The European Commission has been highly critical of Poland in recent months. A major target of attack has been Poland’s refusal of European demands that it allow Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees to flood across its borders — a “rejection of European values” some have charged. We Poles see it differently. We want to separate myths from reality.
Myth: We reject immigration in principle. Not so. The truth is that Poles reject having immigrants imposed on Poland, a sovereign state, against voters’ will. Nearly 80 percent of our voters are against EU-mandated relocation. Even the opposition Civic Platform party, initially in favor of accepting refugees, has quietly changed its position and is now opposed.
Meanwhile, Poles have opened their doors to refugees nobody else in Europe wants: Ukrainians, displaced by Europe’s own war. No other country has even acknowledged them. More than one million Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression have found safety here. Poles believe it is for them to decide whom they invite, and that Europe should protect its borders.
Myth: Poland objects to Muslims. Again, the facts tell a different story. As an heir to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth known for religious tolerance even before the Reformation, Poland has had ethnic minorities, including its own Muslim community since the 16th century.
The ancestors of Poland’s contemporary Muslims chose the religious freedom of their adoptive county and its Western values over life in the neighboring Ottoman Empire. Today, as in centuries past, Polish Muslims are integrated into the nation’s language and culture. In contrast, the few Middle-Eastern refugees who recently came to Poland did not want to stay, preferring our neighbor’s more generous benefits, government programs, existing Arabic-speaking communities, and numerous mosques.
Poland welcomes immigrants but has different relocation priorities than the EU. We want to finish repatriating Poles left behind in the Soviet Union after World War II. As a result of the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939 over a million Polish citizens — military and civilian — were arrested on Stalin’s orders and deported in cattle cars from our Soviet-occupied territory to Siberian gulags, mines, and the barren lands of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Many were executed. Many others died of starvation, exposure, exhaustion, disease, and torture.
My father, Gen. Wladyslaw Anders, rescued 120,000 Polish deportees and POWs from the USSR in 1941. Released from the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow as a result of the Polish-Soviet treaty negotiated by the British, he was to form and train an army out of Soviet-held Polish citizens — Poles, Ruthenians, Jews, Belarusians, Ukrainians and others granted “amnesty” by Stalin. Among them were 3,000 Jewish fighters, including future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
Stalin had no choice but to let these people go. It was one month after Hitler attacked the USSR. Russians desperately needed the Western allies’ help. Releasing the Poles captured by the Soviets became the condition of that help.
Anders’ Army (40,000 men in uniform) fought to liberate Europe, making its first significant contribution in the Italian Campaign by taking the Abbey of Monte Cassino. But at the end of the war, those soldiers had no home to go back to — and hundreds of thousands of Poles never made it out of Soviet Russia. Now we want to bring back the few who remain and their descendants.
Since the fall of Communism, no prior Polish government focused on the issue of repatriation. The current government has made it a priority. Within days of our October 2015 electoral victory, a plane was chartered to bring back from Russia the first group of survivors. President Duda reaffirmed our commitment when in May 2017 he signed the Repatriation Bill into law.
World War II ended more than 70 years ago, but for Poland, betrayed by its Western allies, the conflict lasted much longer. It was a 50-year occupation that did not end until the last Russian units departed on Sept. 17, 1993.
There are still Poles waiting to come home. For us, they deserve to be first in line. Therefore, before we relocate anybody else to Poland — be they from the Middle East or North Africa or some other part of the world — we need to finish the job my father started and bring home the Poles who still long to return.
• Anna Maria Anders is a Polish senator and secretary of state for international dialogue. She is the daughter of Poland’s greatest hero of World War II.
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