Displacement

    On Refugees and False Heroes
    How Poland Forgets about Its Own Displacement

    Many Eastern European countries – including Poland – are unwilling to take in refugees. Their reluctance seems surprising, given that their own historical experience is marked by shifting borders and mass displacement. The Polish writer Stanisław Strasburger gives an account of the mentality that dominates Polish society, and juxtaposes it with his own family history and with the message of Polish literature.

    ‘When I was a little boy, hey / My father took me aside and said: / The most important thing is what you feel, / Always listen to your heart, hey.’ These lyrics come from a song by the Polish blues-rock band Breakout. Rock music certainly had its ups and downs in Communist Poland’s popular music scene (the authorities were suspicious of the long-haired youths and their pro-Western antics), but for many people it acted as a safety valve. It expressed their longing for a different world, for freedom and diversity. These values came to be seen as the coveted attributes of the societies on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

    A desire to travel

    When I was a little boy, I used to spend a lot of time with my mother. I still remember how we would sit down at the table in our so-called living room, which also served as a dining room and my parents’ bedroom, to read history and travel books together. The children’s bedroom, which I shared with my younger sister, had a great map of the world on the wall. In our dullish grey Cold War reality, dense with all but impassable borders, this map shimmered with colours. It was a physical map. Political, economic and ethnic boundaries appeared not to exist – our map simply did not take them into account. It was in this spirit that my mother often told me, between one reading and the next: ‘I hope with my whole heart that you’ll grow up to be a citizen of the world. That you’ll feel at home anywhere on the globe, and that you’ll be able to understand the people you meet.’

    My mother never had the opportunity to travel much, although just like her own mother, my grandmother, she had always dreamed about it. One of the classic stories in our family was that of my great-grandfather, my grandmother’s father. He was a rebellious pupil in a suburban school in Russian-controlled territory. Inspired by patriotic sentiment – or simply wanting to show off in front of his friends – he allowed himself a dangerous prank: he walked up to the portrait of the Tsar in the classroom and poked out its eyes. To avoid punishment – possibly a one-way ticket to Siberia – he fled, and as a refugee he found himself travelling across distant parts of the world (he visited the United States as well as South America). During the First World War he returned to Europe to enlist in the Polish army that was being formed in France. Eventually he arrived back in his homeland, just after it had regained its independence.

    My grandmother and my mother each had their own reasons to be nostalgic when they retold my great-grandfather’s story. Both regretted that they had never had a chance to see the world – not even as a result of political oppression. For many years, when I was still a boy, my grandmother and I exchanged this one Christmas wish: once I was grown up and had some money, I would take her on a journey. And it did work out: we visited Paris together, as well as Amsterdam, Cologne, Cordoba and Granada.

    Cosmopolitanism and patriotism

    My cosmopolitan upbringing (which the women in my family gave me almost in defiance of the Cold War and its tensions) also contained a fair share of patriotic elements. How would a short history of ‘love of the homeland’ present itself based on three generations in my mother’s family?

    My great-grandfather belonged to the fourth generation that came of age in the occupied territory of what had previously been the Republic of Both Nations (‘both nations’ refers to Poles and Lithuanians – that was the name of the Commonwealth that existed until 1795; for the following 120 years there was no Poland, as its former lands were partitioned between Prussia, Russia and Austria). I shall never know if in different circumstances my great-grandfather would have been equally hostile to the authorities. What if the police force had been Polish rather than Tsarist? Would he have provoked them in a similar way? As a young Socialist guided by impulse, perhaps he would have opposed any despot, a ‘native’ no less than ‘foreign’ one. Be that as it may, when he heard that a Polish army was regrouping, he turned his back on Brazil (where he later said he had had a happy life) and embraced the uncertain lot of a soldier. Was he guided by love of the fatherland or did he miss his loved ones? Or perhaps he was not quite as happy in Brazil as he would later claim? I am not sure if my great-grandfather would have been able to answer these questions. As a little boy I concluded that people’s decisions are complex and that they rarely (or never) boil down to one simple motive – even a lofty one such as patriotism.

    His daughter, my grandmother, survived the Second World War in German-occupied Warsaw. She belonged to an underground organisation whose roots reached back to pre-war Poland. Its political profile was rather conservative, with manifest national – not to say nationalistic – elements. Her brother, meanwhile, had joined another organisation – a leftist one. Did this mean that my grandmother was a nationalist and her brother a communist? ‘Not at all,’ she said when I asked her. ‘Do you have any idea how it was during the occupation? Everything was kept secret. We were terribly afraid of falling into the hands of the Gestapo. People joined any group where they happened to know someone. What counted was to fight against the occupier – the political programme came second.’

    Sceptical about heroes

    As fate would have it, my grandmother’s brother was killed in a construction accident shortly after the war. At the same time, the political ideology of her group was becoming increasingly unpopular with the communist powers. For many years during the Polish People’s Republic my grandmother had to keep quiet about her conspiratorial activities. Her fight for a free Poland was not only disregarded – she actually had difficulties because of it. Her disappointment exacerbated the feeling that perhaps she should have spent more time with her brother, instead of fighting for the homeland like a Romantic hero who sacrifices herself and her loved ones to change the course of history. First his ‘youthful excesses’ got him into trouble at school, then he ‘fell into bad company,’ as she said. If it hadn’t been for that, perhaps he would not have ended up at a construction site – perhaps he would have lived. As a little boy I learned one thing from my grandmother: to be sceptical about my country’s enduring adoration for Romantic heroes.

    As for my mother’s patriotism, it was shaped in the complex circumstances of Communism. This was not a time for heroes. Love of the fatherland continued to survive, but its existence was that of an illegitimate child. On the one hand – and never mind the inflexible borders between states and political blocks – Communist propaganda inculcated the idea that national identity was a bourgeois relic good for the decadent West. Communism, meanwhile, was for the proletariat, regardless of colour, language or place of origin.

    But on the other hand, the Communists who came to power after the Second World War created something almost monolithic on the ruins of what had been a multinational and multi-religious state in the interwar years. New borders were drawn, followed by ethnic cleansing. The emancipatory educational programme that promoted social advancement and gender equality went hand in hand with homogenising measures aimed at levelling out regionalisms. This affected the Polish language, the literary canon and the outlook on history.

    Despite its officially ‘international’ character, the Polish People’s Republic was a national state. The administration in Warsaw promoted a model of education whose central axis was the Polish nation. The popular idea of ‘brother nations’ did emphasise the internationalist character of the Communist community of nations, but its underlying concept of the ‘nation’ was based on ethnicity. At least in Poland’s case this was evident.

    Interestingly, the founding myth of the People’s Republic foregrounded medieval Poland under the Piast dynasty. In its simplified propaganda version of history, the People’s Republic staged itself as the successor to the feudal state whose borders in the Middle Ages coincided more or less with those of Communist Poland. The authorities were much more critical of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. This was a multicultural federal state, which, at its peak in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, stretched from the Black Sea to the Baltic. It is telling that nationalist movements – both before the Second World War and today – also conjure up the myth of the Polish Piasts.

    But to come back to my mother: how did she imagine a patriot, growing up under late Communism? Her ideal was ‘a citizen of the world’. Someone who is aware of his or her country’s multidimensional past. Someone who is rooted in his or her mother tongue but also uses a couple of other languages. My parents’ philosophy of education was in tune with the Breakout song – they followed their hearts. They certainly knew little about Arabic travel writing. And yet my mother’s notion of a patriot had much in common with the ideal developed in this tradition: distance to the ‘other’ is not seen as an insurmountable gap resulting from differences in origin, skin colour or religion. Difference is seen above all as based on accidental individual traits. And even if minimising that distance is a challenging task, it is worth the effort.

    Of course, my mother’s ideal patriot is a utopian, but the utopia it embodies is a joyous and colourful one. My mother was convinced that the globalised world after 1989 was to be her time.

    Shame

    Unfortunately, a different kind of utopia holds sway in Poland today. It remains aloof from individual experiences (such as my family’s) and in its totalitarian aspirations it imposes a single valid identity, which is national identity. I doubt that it fulfils people’s needs. I do not believe that my family’s stories are marginal within the landscape of Polish experience. On the contrary, I would argue that the majority of my fellow citizens dream of a free and colourful world – like the map in my childhood bedroom – without walls and razor-wire fences (or, to use language of today: a world of disappearing borders).

    So what is happening? Our own social and political elites are stealing our dreams. Like in some terrifying matrix, we are witnessing the reactivation of a fictional political construct, that is to say the idea of the nation as an ethnic community and a state based on that idea. This entails a corresponding political narrative, educational model and vision of culture.

    The Romantic notion of the state embodying the vital forces of a nation in the sense of ethnic group is being revived not only in Poland but also in other places in Europe – Central as well as Western Europe. In the context of this mania for homogenised nations – a mania of truly revolutionary ambition – the very language of public debate is subjected to erosion. It becomes a language of confrontation, where direct violence assumes the status of a legitimate tool for resolving disputes. In the EU, weakened as it is by internal conflict, this strategy provides a false sense of security and guarantees quick electoral success.

    But this is a risky game. Our experience of totalitarianism in the twentieth century teaches us that human nature is not innocent. When violence is met with acquiescence, when the state apparatus sanctions it, people will become violent. And here it makes no difference where they come from, what religion they practice, or where on the globe they live. In the Gestapo’s underground prison cells, detainees were tortured not only by a handful of bestial officials, but also by the city council’s stenographers. These women, randomly assigned to the job of recording an interrogation, felt emboldened by the situation; they would get up from behind their desks and shamelessly kick a person who was already writhing in pain from previous beatings.

    Let me say it clearly: I am ashamed for the destructive activities of my own country’s elites. For instead of looking for a good place for Poland in our globalised world (promoting citizens of the world, as my mother would say), many of our politicians stoke fears and uncertainty. To the fiction of a nation defined in terms of ethnicity they add others, such as isolationism, that is to say the notion that borders must be closed because of the threat that ‘others’ represent to ‘us’.

    A cynical debate on refugees

    It is disturbing that cynics have come to be in charge both in the mainstream media and in politics, even on the highest rungs. Nothing shows this as clearly as the refugee debate in Poland. ‘Do you imagine that anyone would have developed an interest in the matter, just like that,’ an editor from an influential Polish newspaper says to me. ‘We all know that it’s impossible to close the borders, in Poland or in Greece. And those paltry few thousand refugees that Warsaw promised to take in would have dissolved like a drop in the ocean. No one would even have noticed. We have made a huge deal out of it, and now there’s plenty to write about.’

    This same editor bristles at hate speech on the Internet. He calls for respect for Christian values – tolerance and brotherly love. His newspaper, meanwhile, preys on the fear of the Poles, who are caught in a race to get rich and who panic (and not without being abetted by the media that this editor helps shape) that they might have to move over a little bit and share what they have. And in their own best interest, too. I need not reiterate that Poland, much like other European countries, not only has the capacity to welcome a great number of refugees or migrants, but that it desperately needs people who will settle here, who will live and work here, and who will become a part of us.

    Sadly, once fears have been conjured up they become immune to rational arguments, and the longer they are nourished, the more resistant they are.

    Polish myths and the refugees’ reality

    In May 2015, the candidate from Poland’s national-conservative party, which is currently in government, won the presidential election by a small margin. A few months later, in the autumn, the same party obtained the majority of seats in the parliamentary election. This means it now governs alone. A comment on refugees by the new foreign minister is revealing, as it inscribes itself into the new government’s historical narrative with its national profile. Just before taking office, Waszczykowski said in an interview with the Polish public television’s news channel: ‘Can we imagine a situation where we send our army to fight for Syria, while several hundred thousands of Syrians sit and drink coffee on Unter den Linden boulevard, watching us fight for their security?’

    The minister claimed that young Syrians arrive in Europe on rubber boats and ‘instead of asking for drink or food, they ask where they can charge their cellphones’. He suggested that Poles had a tradition of fighting for their independence, and especially of creating armies in exile that fought for the freedom of the fatherland. For him, this is a good example to follow.

    The minister’s argument can be summed up as follows: when a war breaks out in your country, then you should not flee but fight. Especially if you are a young man. What you certainly should not do is laze around in some other country. Not to mention: what sort of refugee are you if you can afford a smartphone. What Waszczykowski is suggesting is that refugees are no refugees at all, that they apply for asylum on false grounds, that they lie about their assets, and on top of all this, they do not even love their own country.

    But the history that the minister projects onto Syrian refugees is not even the history of his own country. It is a manipulated, nationalist-militarist version of Polish history. Besides his totalising assumptions about belonging to the national community (the fatherland in need), he also promotes violence as an effective tool in the political struggle (if they went to war, they would vanquish the enemy and liberate their country) as well as sexist chauvinism (the role of a young man is to fight). Finally, there is also an element of the Romantic vision of history as the domain of heroes, who change the course of events by dint of their actions and personal sacrifice.

    But what hypocrisy, especially coming from a Polish minister! He knows perfectly well that the Poles’ experience – in the twentieth century no less than during the partitions in the nineteenth century – exemplifies historical developments that are the exact opposite of what he claims: not one of the Poles’ isolated military uprisings, whether they were initiated in Poland or abroad, succeeded in freeing Poland from the occupation. None of them even achieved a decisive victory.

    To counter the minister’s blather, seasoned with a mendacious historical narrative, Poland has a long cultural and literary tradition that gives a voice to the civilian perspective. If great history appears at all, it only beleaguers individuals and tears them out of their everyday lives. What we see in the foreground is not the battle against the enemy, but efforts to live a normal life – despite everything.

    I will present two examples from literature, which I believe allow us to see a different Poland than the one promoted by our current government. It is an open Poland, which is also closer to my family’s history. I should also mention that almost every pupil encounters this Poland through the national curriculum. Perhaps this Poland will take a stand against the minister’s ideas?

    The matrix of great history, or perhaps of the leg

    Just before the war broke out in 1939, Witold Gombrowicz, one of the most important Polish novelists of the twentieth century, set out on a journey to South America. When Hitler attacked Poland, he decided not to return. He stayed in Argentina. A refugee with no Spanish and no means of earning a living, he found himself in dire straits and had to rebuild his literary career from scratch.

    Gombrowicz wrote much about Polishness, patriotism and history. His first novel, Ferdydurke (which exists in both English and German translation) recently appeared in Arabic, too. I will refer to this book, even though questions of nationality play a less prominent role here than in the novels Trans-Atlantyk or Pornografia.

    The case of Ferdydurke gains piquancy when we consider that this novel was removed from school curricula in 2007, when the party that currently governs Poland was in power. Later it was reinstated, but it is telling that the minister of education at the time said about Gombrowicz that ‘in 1939 he dodged the draft and went to Argentina in search of adventures’. (How very similar is this contemptuous remark to Waszczykowski’s logic!)

    And what does Gombrowicz tell us? Józio, the first-person narrator of Ferdydurke, is a thirty-year-old writer. One day he wakes up and realises that he has turned into a teenager. His old-fashioned and authoritarian schoolteacher, a complex-ridden and insecure old man, coerces the protagonist into the role of a pupil. Józio is aware that he is an adult, but he cannot resist the pressure from outside: since his social environment perceives him as a pupil, he not only behaves as a pupil but also comes to perceive himself as one.

    In a key scene in Ferdydurke Gombrowicz writes about ‘the patriotism of the leg’. The teacher takes Józio to a boarding house, where the boy is supposed to live from now on. The landlords are not at home, so their teenage daughter greets the visitors in the hallway. A silent game begins to play out between the characters: the elderly teacher secretly feasts his eyes on the girl’s legs, provoking Józio (or perhaps only pretending to provoke him) to become interested in her. Józio feels that if he succumbs to the teacher’s provocations (or to the girl’s legs), he will never manage to tear himself out of the role of a teenager. The teacher’s efforts have a grotesque effect. The flirting between the young (or old?) people creates a kind of bond – ‘a patriotism of the leg’. The truth is that despite the teacher’s various matrixes, Józio – and the teacher, too, it turns out – is attracted not by the heroes of Great History but by ‘immaturity’, gracefully and coquettishly displayed (or symbolised) by the girl. This ‘patriotism of the leg’ is ahistorical and beyond the concept of the nation: we are all human (and we all have legs).

    Elsewhere Gombrowicz goes a step further. He points out that not only little boys drown cats and torment birds – big boys do the same. Why? In order to cover up their immaturity, and to camouflage the complexity of the world, which eludes the homogenising tendencies and ideological frames of so-called maturity. ‘Wasn’t this why Trocki tortured? Or Torquemada?’ Gombrowicz asks rhetorically. And what does our minister have to say about that?

    Young men

    Miron Białoszewski, another important twentieth-century Polish prose writer and poet, survived the Second World War in Poland. He entered the national school curriculum with his Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising.

    To sum up: the Warsaw Uprising, which lasted over two months, was an attempt to free Poland’s capital from the Nazi occupation. It broke out on 1st August 1944. The advancing Red Army had already reached the outskirts of Warsaw. The Polish resistance movement assumed they would be able to vanquish the retreating enemy. But the uprising ended in a military and political disaster, and the price that Warsaw paid was exorbitantly high: almost a quarter of a million people died. A large part of Warsaw was destroyed and hundreds of thousands of civilians were taken captive. Białoszewski was one of them. Could the writer (who was only twenty-two years old at the time) have foreseen that parts of his Memoir would inscribe themselves so well into Poland’s refugee debate today?

    In the first few days of the uprising, the Germans isolated the city’s boroughs and smothered the resistance movement in one part of town after another. The civilian population’s situation was horrific – water and food were short; they had no bandages to dress the wounded. Hiding underground did not necessarily increase one’s chances of survival, as the city was under concentrated shelling and bombardment. Whenever the Germans occupied a building, they would drag its inhabitants out and often shoot them on the spot.

    In this situation some tried to save their lives by fleeing through the sewage canals, to reach a calmer area of the city. Białoszewski remembers it like this: ‘[A manhole leading into the city sewer] was carefully inspected by us […] surrounded by us, by people, especially the men, because we were the most afraid, the young men in particular. Because the first to be wiped out were the young [men]. […] We just wanted to get away from here! Only the women would remain, and they always have it easier.’

    The civilians’ wartime experience is chaotic in Białoszewski’s account: daily fear and breakneck attempts to satisfy basic needs – one’s own and those of loved ones – such as access to fresh air (of which there was not much among the buildings that were burning day and night), to water and food (where would these come from, in a city cut off from the world?), and to a safe hiding place, be it only for a few nights. Meanwhile, the Warsaw Uprising has entered into the annals of Great History. The people from our minister’s camp happily refer to it as the model of patriotism. When Białoszewski participated in the uprising, he knew that he was part of that Great History. Did that help him in any way? ‘[T]he knowledge wasn’t so very wonderful’ (p. 131), he remarks on the tragedy of the demolished city. ‘Our kings were not protecting us. Nor were we protecting our kings. Nor what had come after them. Nothing. Nothing’ (p. 123). Has minister Waszczykowski forgotten about this?

    We won’t get fooled

    Sitting down to write this essay I felt reluctant. It so happened that I had just returned from a few weeks in Thailand. While South-East Asia also has its problems, from the first day of my stay I felt that I was breathing easier. I had left the stuffy atmosphere of the European and Mediterranean world behind. I almost forgot about our Polish (and other European) politicians’ frozen grimaces and their attempts to incite an imaginary fight to defend borders and spurious identities.

    On the flight from Bangkok back to Warsaw I watched a film about a boxer. He was learning how to protect his head with his left arm raised and bent at the elbow, while readying himself to throw a punch with his right fist. When I set out to write this essay, my body assumed the same posture: tensed shoulders, a position ready to (counter)attack. As if I sensed that on my return I had found myself in a hostile environment that was trying to make me into an heir to Great History, a Son of the Nation who is ready for battle.

    I had to release that tension before I could begin to write. Of course I could have written about statistics – over 40% of Poles support the idea of offering a safe haven to refugees, even though that number has shrunk over the last year. I could also have mentioned the Catholic Church in Poland, which on various occasions has championed the cause of the refugees. But I could also have written that right now there is not a single political party that promotes Poland’s welcoming migrants; that refugees can be publicly denigrated in the worst possible manner and hardly anyone feels perturbed. I could have discussed how all of this is a result of Poland’s partitions and the resulting waves of Polish emigration, the futile uprisings, the misjudgements of Communism and the post-1989 period. Or I could have written about how there is no causal link at all. I kept feeling that I was merely adding to the blather. No, this was not the way to go. My fists remained clenched and there was no way I could write.

    And suddenly – eureka! I remembered ‘When I was a little boy…’, my readings from school, Białoszewski and Gombrowicz. My muscles relaxed, and on my face I felt my Thai friends’ life-affirming smile. My mother, who always listens to her heart, came to see me, overjoyed because the citizen of the world had returned to his hometown for a visit – long live the joyous and colourful utopia! The issue, I thought, is actually quite simple: someone is messing around with the matrix. Gombrowicz would say that we are being forced into a form – a form that does not correspond to the historical experience of Polish families or to our socio-cultural foundations. This form is nothing but emptiness.

    I am not being naive. I recognise the danger that the likes of minister Waszczykowski might successfully be messing it up. But that’ll be the day!

    I am writing these words with a smile, in spite of the frozen grimaces and in spite of the blather. I declare: they will not manage to brainwash us. When hell freezes over!
    Stanisław Strasburger is a Polish writer and journalist. His recent publications include Obsession. Lebanon (Opętanie. Liban, Warsaw, 2015; German translation: Besessenheit. Libanon, Zurich, 2016). His novel The Story Seller was translated into Arabic (Beirut, 2014). Stanisław Strasburger also develops and manages projects dealing with culture, art and historical memory at the intersection of Poland, Germany and Lebanon.

    Translated from the Polish and German by Tul’si Bhambry

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2016
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