I was in Poland last week – just before the referendum. I wanted to visit the primeval forest in the extreme east of the country, and see bison in the wild. We booked berths on the overnight train to Warsaw.
I didn’t know what I’d make of a land I knew so little about, with an unintelligible unpronounceable language of insufficient vowels and a surfeit of zeds. I did know that eastern Europeans have been blamed for fishing out the pike in the River Cam (Brits catch them and put them back; Poles are said to eat them) and this has led to a population explosion of swans, but I love swans so what the hell?
My first impression of Poland was greenness, a land of traditional agriculture dotted with clumps of forest. They didn’t have hedgerows but they did have plenty of places for wildlife to live. Then I spotted the first lookout post – a wooden hut on stilts – and had a pang of negativity. These were clearly strategic positions for shooting wild animals and the victims, I later learned, were mostly red deer and wild boar. But a debate started in my head. Hunting conserves species, and the fact that we in Britain have lost most of our big impressive wildlife is partially habitat destruction but also because they weren’t hunted.
We were on our way to see some big impressive species that once lived in Britain and were conserved for a hundreds of years because they were high status quarry for tsars and kings. Now there is a strong conservation lobby in Poland and we were on our way to spend a week being shown Poland’s wildlife by a passionate advocate for threatened wild places and the animals that inhabit them. What I didn’t expect to learn about was Poland’s troubled history – a thousand years of wars and bullying.
Some Poles might appear surly but this can be a misinterpretation of their dead-pan humour and mastery of irony. I also love their lack of political correctness. I even enjoyed eating pike there. I think I’d like living in Poland. Poles’ undemonstrativeness may also be a long-standing survival strategy from the Soviet years, when anyone could be an enemy. The collapse of Communism is very much in the public memory, and the legacy of Nazi atrocities has also had a huge impact on what Poland is now. Not only did the Nazis wipe out the Jewish community, but subsequently Stalin ‘purified’ the country by sending migrants ‘home’ from what had been a multicultural melting pot.
When Hitler marched into Poland in 1939, it sparked the beginning of the Second World War but what I was surprised to learn was that only a few days after the western invasion, Stalin’s troops invaded form the east. Hitler and Stalin had come to an arrangement in carving up the country apparently. Perhaps Stalin’s act of aggression was overlooked in the West because at the time Russia was considered an ally.
Hitler saw Warsaw as the source of a lot of his woes. Towards the end of the War, when it was clear that the Nazis were heading for defeat, the citizens of Warsaw rose up against the occupying forces, expecting support from the Allies, especially Russia. The upraising failed for want to weapons, air support, etc and 150,000 Poles died. In an act pure spite, Hitler ordered that Warsaw should be razed, and the city was dynamited.
I came away from Poland seeing clearly, as my parents generation saw, why the European Union is needed. I loved being able to get on the train and speed across a united Europe only being aware of crossing borders when my mobile announced ‘Welcome to France / Belgium / Germany / Poland..’ Let’s hope that somehow Britain can stay friends with Europe and repair the damage of our ill-considered referendum where our people were mislead by ambitious divisive lying politicians.
I love Europe and I love being European. The EU isn’t perfect but surely it helps us to live together in peace and tolerance.
I shall post more on the wildlife of Poland next.