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When Moses came to Poland

Bodies, borders and the politics of trauma


In August 2021, a black body was found floating in a river in northeastern Poland. Moses was a 19-year-old from Sudan. He had been crossing the border from Belarus into Poland and the EU. 

The two sides of Poland re-emerged very quickly, like opposing ghost armies frozen in time awoken to refight old battles. The defiant, indefatigable human rights’ activists and locals who just wanted to help up against the might of a defensive, paranoid and increasingly militarized state, which soon built a wall along the border and illegally pushed many of the migrants back into the forests and swamps from whence they had come. Many died that winter. The Polish government called Moses and the hundreds like him demons, ghouls, zombies, deviants and predators, bent on destroying Poland. It broadcast images on public television purporting to show black migrants indulging in bestiality

Repelling the idea of a threat is the key. It brings together the hidden, strange, dark faces of the ‘orient,’ perhaps a reminder of the strongly Jewish character of this area pre-WWII, their Russian (read: Soviet) “promoters” and the German death camps dotting the area. Imbued with sexual fantasies imputed to dark-skinned bodies, the language was eerily reminiscent of earlier Polish fever dreams. Those wandering out of the swamps also assumed a kind of biblical aspect, if of a post-modern, internet-age, variety. 

At Przemysl detention center, Nazar waited 16 months and 13 days, he says.

There were two barracks with a small space for walking in between. Most rooms had between four and nine beds. There was little privacy.

“I applied for asylum in late 2021, but they didn’t take it very seriously. It took six weeks to take my finger prints. Then they refused my case. No protection, no refugee status,” Nazar says.

From Iraq, Nazar tried several times to get to Greece from Turkey in 2020. “I couldn’t make it and in 2021 I heard about Belarus to Lithuania. I joined a tourist group. Lithuania pushed me back to Belarus. Then I came to Minsk, with 84 others. We crossed the border with 13 people. I had a GPS. Polish guards caught us, took us to police station, six guys and one girl. They pushed us back. Took us to border and left us. We spent five days in the forest. We made fires, but it was very cold,” Nazar says.

“I wanted to go anywhere, because of my sexual orientation in Iraq. Sometimes we can just disappear in Iraq,” Nazar says.

Nazar tells me about Moses.

A group of four Sudanese men crossed the border from Belarus in early October 2022 in a remote location at night. While crossing the Swislocz (Svislach) River, which coincides with the border at that point, one of them – Moses – lost his balance.

The heavy backpack he was wearing probably dragged him under the water. He was a poor swimmer. He never resurfaced.

His body was fished out of the river on October 25. The identity of the deceased was confirmed by the family by zoom.

His funeral took place at the Muslim cemetery in Bohoniki in eastern Poland on December 5.

Of the remaining three Sudanese men, two were pushed back to Belarus. One is now in the Centre for Foreigners in Przemysl, southeastern Poland.

Help!: Piotr Czaban is a journalist, blogger and activist of the Podlasie Voluntary Humanitarian Emergency Service from Podlasie. On his social media channels, he has been writing about the crisis at the border for a year and a half under the slogan “Czaban makes a racket.” 

Thanks to the efforts of Czaban and Karolina Mazurek, an activist helping migrants, Musa’s body was found.

The journalist learned on October 3 that a group of ‘black migrants’ was moving around in the border area. “I was on duty at the time. My source said there are three of them, from Sudan. They were extremely exhausted and soaked. They reported that their companion had drowned in the river near Krynki. There was no exact location,” he says.

The group moved on. Unfortunately, the Russian phone number they provided turned out to be wrong. Trying different combinations, Czaban got through to some Russian who told him “to fuck off.”

“On the same day, the Border Guard published a tweet with information about a migrant lying motionless on the Belarusian side, under the border fence. The Belarusian services immediately brought a TV crew there and made a propaganda film. It showed the body of a black boy in a T-shirt and briefs. I watched the video thinking it might be the same person these three were talking about,” says Czaban.

After two weeks, Karolina wrote to Czaban: “Listen, a boy from the center in Przemyśl will contact you. He knows something about the body in Świsłocz.”

“He was an Iraqi. He wrote that there was a boy from Sudan with him in the center who was passing through Świsłocz at the beginning of October. There were four of them and one of them drowned. He wants to pass on the location and asks to go get the body,” Karolina said.

Czban had a photo of three Sudanese men who had reached the Polish side. In the photo, he recognized a Sudanese man from the centre in Przemyśl.

“They were then pushed to Belarus and sent back to Moscow. They have had enough and want to return to Sudan,” he says.

At that time, Czaban made contact with the boy’s family, who were looking for him through their channels. They speak French and Arabic, and communication via Google Translate is not easy, he says.

The day after receiving the information from Przemyśl, the journalist reported the matter to the police. “I have more trust in them than in the Guards, they do not underestimate such reports,” he said.

A patrol from the Poviat Headquarters in Sokółka went to the border on the same day. The journalist showed them an area near the village of Ozierany Małe, where the body was most likely to be found.

The search went on all day. Two fire brigades participated and a policeman with a tracking dog.

“There had been a stench by the river for a long time,” recalls Czaban. “It’s a vast area, wet, reeds. The dog could have misled the trail, there are wild animals out there.”

Despite the fiasco of the search, Czaban did not give up. He called the spokeswoman of the Border Guard in Bialystok and asked her to tell the post in Krynki, which is responsible for this area, to keep a close eye out.

On October 25, the journalist received information that the Border Guard had found a body.

“It was 9 pm, I called the police station in Sokółka and said that if necessary, I had the missing boy’s passport, contact with his family, and his photos. The duty officer was not too effusive, but from the conversation I deduced that there was indeed a report. Then I announced on social media that the body had been found,” Czaban says.

In July the same year, another migrant drowned in Świsłocz. His body drifted along the Belarusian shore for a long time. It was only when the current brought them to the Polish side that the police arrived. “We don’t know how many people died there. When there was a push back from the Belarusian and Polish side in Świsłocz near Bobrowniki, a woman’s jacket was found in the river. The police then dropped the case,” Czaban says.

On 12 February the body of a young Ethiopian woman was recovered by humanitarian activists in a forest on the Polish side of the border with Belarus.

Activists had searched for the woman for a week, and reported when they recovered her body: “She was lying on the ground, huddled up. Next to her is a Christian prayer book with pictures of saints. She was wearing the same sweater and hat as in the picture, only she didn’t have a jacket. We have no doubt that it is her.”

According to Grupa Granica: “The woman crossed the Poland-Belarus border on 3.02. with a group of 6 people through a river. Three of them were immediately pushed back to Belarus. The remaining four stayed in Poland. At night, the woman felt very bad and began to lose consciousness. Her companions started looking for help.”

“According to the late woman’s companions, Polish border guard and the police declared they would provide help. However, they never reached her, but they pushed the migrants who asked for help back to Belarus.”

Funerals: Mizar, a Tatar cemetery in Bohoniki, is one kilometer outside the village. You pass the last houses, turn left along the road lined with trees and drive up the hill. Behind the wall, between the trees, tombstones with crescent-shaped monuments begin.

The village is located 9 km in a straight line from Poland’s border with Belarus, outside the border zone.

The refugee burial area is in the far corner, to the right of the gate, between the path and the fence. There are six graves among the birch trees, surrounded by stones, according to the Muslim custom.

Activists from the Podlaskie Voluntary Humanitarian Rescue and the “Ocalenie” Foundation, a group of Chechen refugees living in Bialystok and representatives of the Muslim community stand in silence.

Maciej Szczęsnowicz, the head of the Muslim community, is with them. Together they raise their hands in prayer and repeat after the imam: “Amin”.

Since the autumn of 2021, the mizar in Bohoniki has become a burial place for refugees who have died crossing the Polish-Belarusian border.

The first, organized by the Dialog Foundation, which runs an open center for foreigners in Białystok, took place in mid-October 2021.

On October 19, 2021, Belarusian border guards pushed Ahmad Al-Hassan from Syria and another man into the Bug River. His friend managed to cross the river, but 19-year-old Ahmad drowned. Police divers found his body the next day.

Ahmad’s brothers, who live in exile in Turkey and Jordan, were contacted via video chat by Dr. Kasim Shady, a Syrian doctor living in Podlasie, himself a refugee who graduated in medical studies in Poland and returned to the country when war broke out in Syria.

In November 2021, four more burials of people who died at the border took place in Bohoniki.

A Kurdish woman named Avin from Iraq, together with her five children, husband and three other men, was found by activists from Grupa Granica in the forest near Narewka. According to Polish volunteers, the woman was howling in pain. Doctors diagnosed hypothermia and acidosis. She was six months pregnant.

The Polish Border Guard separated the group and the critically ill woman was taken to a hospital in Hajnówka, while her husband and children were placed in an open center in Białystok. The remaining men were pushed back into Belarus.

Avin had a miscarriage in the hospital and died three weeks later. Her body was transported to Iraq. Her son stayed in Bohoniki.

Issa (Jesus), a 24-year-old from the Syrian city of Hama, was buried at the Orthodox cemetery in Saki near Kleszczela. A police patrol found his body in October 2021 in a field near Kuźnica. According to the family, Issa had been to Poland before, staying in a hospital in Sokółka, but was pushed by the Border Guards into Belarus. He died when he crossed the border again back to Poland.

On Monday, December 5, 2022, a sixth grave was dug, that of Musa.

According to official statistics, Musa was the 19th casualty along the Polish-Belarusian border. The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights says about 200 people have gone missing at the border. The real number of migrant deaths remains unknown.


Kętrzyn, Białystok, Lesznowola, Biała Podlaska, Krosno Odrzańskie, Przemyśl. Inmates call them “all-inclusive resorts.”

The six centres hold people who often should not be there, according to Amnesty International. Wędrzyn and Czerwony Bór facilities have been closed.

Amnesty says there are people here who have been subjected to violence, children under the age of 15 who are staying in Poland without parental care, people with disabilities applying for international protection, and minors staying in Poland without parental care. Detention of children is against international law and is prohibited by Polish law.

A report by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), which tracked Frontex’s abuses for months, was leaked in April, showing violations of the law. The report includes 20 conversations with witnesses, information from the office of former Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri, information from WhatsApp, messages and emails.

Refugees are kept in detention with a dozen or so people in one room. They cannot leave of their own free will and are cut off from the world.

The overcrowded centres allow for 2 square metres per person with dire living conditions, no access to a telephone and the Internet, limited contact with the world, including doctors, psychologists, and lawyers.

Refugees have to put up with Border Guard officers’ racist comments, violence, and humiliating searches. They face constant uncertainty.

“Daily contact with cruel guards who treat us like criminals. It’s a place where I don’t wish anyone to be in,” says Nazar.

People live up to two years in such conditions.

By the end of December 2021, there were 1,750 people held in this type of closed institution. On June 2nd 2022, 694 people were placed there.

Near the border crossing in Kuźnica, in Bruzgi, on the Belarusian side, is a large hall where people have been detained for months. At its peak, there were several thousand there, from Yemen, Egypt, Cameroon, Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana and Iraq.

There have allegedly been rapes there.

Criminalisation: Locals who try to help are followed by soldiers, their homes searched.

Four Polish activists from the volunteer group Grupa Granica were detained by police in March for allegedly helping migrants crossing Belarus’ border into Poland.

A group of volunteer activists, Grupa Granica, says the activists were providing humanitarian aid to a family with seven children which had been stuck at the border for three months. The group says its activists provided help to people who had already entered Poland.

On 25 March, the police detained a 21-year-old activist of the Catholic Intelligentsia Club (KIK) operating on the Polish-Belarusian border.

Jakub Kiersnowski, the Warsaw KIK head, says that armed police, including officers carrying rifles, entered the aid point and searched the premises during the night, seizing two computers and a phone.

Granica Group reports that in just one week of November it received 149 applications asking for help on the border with Belarus.

Deportations and push-backs carried out by Polish uniformed services are illegal. This is confirmed by court judgments.

Since 2021, many Polish border guards have taken early retirement.

Major Marek Ziniewicz resigned. Wanted to avoid responsibility for deportations and afraid he would be charged.

Who picks up the refugees that make it? Where do they take them? Ex-Soviet criminal enterprises.

Limbo: Rekaut Rachid is an Iraqi Kurd living in the UK. His 22-year old nephew disappeared last November after being thrown into the Polish forests by Belarusian military. Rachid went to Poland a week later and filed a missing persons claim with Polish police, helped by Polish volunteers. But he heard nothing for 11 months. He gave up hope. But he says a Polish activist posted a video online this November in which his nephew, Mohamed Sabah, was clearly visible. So Rekaut came back to Poland a year after his first visit and discovered the Polish police had closed the case. The police then lied to him about his nephew’s whereabouts, sending him to hospitals that had no records of his nephew’s stay. His nephew was one of 17 Iraqi Kurds who broke through the fence on the Polish-Belarusian border when about 2,000 people stormed it earlier this year. Of the 17 he was the only one missing. His uncle says the Belarus consulate in Erbil was throwing around visas to get to Europe.

“More than a year ago, in November 29 2021 he called me from Belarus. Maybe he wanted to got to me in the UK or to Germany,” he says.

“I spent nine days in Poland, stayed with Karolina. Went to police and army and we knew he had been pushed back. Sheza at the Iraq embassy helped. But they didn’t allow Piotr to be there and we were lied to from start to finish.”

Belarus: Belarus as a criminal state, willfully deceptive, mafia-like networks across law enforcement and state administration.

Moses’ case is part of a wider border crisis that followed the deterioration in Belarus–EU relations after the rigged 2020 Belarusian presidential election and the EU’s imposition of sanctions. In July, 2021, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, in apparent revenge, said he would “flood” the EU with human traffickers, drug smugglers and armed migrants.

“We stop drugs and migrants – now you will have to take and catch them yourself,” he said. Belarus would no longer hold back the tide.

Though the data hardly back up this claim.

According to Frontex (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency), less than 1% of illegal migrants entered the EU through the EU’s 6,000 km land border with Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, the Russian Federation and its eastern member states. At the peak of refugees coming into Europe in 2015, only 1,927 illegal border crossings were recorded on the EU’s eastern border. 764,033 people used the Western Balkan Route and 885,386 the Eastern Mediterranean Route in 2015 alone, according to the Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security.

Human Rights Watch accuses Belarusian authorities of manufacturing the crisis. Poland, Lithuania and Latvia say it is a part of hybrid warfare waged by Belarus against the EU and declared a state of emergency, each building walls or fences along their borders with Belarus.

There have been reports of migrants being given planks to cross the Svislach and taxis carrying ladders to straddle the 5-meter-high fences. Later in the crisis, the migrants were reportedly given tools to destroy border infrastructure. Migrants said that Belarus provided them with wire cutters and axes to cut through border fences and enter the EU.

Exiled politician Pavel Latushko claimed that the Belarusian military even trained veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to carry out attacks on borders and inside the EU.

“This migration is completely organized by the government,” Pavel Slunkin, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Warsaw, says.

“For seven years Lukashenko opened up the economy, reduced the role of the state and invested in IT and other sectors, but since the 2020 stolen election he has gone back to the authoritarian, now verging on totalitarian, model,” he says.

“The Belarusian economy and his ‘pocket businessmen’ – used to earn money for him including in the EU, but the EU response to the orchestrated migrant crisis was pretty efficient and it stopped the wave. Lukashenko hoped that western governments would have to deal with him even despite his international illegitimacy, that human rights organizations would help him to exert pressure on the EU, and he would also make money in the process,” says Slunkin.

Strategic companies have been added to the EU’s sanctions list, including national oil company Belarusneft, fertilizer company Grodno Azot and tire manufacturer Belshina, closing streams of hard currency for Minsk. This puts further pressure on the state apparatus and its affiliated companies to bring in revenues.

“Belavia was deprived of income after the hijacking of the Ryanair flight and this hurt the regime in Minsk,” Slunkin says. “This was one way of recouping some of that,” he adds.

“The cost of going across the Polish border is usually from $3,000-12,000,” journalist Szymon Opryszek said. This package includes a visa, hotel, transport to the border. “The price is already rising on the Polish side, where taxis to Germany are waiting. A number of people make money along the trail, from state authorities, through smugglers or taxi drivers and border police.”

In February, Opryszek visited Erbil and Suleimania, where he met migrants who had been forcibly deported from the Bruzgi center.

“In Iraq, it is organized in such a way that half of the amount goes to the smuggler’s account only after the migration is completed, i.e. after reaching Western Europe. During conversations with smugglers, I was twice offered to transport migrants to Germany as a Pole. They offered me about 1,000 euros per person for this. ‘Taxi drivers’ in Belarus are much cheaper because they operate legally (as long as the migrant has a valid visa, so the prices range from $50-200 for transport from Minsk to the border,” Opryszek says.

Migration patterns changed somewhat in 2022, Opryszek says. “While last year in the forests were mainly Syrians, Iraqis, and Iraqi Kurds, this year you can often meet people not only from the Middle East, but also from West Africa and even India. Most of them travel through Moscow and it is now the first ‘station’ on the way to Europe. Then they get to Minsk and to the border and through Poland.”

“There was a lot of talk about the involvement of special border police units, and the functionaries were to receive a bonus for each migrant pushed through. But I never got such confirmation. For several months I was in contact with a border guard from Belarus, who offered to show me a place to cross to Poland. For organizing a trip for a family of 5, he wanted $4,000,” says Opryszek.

Foreign bodies: On my first trip to Poland, in 1993, I realized very soon that to be a foreigner was to occupy a peculiar yet crucial symbolic space in the Polish imagination. A messenger, a witness, a conduit, an oppressor, a liberator, weak/strong, good/bad, a kind of measuring rod, a rival, or a means for some Poles to beat other Poles. It seemed to have very little to do with me, personally, or be linked to any empirical understanding of where I actually came from, as if the world outside Poland – long forbidden fruit – was an unchanging set of stereotypes and that the Polish prism through which me and my world had been summoned had already in fact been scientifically studied, semantically decoded and required neither checking nor updating. As true of bus drivers as it was of university professors. A disdain for the material you – the idealized you is far less difficult to deal with. And being dealt with as a foreigner in Poland is really all there is. You are not wanted. Your presence indicates some defect in you. Not even we want to be here, but we have no choice. What crime did you commit at home to be sent here? But now you’re here, what can we get from you, what is your value to us? If you want to join us, well, good luck, you’re obviously more stupid than we thought. Linguistic exclusion, codes written so deeply into everyday discourse, hidden traps and dead-end streets down which lead to infantilized gestures.

An ontology of bodies: As a reporter I started visiting the Polish borders with Belarus and Ukraine, talking with locals, migrants, activists, border guards, politicians and journalists, I began to realize how borders and body shapes dictate who we are, historically occupying clusters of space, with presence and absence interwoven with loss and trauma.

I was working at the time for Deutsche Welle, the German international broadcaster, and occasionally for British media, including the BBC and helping reporters from The Sun and Daily Mirror. I started at the same time to get calls to appear on US television, the Bay Area NBC news, Egyptian state-run news and Poland’s state-run TVP World. To round it off I was freelancing also for Anadolu Agency, the Turkish state-run news service. 

As I reported, watched, listened and talked, the story became increasingly about monsters and myths, and the thread that ran throughout seemed to be trauma and the schismatic ways in which Poles had sought to heal historical wounds.

There is a clearly a deeper level of ambivalence at work here. Foreigners once lived on this soil or in this building or on that street as Poles, citizens of the Republic. Yiddish and German in this sense were as Polish a tongue as Polish. Jews – perhaps – as a reminder and a lament, Germans as a threat. Foreigners were also neighbors, a small elderly German woman living in the same house as my mother-in-law’s family in Malbork reminded me. The border over which she was born was no longer there. The small wooden footbridge over to the castle was a trip into a foreign country. 

So a foreigner living in Poland faces multiple, often seemingly intractable, semi-concealed, often misdirected forces, intertwined between the meta and the physical. 

That is where the idea emerged, exploiting this strange heuristic space, to examine the sources of trauma, its contradictions, wounds and the various attempts to deepen or heal them.

Originally conceived as a self-help guide for foreigners (including myself) to survive life in Poland – exploring the contradiction of why we choose to live in a place that is often bad for our health – the book became something else: a study of grief, trauma and everyday politics.

I had often thought of Poland as a neurotic society riven by trauma and grief. Why do people get so angry about so apparently little? Confronted by simple public rudeness, a lack of spatial awareness, harsh faces, homogenous robotic specters in fast cars, neighbours who struggle to say hello, strangers terrified of talking, families that fetishise family but have nothing to say to one another, blankly repeating age-old rituals over endless dishes of carp, looking disdainfully at your very existence, as if your presence was an affront to their version of how the world should be, scared of your every utterance, breath that could impregnate holy silence or steal innocent souls, I realized I needed to understand why if I was going to stay here. 

Preliminary clinical diagnosis: In a society grappling with modernisation, a reactive and backward looking catholic civic culture, and a rapacious form of capitalist individualism, it is hardly surprising that pathological forms of social contact continue to thrive from the times when such pain was experienced. 

Preliminary observations indicate that Poland as a society exhibits neurotic, borderline narcissistic characteristics, exaggerating its heroic and grandiose past, both imagined and real, aggravated by a legacy of inter-generational cycles of trauma. Shame and denial are also evident, defense mechanisms saturated by repressive sublimation and profound and often projected self-disgust. Autistic tendencies also appear to shape much social interaction. It is as if the bodies of individual Poles are what makes Poland. The shape of the people themselves, thus, manifests a country that didn’t exist for 118 years, then shifted hundreds of miles west. As long as we exist, Poland lives. As a nation it seems to suffer from a form of collective body dysphoria, disassociation and phantom limb syndrome.

Then the new wars startedafter years of hybrid warfare, a lot of guessing and a lot of idle theorizing. It seemed clear that WWII was still unfinished and tangible. The new wars kept the old demons alive. Trump, Putin’s and Netanyahu’s great success was to help renew ethno-nationalism in Europe. The Kremlin had been using an old copy book, a bastardised form of Marxist-Leninistanalysis of western contradictions applied for the benefit for oligarchs, Russian and non-Russian, a branch of disaster capitalism. Pacifism became weaponized and anti-Semitism a weapon to attack the left. You are either with us or against, a supporter of Israel or an anti-Semite; a supporter of Ukrainian sovereignty but not that for the Palestinians in Gaza. The world that was created in the aftermath of WWII and whose ossified skeleton lumbered into the 2020s was faced with real wars, again. 

Method in the madness: Interpersonal micro-interactions tell us a lot. A school run, parking, buying a cake. My concern here was to unpick the physical manifestations of these pathologies. 

I look thus at the body – both individuals but also at the societal level – as a repository of subconscious traumatic memory, a collective muscle memory. By exploring bodily behavior, we can perhaps unearth this archaeology of trauma. Everyday encounters as maps of this past.

This in turn seemed to lend itself to binary images of perfection – how we see ourselves, in this case as a nation. The body in this way becomes a focus and site of the discursive struggle. 

Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of ‘‘Habitus’’ he calls “The permanent internalization of the social order in the human body.”[1]

A central aspect of habitus is embodiment: habitus not only functions at the level of explicit, discursive consciousness. The internal structures become embodied and work in a deeper, practical and often pre-reflexive way. In the doxic state, the social world is perceived as natural, even commonsensical. 

The body and the national body, its shape, its topography etc, thus perform a complex interaction in the doxic process; namely, how we come to perceive ourselves as physical entities being deeply connected to how we become social – and thus also in some ways, national – entities. All national communities project notions of imperfection and perfection, what is the ideal me, the ideal nation, the ideal human etc? We internalize external visions of what our bodies should be, should look like etc that integrate at some level notions of the body of the country we are brought up in.

I was confronted with questions of how we construct ourselves in space and time, creating mental pictures of our national identity around with us in the form of maps, shapes, borders, encompassing topography, smells, post cards, faces, castles, food, people. Our sense of place as internal to us, but our bodies as external markers in space and time, carriers of our selves, bumping into one another, avoiding one another. 

This is a study based on observation of neighbours, friends and strangers over many years in two Polish communities: a new-build suburban middle-class estate in Warsaw and a new-build middle-class military personnel estate in the suburbs of Gdynia.

It is not a fully scientific study, merely observations based on personal experience. It also drags into play observations of political events, media discussions and wider socio-economic events as they happen, and enter into micro-dialogues.

I use some material from the academic world, delving when needed into the field of geographic anthropology, for example, but this is a work deliberately guided by anecdotes and micro-observations. 

A series of interviews also seek to highlight aspects of the problematic of Polishness.

Freud? Again? Really? Psychoanalysis as a way of entering this terrain appeared somehow self-evident as it teaches us how to detect foreignness in ourselves, the foreigner as a ‘symptom’ signifyingthe difficulty we have of living as an ‘other’ and with ‘others.’ What forms of life are politically recognized, which are not, and why this distinction? 

The psychoanalytic work of Theodor Adomo is useful in noting that we need to develop a theory of nationalism that focuses on production of the national subject, to re-think the way in which the subject is inscribed in the modern political. This implies a different ontology, a non-dualist understanding of political and legal existence. The political appearance of subjects is also influenced by the works of Gilles Deleuze Jacques Lacan, Alain Badiou, Antonio Negri and Slavoj Žižek. 

In the Freudian tradition, psychic defences repel and wall off distressing ideas, creating obsessions and phobias, which stand in for impermissible ideas. Religion and the army are libidinal group organizations, exemplifying the dread evoked by castration anxiety and repetition-compulsion. The party member, the citizen of the nation state will always have to deny or repress a certain spectrality of the stranger, the enemy, the foreigner. Outright aggression and lawless violence, from the annexation of territory to the internment and murder of migrants, is represented as a form of self-defence. A loving national community can be restored if only we eject the objects of our hatred. But such antagonism can never be wholly externalised as there are always ‘traitors,’ ‘enemies within,’ especially in moments of crisis.

Ghosts, loss and completeness: For Derrida, any claim to self-identity is always punctuated by spectres who unsettle us by their ghostly (non)presence, address us from beyond the limits of self-interest and demand we perform a work of mourning. Without such a ‘hauntology’ we are bound to an individual or collective narcissism which at worst can support fascism. Derrida says ‘all ontologization, all semanticization—philosophical, hermeneutical, or psychoanlytical—finds itself caught up in this work of mourning because language and symbolization is embedded in this process of substitution, all attempts to articulate or represent any truth, reality, or identity must also perform a certain work of mourning. They must attempt to return what is lost, absent, different to what might be made. The encounter with the specter calls us to ‘work through’ the traumas by which a political subject is constituted. Hauntology requires us to think beyond the limits of any ontology, to confront the incompleteness of our own identity. 

If Poland is a haunted space—for Poles haunted by Jews and for Jews haunted by the mixed memory of familiarity and alienation — so, too, may modern Israel, in its silences and its history be haunted by its Arab population and the traces of their past.

Mourning and melancholy: Kenneth Burke’s classification of symbolic frames – comedy, tragedy, epic, elegy, satire, the burlesque and the grotesque – are symptomatic iterations of fantasy and reveal the truth, or the ethics, of the national subject; they allow differentiating between two modes of the subject’s constitutive intersubjectivity – mourning and melancholy.

The tragic frame is always sacrificial and requires purging, killing an enemy. When a comic frame is adopted, one does not view the other as the enemy who needs to be symbolically or physically sacrificed, but as an uneasy reminder that the nation is always imperfect or lacking. 

As Žižek explains, a collective fantasy acquires a tragic dimension when it “takes itself literally,” without acknowledging the insurmountable gap between “the people” and how they collectively fantasize about themselves.

Tragic mourning is paranoiac. The national other always seems to be enjoying itself better, because it has taken away what should rightfully belong to the national self. Lacan’s conceptualization of paranoia as “the dialectic of jealousy” and suspicion of the other’s enjoyment. Unlike ethically driven patriotism, jingoistic and xenophobic fantasies are sacrificial, aggressive, and ruthless in their attempts to defend the nation’s superiority, or lack of lack. By humiliating or expelling the national enemy from their otherwise perfect national fantasy, they still cannot recover what is not lost in the first place. 

Therefore, the fantasy of tragic mourning as a typical feature of extreme nationalist rhetoric is the most hazardous, and the fantasy of comic melancholy as a characteristic of patriotic discourse is the most progressive.

To move from tragic mourning to melancholic lack, one must not seek a perfect object or state that would grant oneself the pleasure of a complete, or ideal, sense of the self, but maintain an attitude of lack. 

The attitude of comic melancholy allows the national self to traverse national fantasy, to confront the lack of the national subject. To push the limits of national fantasy is to establish a healthy balance between oneself and the external world.

The remaining frames of epic, elegy, satire, burlesque and grotesque can be said to move along an ethnic-civic nationalist continuum. 

If dreams — or nightmares — are the locus of unconscious desire, then here too we may locate the ambivalent force of melancholy. 

That notion of a utopia as an alternative or substitutive love object—the Manic Defense in Freud’s model of melancholia— must also change, partly because time passes, but also because utopias are fixed and imaginary constructs unsuited to the inevitable flux of world politics and events. 

Polishness and idealization: Perfection is a myth upon which a nation feeds itself. Poland has been represented as an allegory, symbol, myth. The motherland’s body was usually a body filled with suffering, pain, misery—a body in chains, in stocks, pushed into an open grave, or crucified.Polishness as conspiracy theory – topos of resentment, belittlement, exclusion and defiance. A Marxist-Catholicism, no room for doubt, an ontology of certainty.


Penetration and occupation: partitions, 1920 and 1939. A psychology of rape. Regaining control. Complicity and denial.

National purity and contamination: Jedwabne etc

Phantom limbs and borderline personality: Kresy. Lviv, Vilnius. Shifting national shapes. Poles diaspora.

Lost neighbours: Jews, Germans, Russians.

For the literary critic Przemysław Czapliński, Poland lies where it always did, suspended between various directions. It is unable to integrate with anyone satisfactorily, and the Poles themselves, rather than real spaces, prefer imagined worlds. 

So, perhaps, it is now wonder that Donald Tusk and Jaroslaw Kaczynski have spent the last 23 years or more talking about bodies. Whose should be allowed into Poland, which of them have rights to reproduce new bodies, who can display what parts of their body publicly?

So, what are real Polish bodies? Do unreal Polish bodies need to exist to define the real ones? Migrants’ bodies from Africa, Asia and the Middle East are clearly not Polish, while Ukrainians ones can be temporarily. How do we remember, commemorate and represent dead bodies? Do some dead bodies count more than others? Are there perfect bodies? What role do healthy bodies and anti-bodies play? What is a male body, a female body? Dressed bodies/undressed bodies? Sexual bodies/Reproductive bodies? Productive bodies/Unproductive bodies.

Anti-Russian: Todorova sees a certain level of racism towards the “East,” specifically to Russia.[2]Janion[3] notes practices in Polish identity discourse that describe Russia as strange to Europe, and, through this mechanism, reduce it in the Polish national imagery to defamiliarized monstrosity. 

The West as surrogate hegemon: Thompson describes the relationship between Poland and the “West” as a “surrogate hegemon.” She describes Poles’ attitudes towards western countries as a mix of desire and resentment, a negotiation, an ambivalent hybrid.

Some scholars argue that the aspirations of being included into Western Europe and accepted as not a “barbarian Slavonic” people, led to the creation of a para-colonial relationship with western countries.[4] Domański suggests that the ideology of “catching up” reinforces the acceptance of external influences, and a sense of exclusion from European integration after the Second World War leads to the acceptance of the recipient role, and, in turn, to the reproduction of the East–West division.[5] 

Through the decades Poles adopted the discourse of the conquerors, blaming themselves for the failure of the Polish state, at the same time as the belief in western supremacy grew stronger.[6]

Self-Othering: Poles “internalizing the orientalizing gaze of the West,” but at the same time “tended to transfer the notion of inferiority onto the lower social strata in Poland, or onto those strata that did not subscribe to the Enlightenment slogans about progress and secular development of humanity.” 

A country colonizing its own citizens, who are in turn defined by the elites not in terms of their nationality or race but in terms of class differences. In Polish scholarly discourse, an “internal colonization approach” based on the assumption that cultural elites colonize other social strata, is posited by Tomasz Zarycki.[7]

Many dominant discourses in the mass media since 1989 and scholarly analyses of the transition’s problems blame workers for their own degraded circumstances and for society’s difficulties.[8]

Signs of solidarity epitomize a harmful capital of the backward and play a part in the process of their segregation, in crafting the image of their social and cultural inferiority. 

Elizabeth Dunn’s study of class creation in factories,[9] based on ethnographic research in a Polish food-processing plant in the early 1990s, shows how capitalist class formation—in the sense of conscious efforts to create a managerial class believing in its own rightful power and wisdom, and a working class believing it must follow orders—is not something that just happens but was explicitly made to happen. 

This state of affairs was possible, as Aleksander Smolar[10] argued in the early 1990s, as the conception of civil society that won popularity in Central and Eastern Europe had “little in common” with past Western European debates, “with the thinking of Locke, Ferguson, Smith, Hegel, Tocqueville, Marx and Gramsci.” 

According to Smolar, the concept of civil society turned up “in the language of the emerging opposition under the influence of their contacts with Western intellectuals. For various reasons, the idea of civil society fascinated both Western, post-Marxist left-wing and circles and neo-conservatives. Both were looking in the East for a major ally in the ideological struggles being fought out in their own world.” 

Jerzy Szacki described the situation as follows: “In the East … civil society appeared as an ideological creation. What is more, it focused on the creation of a new moral and social order whose economic foundations were highly unclear.”[11]

Jews” as catch-all: Perhaps the crucial archetype in Poland is still ‘The Jew,’ an obviously loaded and ambiguous space: a coded threat, an insult, a badge of honour, a reminder of and a possible template for another reality. All foreigners in some ways are Jews, as David Nirenberg argues in my reading at least of Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. “Judaism” is, in Nirenberg’s terms, “not only the religion of specific people with specific beliefs, but also a category, a set of ideas and attitudes with which non-Jews can make sense of and criticize their world.” He presents anti-Judaism as a structural discourse in the history of the West. The figure of the “Jew” and of “Judaism,” he maintains, have served as epistemic tools for philosophers and theologians to define themselves – and Western civilization – over and against.

“Anti-Judaism should not be understood as some archaic or irrational closet in the vast edifices of Western thought. It was rather one of the basic tools with which that edifice was constructed,” he writes.

In such a scheme, Judaism morphs from religion into foil, the Jew from living being into abstraction; and even societies hosting few or no Jews can entertain “Jewish questions.” 

“Judaism” understood not as a specific people or religion, but as another way of thinking, of interpreting reality, which is false, corrupt and even deadly. Anti-Judaism does not require the presence of real Jews, and it will, for example, attack the media or money, Marxism or capitalism as “Jewish” without worrying about whether flesh-and-blood Jews are involved. 

It consists of a kind of unmasking: in its eyes, there is a harmful accretion resting on top of discourse, law, tradition, all the signifiers that surround us, money and the media, that we should remove. “Judaism,” on the other hand, is the desire to preserve this accretion. Christianity will be constituted around a quest for the spirit understood as the antonym of the letter, of the surface, of the law, of the rite, of the flesh etc. 

“The phenomenon of the Jew as ‘the Other’ is so embedded in Polish nationalism that it will last as long as Polish nationalism itself exists. It’s no coincidence that growing anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, and generally xenophobic sentiment has been accompanied by a rise in anti-Semitic attitudes and behaviors,” Blobaum says.

“Polish-Jewish identity, in the secular-humanistic form described here, is one that historically has been confined to a narrow stratum of assimilated Jews who embraced those aspects of the Polish political culture (religious toleration, slogans like “For Your Freedom and Ours,” constitutionalism, the civic nation) that promised an opening into an otherwise exclusive ‘Polish society.’ However, that opening had more or less closed already before the First World War. It reappeared briefly in the unique conditions of the late 1970s and 1980s in the anti-communist left represented by Michnik and Kuron,” says Blobaum.

Blobaum notes that in the ant-communist opposition in Poland a small group of privileged communist children-cum-communist dissidents-cum-democratic leaders—Jacek Kuroń, Adam Michnik, Karol Modzelewski, Barbara Toruńczyk and others—played an out-sized role in the public sphere of the 1970s and 1980s. 

“But as soon as real democratic elections became possible, they became increasingly marginalized, returning to the space occupied by their predecessors earlier in the twentieth century,” he goes on. 

Princeton University professor Jan Gross angered many Poles in 2015 telling Die Welt that the roots of Poland’s antipathy towards helping in the refugee crisis in Europe could be found in the treatment of Jews during World War II.

“The right wing press in Poland raised hell after my comments. I spoke about Kaczyński’s speech about refugees, about the use of terminology that associated refugees with disease, something that everyone knows has in roots in the Nazi language of the Second World War. This is totally out of sync with Polish traditions,” Gross says.

Gross is best known for his 2001 book Neighbours, which describes the 1941 massacre by Polish villagers of 1,600 Jews in Jedwabne in north-eastern Poland.

The far right and outlets for national catholic opinion such as Radio Maryja have played on these assumptions, in part also infusing any public debate on the issue with questions of international pressure, often phrased as forms of Jewish pressure, for example, on issues of property restitution.

The process of revelation took on renewed speed with the publication of a book entitled Fear, also by Gross, in 2005 about a pogrom after the war at Kielce in 1946. This played a part in defining and driving an emerging narrative recognized Poles as perpetrators of crimes in the war as well as victims, thus touching a central plank of the Kaczyński mythology, namely of Poles’ cleanliness, as victims and heroes, or both.

“PiS is obsessed with stimulating a patriotic sense of duty, and given that most Poles do not know their own history very well, and think that Poles suffered as much as Jews during the war, the new regime is playing into a language of catholic martyrology. This was a dream world of the Endeka (Christian Democrats) before the war,” Gross says.

“The competitiveness between Poles and Jews goes back a long way,” argues Katrin Steffen, a historian at the University of Hamburg’s Nordost Institute in Lüneburg.

“It can already be found in the messianic ideas of Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz. Both peoples, he claimed, were chosen by God. Poles and Jews had to travel the road of exile and suffering in order to be ‘redeemed.’ Failure as a nation could thus be re-interpreted as a sign of ‘God’s grace.’ Such a self-image was able to convert a history of defeat and victimisation into an expression of a ‘divine plan.’ Feelings of inferiority could thus be tempered and reinterpreted as strengths.”

“An identity competition emerged from these parallels. It manifested itself in debates on how much Jewish blood was flowing in the veins of certain Poles. Since nobody else could take on this demonic role, the ‘symbolic, mystical Jew’ survived in society’s collective imagination even though there were hardly any Jews left in Poland after the war. Since then, a symbolic Jew has existed in the Polish consciousness. This symbolic Jew constitutes a key element of the auto-stereotype of many Poles. That is why it is possible to revive the image of the “perfidious” Jew in any political crisis. This image appeals in different ways to existing patterns of thought. These range from Jews as Communists or capitalists, to dissidents or Zionists. 

The result is a Judaisation of the rejected “other” – and it has never been left to the Jews or the “others” to decide who was a Jew and who were the “others.” Those who are drummed out of the national corpus by means of definitions or oppose such putatively absolute values as Catholicism or the family, which have always been regarded as the pillars of the nation, can pose a potential threat. Formerly, it was the Jews who bore the brunt of this argument; nowadays, it affects others. In the perception of the political right, these are primarily feminists and homosexuals,” Steffen argues.

Genevieve Zubrzycki, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, argues[12] that part of the liberals’ plan is to “soften, stretch, and reshape” the symbolic boundaries of Polishness that the right has sought to harden and shrink using a conservative, nationalist version of Catholicism as its primary tool.

“Individuals and groups that are not defending the prominent place of Catholicism and its symbols in the public sphere, and are advocating instead a civic-secular Poland, are turned into ‘Jews,’” she argues. Adam Michnik refers to this specific form of antisemitism as “magical antisemitism”: “The logic of normal […] antisemitism is the following: ‘Adam Michnik is a Jew, therefore he is a hooligan, a thief, a traitor, a bandit etc.’ Magical antisemitism however works this way: ‘Adam Michnik is a thief, therefore he is most probably a Jew.’”

“Precisely because Jewishness carries specific significations and symbolic capital that other minorities in Poland do not possess, it is primarily through Jews and Jewishness that a modern multicultural Poland is articulated. Hence liberal, leftist youth wear T-shirts and brandish posters in protests against clerical nationalists, subversively claiming that they are “Jews,” mocking conspiracy theories of the Right,” Zubrzycki argues.

“Communism, Western-style capitalism, and cosmopolitanism are all specifically associated with Jewishness, and that Jewishness is an ethno-religious category that many Poles on the Right perceive as the polar opposite of the Polak-katolik. As Jewishness becomes a symbol standing for a liberal, plural, civic, and secular Poland, Poland is said by the conservative Catholic Right to be ruled by “Jews”—by symbolic Jews—who must be neutralized. Poland is thus host to the apparently curious phenomenon of antisemitism in a country with very few Jews.”

Michael Meng, an Associate Professor of European history at Clemson University, refers to this process as “redemptive cosmopolitanism,” which he defines as the “commemorative display of multi-ethnicity that celebrates the cathartic, redemptive transformation of Germans and Poles into tolerant democratic citizens.” Formerly Jewish spaces become, he argues, signifiers of redemptive cosmopolitanism, “a performative embrace of the Jewish past that celebrates the liberal, democratic nation-state rather than thinking critically about its past and present failures.”

Smolensk yes, Jedwabne no?

Jeffrey C. Alexander  suggests a number of typical strategies by which societies cope with traumas. For perpetrators, the memory of trauma may pose a threat to collective identity, something that may be addressed by denying history, minimizing culpability for wrongdoing, transforming the memory of the event, closing the door on history, or accepting responsibility.

The dissonance between historical crimes and the need to uphold a positive image of the group may be resolved in another way – prompting the creation of a new group narrative that acknowledges the crime and uses it to accentuate the current positive actions of the group. 

Victim or perpetrator? Many Poles, those defining themselves as Catholic by definition, feel aggrieved about what they see as the world’s failure to understand and recognise their suffering. So, we face a contested domain of pain and acknowledgement. 

Jeffrey Blutinger defines three basic approaches to contemporary memory politics in Eastern Europe: “aphasia” – a taboo on memory (typical of the communist era); “deflective negationism” – bad things are recognised, but all responsibility is placed on “outsiders”, and “open examination.”

Unsurprisingly, people want straight lines, simplified versions, good guys and bad guys, hence many countries remain trapped in the second approach – that of “deflective negationism”. The Soviets tried aphasia, the idea being to drown layered history into a single, Sovietised version.

In many ways, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) government’s Historical Policy is a similar attempt to impose a certain incomplete version on a complex layered reality, and thus drifts into its own home-grown version of ’deflective negationism.’ 

Whereas there is no doubt that Poles were the victims of the Nazis with three million ethnic Poles murdered during WWII, information has surfaced, in recent years, revealing horrific acts of mass murder perpetrated by Poles on their Jewish neighbors at their own volition, and not under Nazi coercion, see  Gross, 2001 and Grabowski, 2013. Bilewicz and Stefaniak suggest the attempt to defend an untarnished image of victimhood has stimulated victimhood-related anti-Semitism.

The Polish Senate approved a controversial bill making it illegal to accuse the Polish people or state of complicity in the Holocaust indicating how memory wars are not mere intellectual debates over history, but attempts to salvage the image of the group.

There is also competitive victimhood dynamics, whch Noor identifies. 

Dariusz Kosiński argues that Smolensk poses such questions. 

Conspiracy theories have been in circulation since the day of the accident, claiming that the crash was a political assassination, an act of war against Poland or an elaborate coup attempt, possibly orchestrated by Russia. 

The theories range from the idea that the fog around the airport had been artificially produced, to victims’ bodies being doctored in fake autopsies, to the idea that explosives were planted on board the plane. 

German restitution yes, Jewish restitution no

“Tusk is the personification of evil in Poland. He is pure evil,” Jaroslaw Kaczynski, PiS leader and the deputy prime minister, said in October 2023.

Warsaw was at the time seeking €1.3 trillion in reparations from Germany for the Nazi occupation.

Meanwhile, Poland was one of 47 countries to sign the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, but the country has never followed up with legal regulations. 

Before World War II, 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland, making up 10% of the population; in Warsaw the figure was estimated at about a third of the then 1 million population. More than 90% of them were killed in the Holocaust, and their property was looted by German Nazis or nationalized by the postwar communist government.

When the Red Army entered Warsaw in January 1945 over 90% of the city’s dwellings had been destroyed by the retreating Germans. “Architecture is mixed with politics, urban planning with ideology,” says Jaroslaw Trybus, director of the Warsaw Museum. “All of this combined with the real dramas of evicted tenants, enormous compensation payments which were awarded from our tax money to be paid to those who represent the previous owners and slogans condemning the reconstruction chanted by those who long for a prewar Warsaw which they have never seen, create an explosive cocktail.”

About 4,000 formerly city-owned properties or plots of land in the capital have already been transferred back into private hands since 1989 through a legal process known as reprivatization, but the communists’ so-called Bierut Decree of 1945 remains in legal force, which means Warsaw city authorities have been inundated with thousands of claims for the restitution of property and land. 

Women as an affront to the nation: In the Eastern European variant of postcolonial theory, a central position is taken by a vision of Poland as an enslaved nation as a woman.[13]

The female embodiment of the fatherland was usually a suffering body; tormented, unhappy, chained. In the 1990s, the transition to democracy established itself in parts of the collective consciousness as the re-masculinization of national culture, allegedly feminized by state socialism. 

Studies of cultural gender identity reveal links between sexuality and the national and nationalist ideal. Nationalism is a male movement, which dissociates itself from any contamination or deviation. 

George L. Mosse argues that the nationalistic male ideal has been strengthened in its striving for perfection by isolating itself from the despised femininity, seeking out phantasmal “countertypes”: a Jew, a homosexual, a pansy, a hysteric.[14]

Chowaniec suggests that in the threat as constructed as being against “our children” and the “our” plays an important rhetorical role. The very structure of the phrase, “our children” is, in fact, an ideological appropriation of children, she argues.

Not for nothing does the alt-right complain of the ‘cucking’ and ‘emasculation’ of manhood. 

Agnieszka Graff argues that in the period preceding and immediately following Poland’s accession to the European Union (May 2004) Polish media were overflowing with “gender talk.” EU legislation on gender equality and sexual minority rights was a sign of weakness and effeminacy.

Nationalism excluded all that was “un-manly” (in particular, homosexuality), and sexual stigma was often projected onto the ethnic or racial other.

Five stories about borders and trauma

From anti-communist Marxist to post-Marxist capitalist: Adam Michnik

Born into a family of communists, Adam’s father Ozjasz Szechter was First Secretary of the Communist Party of Western Ukraine, while his step-brother, Stefan Michnik, was a military judge in the 1950s.

Michnik spent three years in prison the first time, and on release in 1971 worked for two years as a welder at the Róża Luxemburg’s (Rosa Luxemburg) Industrial Plant. When martial law was declared in December 1981, he refused to sign a “loyalty oath” and voluntarily leave the country and was jailed again for an “attempt to overthrow socialism.”

Michnik played a crucial role during the Polish Round Table Talks, as a result of which the communists agreed to hold semi-free elections in 1989, which were won by Solidarity.

“The key was about striving for an open society and not a closed one, it was about a symbolic breakthrough. It was about a new way of talking and thinking,” Michnik says. 

In 1988, Michnik became an adviser of Lech Wałęsa’s Coordination Committee and took part in preliminary negotiations for the Round Table Talks. After the talks, Wałęsa asked him to organize a national daily, an ‘organ’ of the Solidarity Citizens’ Committee, before the June 1989 elections.

“We share an identity as Poles, whether of a Christian or Jewish or any other ancestry. It is this idea of the civic rather than the ethnic Poland that we are fighting for. This language creates an artificial division between the Józef Piłsudski and Roman Dmowski schools of Polishness. It’s all just a game played by cynical politicians. In 1968 it was also a search for enemies within, ‘the Other.’ Then it was Zionists. In the UK no-one talks of Miliband as being Jewish, he is English, right?” Michnik says.

“Kaczynski is a deeply frustrated and angry man who understands these Polish complexes very well. That is why Smolensk plays such a major role in his mythological universe. It ties him via his deceased brother to a national tragedy. It is thus intrinsic to himself as a person and he identifies himself with Poland. I don’t understand why Smolensk still holds so much magical power. it was an accident, there is no proof of Russian involvement. It is one of many visions Jarek has. But if one has visions one should go to a psychiatrist,” Michnik says.

“As for the left, what is it today? The left started when [Oliver] Cromwell chopped off the king’s head and ended with the Russian Revolution. Was Stalin of the left? Of course not,” Michnik says.

“The left’s ideas are hard to understand today. Do they want more state, but a state to protect individual rights? Do we want less market but also more freedom? [Ex-leader of the Labour Party] Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, for example, was a political cretin, a disaster. But in some ways he was a victim of the post-war success of the welfare state, the social democratic state that was built after the war by the Labour Party mainly. You can’t fight for what you already have. Otherwise it’s just a defensive position and may ultimately end up just reactionary,” Michnik says.

The rightwing journalist Rafał Ziemkiewicz writing in the weekly Do Rzeczy argues that Michnik’s “secret agenda” was to shift Poland into a secular and left-liberal space “as far as possible, as is the case in Western Europe.”

It seems very similar to the accusations of “cultural Marxism” made by populists in the US, a byword for antisemitic conspiracy theories. But it’s worth noting in that context. 

“Michnik’s paper was trying to do this from a cross-party, meta-political position from the start,” Ziemkiewcz adds. “Wyborcza regarded its primary task as being to reconstruct the Polish mentality, to ‘raise’ Poles so that they may become ‘modern’ Europeans. It was the voice of a group of the enlightened, standing higher morally and ethically, however, willing to accept the masses inspiring to become a part of the elite (…) But new power elites of a cunning, post-colonial nature have gradually been created. They pay little attention to any form of absolving themselves from ‘European’ fairness, because they are more impressed by posh cars than gaining the recognition of intellectuals.”

Jan Motal, from the Department of Media Studies and Journalism, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, has some similar ideas.

“It is fascinating because many of the new left journalists are doing a really socially relevant job, but they adhere to (middle class) cultural genres and norms that are hardly understandable for lower-class voters of the left and vice versa. This conflict of cultural elitism and populism reveals how the ‘cultural frontier’ reproduces the ‘class frontier’, albeit both sides agree on the fundamental ideas of social solidarity. Comparing discourses in the ‘new left’ supplement and more ‘conservative’ newspaper – which contributes to the move of voters from left to right-wing populism, which is exploiting left politics,” Motal says.

“The type of framing found in [Polish newspaper] Gazeta Wyborcza, especially in response to the pervasive family metaphor in right wing discourse is a language unlikely to reach and mobilise the anti-ruling party readership in Poland,” says Ewa Gieroń-Czepczor, assistant professor at PWSZ, a university in Racibórz, Poland.

“More importantly, is it likely to influence voters? In the broader sense, what is wrong about the language of anti-populist media? The texts in Wyborcza can be measured by how much they are ‘saturated’ with conceptual and deliberate metaphors as well as metonymies,” she adds.

Talking with the far-right

Before my interview with Mateusz Marzoch, a spokesperson for the All-Polish Youth (MłodzieżWszechpolska) – a component of Confederation – I asked people whose judgements in these matters I respect and whose opinions could be of value.

“There’s a difference between explaining and describing an abhorrent worldview and giving it a platform. Talking about and with these people always involves playing with fire, but we’ll never understand the physics of combustion without burning something,” Brian Porter-Szűcs, professor of history at the University of Michigan, said.

“I used to believe that one should not give odious people a chance to disseminate their views. I believe now that people should know what they represent and that we are wrong to try and protect readers/listeners from vile ideas,” said Anita Prazmowska, professor of history at the London School of Economics.

Confederation is made up of two main political forces. One is the National Movement (RN), formed in 2012 and merging far-right fragments such as the National Radical Camp and the All-Polish Youth. The other is KORWIN, led by the politician Janusz Korwin-Mikke, offering a mix of extreme neoliberalism and social conservatism.

The All-Polish Youth was created in 1922 as part of the National Democracy movement, and was modelled after the inter-war fascist movement Falanga. Roman Dmowski was its honorary chairman.

They declare themselves opposed to “doctrines promoting liberalism, tolerance, and relativism” and claim that the “Catholic ethic” should be irrevocable both in public and private spheres of life. The November 11 Independence Day marches in Warsaw have been dominated by the group for several years.

The interview

The aim was not on one hand to ridicule or belittle, or on the other hand to create a monster. What use would that do? It’s already been done and, anyway, it doesn’t work, the far-right seems to feed off both.

Marzoch comes from a small village 80 kilometers north-east of Warsaw, near Pultusk, which, he says, was very ethnically and religiously mixed before the war.

“There were many Germans, Ukrainians and Jews in my area. My grandfather tells me about the old days, about what the Jews there did for a living, nothing really more than that,” he says drily.

But in the next breath he says “the Jews were rich, the Poles poor.”

But weren’t these “rich Jews” also Poles, I ask? “Yes, but not the ones who collaborated with the communists,” he says. 

“It’s complicated.”

“We know that many Jews collaborated with the Russians and then after the war collaborated with the communists in Poland. My neighbour recalls how a Jew was saved after being hidden by local Poles [non-Jewish ones]. When he came out of hiding at the end of the war, he told my neighbour – my neighbour recalls – that even if there is one Jew left in Poland, that will still be enough to rule Poland.”

“The Polish nationalist groups helped Jews during the war when they discovered what the Germans were doing to the Jews. It was wrong what the Germans did,” he adds, as if there was any doubt.

“There is no evidence that Poles killed Jews at Jedwabne [the town in northeastern Poland where almost all of the Jewish inhabitants were killed by their gentile neighbours in 1941, as documented by US historian Jan Gross in his book Neighbours]. Many in our community [he doesn’t specific what his ‘community’ means] want to get the archaeologists in and see what really happened. But those that say Poles did it, don’t want to do that.”

Without being asked, Israel suddenly enters the conversation. “If you want the perfect example of a nationalist state, look at Israel,” he says. “There is nothing wrong in that, unless, that is, you keep expanding your borders and killing Palestinians.” I don’t press him on why he cares about Palestinians. He is less sympathetic to Syrians displaced by war coming into Europe, after all.

Asked if he thought Poland was better off without “the Jews”, Marzoch talks of the “great diversity of Poland after 1918, of Jews, Germans and Ukrainians. But they [“the Jews”] started to cause problems and not all Poles [the non-Jewish ones] were happy.”

“But Jews are not a problem today, not a threat. Some people say our premier is a Jew, but I don’t believe that,” he throws in, perhaps a gesture to show relative moderation.

“However, Jews like [Hungarian philanthropist] George Soros spread the LGBT+ ideology via money into NGOs,” he goes on. Asked if it is their Jewishness that determines their actions, Marzoch seems a little baffled, as if the question has never crossed his mind or did and was so absurd as to be immediately uncrossed.

“But we have Jews who are Polish nationalists, we have Muslims also in the association,” he adds quickly.

Asked if religious Jews who are also conservative in their views on LGBT+ and abortion issues can be included as Polish nationalists, Marzoch again appears a little confused.

“Nationalism can cut across religions. But we are a Catholic-Nationalist-Christian group. Polish nationalism has always been a bit different from others in Europe,” he goes on.

I get the feeling there are two narratives running in his head as he speaks, and at this point they collide in a jumble of confusion. “We don’t see ourselves as above anyone,” he adds, with a hint of defensiveness.

We move on to LGBT+ people, or “LGBT+ ideology”, as he calls it. Asked if there was room in his association for gay people, Marzoch laughs.

“I don’t know of anyone in the association who is gay, Catholic and nationalist.” It does and doesn’t answer the question. 

Could there be gay people who are also anti-immigration and abortion? He agrees there could be.

“We just don’t want them [‘the gays’] to show off in the street,” he says. “We are not stopping anyone doing what they want in their own bedrooms.” So, it’s about the external aspects of identity then, I ask.

“We in my village were not brought up to hate anyone … well, maybe the Russians,” he laughs. It feels like the closest we are going to get to a joke.

Interior repression: Foucault in communist Poland 

Remigiusz Ryziński, the author of a book on French philosopher Michel Foucault’s stay in Warsaw in the late 1950s, believes the author of The History of Madness was profoundly influenced by his visit. The book was not published in Poland until 1987, three years after the Frenchman’s death of AIDS. 

Ryziński – a philosopher and cultural critic – tells the previously untold story of the plot to kick Foucault out of Poland in the late 1950s.

In 1958, Foucault arrived in Poland as the director of the French Cultural Centre and to work on his thesis—a work that was later published as The History of Madness. In it Foucault analyses how Western society deals with madness, arguing it to be a social construct distinct from mental illness. In the English-speaking world, the work became an influence on the anti-psychiatry movement in the 1960s.

“Foucault’s time in Poland seemed to be the stuff of legends,” Ryziński says.

“Poland had its own social revolution in the 1960s, and I think Foucault was in some important ways an instigator of this kind of Polish Stonewall moment,” he says.

“His invitation to Warsaw was a great opening, a gesture in the post-56 thaw period, opening to a world that had been lost, a diverse multilayered Poland. Or at least a glimpse at it,” Ryziński adds.

“The new reality had built a new Warsaw, erasing all aspects of the bourgeois past. But really it was just a stage set,” he goes on. 

“For him personally I think his time in Warsaw allowed him to experiment with his own identity, but also to smell, sense and see communism in reality. The public bravado of a free and equal society behind the curtain certainly enticed him to Poland. But his was in a sense a performative process. He knew he would be outed and exposed and he stood up and said: so what!” 


While he was in Poland he became involved with a number of members of the gay community. 

Foucault’s lover was named Jerzy Tadeusz S. “Jurek” was 25 when he met Foucault in the spring of 1959. “Jurek” eventually led the secret police to Foucault’s hotel room, causing his subsequent exit from Poland.

Foucault’s after partner, Daniel Defert, tells Ryziński of Michel telling him about the moment he met Jurek.

“Foucault entered the room, looked around, and went up to the table where the young man was sitting.

He noted the shelves were sagging under the works of Marx and Engels. He asked why.

“Because no one reads them,” replied the boy.

Foucault laughed and looked at the boy with curiosity.

A later anecdote from Jurek’s trip to Paris three years later is also revealing.

They passed near the French Communist Party building.

Jurek couldn’t believe it. He kept looking at the Party building, then at Foucault, then back at the building again.

“What is it?” asked Michel.

“Is that the Communist Party building?”

“Yes, of course. Why are you asking? Has something happened?”

“Does that mean the party isn’t banned here?”

“Of course not,” laughed Foucault. “It’s part of the government.”

Jurek burst into tears.

“They lied to me about everything! You see? Everything they told me was a lie!”

That was the moment Jurek told Michel the truth.

That he’d been hired by the secret police to spy on Foucault.

That he’d never been with a man before or worked for the intelligence services.

That their meeting in the library was not accidental.

That nothing had been accidental, because from then on he’d been informing, and this had allowed the secret police to stage the ambush at the Bristol.

Foucault then wrote a report on himself, which Jurek rewrote in Polish and delivered to the secret police office in Warsaw.

Jurek’s wife, Wisława, has since passed away. Jurek S., in turn, died on November 10, 2011. They had no children.

An archeology of Foucault

Ryziński says the first place he turned to when seeking traces of Foucault in Poland was the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN).

The University of Warsaw’s documentation has no information about Foucault’s time at the philosophy department from 1958 to 1959.

There was nothing at the Polish Academy of Sciences. A survey of files in the University of Warsaw’s philosophy department and the Institute of Romance Languages from later years also turned up nothing.

The Institut Français in Warsaw and Kraków knew nothing, except that Foucault had been in Poland.


As Foucault might have suggested, only when a certain thing is described is it brought into existence. There were no homosexuals in Poland until someone started keeping files on them.

Foucault was interested in prisons, regimentation, violence, and repression – a Poland in the grip of communist madness was a great testing ground, clearly. 

“He certainly knew he was being followed, surveilled. it was part if the excitement. He saw the madness. His was a world of a lot of silences. Foucault’s dissertation addresses the archeology of silence.

“His flat was on Chmielna street, opposite the Atlantic cinema and just over the road from the newly built Palace of Culture. His idea of the panopticon was for sure developed with this in mind. We internalise the power structures, there are no guards, but we are always being watched, we as our own gaolers.

Without a doubt, The History of Madness was Foucault’s attempt to understand himself, his otherness, which was simultaneously his true identity, says Ryziński. “It was also the gateway to his research on sexuality. Madness, after all, was a category of social exclusion in the same way as homosexuality.” 

The History of Madness is is about the desire to gain knowledge of that which falls outside of knowledge, which itself is anti-knowledge, the conflict of reason and madness. 

Madness and homosexuality are similar to one another, Ryziński goes on. “As long as there is no knowledge about them—medical, statistical, political—they do not exist. Or rather: they are left in peace. When knowledge emerges, so too does a sense of danger. Knowledge always only touches on some concept of an object, not the entirety of the fact.”

It must not have been easy for Foucault to write his dissertation without access to publications and sources, outside the realm of the French language. Perhaps he drew inspiration from the madness surrounding him.

Stultifera navis (“ship of fools”) is the first chapter of Foucault’s book.

This was based on real events. Madmen were put on ships and sent out to sea.

The people still on land felt safe. They felt no guilt, they did not believe they had acted immorally.

A few hundred years later trains left the Umschlagplatz, carrying people to the gas chambers. Those who perpetrated this were convinced they were acting rightly. They thought they were defending their identity against the disease of otherness.

Lepers, the insane, the ill, unbelievers, Jews, Gypsies, refugees from Syria, homosexuals—all excluded from the spaces of “normal” people, of Michel Foucault himself, who was recording their story within a world of political alienation.

The insane political system he was experiencing firsthand was evidence of one of his main theses: that madness occurs only in a society of normal people. Madness was invented, like race, like society, and like sexuality.

He made inquiries about a hospital for those with mental disorders, and was recommended to visit Tworki, the famous psychiatric facility outside Warsaw.

On May 26, 1962, a three agents delivered a report to the intelligence services on the subject of persons “practicing homosexuality.” There was a list of sixty-eight men, as well as eight women.

An operation conducted in the 1980s and afterward code-named “Hyacinth” set up a national register of homosexuals. The goal was to define homosexuality as an illness, and then provide “case studies.” 

Asked, inevitably, if there are similarities between the gay community’s experience under the old system and now under PiS, Ryziński says we can easily see many similarities. 

“The language that they were speaking about gays is the same as we can experience today, in the media, in the politic discourse. It has caused a specific mood in the part of society, giving some people enough courage to express their fears, phobias, and hateful opinions,” Ryziński says.

Rewatching Lanzmann’s film Shoah

Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 nine-hour documentary film Shoah famously consists only of interviews. There is no archival footage, no musical background and no narration.

The interviews are often conducted in the locations the film’s interviewees – mainly the Polish or German witnesses, but not most of the Jewish survivors – are describing.

Lanzmann stressed what he called the “topographical” character of the film, with a lot of time spent silently panning empty fields, forests, or camp remains. This was, he said, meant to combine knowledge of past events with an experience of space. The film was supposed to become a “new form” that would tell a different story about the Holocaust. Lanzmann called it “a fiction of the real”, allowing the viewer to experience the film as an event in itself.

The key role in the film is thus played by conversation and descriptions of the Holocaust as remembered by the witnesses, perpetrators and bystanders. It does not aim to reveal new facts, but to bring up imagination, symbols, desires, images and interpretations, for all involved, including the viewer. The aim – he said – was to create an impression of an entanglement of two orders in one place – “here and now” and “there and then.”

The words of the witnesses are interpreted on the spot from Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew into French. In the subtitles, both French and English, some sentences are skipped and the plurality of voices is sometimes lost, the result being more of a summary than a translation.

The speakers sometimes engage in conversation on the side, comment on the situation of the interview in various ways.

Understanding the editing process is central to apprehending the role of translation in Shoah,” Remy Besson, from the Technès international partnership project at the University of Montreal, says.

“Indeed, in the film, we almost never hear the whole of the interviews that were shot. The director and his editor have chosen each word spoken by the witnesses with careful attention. It is important to know that the editor did not speak Polish. She worked from the transcripts of the verbal content of the interviews. It was therefore the meaning of the words spoken in French that guided the editing process. This process of sound editing led, among other things, to an accentuation of Polish anti-Semitism.

“For example, some expressions of solidarity with the Jews were cut out several times during the editing process. This can be demonstrated by systematically comparing the original content of the filmed interviews and the verbal content of the film after the editing, which I did for my PhD. This can be seen as part of the creative and political choices of the film team,” Besson says.

“I think the main idea is to let the viewer have time to understand and incorporate the narratives carried out by the witnesses,” Besson says.

“However, in the case of the interviews in Poland, the idea is also to stage the translator, Barbara Janicka. The idea is to represent her as a figure between the director and the Polish Bystanders. She is neither completely on one side nor completely on the other.

“The film is very much rooted in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time when Holocaust deniers were very much in the forefront, but also at a time when the specificity of the Holocaust was not clearly understood by all,” Besson says.

“Today, I think it is possible to re-employ the film archive to create more reflexive films. We must use this material to question not only the Holocaust, but also the collective memory of the late 1970s and early 1980s. It is also possible to use this material to question the process of translation, as I did in the short film Tell Her (2021).

“Finally, it is important to explore this material in the context of all kinds of issues that are contemporary to us.”

‘A difficult man’

Professor Francine Kaufmann – the Hebrew interpreter in Israel for Shoah and Sobibor (2001) and for The Four Sisters (Les Quatre Sœurs) (2018) –  says that working with Lanzmann was “a challenge”.

“I received no preparation. I suspect that Lanzmann wanted to hear, in my voice, my astonishment, he wanted me to ‘experience’ the words. I presume also that the ‘delayed’ or ‘echo effect’ of asking a question twice and it being answered twice, gave a gap for reflection, a period of nothingness, of void. But Lanzmann was hard to work with,” Kaufmann says.

Asked if he was “dictatorial,” she answered: “Oh yes. He rarely explained what or why he was doing or asking things. I sent him, before publication, in around 1992, my first academic text on the role of the interpreter in Shoah, in order to know his own opinion, receive reactions, precisions, but he ignored it.

“I realised only later what a cult film I was a part of and began to learn. The role of the interpreter was part of the process of double layered testimony,” Kaufmann says.

Lanzmann’s film challenges this idea of equivalence in translation, what he called a socially useful fiction. There are no “mistakes of memory” and “untrue statements”, but a complex narrative, concealing numerous layers of knowledge and ignorance.

Reception in Poland

When the film first came out in 1985 Poland’s communist authorities showed just two hours or so, the parts related to Poland. The official reception in Poland was largely negative.

After 1989, the democratic authorities initially balked at showing the film in full, but then permitted Canal+, a French-owned channel, to do so in 1997. Jan Gross’s revelations about gentile Polish complicity in murders of their neighbours, Polish Jews, at Jedwabne in the second year of the war were published in 2000 and Poland began a period of soul-searching that continues to this day.

One of Poland’s post-communist foreign ministers, Władysław Bartoszewski, an Auschwitz survivor, criticised Lanzmann for ignoring the thousands of Polish rescuers of Jews, focusing instead on poor rural Poles, selected – he argued – to conform with his preconceived notions.

Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, a Polish writer and dissident, questioned why Lanzmann had omitted talking with anybody in Poland with advanced knowledge of the Holocaust.

The Socio-Cultural Association of Jews in Poland called it a provocation and delivered a protest letter to the French embassy in Warsaw.

An unfinished film

“No, we have not finished with this film yet,” Dorota Głowacka, director of the King’s Contemporary Studies Programme at the University of Kings College in Halifax in Canada, says.

There are over 300 hours of fragments of outtakes that were not included in the final version of Lanzmann’s film, as Głowacka notes in her book The Construction of Testimony: Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and its Outtakes.

In it, Głowacka studies how Lanzmann treated the Polish language in the film, and what this reveals about the director’s biases.

“Changing attitudes towards Lanzmann reflect the debate in Poland about Polish-Jewish relations, like a litmus paper. It’s like two Polands in parallel, opening and and closing,” she says.

“There is not only a certain colonial attitude towards the Polish language, there also seems to be a rather Zionist attitude towards the Yiddish language, and Eastern European Jews. There are also very few women in Shoah and one might think Lanzmann chose women interpreters because he felt he could better intimidate them,” Głowacka says.

“What has remained constant through these different phases of the film’s reception is the view that the film only emphasises the conflict between Polish and Jewish memories of the fate of Polish Jews during the Holocaust.

“In my view one of his strategies was a linguistic one, aimed at the Polish language as the carrier of Polish national values and attitudes, which included a centuries-old legacy of anti-Semitism. It seems that, throughout the Polish translation sequences [the] Polish language itself — indelibly marked by the trauma of the extermination of Polish Jews — is put on trial before the camera.”

Głowacka argues that Lanzmann introduced to the film a “colonial gaze” which bore “contempt for the language of the native and replacing it with a more civilised tongue…”

Noting that Lanzmann shows great attention to detail elsewhere, including in his treatment of other languages, Głowacka points to the many misspellings of Polish proper names that are found in the English subtitles of the film.

The outtakes include a conversation a Jewish survivor named as Srebnik (his name is Srebrnik) has with workers at the site of mobile gas vehicles in Chelmno. Glowacka says Srebrnik is extremely assertive when talking in Polish, and that this was cut by Lanzmann as it didn’t fit his narrative of Polish complicity, Polish anti-Semitism and backwardness.

“In contrast to what I see as Lanzmann’s dismissal of Polish testimony — his view that Poles were ‘false witnesses’ — I give credence to Polish villagers’ desire to testify to what happened to the Jews, even though what they say is overlaid with anti-Semitic prejudice.”

Poles as hostages

Belarus’s 300,000-strong Polish community is caught in the crosshairs.

Three Polish activists of the Association of Poles in Belarus (ZPB), Irena Biernacka, Maria Tiszkowska and director of the Polish School in Brest, Anna Paniszewa, were released by Belarusian authorities on May 25 after two months in prison, charged with propagating Nazism (“heroisation of war criminals”, “inciting national and religious feuds”, “rehabilitating Nazism”).

Paniszewa said she had been beaten, psychologically tortured and denied medical treatment for a spine injury during the two months of her detention. The three activists could face five to 12 years in prison. Andzelika Borys, head of the ZPB, was then arrested in Grodno and sentenced to 15 days in prison. Borys was first sentenced to detention for organising the traditional Kaziuki Fair, which the authorities said was an “illegal event”. Meanwhile, Andrzej Poczobut, also a member of the ZPB, was arrested in March.

Poland has expressed alarm over what it calls the targeting of leaders of Belarus’s Polish community, calling on Minsk to stop “taking hostages”.

The ZPB is the largest organisation of the Polish minority in Belarus. In 2005, the authorities in Minsk revoked its registration. ZPB activists have been recognised by Belarusian human rights defenders as political prisoners.

The Polish minority in Belarus is 287,693, according to a 2019 census, the second largest ethnic minority in the country after the Russians, with around 3.1 per cent of the total population. However, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland the number is as high as 1,100,000.

The Polish minority in Belarus was discriminated against during the Soviet era. By 1949 all Polish language schools had been replaced with Russian ones, and all Polish organisations and social clubs liquidated.

Tikhanovskaya, who was forced into exile in Lithuania shortly after a disputed presidential election in August 2020 (an election Lukashenko claims to have won with an implausible 80 per cent of the vote; most independent analysts believe Tikhanovskaya was the real victor), said that “repressions against Poles are unacceptable”. She said the imprisoned Poles will become used as political pawns. “It cannot be ruled out that they will be a bargaining chip in the future and we do not want to let that happen,” she said.

Tikhanovskaya’s husband, an opposition activist, remains imprisoned in Belarus. The authorities in Minsk have also compared the protest movement in Belarus to the Nazis, arguing, for example, that the white-red-white flag was used during the war by collaborators.

Belarusian prosecutors have now turned their focus to the Polish Home Army (AK), a World War II resistance movement. Attorney General Andrei Schved has called them “fascist criminals” and in April opened a criminal case against former AK members, accusing them of committing “genocide against the Belarusian people” during the war.

Warsaw has asked the Belarusian government to clarify whether the attorney general’s words represent the leadership’s “official line” or were a PR stunt. Michał Dworczyk, the head of the Polish prime minister’s office, described it as a further stage in Lukashenko’s “war of disinformation.”

Shved said the authorities have information on several living Nazi criminals who participated in atrocities committed by foreign units, including battalions in the Lithuanian SS and the AK.

Shved has linked the need for the case with the mass protests that started in Belarus following presidential elections. The authorities interpreted the protests as “an attempt to seize power by unconstitutional means”. Shved said the threats derived from “some West European states involved in the mass extermination of Belarusians and representatives of other nationalities during the Great Patriotic War and the post-war period”. He also argued that “these states have launched an information war aimed at distorting historical events as well”.

Shved also mentioned some unspecified “nationalist gangs” and concluded that the glorification of these unspecified historical personalities “attempts to destroy the values on which Belarusian statehood is built”.

The initiation of proceedings in this case was announced in the prosecutor’s office of the Brest Oblast in connection with an event organised in a room rented by the Forum of Polish Local Initiatives and the Polish School. According to the prosecutor’s office, on February 28, an “illegal mass event” with the participation of minors and young people was organised there.

“Young people dressed in the national uniforms of the Polish scout organisation sang songs and read poems praising war criminals, including Romuald Rajs, known under the pseudonym ‘Bury’,” the prosecutor’s office reported.

In an official comment made in March, the Belarusian foreign ministry argued that the crimes committed by the accursed soldiers (żołnierze wyklęci) against Belarusians put them “on the same level with the Nazi punishers”.

Belarusian state-run media also accused Polish diplomats of promoting Nazism in Belarusian schools.

Poles deny the claims. “In Brest, at the event that became the basis for the initiation of criminal proceedings, I know from people who participated directly in this event, there was no mention of Rajs, and there was no mention of the National Military Union, there were mentioned local Brzeg organisations that operated in the Brest region in the 1940s. And it was not so much about the armed underground as the Union of Freedom Defenders, a conspiratorial and youth organisation,” Poczobut said.

Under PiS, a cult has grown up around the anti-communist underground of the post-war era, with people like Rajs, a controversial resistance fighter and AK member, centre stage. “Bury” was also leader of a paramilitary unit and is accused of being responsible for the murder of dozens of members of the Orthodox minority in Belarus after the war.

PiS has honoured Rajs since taking power, and the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), the country’s state-run historical research institute, has called into question accusations against him.

The crimes that the former AK fighter is accused of took place in 1946, when the AK had been disbanded and some of its veterans, like “Bury”, had radicalised as a result of the imposition of communist rule in Poland.

In 1946 the unit under his command burned several Belarusian villages in the region of Białystok and massacred about 79 villagers. He was sentenced to death in a show trial held by the Polish communist government in 1949, charged with membership of the delegalised NZW and executed in 1949.

His death penalty was nullified by the Military Court of Warsaw in 1995.

Rajs is revered by regional nationalist Polish groups as a hero.

Nationalist groups regularly parade in commemoration of “Bury” through those villages in eastern Poland where people still remember his atrocities.

NZW’s goal was the liberation of Poland from Soviet rule, with a national-Catholic character. In January and February 1946, Rajs’ unit “pacified” six Belarusian villages, murdering 79-87 civilians and wounding dozens. In Zaleszany, Hajnówka, his men locked civilians in a building and burned them alive.

During January 1946 Rajs’ unit captured 40 horse cart drivers near Łozice and shot the 29 who were not Polish near Puchały Stare. The unit then went on a killing rampage in the villages of Zaleszany, Wólka Wygonowska, Zanie, Szpaki, Końcowizna, Popówka, Rajska, Sypnie, and Potoka, killing an additional 50 people. The killings were condemned by the NZW, which intended to court-martial Rajs, however this did not occur.

According to Oleg Latyszonek, a Polish historian of Belarusian ancestry, the massacre led to the Belarusian minority growing more loyal to the Polish communist regime of that time.

In 1995, the Military Court of Warsaw nullified the 1948 death penalty given to Rajs and his family received compensation from the state.

In 1997, relatives of Rajs’ victims appealed to the Białystok court to overturn the verdict and an inquiry determined that the victims were not involved in the structure of the communist state and therefore that Rajs’ crimes were crimes against humanity.

In 2002, the case was taken over by the newly formed Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), which found evidence that the motivation for the crimes was ethnic hatred. The IPN stated that “it must be stated categorically that the murder of [Belarusian] wagon-drivers and the pacification of [Belarusian] villages in January–February 1946 cannot be seen as part of the battle for an independent state, since they bear the marks of genocide.”

However, the IPN, under the influence of PiS and an integral part of its “historical policy”, revised its conclusion. Referring to a more recent article by two historians, it claimed that Bury’s deeds cannot be regarded as genocide since, if he had wanted to set more Belarusian villages on fire, he could easily have done so.

On February 2, 2012, on the anniversary of the 1946 massacre, the Polish Sejm introduced a Day of Commemoration of the Cursed Soldiers on March 1.

Rajs remained obscure until his memory was taken over by the National Radical Camp (ONR), a nationalist group.

Along the border with Belarus, glorification of Rajs has become a way to express anti-Belarusian sentiment. During late 2015, the ONR placed his name was placed on several public and private buildings in which Belarussians live in Hajnówka. Since 2016, a march to commemorate Rajs is held by the ONR in the town. The march was first organised in Hajnówka in 2016. Among the organisers are the same far-right groups, such as the National Radical Camp (ONR), that are behind the controversial annual Independence Day march in Warsaw.

The mayor of Hajnówka, who was behind previous efforts to ban the march, appealed to residents to ignore the march. Locals feel that the situation has taken them hostage.

“The Home Army was not saintly and, of course, its soldiers committed deeds during the Second World War that could be described as war crimes,” according to Belarusian historian Alexander Pashkevich.

“If you wanted to, you could find a lot of evidence that innocent people died because of them and that people with weapons, in general, committed all kinds of atrocities. But we know how brutal this war on our territory was and we can say with certainty that both sides were guilty of such acts. But it is a great exaggeration to say that the Home Army carried out genocide against the Belarusians as part of a deliberate agenda,” he says.

The politics of memory nurtured by the Soviets, Pashkevich argues, was designed to paint a negative image of the AK because it was regarded as an ideological enemy. Poland could also be painted as a class enemy, a nation of landowners in the feudal imagination.

Bandera, borders and bodies 

Polish director Wojciech Smarzowski’s film ‘Wolyn’ in 2016 was the first to deal with the war-time Volhynia Massacres. With today’s Ukrainian crisis playing itself out, this raw and powerful movie is a reminder of crises past.

Smarzowski has said he made the film in the hope of improving relations between the two countries, and that it is “aimed against extreme nationalism.”

“I want to present this history in a way that is balanced but honest. One cannot build a relationship by sweeping the truth under the carpet,” Smarzowski said.

The movie follows the fate of a young Polish woman who wants to marry a Ukrainian from the same village against to her parents’ wishes. Set during the Second World War, the film follows the pair as the area in which they live becomes the scene of violent ethnic cleansing.

The region of Volhynia had been within Polish borders before the war. It was first occupied by the Soviets in 1939 and then by the Germans in 1941.

Some 100,000 ethnic Poles were slaughtered in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia from 1943 to 1945 by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA).

The UPA was a guerrilla force seeking Ukrainian independence and which cooperated with local Ukrainians in some of the very brutal killings. Later reprisals by Poles claimed the lives of 10,000-12,000 Ukrainians, including 3,000-5,000 in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia.

With the election of Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party in late 2015, the idea of reclaiming a patriotic narrative for the telling of Polish history has gained ascendency in many quarters. This, however, has grated against a more pronounced nationalist agenda in Ukraine in light of Russian interventions over the last three years.

In July, for example, the Polish parliament passed resolutions declaring the Wolyn massacres genocide, to which the Ukrainian government responded by accusing Poland of ‘politicizing history,’ with the deputy speaker of parliament promising ‘retaliation.’

Kyiv city council also in July named a street in honor of Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera and in August a Ukrainian MP forwarded a resolution declaring that Poland had committed genocide against Ukrainians in the years 1919-51.

But most reviews of the film have focused on its balance and lack of finger pointing. Poland’s largest newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, for example, notes that the film does not just focus on events during the war, but places them in a longer-term context. “This reveals the entire chain of evil,” including the pre-war Polish state’s mistreatment of its Ukrainian citizens. “Poles in this film are not only victims, but also avengers,” conducting violent reprisals against Ukrainians. As such, the newspaper notes, the film “does not judge” – nor does it, as many had feared, play into any group’s “historical politics.” It will not “disrupt fragile Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation, support Polish nationalism or the Russian point of view.”

The right of center “NaTemat” publication agrees that the film “does justice to the thousands of Poles murdered” in the massacres, but without resorting to “simple generalizations: not every Ukrainian is a devil, not every Pole has a pure soul.”

The newspaper Rzeczpospolita wrote that it hoped the “groundbreaking and painfully true” film can act as “a powerful opening for genuine Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation.” Still, it adds pointedly that “the only question is whether Ukrainians are ready to accept the truth.”

A bridge not a wall

“This is not so much about a settlement with the past as a warning about the future,” Tadeusz Sobolewski, a film critic at Gazeta Wyborcza, said.

“I can only tell you why I didn’t go to see this film – as a person who is dealing with post-colonialism, Polish political myths,” says Warsaw-based sociologist Aleksandra Sekula. “This film could probably go together with Andrzej Wajda’s “Pan Tadeusz,” with its wild cruel and thankless Ukrainians (our colonial imaginary hell) versus calm peasants from Lithuania/Belarus.”

[1] P. Bourdieu, op cit

[2] Tanja Petrović, Heinz Fassmann, Heinz (ed.), Kulturen der Differenz – Transformationsprozesse in Zentraleuropa nach 1989 transdisziplinäre Perspektiven, (Vienna: Vienna University Press, 2012); Tony Judt, “The Rediscovery of Central Europe,” Deadalus 119 (1990); Eva Kantůrková, “Dějina, dějiny, dějinnost,” Listy 5 (1985); Milan Kundera,  “The Stolen West, or The Tragedy of Central Europe,” The New York Review of BooksApril 26, 1984.

[3] Maria Janion, “Farewell to Poland? The Uprising of a Nation,” Baltic Worlds 4 (2011): 4‒13.

[4] Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994). See also Magdalena J. Zaborowska, Sibelan Forrester, and Elena Gapova, “Introduction: Mapping Post-Socialist Cultural Studies,” in Forrester, Zaborowska and Gapova, Over the Wall/After the Fall: Post-communist Cultures through an East-Wast Gaze, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 1–41.

[5] Bolesław Domański, “West and East in ‘New Europe’: The Pitfalls of Paternalism and a Claimant Attitude,” European Urban and Regional Studies11, no. 4 (2004): 377-381.

[6] Joanna Średnicka, “The New Romantics,” in Jo Harper, Poland’s memory wars (Budapest: CEU Press, 2018), 128; Dariusz Czaja, “Poland’s Theater of Death,” in Jo Harper, Poland’s memory wars (Budapest: CEU Press, 2018), 171.

[7] Tomasz Zarycki, Ideologies of Eastness in Central and Eastern Europe (London: Routledge, 2014). Alexander Etkind, Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience, (Malden: Polity Press, 2011); Emilia Kledzik, “Inventing Postcolonial Poland: Strategies of Domestication,” in Postcolonial Europe? Essays on Post-Communist Literatures and Cultures, ed. Dobrotva Pucherova and Robert Gafrik (Leiden: Brill Rodopi, 2015), 85-103; “Between the Russian/Soviet dependencies, neoliberal delusions, dewesternizing options, and decolonial drives” Cultural Dynamics 27, no. 2 (2015): 267–83.

[8] Wolfgang Streeck, “How Will Capitalism End,” New Left Review 87 (May-June 2014): 50.

[9] Elizabeth Dunn, Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business, and the Remaking of Labor (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).

[10] Alexander Smolar, „Przygody społeczeństwa obywatelskiego,” in: Ewa Nowicka/ Michał Chałubiński (ed.). Idee a urządzanie świata społecznego. Księga jubileuszowa dla Jerzego Szackiego (Warsaw: Wydawn. Naukowe PQN, 1999), p. 386–396, here p. 387.

[11] Jerzy Szacki, Liberalism after Communism, (Budapest: CEU Press, 1995).

[12] Geneviève Zubrzycki, “Nationalism, ‘Philosemitism,’ and Symbolic Boundary-Making in Contemporary Poland, Comparative Studies in Society and History 58, no. 1 (2016): 69.

[13] Maria Janion, Niesamowita Słowiańszczyzna. Fantazmaty literatury, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie,  2006); M. Janion, “Polska między Wschodem i Zachodem,” Teksty Drugie 3 (2006); Ewa Thompson, Imperial Knowledge. This is the tradition of Sienkiewicz, the eulogist of imperial beauty. 

[14] George L. Mosse The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

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