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Poland and the problem of borders


My second visit to Warsaw, Poland’s biggest city, and I am incredulous. I was incredulous during my first visit, which took place in the middle of winter: then I was very glad of my ancient Loden coat as I experienced serious cold for the first time in my life. I saw bare ruined choirs of trees and garden plants swathed against the snow, and pedestrians often muffled to the eyebrows. I had read about spring in northern Europe, but the total transformation a few short months later astounded me. ‘It all happens in the space of three weeks,’ said my middle son, who lives and works in this most appealing and walkable of cities.

Whereas the parks and gardens had been almost deserted in late January, in late May they were crowded with walkers, picknickers, families and people of all ages simply set on enjoying the balmy weather: Warsaw was hotter than Athens on some days of my visit, and people were barbecuing, using single-use equipment available from supermarkets. A huge celebration of life was going on, and part of that celebration consisted of young people playing football and volleyball.

‘Do the Poles have a game of their own?’ I asked, thinking of Australian Rules and Gaelic football, hurley, boules, and the cricket matches in Regent’s Park, London. My offspring’s reply was rueful. ‘I don’t think they’ve got anything much of their own,’ he said, ‘apart from an awful history of occupation and partition.’ My knowledge of Polish history is sketchy to say the least, but I knew he was right. I jogged my memory later, and yes, there were three partitions of Poland in the late eighteenth century alone, as the Russians, Prussians and Austrians got to work: after the last partition, which took place in 1795, sovereign Poland ceased to exist.

Fast forward to 1939 and the Nazi invasion, which many Poles label the Fourth Partition. Poland lost a fifth of its population during the war, and three million Jews perished in notorious camps and ghettos. And Hitler was so outraged by the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, an exercise in ultimately futile bravery, that he gave Heinrich Himmler the task of razing Warsaw to the ground. When you view photos of Warsaw after this monstrous exercise had taken place, you realise what a miracle the modern city, painstakingly reconstructed, is. I was suddenly reminded of an Australian traveller I once heard of who cut short his trip to Europe and gratefully returned home. Europe is a continent soaked in blood, he gave as the reason for his return.

I was also reminded of school writing exercises, part of childhood all those long years ago. My schoolmates and I wrote numerous times, in what we hoped was faultless copperplate, Australia, the Island Continent. I don’t think we ever considered the implications of this phrase very much, if at all. And our thinking was inevitably conditioned by our consciousness of another island, that ‘precious stone set in the silver sea.’ That sea served England as a wall, and we eventually realised that Australia had the same privilege. The English and Scots might resent each other, and Sydney and Melbourne might bicker and quarrel, but these were petty comparisons when we eventually learned something about Europe’s chequered history and its shifting borders, and they seem to have shifted often throughout history.

I returned to Greece and was not really surprised by a news item a few days later. Donald Tusk, Prime Minister of Poland, announced that his government plans to spend two and a half billion dollars on reinforcing the borders Poland shares with Russian Kaliningrad and Belarus. Tusk sees Poland as being responsible for European security, and also considers the influx of immigrants, many of whom have Russian passports, as an attempt to destabilise Poland: last week, a Polish soldier was stabbed through the Belarus border fence. (I think that Polish politicians, knowing their nation’s troubled history, must have particularly heavy burdens to bear, and often sleepless nights.) The so-called buffer zone on the Belarus border is to be reintroduced and the presence of drones is to be significantly increased along both borders.

It is a very long time since I wrote about the island continent, and the world has become a very different place since then, but I’m still glad I was born in a country without borders.




Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: (Getty images)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Poland, Borders, Europe



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Existing comments

Of late I’ve thought about Poland often. I’ve visited the country only once and that was to the port city of Gdansk during late summer. I wore my bulky coat just about every day during that visit to the Baltic. I thought the Old Town section of Gdansk to be interesting and beautiful. Last year I read a story by J M Coetzee titled “The Pole”. It’s the story of an unusual encounter between an aged Polish pianist and a Spanish woman. Unforgettable writing by Coetzee. And then there is my great admiration for Iga Swiatek, a sublimely talented tennis player. Altogether, a great appreciation also for a country which produced a Pope, perhaps the first non-Italian Pope? We shouldn’t forget that Australia has been responsible for instituting Operation Sovereign Borders.

Pam | 06 June 2024  

Your visits take me back a mere five years when my wife and I visited Warsaw - and yes, though the latter half of April spring was bursting forth - flowerbeds filled with colour and leaves unfurling from avenues of trees - the beauty of the old rebuilt part of the city - the modern city, shops, restaurants and the gardens and parks both sides of the river. We heard that all was not well politically - and thought of our own land then with murmurings already about Robodebt bubbling up and other inequities towards asylum-seekers and First Nations people. No pointing of fingers from us. And something of Poland’s checkered past flickered into view, too - especially when we reached Kraków and our accommodation was only a few blocks from Oskar Schindler’s factory and Oswiecim/Birkenau a day’s outing distant. Where my uncle’s mother died in mid February in 1944. I’ve just been reading some Wilfred Burchett about what happened in “Western Europe” in the immediate post-war years as the US and the UK pushed a sudden and 180 degree turn demonisation of the USSR - not unlike the pile-on currently underway against Russia and leading to the situation you described of Poland thinking it must spend huge sums of money on border separations with Belarus, etc. It’s no wonder my German-born uncle ended up in the early 1950s in his early 20s in Australia - as far from war-torn Europe as he could get. Yes, indeed - a land without borders! (State borders excepted.)

Jim Kable | 06 June 2024  

Let's not forget that the 1944 Uprising was to coincide with a Russian assault on German forces around Warsaw, but the Russians sat and watched, no doubt planning their post war occupation. Little wonder the Poles are bolstering their defences against Russia and Belarus.

Erik Hoekstra | 07 June 2024  

A great article, Gillian, insightful and instructive. Australia is indeed lucky although the absence of borders can make us truly insular. We can only hope that we start to take the effect of our habits on the lives of our nearest neighbours more seriously. 

That said, Warsaw is indeed a beautiful city.

Juliet | 10 June 2024  

I have never visited Poland but understand some of the consequences of occupation. I was thinking about borders and was reminded of the quote about good fences making good neighbours. I wonder what is the difference between a border and a barrier.
No barrier can stop changes in society or protect us from the rise or populism, the lies of politicians and the unrealistic promises.
I recently visited Belfast and was told it was difficult to envisage a united city when there is a wall dividing it Some walls need to be removed. Perhaps we need reminders that we should try to be good neighbours.

Maggie | 10 June 2024  

The welcome warmth of Spring must be a wonderful relief after the deep gloom of a Warsaw winter, no wonder people are out making the most of it. It made me feel good just reading about it. On the other hand I also could imagine the unease, even tension that sharing a border with Russia and Belarus must create in the minds of everyone living in Poland. Thanks Gillian.

Stephen | 12 June 2024  

Dear Gillian - While based on Warsaw and borders your article ranges over many times and places. The remark that "Europe is an area soaked in blood " is tragically still true but even more tragically is just a small sample of today's world.

Meriel Wilmot-Wright | 16 June 2024  

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