In the restaurants, cafes and little Polish delis of Greenpoint, Poles speak of Russia’s attempt to annex Crimea nervously. They are looking backwards to understand the conflict in Ukraine and Crimea. And, to them, things are looking bleak.
Ukraine has provided proof of how quickly instability and war can develop – and how quickly Russia will step in to exert power. Fears of a spill over from Ukraine into Poland have been steadily rising in Polish media and now in the Polish diaspora. Many worry that Putin will want to re-exert the power that Russia once had over Poland before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
To the outsider, it may seem that Poland has little to worry about. Poland is a member of the European Union and NATO and is considered to be a successful, democratic post-communist state. But, to many Poles, their occupation by the Soviet Union, let alone the Nazis, doesn’t feel like it was that long ago.
. “It’s a repeat of what Hitler did,” said Virginia Zawlocki, a woman in her 80s who was born in America to Polish parents, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to annex Crimea to Russia closely mirrors history – something that she thinks many Americans haven’t studied extensively enough . “It personally reminds me of when [Nazi Germany] took over Danzig [a Polish city] because [the city’s residents] were German-speaking.,”
To those who grew up during the Second World War, the possibility of this happening is even more palpable. “It’s a fire waiting to be lit – war can happen at any point,” said 75-year-old Krystyna, who grew up in Lodz and refused to give her last name. “I’ve seen what a ghetto looks like.”
But, these Poles are also unsure of what can truly be done to prevent their worst fears from happening. Lidia Kocmanska, the owner of a Greenpoint jewelry store, grew up in a Poland occupied by Russians and is weary of the power Russia still has over Eastern Europe. “What can Poland do?” she said. “If NATO goes in, there will definitely be war. Putin won’t let them get away with it.”
Eugeny Szwajka says that Poland should try not to take action. “At this point, every country is armed and ready to take action – maybe Poland should take a step back and not get involved,” he said. “ We already need to be prepared for sanctions because of the conflict in Ukraine.”
Even the younger generation is feeling the historic baggage of Russia’s past influence over Poland. Their parents’ stories and warnings are a reminder of Poland’s unstable history.
“From what they’re saying, they are very worried about the situation,” said Zofia Alvarez, who has lived in Greenpoint for the past 17 years and has a lot of family living in Poland in Rzeszow. “They’re very afraid of Russia.”
Even though she’s so far away, the pressure of waiting and worrying for her family sometimes overwhelms her. “I don’t watch the news,” Alvarez concluded. “It’s just too depressing.”