WARSAW — A Polish man who died fighting in Ukraine was buried in his native soil Tuesday as weeping mourners praised him as a hero of two nations.
The body of Daniel Sztyber, 35, of Warsaw, lay in a coffin covered in Poland’s white-and-red flag. Young Ukrainians draped in their nation’s flag and aging World War II veterans joined Sztyber’s parents, sister and childhood friends in mourning him.
At the graveside in Warsaw’s Powązki Cemetery, the resting place of illustrious Poles, Sztyber was praised as a freedom fighter in a long Polish tradition of sacrifice.
It is illegal for Poles to fight in foreign armies, but some have volunteered to help defend Ukraine during Russia’s invasion. Poles, like other foreigners who have decided to take part in a war that technically isn’t theirs, feel they are fighting to defend the free world against the menace of a reawakened Russian imperialism.
It is not clear how many Poles or volunteers from other nations have died while serving in the Ukrainian Foreign Legion. Neither Russia nor Ukraine has made the number of their soldiers killed during the war public.
Poland’s government also cannot say. It does not keep count of those who die in Ukraine because they are acting alone, said Arkadiusz Puławski, a representative from a security department in the Polish prime minister’s office.
No Poles have been prosecuted for going to fight in Ukraine.
Polish army soldiers stood in tribute at Sztyber’s graveside Tuesday, an act that is meant to show respect for the fallen but does not reflect an endorsement of deciding to fight in Ukraine’s war, Puławski said.
The Polish fighter’s father, Mirosław Sztyber, said at his son’s graveside that he hadn’t meant to speak but couldn’t hold back. He said Daniel died while trying to save a comrade and suffered excruciating pain during the last three hours of his life.
According to Polish media reporters, Sztyber was killed in a battle with the Russians in the Luhansk region in late November.
A representative of the Ukrainian Embassy was among those at the funeral, calling Sztyber a “hero of Ukraine,” and telling the mourners that “we join you in your pain.”
Speaking earlier to The Associated Press, the father recalled the last message he sent his son.
“I wrote to him to be brave, that he is fighting the army of darkness and is on the side of good. And he wrote me: Thank you, dad.”
“I respect what he did and have respected it from the beginning. He made his choice fully aware that he was taking a risk, but he wanted a free nation, protection of Poland, Europe and the world,” Mirosław Sztyber said.
It isn’t clear how many Poles have joined Americans, Belarusians, Georgians and others who have made the war in Ukraine their struggle too.
Puławski said the Polish government believes the number of Poles fighting in Ukraine is marginal, and that Russia exaggerates the numbers as part of a propaganda effort.
“They would like to show that they are not losing against Ukrainians but against somebody else,” he said.
He also said that Russia accuses Poles of deploying military manpower in order to be able to invade Ukraine in the future, a falsehood meant to create divisions between Poles and Ukrainians.