Among School Children

Zofia Stemplowska

My cousin teaches at a primary school in Warsaw. Visiting in April, I asked her what her new Ukrainian students were like. ‘They are all different,’ she said. Some Ukrainian refugees at Polish schools are taught in parallel programmes but others have joined regular classes. National limits on class sizes have been lifted. A Ukrainian school opened last month in central Warsaw. Some children have online lessons with their teachers from Ukraine. Some may not go to school at all. If I had saved my children from being shelled and living in basements, I might also prefer for them to play.

A recent Polish education reform required two separate year cohorts to merge into one. That schools are now also managing to admit Ukrainian students is testament to the incredible efforts of staff, parents and children. Hundreds of teachers have enrolled in evening classes to learn how to teach Polish as a foreign language.

I expected to hear that Polish parents were complaining about the effect on their own children’s education, but no one I spoke to had heard any grievances. As someone observed, competition for healthcare, already in short supply, is going to be a bigger cause of resentment. It’s also unclear how long the offers of spare rooms in small flats will last. Society can’t keep delivering without more government support.

I asked my school-age nephews if they could tell who the Ukrainian pupils were by what they wore. ‘No,’ they said, looking at me as if I were mad. ‘Do people talk about them?’ I asked. ‘At the start, maybe’ – they tried to remember so far into the past.

There was already a Belarussian girl in one class. She helps a newly arrived Ukrainian girl and they chat in Russian. Some Polish children have started using Ukrainian expressions on the football pitch.

My nephew showed me photos of signs in Ukrainian put up round his classroom. Other schools are doing it too. No one said anything about signs in Russian: the assumption seems to be that Ukrainians speak Ukrainian. Everyone in Poland over the age of 43 had to learn Russian at school. My best friend was convinced that since we were learning Russian, children in the Soviet Union were learning Polish. Knowing Russian helps to read Ukrainian.

My nephew could show me photos of his classroom because rules against phones have been relaxed to let students access Google Translate. It’s a natural enough way to communicate for children who will often text instead of talking to one another even when they speak the same language.

Having phones also means that older children can get news of those they left behind. One boy found out his old school in Ukraine had been destroyed on the day he started at school in Poland.

End of primary school exams are coming up and Ukrainian students aren’t exempt from the Polish language and literature tests. The results determine where they will go to high school. Questions will be translated into Ukrainian but answers must be in Polish and demonstrate familiarity with specific texts. There are eight books on this year’s list, fewer than usual because of the pandemic. They are mostly Polish but include A Christmas Carol. Teachers are dismayed by the Polish language requirement. Some Ukrainian children have switched to online learning because of it.

Last summer, a member of my family offered accommodation to a Chechen refugee with two school-age children. The local state school said they could not admit them. The children got a place at a different school. The family has since left Poland.

The school that found no place for them is named after a young Polish war hero who was killed by German soldiers in Warsaw during the Second World War. He was born in Drohobycz – then in Poland, now in Ukraine. When his parents were young, according to his sister, they were not supposed to play with Ukrainian children. The education minister is the patron of a competition for older children from southern Poland, concerning the ‘genocide committed against Poles and against the citizens of the Second Polish Republic of other nationalities … by Ukrainian nationalists during the Second World War’.

In prewar Lviv, which was then in Poland, some schools taught only in Polish, others only in Ukrainian, and yet others in both languages. Warsaw was 30 per cent Jewish and most Jewish children attended schools where they spoke Polish. Even when children of different backgrounds attended the same schools, however, memoir after memoir recounts that they never visited one another’s homes.

It was still possible, though, to get round the divisions. A friend of mine grew up before the Second World War in a Jewish household in southern Poland, speaking German at home and at school before she left for Scotland in 1939. But her Polish was perfect. She learned it while skiing and skating and running around with the other neighbourhood children.

Warsaw has magnificent playgrounds where children are trusted to climb many metres up in the air and do things adults wouldn’t dare. My daughters played on the see-saws and slides with Ukrainian children. Sometimes they needed encouragement – in Polish, Russian or Ukrainian. I didn’t want to quiz everyone but one of the Ukrainian carers I spoke to, in Russian, said they had only just arrived and were sticking to online learning while they figured out what to do. There was no permanent competition for resources at the playground and plenty of encouragement from the adults. The children got on very well.


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  • 7 May 2022 at 6:37pm
    Helen Cohen says:
    Good woman, Prof. Zofia Stemplowska!

  • 7 May 2022 at 6:40pm
    Helen Cohen says:
    In spite of being a grown up. . .

    • 9 May 2022 at 4:32pm
      Lexa Hypatia says: @ Helen Cohen
      Indeed. The children are showing greater maturity than some of the adults in this world.