It’s been a little-more-than-usually quiet on the blog these last few weeks as we’ve been away and, well, a holiday deserves to be a holiday.
Covid-19 and foreign travel
Our plane tickets were booked some time ago but it was a bit of a late decision actually to use them, amidst rising CV-19 cases ahead of the UK’s ‘unlocking’ on 19 July and eventually secured not least as a result of Bulgaria’s decision to close its borders (again) to UK citizens from the same date, it surely not being long before the rest of the EU was likely to follow suit (well, I would, in their shoes). This didn’t happen, as it turned out, but it was a key factor prompting us to take the chance – if borders had been closed again, it might have been some time before we got back to Europe proper.
Getting into Poland was not onerous: a downloadable certificate demonstrating our double-jabbed status; and a passenger locator form in the shape of an A4 pro forma issued and filled in on the plane, and collected by flight staff; if they even passed it to the Polish border guards, I suspect it wasn’t long before it duly found its way into the big round A-Z file. After a steep rise in the spring, CV-19 cases in Poland have fallen dramatically now representing, according to this interactive chart on the Pink ‘Un (set up to show comparative cases/100,000 population in Poland and in the UK), a tiny fraction of those in the UK: given the bureaucracy (and the expense) associated with getting back into the UK from a visit to a country which remains, still, ‘amber list’, things really ought to be the other way around.
Face coverings remain formally mandatory in inside, unventilated places and, while this was usually respected at the start of the trip, the sheer absence of cases and a vaccination programme which has seen substantial progress among the over-18s saw non-observance noticeably rise during the course of our stay. As we’ve seen from the UK this week, however, large proportions of vaccinated people do not mean that cases cannot rise, or restrictions be again under contemplation – other factors are also at work and, in Poland. a fourth wave is indeed predicted for the autumn.
2021 also sees the 10th anniversary of my first visit to Poland (a latecomer on my travels around central and eastern Europe).
Anyway, our trip took us initially to Wrocław and then anti-clockwise around the borders of modern-day Poland with the Czech Republic (via the spa towns of Świeradów-Zdrój; and Kudowa-Zdrój) to the very south-east corner in the Bieszczady Mountains, bordered on three sides by Ukraine and where Poland also borders Slovakia via the Carpathians, and then slightly north to the major city of Rzeszów. Thus, the more progressive, developed and investment-heavy west and the more socially conservative, less developed investment-poor east. The nature of the locations prompted quite a few thoughts about borders, migration and the importance of symbols and language, and I’ve attached these in an extended longform essay below, along with some of the on-theme photos filtered out from the 1,400+ I took during the three weeks, interleaving these observations with a few diary entries documenting where we visited.
We travelled by train and bus wherever possible; planning each stage (travel and accommodation) one in advance. This gave us some flexibility although we were able to retain a broad direction in mind.
Some relatively modern history about borders
I suspect like many others in the UK, I was ignorant until quite recently about the fact that Poland was shifted physically westwards as a result of World War II. Despite being on the winning side, as well as being the casus belli between the UK and Nazi Germany, Poland lost extensive amounts of territory to the east (along the so-called Curzon line which meant the loss of then Lwów, now Lviv and previously part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), to newly-independent Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania as Stalin sought to push his ‘security zone’ as far west as he could (modern geopolitical history continues to see this frontier very much as contested territory); but gaining the ‘Recovered Territories’ from Germany in the north (Gdańsk and eastwards) and in the west (along the Oder-Neisse line and including Silesia (Wrocław) and up to Szczecin, the latter actually west of the Oder). Modern-day Poland was essentially re-established on the basis of the realm of the medieval Piast dynasty. From being pretty central, even slightly west, of the longitudinal centre of Poland, Warsaw found itself quite firmly in its east; and, while Poland certainly lost territory overall, in terms of hectares (it ended up at about 80 per cent of its pre-war size), this was, at least to some degree although this is inevitably controversial, compensated by the Recovered Territories being more highly developed than the areas conceded in the east. The Poland that emerged was more compact than before, and with two quite distinct halves, and the fault lines that resulted from this continue to affect Poland and Polish society today. Polish agreement to this reduction in its size and influence was only achieved by intense wartime diplomatic pressure as well as, rather belatedly, a recognition of the geopolitical realities.
As we might imagine, the cost in human terms of all this border-shifting was immense as people were forcibly moved, on the basis in some cases of an ‘exchange of populations’, as the Polish nation state sought to reconstitute itself as a homogeneous entity and find room in the Recovered Territories for people leaving lands lost to the east, while itself deporting non-Poles to the east. Ordinary German people lost their homes in lands in which many had been settled for some time to the new Polish nation, being forcibly moved to within the borders of how Germany was now constituted. It is hard to disagree with Norman Davies‘s simple conclusion that:
Inimitably, frontiers were to have priority over mere people.‘God’s Playground’ p. 379, 2005 edition (re-printed in 2013)
Politicians debating over where lines should be drawn on a map can have no other outcome.
The sheer effort involved is hard to imagine: it consumed much of the next three years and, in terms of German expellees from Poland, totalled no fewer than five million people held and then transferred in conditions which may have been familiar to the Nazis but much less so to ordinary Germans caught up in the war but living lives outside of the Nazi machine. On top of the number of Poles moved internally, and into Poland from beyond its new borders, this was indeed one of the ‘greatest demographic upheavals in European history’ (Davies, p. 422, p. 423) – and it happened within the living memory of many of us. It’s a shame that, collectively, we don’t know, or appreciate, these key events better.
After a night in Wrocław (formerly Breslau), a two-hour bus trip took us back west and a bit south to Świeradów-Zdrój (Bad Flinsberg), for some acclimatisation, cake and a delightful, charming family reunion. Świeradów-Zdrój is a rather genteel spa town, notable otherwise for being high enough above sea level to sustain a winter sports industry in the harsh months of the Polish winter – the highest peak is Stog Izerski, served by a cable car, and, despite being 1107m above sea level (that’s 3,360 feet; for comparison, Mount Snowdon/Yr Wyddfa is 1085m above sea level), it’s still substantially below the tree line (largely spruce, and substantially regenerated since thousands of hectares were lost to pollution and insect infestation in the late 1980s). Finding a view from the top, other than of trees, rocks and blueberry bushes, is a bit difficult other than at the summit restaurant.
It’s also a short, tree-lined walk from the top into the Czech Republic, across a border marked simply by a boardwalk and a few signposts, to the neighbouring (and slightly higher) peak of Smrk (1124m) which has a newly-(re-)constructed viewing tower that does take you above the tree line to views over Poland and the Czech Republic. We repeated this bureaucracy-free border-crossing experience some days later.
Świeradów-Zdrój also has a quite astonishing church which, as you progress down the nave towards an apparently oddly offset centrepiece, the presence of a second, modern nave (added in the 1970s at an angle of around 45 degrees to the nave in the ‘old’ part of the church) slowly becomes evident. Poland is, now, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic (see also below, churches being one of the themes of this trip) but thoughts abounded as to how a dual nave church might be used in multi-denominational Christian countries.
Around the town, English language skills were rarer, though growing, and German was more common. Adjacent to our dinner table at a neighbouring 4* hotel (built in 1907) one evening was a party of elderly, and rather sombre, German men and women, clearly lead by a tour guide, likely to be representing one of a number of associations whose aim is to facilitate visits to the patrimony of German people expelled in the immediate post-War period – i.e. where they, or their parents, grew up. That this is these days relatively uncontroversial – that there are few, or no, evident claims to property restitution – is due no doubt to many things (and things were not always so comfortable in the post-War period) but including among them the peaceful integrationist aims of the EU, and the affirmation in 1990 by newly-unified Germany, within that perspective provided by the EU, of the post-war border between Poland and Germany. The flag display outside that same hotel is a symbolic, and incredibly powerful, representation of what that message of unity between European people actually means and the key role played by the EU in that process:
Additionally, Świeradów-Zdrój offers forest walks and the broad walkways and gently rising elevations of the new Sky Walk tower – a terrifically relaxing place to step into the holiday.
Heading south-east from Świeradów-Zdrój by taxi and then train, our next destination was the border town of Kudowa-Zdrój (Bad Kudowa). Today a youthful and quite lively resort, though replete with the panoply of the formal things that spa towns have to offer, but less influenced by the pull and the wealth of Wrocław, the predominant linguistic note in Kudowa-Zdrój is not German but Czech. This is no surprise since the town is surrounded on three sides by the Czech Republic while the E67, the European motorway stretching from the Czech Republic to Finland, goes more or less through the town, splitting the train station firstly from the lower and then the upper parts of the town. Adding to the Czech notes, there was also a ‘cross-border’ Czech-Polish cultural festival going on, funded by the EU’s Interreg programme.
The attraction here was not so much the spa water as two things: firstly, the opportunity to experience a border not influenced by the natural divides raised by mountain ranges; and secondly the Góry Stołowe (Table Mountains) whose highest peak, Szczeliniec Wielki (919m) is a short bus ride away.
Cieszyn, further to the south-east, might be better known – the border here is a small river brutally splitting the town into two parts in different countries, reflecting a sad history – but the divide in Kudowa-Zdrój splits Mała Czermna (Little Czermna, in the Polish) from the district of Czermna, lying on the north-west outskirts of the spa itself. It’s a short walk to the border point and, while there was formal crossing infrastructure in place in the past, Poland and the Czech Republic are now members of the EU’s Schengen Area and achieving the ‘crossing’ is a simple barrier-free stroll down the road. The Czech police apparently take a dim view of undocumented Poles traversing their territory so what they would have made of an undocumented Schengen-less Brit is anyone’s guess (under CV-19 rules, travel into the Czech Republic for UK citizens is barred other than for essential reasons), though the question didn’t actually arise at any point on our bike trip for a late lunch into the neighbouring, and comparatively rather sleepy, Czech town of Nachod. Essential travel, surely.
Here is the border point, familiar elsewhere on both these early legs of the trip from mountain crossing points; ‘P’ on the one side (for Poland); ‘C’ on the other. Note, however, that this is a re-purposed stone, clearly dating from before 1945:
On another occasion, I re-crossed the border (yes, a repeat offender) to spend some of my remaining Czech crowns in one of the not one, not two, but three pubs that lie immediately across the border, wherein I noted that it was still possible, in one corner of the EU in 2021, to buy a pint for a pound (500ml of beer for 30 crowns; the official exchange rate on the day being 29.9 crowns to the pound). It was the type of continental lager best described as cold and wet – much better (and more pricey) was had from a variety of the craft breweries that now inhabit even the remotest corners of Poland – but, nevertheless, this has its place in some contexts. The cost of food and drink was certainly lower in this part of the Czech Republic than in this part of Poland so, unless there is some sort of currency thing going on, Interreg has some work to do in terms of a number of its core aims.
The other attraction was another mountain to climb. In typically Polish hill-walking style, Szczeliniec Wielki offers steps which, in this case, go all the way to the top (actually dating back to the beginning of the 19th century, when the mountain was part of Prussia) and, frequently, a handrail which, in other than Covid-19 terms, might often have been quite a useful thing. Additionally, signs attached to the trees every hundred metres or so mean that you can rarely lose your way (unless you’re really not paying attention) – all very different from our climb this time last year of South Uist’s Beinn Mhor.
The precise number of steps up Szczeliniec Wielki varies according to what you count, but the common assumption is that there are ‘around 700’; the definitive answer, however, is that there are actually 722 taking you to a summit restaurant, of course, as well as breathtaking views of the countryside and the rest of the Sudetes mountains. The key feature of Szczeliniec Wielki, however, is its monolithics – huge lumps of sandstone carved by erosion and weathering into a variety of interesting shapes and also into rock labyrinths (additionally at the nearby site of Błędny Skały, which we also visited the same day in a monumental day of walking). You get to visit this bit of the mountain after paying the appropriate national park fee – taking you to a few more steps up (and then down). Some of the names of the formations leave a little to the imagination and some are best left undescribed for reasons of not spoiling the (frequently breathtaking) surprise, but here’s my version of probably the most photographed one – a rock formation that could barely better resemble a mountain gorilla had it been deliberately sculpted:
On next to the Carpathians and a first, short-stay base in Sanok – a day’s journey from Kudowa of more than 500km involving a taxi, a train and finally a bus. Sanok is a large town through which flows the River San whose upper reaches form the modern boundary between Ukraine and Poland at the eastern edge of the Bieszczady Mountains and which also featured in the call of Ukraine nineteenth century nationalists for a Ukraine ‘from the San to the Don’ (Davies, p. 115). Sanok has a number of attractions but the biggest is the skansen – a large open air folk museum akin to St. Fagans in Cardiff but covering 38 hectares and featuring some 180 original wooden buildings from the 17th to the 20th century re-constructed faithfully on site (and labelled with basic information in Polish and English). The aim is to provide a sympathetic consideration of what life was like for the peoples of the Polish Carpathians, including both Boykos and Łemkos, long-established Rusyn minorities typically inhabiting the villages of the Bieszczady and the lands adjacent to the west, respectively, and both essentially ethnic Ukraines. The confession of both is Greek Catholic – accepting the authority of the Pope but adhering to an Eastern Christian rite – and the skansen features a number of astonishing wooden churches (cerkiew, in Polish; tserkvas in UNESCO language, as they are internationally recognised as having global heritage) in the different styles of both Boykos and Łemkos.
Both groups suffered hugely in the aftermath of World War II despite a tradition of living peaceably alongside their Polish ‘brothers’ and with some degree of intermarriage. Military activities in the Bieszczady in 1945-1947 by units of the fascist-led Ukraine Insurgent Army (UPA) in support of an updated claim for a Greater Ukraine led to Boykos and Łemkos being regarded as sympathisers and to decisive military action (Akcja Wisła) being taken against them by the new Soviet-backed government. Whole villages in the Bieszczady were cleared, with a total of 140,000 inhabitants repatriated to the ‘Recovered Territories’, and buildings systematically razed to the ground. Many were left as ghost towns for decades and, in some still, orchards with no farmstead and overgrown foundations remain a symbol of the tragedy that arises when nationalism turns people against each other and when people are forced to pick sides.
Cisna, our base for most of a six-night stay in the Bieszczady, was one such clearance village although Cisna has been repopulated from the 1970s onwards as the government sought to open up the tourism potential of the Mountains. The village, which occupies a key strategic position in the geography of the area, retains a Communist-era monument to the outcomes of Akcja Wisła on a small rise in the centre of the village but, although it was cleaned up in 2017 and a new memorial tablet inscribed, parts of it remain in a poor state. The new stone commemorates the ‘Defenders of Cisna and the surrounding area in 1944-47 against the Ukrainian Insurgent Army’ and at least this has stopped the graffiti which overlay the original tablet’s commemoration of the ‘Fallen in the fights to consolidate people’s power in Cisna’ although a little has been lost as a result. The frieze, showing soldiers in action in the battles of the time, appears to remain although the open air sections are blackened and indistinct. A new information board at the site tells the story of the actions in Cisna and provides some thoughtful contextual comments, while the main events are also usefully re-told, with photographs, in other places online (Polish language required; or at least access to a translator).
Rain and damp, muddy ground interfered somewhat with our trip here – it is the mountains, after all – but we did manage a couple of small local hills (Jeleni Skok, 777m above sea level; and Hon, 663m – both well below the tree line although the former at least has a viewing platform allowing a perspective on the Carpathians) as well as the main objective – walking the połoniny, Poland’s mountainous wild meadows free of grazing sheep (though neither bears not wolves). We chose the higher for our trip – Połonina Caryńska (1297m) – although most of the mountains hereabout top out at roughly the same level. After some uncertainty as to where to get off the bus, we managed to start the walk in the right place and, while full of gratitude for the stone steps, handrails and clear signs on display throughout, I do have a little beef with the officially-produced tourist leaflets and brochures which promise a walk up of 70 minutes and up to two hours down (to a different destination). These are not times achievable by 50-something occasional, albeit enthusiastic, walkers or indeed by people with babies and young families and there is of course a serious point that mountains need to be respected and, with that in mind, people need not to be encouraged to over-reach themselves in conditions where their own safety – and that of others – may be endangered. It took us, including stops for photos, water and rest, two hours to reach the top and two and three-quarter hours to get down, the last eighty minutes of which was a relentless and frequently steep slog downhill through the forest, often with some quite challenging underfoot conditions as a result of the rain. The walk up Caryńska from where we finished is advertised as two hours – it would have taken us considerably more, even had we started our day there, not least when this is the view after the forest, but uphill, as you eventually break through the tree line:
Nevertheless, the views all around, across Poland and to the Carpathians border with Slovakia and down into Ukraine, were magnificent and the wild flowers, while clearly past their collective best in early August, were nevertheless still showing very well individually. And the top, while crowded (hiking is very popular in Poland) not least with a party of scouts, was not as crowded as some: either in the UK or, notably, at some famous spots further west in the Polish Carpathians.
Having seen some examples of cerkiew in the Boyko and Łemkov styles in the skansen at Sanok, we were keen to see some more examples located within the communities they serve and, aided by a day when we re-located a little out of Cisna, and with the aid of a hire of electric bikes from Robert at Agroturystyka Wojtasiówka and some information from the Icon Trail, now in the process of being renewed, we ventured out. Having travelled across the River Osława, formerly marking the traditional boundary between Boykos and Łemkos, what we found was in the Łemkov style; and we explored no fewer than six (well, it was a Sunday): one in Radoszyce, now re-purposed and re-dedicated as a Roman Catholic church (and only a couple of kilometres up the road from the Slovak border although there’s absolutely nothing there other than expanses of concrete and a picnic table and so we resisted the opportunity to step into Slovakia); two in Komancza; and then the jewels in the crown – one at Rzepedź; one at Szczawne; and then finally the one at Turzańsk which is one of the 16 tserkvas formally on the UNESCO list (the numbers of which are evenly divided between Poland and Ukraine) but which currently has the builders in until next month (the main building, though not the separate belfry, was surrounded by scaffolding when we visited). Most are still in use, all have been renovated (or even rebuilt, in one case) in some way and serving what are quite small, though clearly devout, Uniate communities most of which are likely to have returned to the area once people felt themselves more free to be themselves again following the tragedy (described as such in a commemorative sign in the cerkiew at Rzepedź) of the clearances.
Most of the cerkiew were closed (keys are often available) but the one at Szczawne was open, with a retired geography teacher acting as curator. She was certainly aware of where the Outer Hebrides were, but made it quite clear that she looked only east: apart from Polish she spoke Russian, Ukrainian and Łemko. Her children, nevertheless, had looked west, with three living in the UK (two in Hereford and one in Southampton) and the pain that migration frequently presents – the absence of children and, perhaps, grandchildren – to those left behind not least in the circumstances represented by their own history, was clearly heartfelt. For Europeans, at least, migration is a choice and, while recognising that economic and social circumstances also present something of a compelling force for some people, at least migration is no longer something that comes at the end of a gun. Progress, of sorts. Here, and offered with respect, is the belfry of her church, built in 1889 and renovated in 1973 (bullet holes, remnants of both world wars remain), with the core design broadly reflecting that of the church itself:
An early start for our next move, north to the city of Rzeszów, and two two-hour bus trips with a connection time of eight minutes (successfully made) meant we were there in time for brunch. The day could scarcely have got any better when we picked on an upstairs cafe on the main square where one of the duties of the waiting staff was to flip the record over to play the other side; and when the staff’s choice of vinyl for the day was THIS.
Eventually tearing ourselves away for a tour of the city’s major sights, and after a brief, but comic, interlude one of us enjoyed with the local police (what goes on in Rzeszów stays in Rzeszów), we started off at the ‘Revolutionary Act Monument’ dedicated, it says here, to the ‘fights for freedom that took place in the Rzeszów area’. Built in 1974, and currently rather well-maintained, despite the attention of a glut of pigeons, its location opposite what was clearly CP HQ, which now houses the provincial administration for the Podkarpackie region of Poland (the more things change…), gives the game away that its correct name probably runs something like ‘Workers and soldiers joined in the ultimate and inevitable victory of Socialism’. While we’ve had our own debates in the UK in recent years about the messages that statues send and their continued relevance in different times, there is a clear argument for explaining and re-contextualising the history. Rzeszów city council deserves a bit of credit for not simply pulling the monument down, as has evidently happened in other places – though it has to be said it does also occupy a major space within the city. However, something a bit less mealy-mouthed on the tourism brochures would also help the impression of a confident city which is at ease with itself and with its recent history.
We used Rzeszów largely as a base for day trips out to places which give readers decent experience of the breadth of the Polish alphabet – to Łańcut; Przemyśl; and to Sandomierz – before ensuring that we had enough time to spare to get the UK Covid-19 bureaucracy in place before our return (tests, both taken and booked (and in both cases paid for); and online forms completed. All the trips – respectively by bus/train, train and then bus again – had their merits. Presenting here just a couple of highlights: Łańcut offered baronial splendour alongside a completely renovated synagogue (in its original building) now in use as a museum (as well as being the home of the best beer sampled this trip); Sandomierz a series of 18th century oil paintings depicting – in a cathedral – people meeting their deaths in a variety of bloodthirsty ways, and including, separately, one depicting the blood libel which frequently features in anti-Semitic discourse (well examined and contextualised here in a piece from 2014 looking expressly at Sandomierz).
The pick of these three trips for me, however, was the mystically-unpronounceable Przemyśl – a city of spires, southern Poland’s second oldest city and an important trading post in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – where the renovated station building, built 1859-1860, offers Baroque style and a station buffet with drapes, plush chairs and fine dining, damask table cloths and all. The city lies close to the border with Ukraine – Ukraine nationalists laid claim to it as part of Greater Ukraine – and the River San flows through it before its eventual confluence with the Wisła a short way north-west of Sandomierz.
The city is multi-confessional and, to some degree, this has been a little fluid: in 1991 the Roman Catholics moved out of one of their two centres of worship – a monumental building whose frontage towers over the street outside, built originally in the 17th century by the Jesuits – to make way for the Uniate community, who had been worshipping in the Carmelite cathedral until that Order wanted it back in the immediate post-Socialist period. The more interesting thing, however, at least in contemporary terms, was this window display in a private apartment immediately opposite the church’s main entrance:
Gusts of wind coming from the wrong direction made the red flag stubbornly refuse to stay the right way out for the camera, but – as might be clear from the logo – it reads ‘Strajk Kobiet‘ (women’s strike) and refers to the mass grassroots protests by women taking place on Polish streets in 2020-21, the largest protests in Poland’s modern history, whose sparking point was a new abortion law but which also, in some contexts, can be seen as mounting an effective opposition to Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS – Law and Justice), the right-wing national-conservative ruling party whose MEPs are now the largest group in the Eurosceptic ECR group (set up by David Cameron) in the European Parliament. The story is not over yet – the leader of Strajk Kobiet has been charged with offences in connection with the protests – but the encounter here this afternoon in Przemyśl was made even more interesting when the young woman who lived in the apartment came down the street behind us as we were taking our photographs and, with a broad smile, asked us if we liked her flags. After assuring her that we did (these things can be misinterpreted), we congratulated her on her placement not least given her location (churches being one of the flash points between Strajk Kobiet and the government, with protesters angry at the Church’s role in the new law -and its powerful role in society more generally – and with leading PiS representatives calling on party members and supporters to ‘take part in the defence of the church’. The language is familiar from our own debates about statues; and, it will not be a surprise to learn, the outcomes of the use of such language were also shared: populists learn very quickly from each other in a globalising world).
It was impossible not to share the woman’s joy in her celebration of her gesture – the rainbow flag was, she said, a replacement for one that had got a bit tatty and had been unfurled only that morning (hence the packaging lines) – nor to escape the massive symbolism of what was going on: here was a woman in the south-east corner of Poland making a dramatic gesture at the surrounding forces of conservatism, symbolised by a church serving the eastwards-facing Uniate community, and turning herself to face very deliberately west in doing so.
The rainbow flag is of course the international symbol of LGBT rights and units of local government in south-east Poland have been at the forefront of the adoption of statements of ‘LGBT-free zones’ or ‘pro family’ charters (including the province of Podkarpackie, whose seat is at Rzeszów, but not Przemyśl as a ‘city powiat‘ within Podkarpackie). Walking around Rzeszów it was impossible not to notice rainbow colours in use on logos and infrastructure and, as it seems, there is a unifying symbol of opposition to the government contained within it, too: it was present, alongside other symbols, in an opposition party protest (actually also sporting flags for a centre-right party which indicates how far right PiS has positioned itself) about media freedom taking place in Wrocław when we returned there before our flight home:
My theme in this post has been borders, language and symbols and the Polish locations we visited on this trip provided plenty of opportunity to consider what these things mean in a modern country located within the EU – and highly secure within its own borders, however much blood and suffering had been spent in the the fight to secure them – and able to participate in a border-free Europe which encompasses not just goods and services but citizens, too.
Below the surface, however, there are difficulties. Poland provides an external border for the EU and, currently, is open to criticism for its policy towards refugees on the border with Belarus – a border it would not have recognised before 1945. Many of these are Afghans – and there is a sizable community of Muslims around Białystok, further north than we went on this trip, hence why the Belarus route has proven attractive – and the position may well deteriorate substantially in the autumn as a result of the current situation in Afghanistan. Elsewhere, it was clearer than ever that freedom of movement is reserved for those who are already in the EU – those on the outside face, in sharp contrast to borderless Europe, fences that are being re-doubled both in their size and in their intent to keep people, however, desperate out.
Aside of its fresh attractiveness to asylum seekers, and evidently in sharp contrast to the will of PiS, Poland is also a country of immigration – there are, for example, 1.5m Ukrainians now living and working in Poland (many of the young men and women serving us in restaurants across the country were likely to have been Ukrainian); these may be the ‘brothers’, but that is rather old language these days and, in a conservative country, while their immediate labour market rights may well be fully protected, their long-term presence is likely to change the country in ways for which it may not be prepared. As will, of course, asylum seekers for whose ‘brotherhood’ people need to look a little deeper than perhaps a country homogeneous by choice for the last seventy five years has been used to.
PiS is able to dominate party politics in the face of a fractured opposition, but the new politics does not take place in the Sejm and there is plenty for people to be angry about, including women’s rights, LGBT rights and media laws as well as public sector pensions, among others, to say nothing of a rights-based clash with the EU (though cynics may be right to point out that, not least with the EU’s requirement for unanimity, little will come of that). Poland is a free country – but it is not yet a society in which all people can feel free to be themselves and the dividing lines, both socio-cultural and geographical, are beginning to show.
Furthermore, much more needs to be done also to deliver growth across Poland on a more even basis – the fissures and fault lines based on development are also clear – and while a ‘Polexit’ might well be extremely unlikely, regardless of the current points of confrontation with the EU, as with Brexit the wider debate about the EU will be won and lost among those that feel they have been left behind and those for whom party politics provides no opportunity to have their voices heard. As we’ve seen in the UK, continual sniping and playing up the confrontation is no solution.
My final photo in this essay comes from the wall of the rebuilt synagogue in Rzeszów, now serving as an archive. On the edge of a public park named in honour of the victims of the ghetto – and which lay within the area of the ghetto itself – the synagogue commemorates in Polish, Hebrew and English those murdered and the whole is a moving, and still, place.