the Civil War broke out in 1861. He first visited the Crimea only in the summer of 1867, 11 years after the end of the conflict, when he went on his European tour.
    Apart from all that, it was fun to imagine for a brief moment Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain facing each other in Sevastopol across the frontline.

    • 6 April 2022 at 11:32am
      Thomas Jones (blog editor) says: @ Sergey Bolmat
      Thank you. 'In' has now been changed to 'After'.

  • 2 April 2022 at 5:37pm
    Kevin Fallon says:
    "There was nothing else to do, and so every body went to hunting relics. They have stocked the ship with them. They brought them from the Malakoff, from the Redan, Inkerman, Balaklava—every where. They have brought cannon balls, broken ramrods, fragments of shell—iron enough to freight a sloop." Mark Twain - The Innocents Abroad (1869)

  • 4 April 2022 at 3:02pm
    Jeff Greer says:
    I am planning to go to Przemyśl to help the MAD Foundation. Fluent in Russian. Would you be willing to have a brief e-mail exchange to tell me more? I really want to get the most out of this experience to genuinely help people.

  • 7 April 2022 at 1:28pm
    Thomas Benson says:
    Another fine blog piece. But... are you sure about the spectators at Austerlitz in 1805? It was a surprise attack, after all. The only reference I can find is in a BBC article about a re-enactment in 2005: 'Special stands were erected to house spectators, most of them Czech, who take a deep pride in playing host to one of history's most important battles'

    • 7 April 2022 at 2:21pm
      Thomas Jones (blog editor) says: @ Thomas Benson
      My sloppiest ever fact-checking. That sentence has now gone. Thank you.

  • 10 April 2022 at 11:50am
    Kyle Duncan says:
    Thank you for your thought-provoking piece. I’ve been in Poland and western Ukraine for a few weeks now compiling stories from those affected by the war, and spent a few days at Medyka. I saw people from all over the world helping, and even English-only speaking folks from Aus, UK, Canada, etc. being put to good use carrying bags for people, making and serving hot food, unloading vans, etc. I also met people in Warsaw and Krakow (both multi-lingual Russian-Polish speakers and English-only speakers, organizing critically needed supplies such as gauze, tourniquets, water, medicine, food, etc. I agree with you that if a mono-lingual Westerner is taking up a bed in Przemysl or another near-border town that could otherwise be used by a Ukrainian fleeing the war, they should go further afield for accommodation, or pitch a tent. But I have met no one in my time here, Russian-speaking or otherwise, who wasn’t being put to good use. The demand—both in relief matériel, strong backs, and helping hands—far exceeds the supply.

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