“We did not expect such problems, wars in our vicinity and hundreds of thousands of immigrants at our doorsteps.” - writes Roman Kowalski, Ambassador of Poland in Hungary.
Probably, I’m not the only one who is convinced that we live today in a very difficult time. We are looking with horror at the events that are taking place in the South and in the East, near the borders of Europe which not so long ago was considered to be an extremely stable and secure entity – an oasis of prosperity and serenity in a stormy world, as we thought.
The memory of the atrocities committed during World War II fade away after more than 70 years. For twenty to thirty-year-old Poles and Hungarians, even the events from the transformation period in ‘89 are part of an already distant and often poorly known story. We did not expect such problems, wars in our vicinity and hundreds of thousands of immigrants at our doorsteps. After decades of Communism, we only wanted to catch up to the rest of the free world, to develop, to follow the footsteps of our Western partners which – in many cases – was brilliantly achieved by the whole Central European region. We are proud of our achievements, we had and probably still have this beautiful plan, but, as we say it in Poland and probably in other countries, as well: if you want to make God laugh, then just tell him about your plans… Well, history has played a trick on us again.
The tens of thousands of refugees who are storming the gates of Europe stir up different feelings in us – and we have to admit the negative ones, as well –, they arouse fear, fear for our own future and often just the concern that together with our families, we might lose our ordinary, everyday stability, security and existence. It would be hard not to understand these fears, although, often it is difficult to not have the impression that currently the more or less justified fears are dominating the public debate, political rhetoric and the perception of the tragedy that takes place at the borders of Europe. These fears also often prevent us from finding, or even starting to search, for an adequate response to the challenge that the whole of Europe currently has to face.
Poles have specific experiences when it comes to emigration, or immigration. Centuries ago, Poland was an example for tolerance, ‘the promised land’ for all kinds of refugees from each corner of Europe. After the fall of Poland in the 18th century, subjected to pressures and extermination, Poles sought freedom, a better life and security by emigration. Hundreds of thousands of Poles became emigres when they decided not to return to the country after the Second World War, or when they left Poland during the years of Communism. Poles have continued to emigrate in recent decades, as well, during the years of martial law, or in the ‘80s, when a large wave of refugees left Poland or during the last ten years of our membership in the EU, when again, nearly 2 million Poles left the country in search for new and better opportunities. Today, the number of people of Polish descent throughout the world is estimated at nearly 20 million, half of today's 40 million people strong Poland. It would seem that we have emigration in our genes, while in the meantime, the events that are taking place currently in Europe frighten us.
Polish refugees in Hungary
It is difficult to directly compare these situations, but looking from a historical perspective, Poles have their own unique memories connected to Hungary during the years of the Second World War. We were war refugees in Hungary. In that specific geopolitical situation, by making brave political decisions, often risking the lives of their loved ones and their own, devoting much of their own prosperity Hungarians opened their country, homes and hearts before us. During the years of the war more than 100 thousand Polish refugees – soldiers, civilians, women, children, Poles and Jews, found in Hungary not only a chance to live an almost normal life, a place to work and live, an opportunity to continue their education, but also for many of them, crossing the Polish-Hungarian border meant the only chance to stay alive. They crossed the border where a decorated gate with the sign ‘Isten hozott’ greeted them.
We remember this even today, we remember this unique gesture of the Hungarian people, and the passing of time does not diminish our gratitude and our duty of remembrance. We commemorate these events especially on September 1st, on the anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, when we gather at the Farkasréti Cemetery in Budapest, at the grave of József Antall, Sr., who symbolizes the help and aid that the Hungarians gave to the Polish refugees, and where we read with emotion the words carved in his stone tombstone ‘Polonia Semper Fidelis’ – Poland always stays faithful.
An example to remember
This cruel story that spared neither Poles nor the Hungarians showed us that we can remain friends and remain real people who are sensitive to the misery of others, even in the most dangerous and the most difficult of times. It showed that we have a huge amount of good within ourselves that does not let us down in difficult situations. This was a beautiful episode, and not just in the history of Polish-Hungarian friendship, of which we are still proud. It’s an example that is worth following, an example of true courage and solidarity, which even today may be the key that can help solve our most difficult problems. It was a beautiful, positive and colorful moment in those dark and cruel years. Hungarians wonderfully passed the exam during that period. We remember it with great and sincere appreciation!
Today, the situation is in many ways different, the entire world has changed, but many horrible, human tragedies without a doubt bear a resemblance to those times. Today, the whole of Europe is facing a huge test. Whether and how we pass this exam can certainly determine our future. And how will we remember it a few decades from now, how will they remember us…?