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Meet the Polish Vodka Producer Helping Ukrainian Refugees

03 June, 2022
On the left a bottle of vodka laying over potatoes and on the right the portrait of Tad Dorda

Photo by: Darya Buben

“There were thousands of people coming on trains every day, many of whom planned to continue their journey to a different part of Poland, or another country,” Dorda said, adding that he’s offered some of them jobs at Chopin. “So the goal was to provide them with one night of respite — a bed, a shower, and a meal before they continued on.” 

So far, the network has helped around 40 refugees find housing, he said. Its involvement is part of a larger national effort to help Ukrainian refugees find safety in Poland. People and businesses all across the country have marshalled their resources to support the refugees.

More than 5.3 million refugees have escaped Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict, according to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Almost 3 million of them have gone to Poland, which has accepted more refugees than anyone else, according to the UNHCR data. Authorities say the war has prompted the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Poland and the Polish people are connected to Ukraine and Ukrainians because they share many cultural similarities, given that the borders in the region have shifted numerous times over the years, Dorda said.

Screenshot from Chopin's Instagram profile

Chopin's Instagram post

The family-owned and operated Chopin distillery is situated in Krzesk, a small village about 95 kilometres from the Polish border with Ukraine. Warsaw accepted more than 300,000 refugees two weeks into the war, a move that made the capital city’s population balloon almost 20 percent. Dorda says he can definitely feel and see a difference in the area with millions of refugees passing through Poland.

“The refugees that we see are our neighbours,” Dorda said. “We know them. We know their culture. We almost speak the same language — we can understand each other. They are mostly women with small children. How can you not help?”

The war has hurt Chopin’s day-to-day operations by exacerbating challenges that already existed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because Russia was one of the largest producers of wood and paper products, it’s impossible to source wooden caps and cardboard boxes, Dorda said. Energy prices have spiked 800 percent since late February when the war began.

“I wouldn’t say we have resolved these supply chain issues yet,” Dorda said. “They have become the norm and our determined procurement team tries to tackle them on a daily basis.”

Contrary to popular belief, vodka originated in Poland, not Russia. The first written record of the word ‘vodka’ showed up in 1405, in court documents from Sandomierz, Poland. A totalitarian, communist government that ruled Poland for decades after World War II, nationalised the Polish economy, which meant seizing private businesses.

“Companies like ours were owned by the state and they neither sold their products abroad nor knew how to tell a story about them,” Dorda said. “So we were not able to tell the rich history of Polish vodka.”

Dorda founded Chopin Vodka in 1992, three years after communism ended in Poland. The company educates people about the origins of vodka, making it clear it’s an original Polish spirit that’s meant to be savoured, appreciated, collected and discussed.

“We believe vodka should only be made from traditional vodka ingredients — potato, rye, wheat, barley, oats and sugar beets — from the ‘vodka belt’ where vodka was traditionally made in Eastern Europe,” Dorda said, drawing comparisons with the way that sparkling wine isn’t considered champagne unless it comes from the Champagne region in France.

The war has upended everything Dorda thought he knew about what it meant to live in Europe, and shattered his sense of security. Eastern Europe has experienced wars for hundreds of years. During World War II, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied Poland. The Nazis planned to wipe out Polish life, language and culture and destroy Poland as a nation to make ‘living space’ for Germans. This is why every concentration camp held a large population of Polish inmates. At least half of the estimated 140,000 Poles deported to Auschwitz died in the camp, according to data the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum cites. All told, the Nazis killed an estimated 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians.

At 70, Dorda’s old enough to remember the events of 1968, when Soviet forces successfully invaded Czechoslovakia to extinguish the reform movement, called the Prague Spring. Dorda said his parents also lived through the pain and trauma of two world wars in Poland.

“This hits very close to home and feels as if Eastern Europe’s painful history is repeating itself,” Dorda said of the war in Ukraine. “There are millions of refugees who have fled the war to neighbouring countries that need shelter and food. It’s our responsibility to use the resources we have to help those in need.”

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