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When Przemysl, Poland, turned into a waystation between war-torn Ukraine and the rest of Europe, the Pensjonat Pod Zegarem became an unlikely haven

Pensjonat Pod Zegarem is a guesthouse in Przemysl, Poland, near the Ukrainian border. Many couples from Ukraine come to stay here for respite from the Russian invasion.

At first glance, the Pensjonat Pod Zegarem, or “house under the clock,” hardly stands out on this quiet residential street in Przemysl, a picturesque city in eastern Poland near the Ukrainian border.

The guesthouse’s two small buildings, painted in white, are separated by a courtyard that’s surrounded with flowers and covered in comfortable deck chairs and tables. Inside, the six flats have wood-panelled interiors and cozy furniture.

High up on a pole next door sits a huge gnarl of twigs and sticks that’s hard to ignore. The nest has become a neighbourhood fixture and it’s home to a family of storks, birds seen by many in Poland as symbols of love, hope and renewal, whose nests should be carefully preserved. In many ways the guest house has become something similar; no longer a way station for visitors, but a place of nurture for Ukrainian couples torn apart by the war. They come here for a few days of respite, to reconnect and nourish each other before separating once more.

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A doll on a chair looks out at the stork's nest on a pole outside the guest house.

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The owners are Piotr Romanski and Marta Romanska, seen talking with a Ukrainian friend who lived with them before the war.

This wasn’t what Marta and Piotr Romanski, who are both in their early 60s, envisioned when they opened the apartment hotel in May, 2021. They expected to cater to Polish tourists who wanted to see Przemysl’s ancient cathedrals or explore the nearby Bieszczady Mountains. Everything changed when Russia launched its full-scale invasion last year. Przemysl became a transit point for millions of Ukrainians seeking shelter and the Romanskis took in as many refugees as possible, sometimes sleeping four to a bed. Then they hosted volunteers and staff from international charities.

As the influx of refugees and aid workers subsided last fall, a new clientele emerged. The Romanskis began fielding calls from men who’d left Ukraine – either for work or out of fear – and who now lived in Poland, Germany or elsewhere in Europe. They didn’t want to return home and run the risk of not being able to leave again because of wartime restrictions that banned adult men from going abroad.

So they booked a flat in the house under the clock for a few days and begged their wives, girlfriends and children to join them. Some of the men travelled from Berlin, Munich, Milan and Oslo while the women came from Lviv, Kyiv and dozens of other towns and villages.

“There was a father who only knew his child through a video phone,” Ms. Romanska recalled. “So when they met here, this child clung to his father’s leg for the whole stay, didn’t want to let him go.”

These meetings now make up nearly all of the Romanskis’ bookings. And the same story is playing out in hotels and Airbnbs across the city. “We had a chap who turned up for his stay over the Easter weekend with a bunch of roses, and his wife arrived the following day from Ukraine,” recalled Christopher Timms, who rents out two flats on Airbnb and has been booked up with similar couples. Another Airbnb owner said 70 per cent of her bookings were Ukrainian men and women separated by the war.

The Romanskis have tried to make the six apartments feel a little like home for their guests. They’ve put extra candles in the rooms, hung pictures of Ukrainian scenery on the walls and removed ornaments even remotely associated with Russia, like the samovar they had in one flat.

“These couples,” Ms. Romanska said wistfully. “They are in love with each other, always holding hands.”

The Old Polish Apartment, Saturday, June 3

Guests: Maxim Obscianski, 38, Ola Marceniuk, 42

“We don’t have children together, because how can we? I am there and she is there.”

The Romanskis give Maxim Obscianski a tour of the apartment where he will reunite with his partner, who works as a hairdresser in Ukraine while he lives in Germany and drives trucks across Europe.

Max arrived at the guest house shortly after 6 p.m., pulling up in a grey, beat-up Volkswagen Passat with Ukrainian plates.

He’d booked the flat for six nights and wanted everything to be perfect. He quickly unpacked his bags and the many presents he brought for Ola. Then he headed to the train station to pick her up.

They’ve been together for seven years, but they rarely see each other any more.

Max moved to Germany three months before the war started and he spends most of his time on the road, driving trucks across Europe.

Ola stayed home in Chmelnyckyj, in central Ukraine, where she works as a hairdresser. She depends on money Maxim sends home, which also helps support two teenaged children they have from previous relationships.

“I had to go,” said Max. “Who is going to earn money for the family?”

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Max unpacks his luggage to bring to the rented apartment.

Since Russia’s invasion they’ve only been able to meet at the guest house for a week or so every few months.

They’ve thought about living together somewhere in Europe, but Ola doesn’t want to give up her job or abandon her family. And Max is constantly driving anyway.

Before this visit, Max told the Romanskis that he needed to find a dentist in Przemysl to treat a sore tooth and a notary to translate some documents from Ukrainian into Polish. But once he saw Ola at the station, the chores became secondary.

They spent almost all of their time in the flat, venturing out only to smoke the occasional cigarette or to buy food. Max skipped the dental appointment the Romanskis arranged, his longing for Ola proving more powerful than his toothache.

During one smoke break, Max sat on a bench in front of the guest house, wearing only short shorts and flip-flops. He looked up at the stork’s nest. The female sat with her little ones and cackled, waiting for the male who returned from the meadows every 15 or 20 minutes with food in his beak. They fed the chick and he flew off again.

Max stopped watching, put out his cigarette and returned to the flat, and to Ola.

The Jewish Apartment, Friday, June 2

Guests: Ihor Oholenko, 66, Oleksyj Oholenko, 40, Myroslava Oholenko, 46

“The scary thing is that it’s not scary. We have stopped being afraid.”

Myroslava Oholenko is spending one night at the guest house with her father-in-law, who is recovering from a heart attack, and her husband, who is trying to find work in Germany.

For weeks this spring, all Oleksyj could think about was how to earn some extra money to pay for his father’s operation.

Oleksyj had been a computer programmer with a decent salary, but the work has dried up since Russia’s invasion. He joined the army when combat started but was subsequently discharged when his father, Ihor, had a heart attack in Kyiv and needed surgery. His wife, Myroslava, doesn’t work and stays home to care for their son, who has mental health issues, in the western Ukrainian city of Morshyn.

Oleksyj thought he might be able to find a job in Berlin; he had been there once on a business trip. But he had to get there first, and that could be difficult under martial law.

There was one option.

If Ihor went with him, Oleksyj could argue with Ukrainian authorities that he was his father’s caregiver. Once they got over the border, he could head to Germany, via Poland, and find work. Maybe even his father could come to Germany for the operation. It was worth a shot.

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Ihor Oholenko takes a moment before his return journey to Ukraine.

They bought train tickets to Przemysl and booked two nights in the guest house. Myroslava came as well so she could accompany Ihor back to Kyiv.

They crossed the border without incident and spent one night together. The next morning, Ihor and Myroslava said goodbye to Oleksyj as he boarded a bus to Berlin.

“If there is money, maybe they will do my operation in Kyiv or in Germany, I don’t know,” Ihor said before turning back to Ukraine. “I have to wait, I am strong.”

Myroslava refused to cry as she watched the bus drive off. “If you send your husband off to war and have to fear every minute that he will be gone, then letting him go to Berlin is easy,” she said. “I miss him, of course, but I am not afraid for him.”

The Ukrainian Apartment, Monday, June 5

Guests: Valentyna Sushchyk, 44, Dmitro Sushchyk, 38, Daniel Sushchyk, 9

“We try to live a normal life to the maximum. We understand that only a sense of ordinary life will save us.”

Valentyna and Dmitro Sushchyk embrace son Daniel before saying goodbye after a 15-day stay together. Valentyna and Daniel are heading back to Ukraine while Dmitro stays in Poland for work.

Dmitro and his wife, Valentyna, thought they’d finally mapped out a plan for some security when he left their home in Ukraine a couple of years ago for a truck driving job in Poznan, Poland.

The pay was far better than what he earned in Ukraine and he regularly sent money to Valentyna. She put it toward a comfortable flat in Kropivnytsky, in southern Ukraine, where they lived with their son Daniel. They hoped that after a few more years of driving in Poland, Dmitro would have earned enough to stay home for good. “It was a normal life and nobody thought there would be a war,” said Valentyna.

They’ve seen each other twice since the invasion. Valentyna and Daniel went to Poznan for a few months last fall but the cost of living was crippling and Valentyna couldn’t find work in her field of tax accounting. So she and Daniel went back to Kropivnytsky.

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Daniel rests while waiting for his parents to finish packing.

In May, they cobbled together as much time off as they could afford to and Dmitro booked a flat in the guest house in Przemysl. He drove in from Poznan while Valentyna and Daniel made the 19-hour train journey from Kropivnytsky.

They spent their days cycling, taking a side trip to Krakow and hunting for a toy gun that Daniel wanted. For 15 days they lived the normal life they’d longed for, knowing that it wouldn’t happen again for several months.

Valentyna dreaded the separation. Kropivnytsky has come under an increasing number of Russian missile strikes and power outages are common. She copes by tuning out much of the news and concentrating on just getting through each day.

“We try not to let the war break us, we try to live a normal life to the maximum.” she said. “We’ve all been through this before, the stress and depression. We understand that only a sense of ordinary life will save us, but we also know that we live in a war. We have to endure it.”

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A pair of dolls look out from a window at the guest house as another day ends in Przemysl.

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