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Poland's history with Russia has inspired some Poles to join the fight in Ukraine

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says thousands of volunteers from around the world have joined a newly formed international brigade to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia. Many more are signing up, including the Poles, who have their own terrible history with Russian invasions. NPR's Joanna Kakissis has our story from a small town outside Poland's capital, Warsaw.

ANDRZEJ RYMUT: (Speaking Polish).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Andrzej Rymut looks like everyone's favorite middle-age dad. Think glasses, a welcoming smile, a zippered Mister Rogers-style sweater.

A RYMUT: We are at my place in the nice little town of Kobylka, close to the capital of Poland, Warsaw. I work for 25 years as a flight attendant for LOT Polish Airlines. I am married. I got two kids and also a cat.

KAKISSIS: And like most Poles, he and his wife Ela are watching news about Ukraine 24/7.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: You're watching Zelenskyy.

A RYMUT: Part of Ukraine used to be Polish before World War II. So Polish people and Ukrainian, we are like brothers and sisters, like a family.

KAKISSIS: Do you feel when you watch this that war feels very close to Poland, too?

A RYMUT: Yes. You know, I was in Toronto a couple days ago, and I took an Uber, and the driver, when he learned I'm from Poland, he said to me, you know that you're going to be next one. Putin will take the Poland as a next country.

KAKISSIS: Poland has a traumatic history with Russia. The Soviet Union, an ally of Nazi Germany in 1940, invaded Poland. The Soviets imprisoned and murdered the country's entire officer corps and then blamed it on the Germans. Poland was under the control of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and the Rymut family suffered under communist repression. His mother was jailed for resisting the Soviets. His grandfather was executed.

A RYMUT: He got four bullets in his head. We find his remains five years ago. I feel in deep in my heart that I have to do what my grandfather did, what my mother did - fight for freedom.

KAKISSIS: Rymut sees Ukraine now facing the same kind of assault from Russia, so he wrote the Ukrainian embassy in Poland.

A RYMUT: Listen, guys. I want to go to Ukraine and help you fight. I can take care of your wounded people. Do whatever you want with me. I want to be with Ukraine and people in there.

KAKISSIS: Rymut is a trained nurse and served as an army medic supporting U.S. and allied troops during the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s. He's unpacked his old fatigues for his new mission. The only thing he's waiting for is an exemption from Poland to serve in a foreign army.

A RYMUT: It may happen tomorrow or after tomorrow. Once I get the permission, I'm in Ukraine.

KAKISSIS: Not everyone is waiting for permission.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS IDLING)

KAKISSIS: At a sleepy motel near the Ukrainian border, we find a secret meeting point for foreign volunteers heading into fight. Minibuses idle in the parking lot.

Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hi.

KAKISSIS: I'm Joanna.

A few men in military fatigues are outside waiting for the OK to board the buses and go to Ukraine.

(CROSSTALK)

KAKISSIS: Inside, in the motel pub, about 20 men, young to middle-aged, all in military garb, drink hot tea at 3 a.m. No one wants to be recorded except Curtis, a tall, hulking ex-soldier from the U.K.

CURTIS: We got South American. We got some Germans, Swedish. And we got some Irish as well.

KAKISSIS: Do you have Americans as well?

CURTIS: Yeah. I believe we do, yes.

KAKISSIS: He won't reveal his last name, but he's open about his goals as a volunteer soldier in Ukraine.

CURTIS: Stop the Russians, you know, coming forward as fast as they are and to absolutely obliterate Putin.

KAKISSIS: He calls Vladimir Putin a bully, and he says he feels kinship with the Ukrainians.

CURTIS: Ukraine's quite like the U.K., so the same type of people doing the same type of jobs, you know, watching kids, women, children running across the border crying. You know, hundreds of thousands of them have to leave.

KAKISSIS: International volunteers can be problematic for Ukraine if they feel like they're owed something for fighting or if they refuse to leave, says Polina Beliakova, a scholar of civil military relations at Tufts University. But she adds that volunteer soldiers from Poland and the Baltic states are fighting for the same goal.

POLINA BELIAKOVA: They see Russia as a threat to their homeland. Like, Poland will be next or Lithuania will be next. And they want to actually commit more to this fight in Ukraine so Russian soldiers will not knock on their doors tomorrow.

ELA RYMUT: (Speaking Polish).

KAKISSIS: Back at Andrzej Rymut’s house outside Warsaw, his wife, Ela, bites her lip as she talks about her husband and his plans to fight in Ukraine.

E RYMUT: (Through interpreter) We first met each other in summer camp, and we've been together ever since. I know my husband. I'm not surprised that he wants to do this, but I'm really frightened.

KAKISSIS: Her husband squeezes her hand. He calls her his angel.

A RYMUT: I feel scared, you know. It might happen that I won't be back here, but I'm going to take that risk. I'm not trying to be a hero. I want to fight with Ukrainians' army because if we will not involve international army, Putin will take Ukraine. And then who's going to be next?

KAKISSIS: He hopes NATO leaders are asking themselves the same question.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kobylka, Poland.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: The Soviet massacre of Poland’s officer corps took place in 1940. The Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.