Filckers of Sunshine - A Visit to the Polish-Ukrainian border crossing of Kroscienko during the Ukrainian Inferno
|An oasis of peace in 2022|
Kania Lodge on the White Lake, Sitna Gora, Kaszuby, Poland
Perhaps it appears odd I include this on a predominantly music review site, but it was so intensely appropriate at present and indicates the unique perspective of an informed 'foreigner' dedicated to Poland.
I was kindly sent this account of a recent trip made by the writer and former war correspondent John Borrell to the Polish-Ukrainian border town of Kroscienko. He is from New Zealand and runs Kania Lodge, a superb country house hotel and wine business in the Kaszuby region of Poland. This oasis of peace is situated on the White Lake between the town of Kartuzy and the city of Gdańsk. His excellent restaurant explains the warm references to food in the article.
John Borrell is also the author of two fine autobiographical books detailed below the article.
The smell of wood smoke was drifting about the Kroscienko border crossing when I arrived there on a cold March morning in 2022. It came from half a dozen smoky braziers around which women and children were warming themselves after walking the final few hundred metres from Ukraine into Poland. Snow was falling and the temperature barely above freezing. The refugees were disorientated, tired and cold. Some were hungry too and gratefully accepted hot soup, sausages and dumplings being handed out by volunteers. Many of them had travelled for days in crowded trains and buses to escape the Russian invasion of their country, then entering its third week. Some had lost their homes. Others had listened fearfully to falling bombs and shells in cities like Kharkiv until they could take no more and had simply fled. Many had left behind elderly relatives unable or unwilling to travel. Most had said tearful goodbyes to sons and husbands since men between the ages of 18 and 60 were not being allowed to leave with their families. Few of their menfolk, it seemed, wanted to in any case. Putin and the Kremlin, it was becoming apparent, had miscalculated Ukraine’s determination to resist the invasion.
The women around the fires were too stunned by the events of the past few week to have much to say. But heir taut, unsmiling faces and slumped shoulders spoke of fear, the harrowing nature of their flight and gut wringing apprehension about what lay ahead. At one brazier an elderly couple clung tightly to each other, the woman dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. A young girl next to them clutched a blue teddy bear and stared distantly into the flames. A woman spoke soothingly to a ginger cat in a small plastic cage. I wondered whether they’d ever be able to return to their homes in places like Kharkiv and Sumy and Mariupol? Would their homes even still be standing. Or their husbands and sons have survived the fighting? And in the meantime where would they go and what would they do? Their lives, all of them, had been upended in ways unimaginable only a few weeks earlier.
I’d been in Portugal writing about cataplana and other classical Portuguese dishes when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Once back in Poland I’d watched disbelievingly as Putin’s war escalated. It was madness. Faced with stiff resistance from Ukrainian troops, Russia had soon begun targeting civilians and vital infrastructure. Homes, schools and hospitals were shelled, cities besieged, nuclear plants attacked and taken over and missiles fired at targets on the border with Poland. This didn’t seem like the right time for me to be arranging a culinary photo shoot or writing a chapter on preserving fruits and vegetables. I’d been a war correspondent for a good part of my earlier life. During that time I’d lived in cities not dissimilar to Kharkiv and Kyiv in that they were being shelled and there was fighting in the streets. I’d been lucky. While covering wars in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, journalist colleagues of mine had been killed or wounded.
As a correspondent I’d many times watched refugees flooding across borders or seeking shelter elsewhere in their own countries. Ironically, the first refugees I ever met were the victims of the same country that was now bombing Ukraine As a child growing up in a town at the foot of a volcano in New Zealand, I’d sat next to a Hungarian boy in class. His family had fled during the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and although safe in the antipodes, Ferenc was a lost soul. His English was poor and, I’m ashamed to say, we spoilt Anglo-Saxon children were far less kind, helpful and understanding than we should have been. There was also a Polish girl in our class. Basia’s family had fled its Russian-occupied homeland at the end of World War II. Her English was much better, so good in fact that she was embarrassed whenever her parents spoke Polish to her in front of other people. She wanted to be one of us, not a refugee from Poland.
With my journalistic background it didn’t seem right to ignore a war on my doorstop, not one that my Polish friends were so passionately opposed to that they were even changing the longstanding name of a popular dumpling from pierogi Ruskie to pierogi Ukrainskie. I’d already taken in a Ukrainian family that had escaped Kharkiv and was planning to introduce several Ukrainian dishes to the lodge menu as a small gesture of solidarity. Ukrainian food is not dissimilar to Polish. The two countries share a common culinary background, one influenced by geography, climate and centuries of shifting borders and political fealty. There are Jewish, Turkish, Hungarian and Russian elements, amongst others ,in the food of Ukraine,, Poland and other Slavic countries. The differences in common staples like dumplings are subtle rather than cosmic. But at Kania Lodge we’ll now serve Ukrainian vereniki rather than Polish pierogi or Russian pelmeni.. We’ll also serve a very Ukrainian version of borscht, the one with big flageolet beans that I’d eaten when I’d first ventured behind the iron curtain decades ago. We may even try our hand at making bogracz, a meaty stew from the Transcarpathian region. Its provenance can be traced back through Hungary to Turkey, a perfect example of the way the ethnicity of food develops.
Perhaps the dish most associated with Ukraine is chicken Kiev. Alas, there’s no evidence that it originated in the Ukrainian capital. In fact it was most likely brought to Moscow in the 19th century by French chefs cooking for the Russian aristocracy, admirers of all things French. The metamorphosis of its name from cutlet de volaille to chicken Kiev is unclear but it’s now a widely travelled dish, so internationalised in fact that chicken a la Kiev was the first packaged frozen dinner sold by the British department store Marks and Spencer as they moved into ready-to-eat foods in the 1970’s. Chicken Kiev was also served more formally at a banquet in Washington in 1990 as the Soviet Union was unravelling. Mikhail Gorbachev spoke of how the Kremlin acknowledged the different cultures and countries in the Soviet Empire and his commitment to change. “We have figured out we live in one world, one civilisation,” he said. That was something that a youthful Vladimir Putin, then a spy working from the Soviet Embassy in Dresden, will have choked on. He never forgave Gorbachev for allowing the Soviet empire to unravel peacefully, resenting especially the loss of neighbouring Ukraine. We’ll work on a new chicken Kiev for our restaurant this year, changing Kiev to Kyiv of course. Or perhaps calling it chicken Zelensky, after the Ukrainian leader who has captured the admiration of the world for his steadfastness, courage and common sense.. “Neighbors always enrich each other culturally, the president had said sagely just before Putin launched his war. “But that does not make them a single whole.”
Kroscienka is Poland’s southern-most link with neighboring Ukraine and I’d travelled more than 900 km from Kania Lodge to get there. It’s in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains where the Strwiaz River rushes between forested hills on its way into Ukraine. It will join up with other rivers and eventually flow into the Dnieper River near where it spills into the Black Sea. A little further south from Kroscienko through rolling hills is Poland and Ukraine’s border with Slovakia. To the north is Przemysl, the Polish town through which the majority of the 1.5 million refugees escaping Ukraine through Poland have passed. Most of these will have transited through the Ukrainian city of Lviv, 60 kilometres from the Kroscienko border crossing and 500 kilometres from Kyiv. For the literary-minded . on the way to Lviv from the capital is the town of Berdyczow, the birthplace of the author Joseph Conrad. The Russian border along which the invasion was mounted is nearly 1,000 kilometres distant.
On my way to Kroscienko I had seen thousands of refugees sleeping on the floors of railways stations and a huge crush of people trying to buy tickets in Krakow, a transit hub for many who had escaped the war through Poland. As the European Union had waived visa requirements for the refugees, large numbers were heading further west to Germany, France, Holland and Belgium. Some were seeking sanctuary as far away as Spain and Portugal. Despite its lukewarm welcome and ever-changing entry requirements, others hoped to go to Britain. Amongst them was Katrya, a smartly dressed woman I’d approached in the crowded concourse at Krakow station. She had three corgi dogs on separate leads. all wearing coloured waistcoats. Because of British royalty’s association with corgis, I guessed Britain might be her destination. I was right. Katrya was a lawyer from Kyiv and yes, she was heading to France to apply for a visa to enter Britain. “But where do I get it. In Calais, Paris? Now I hear Lille. It’s so confusing.” I couldn’t help her. At least, I consoled her, she had friends in London who’d do battle on her behalf with the home office and look after her when she got to England. The vast majority of the thousands of refugees passing through Krakow’s main railway station every day, were not so lucky. They spoke only Ukrainian or Russian, had no friends or family anywhere in Europe and were heading into the unknown dependent completely on the goodwill of strangers and charities.
So far Europe had not let them down. At Krakow station yellow-vested volunteers moved about the concourse offering the refugees hot soup, sandwiches, fruit and chocolate bars. Since crossing the border, children had had so many chocolates and sweets pressed on them by well-wishers that their mothers were waving away anyone proferring anything sugary.Volunteers were also on hand to answer questions and offer advice on everything from where they’d find hot showers to the departure point of buses chartered by charities which were leaving for Germany and other countries. Even pets were being well taken care of. I’d found Katrya in a corner of the station where volunteers had piled up bags of cat and dog food, water bowls and even grooming brushes. Her corgis had eaten their fill and were watching a black cat being fed by an old woman with a wrinkled face and the calloused hands of the hardworking wife of a poor farmer.
At the Kroscienko crossing itself, charities and individuals were doing everything they could for those arriving. “For our Ukrainian neighbors, everything here is free,” was scrawled on an old caravan where Andrej, a 60-year-old from a nearby village, was turning sausages and karkowka (pork neck) on an outdoor grill. The largesse was coming out of his own pocket. He could ill afford it but had had no hesitation in helping. “They’re our neighbors. They need us. So here I am.” he told me. Tens of thousands of Poles like Andrzej were giving their time and money to help their Ukrainian neighbors at border crossings. Across the road a humming generator provided power for a tent where refugees could charge their cell phones while they ate at one of the many food stalls next to the smoking braziers. The Catholic charity Caritas and other local and international aid groups were there to help them with onward journeys to places where they could be better taken care of while bigger decisions were made.
If these refugees had anything to be thankful for it was that they were seeking refuge in a prosperous country like Poland, one that had opened its hearts and wallets to them. There’d been no such help for refugees I’d encountered seeking safety in dirt poor countries in the Sahel or fleeing wars in Central America. But knowing that would have been cold comfort to every single Ukrainian crossing into Poland. Regardless of whether it’s a wattle and daub hut on a sun assaulted piece of African savannah or luxury apartment in downtown Kyiv, losing your home is a tragedy beyond an outsider’s casual comprehension.
It is not just property and possessions that are left behind. Every refugee leaves part of themselves in the place they’ve fled from. Even if they go on to lead successful lives elsewhere they’ll never be free of what the Polish word tesknota captures better than any single word in English. It’s homesickness, nostalgia and longing to be sure, but there’s identity, history and dispossession in the meaning of the word. Poland knows a lot about dispossession. That’s part of the reason for its affinity with Ukraine and the outpouring of sympathy and support we’ve seen since Putin’s invasion. Russia has invaded Poland too, not just once but several times in recent centuries. It’s most recent invasion was in 1944 when the Soviet army pushed the Nazis westwards, reconfigured the borders of Europe and kept an unwanted communist government in power in a geographically diminished Poland for 40 years. Stalin’s justification for taking a big chunk of Poland was that it was a fascist state. Putin went a step further in his justification for invading Ukraine. Ukraine was a fascist state, he claimed, and he was invading to protect the population from abuse and genocide and to “denazify” the country. Strange words of justification for the invasion of a country led by a man who was not only Jewish, but had been voted into office in indisputably free and fair elections..
The Soviet’s confiscation of Polish land at the end of World War II was one of the reasons I’d gone to Koscienko rather than any of the border crossing closer to home. Just 40 kilometres from Kroscienko, is the Ukrainian town of Boryslaw. During the 19th century it had been a thriving oil town on the fringes of the Austro-Hungarian empire. For a time the oilfield there was the largest single source of oil in Europe. I’d been to Lviv and Boryslaw years earlier because my mother-in-law, Alicja, was born in Boryslaw in 1934. Lviv (Lvov in Polish) and much of present-day western Ukraine was then part of Poland. It had been returned to Poland in 1918 by the defeated Austro-Hungarian empire. Almost immediately the Russians had attempted to take it from them. But an outnumbered Polish army supported by thousands of untrained volunteers, had defeated the red army just outside Lvov. The red army was also defeated, humiliated in fact, by Polish forces when it attempted to capture Warsaw in 1920 and impose a puppet communist government on Poland. The history of Europe may have been different had the Poles not won the battle fought near where the Vistula River turns westwards north of the capital. Before attacking Poland, Lenin had talked openly about marching the red army westwards to the borders of Germany. The Bolsheviks had adjudged war-weary Europe to be ready for communist governments and hoped military success in Poland and a threatening advance towards Germany would spark popular uprisings throughout Europe.
Throughout the build-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine I had listened to scores of political pundits on radio and television write off Ukraine’s chances of holding out for more than a few days against the 200,000-strong Russian army massed on its borders. I don’t think a single commentator spoke of any precedence for Russian military failures against its western neighbors. In the battle for Warsaw in 1920 the Bolsheviks had enjoyed a huge numerical superiority, so big in fact that Churchill had urged the Polish government to sue for peace as the red army advanced on their capital. The Russians enjoyed a big numerical advantage over Ukraine too in 2022, so large that America had offered to evacuate President Volodymyr Zelensky from Kyiv when the city came under attack from the north. “The fight is here. I need ammunition not a ride,” Zelensky had shot back. It was as an even more defiant and galvanising aphorism than Winston’s Churchill ‘s “we’ll fight them on the beaches .....” speech in 1940. By offering to spirit Zelensky out of Ukraine, the Americans joined the Russians in misjudging the Ukrainian resolve to defend their country.
History does not necessarily repeat itself. But there are usually some lessons to be learned from it. Russian logistics and the morale of troops in Ukraine have seemed no better than during the attempt to take Warsaw in 1920 or during the initial stages of the war against Finland in 1939. I wonder if Putin considered what he’d do if Ukraine didn’t surrender unconditionally soon after his tanks rolled across the border? Was laying siege to towns and cities and bombing and starving them into submission part of the invasion plan.? Or had it happened because, believing his own propaganda about people waiting to be ‘liberated’ by the Russian army, he’d badly miscalculated. Where were the fascists and neo-nazis who, Putin had falsely claimed, were committing genocide against ethnic Russians? Where were the people dancing in the streets to welcome their Soviet liberators?
He seemed also to have paid scant attention to what had happened in Russia during World War II. Stalingrad, Moscow and Leningrad were all besieged by powerful Nazi forces. None of them surrendered, not even Leningrad where the siege lasted for 872 days and nearly a million Russians died of starvation and disease. Three weeks into the war, besieged Ukrainian cities had also not surrendered. Even after the port city of Mariupol had been reduced to smoking ruins and was without food, water and electricity, there were no white flags. If the Russian army couldn’t take a small city surrounded on four sides and completely cut off from the rest of Ukraine, what chance did it have of capturing a city as big, politically important and as well defended as Kyiv? Arresting thousands of anti-war protestors on the streets of Russian towns and cities was a lot easier than overcoming Ukrainian resistance. One of those arrested was 77-year-old Elena Osipova. She’d been a baby during the Nazi siege of Leningrad, now St Petersburg. Eight burly riot police carried her off when she displayed two anti-war placards in Palace Square. The irony of this will doubtless have been lost on Putin who was born in the city when it was still Leningrad.
In 1939 the Soviet army got its revenge for the defeat the Bolsheviks suffered at Lvov in 1920. As World War II got underway, Poland was secretly divided up and occupied by the Nazis and the Soviet Union, Lvov and Boryslaw coming under Soviet control. The Nazis ousted their fellow conspirators when they invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 and were themselves sent packing by the Soviets in 1944 when the German army was in full retreat. By then, just 10, Alicja had been a citizen of three different countries - Poland, Germany and the Soviet Union - without even moving from the family home on the banks of the Tysmenytsia River. Politics and the military realities of the day made such rapidly revolving citizenship not uncommon in the borderlands of empire. In her recently published book, Summer Gardens, the Ukrainian chef and author Olia Hercules writes of a friend who’s grandmother was born in Czechoslovakia, married in Hungary and died in the Soviet Union, all without leaving her home village.
The railway station at Boryslaw had been deserted when I went there a few years ago, the five sets of tracks slowly being smothered by self-seeded birches. The ticket hall where once you could have bought a first class ticket to Vienna or Warsaw had no roof. The goods shed was collapsing. From here the Nazis had sent nearly 20,000 Jews to their deaths at the extermination camp at Bełżec. It was from this same station that Alicja and more than 13,000 Poles had been deported by the Soviets in the summer of 1944. They were being shunted westwards to enable an ethnically-cleansed Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to be set up. While those fleeing before the Russian advance in 2022 had crossed the border into Poland in trains, buses and private cars. Alicja’s generation and their families had been sent off in open goods wagons hauled by steam engines. No-one was waiting with soup or sausages when they arrived at the border. But the Russians had allowed them to leave with clothes, kitchen ware, and furniture. Poultry and farm animals were also squeezed into the wagons, Somehow Alicja’s family had managed to get a stamped and signed Soviet permit allowing them to take their daughter’s piano. It had been bought from their Jewish neighbors who, presciently, had emigrated to the United States just before the war. Nearly 80 years later the Czech-made piano is still in the family’s possession. We’ll shortly have it renovated and brought to Kania Lodge.
When I had surveyed the abandoned railway station in Boryslaw I imagined my mother-in-law’s piano being lifted into the goods wagon and the 10-year-old girl she was then sitting down to play Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp minor. That, famously, had been played on Polish radio when it announced Germany’s declaration of war in 1939. It’s a sombre, funereal piece, one which would have also seemed fitting for the moment the locomotive let off steam, gave a piercing whistle and hauled 56 wagons packed with Polish refugees and their possessions westwards.
But of course she didn’t. Like the Ukrainian refugees pouring across Poland’s borders, she would have been too sad, disorientated and apprehensive for grand gestures of any kind.
Flickers of Sunshine
The White Lake is a compelling saga of the mid-life ennui which led a foreign correspondent from TIME magazine to start a new life as an entrepreneur in Poland as it emerged, blinking, from five decades of communist rule. After building and opening a luxury lodge on a lake at the end of a dirt road near the Baltic coast, Borrell became a wine importer and distributor and set up Poland’s first mail order wine company. He later created Vestal, a craft vodka exported to a dozen countries and listed in places as prestigious as the Ritz in Paris and the Savoy in London. He also found time to launch a feisty weekly regional newspaper, deploying hard-hitting investigative journalism to probe and expose corruption and malfeasance and hold to account public servants schooled in the devious ways of the communist era.
If that was all there was to the story, it would be a fine book. But Borrell writes elegantly and perceptively about Poland itself. He dips deftly into its history. He observes Poland today with a reporter’s sharp eyed attention to detail. His personal anecdotes add nuance and texture. In the end this is the story of a life well lived and a country well observed.
‘A longtime foreign correspondent abandons journalism and gambles all his savings on Kania Lodge, a boutique hotel beside a pristine lake in Kaszubia in northern Poland. Borrell’s story has a happy ending but only after a long struggle. In order to make good his investment he had to become an active part of the transition to democracy and capitalism that has taken place with varying degrees of success all across Eastern Europe during the past quarter century.’
Anne Applebaum, The Spectator