At War With the Past

Lublin isn’t the sort of place that frequents as a setting for Hollywood films. The introduction to Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man breaks with convention. Once home to a large Jewish community, the impoverished Polish city serves as a backdrop for the appearance of a gothic dybbuk, foreshadowing the Nazi genocide, that would empty the town of its Jews.

Tomasz Pietrasiewicz is doing all he can to revive Jewish life in Lublin. Unfortunately, his efforts have made him a target for rightwingers, assaulting him with projectiles such as Swastika-painted bricks, and dud explosives. The founder and director of a cultural center located at the Grodzka City Gate-NN Theater, Pietrasiewicz directs plays based on literature, and runs exhibitions, workshops and a publishing house.

Pietrasiewicz and his staff collect oral histories and documents, and have amassed a huge archive of material.  Focusing on formerly Jewish homes in Lublin’s Old Town, the scope of their research spans from 1576 until the present. Producing an interactive Facebook page for a Jewish child killed in Majdanek, as well as books – Adina Cimet’s Jewish Lublin – no wonder people are paying attention.

As a student, Pietrasiewicz acted in a theater company, which challenged communism and social conformism. During the era of martial law, he ran an underground samizdat press. His son Szymon Pietrasiewicz, an activist and performance artist, protested the corporatization of Polish life by undressing in public, sporting a price tag that read “Human Being, 9,99 Zlotys” in a shopping mall. Szymon ended up joining anarcho-punk collective Tektura, which, like his father, recently drew the attention of violent extremists. On December 13th, Tektura was attacked with bottles and stones after a far-right march.

Tektura combines social and cultural activism, feeding the homeless, producing events, putting on concerts, hosting debates and staging protests on a nightly basis. Its members are actively antifascist, supporters of human rights, minorities and women. In 2009, we conducted teach-ins at Tektura in solidarity with striking students and faculty UC Berkeley and the New School in the US, as well as universities in Germany and Austria. Tektura also runs after-school programs for children, as well as activities for senior citizens.

Tektura puts together Lublin’s rare LGBT events. In 2008, the collective hosted a Queer Fest with Jewish thinker and feminist activist Kazimiera Szczuka. In 2011, Tektura organized the Transeuropa Festival with exhibitions, debates and performance art on the rights of women, minorities and refugees, on hospitality and on artistic freedom.

The work of Tektura and the Grodzka City Gate-NN Theater are crucial in the present political climate. Educating the public through art and media, they provide forums and social spaces to fight against Poland’s anti-democratic right. Their work has become especially important, as in recent years extremism has entered the country’s mainstream under the auspices of Poland’s political leadership.

A new wave of ultra-nationalism is hitting Poland. Although Polish culture is increasingly accepting of diversity, the country’s political class remains enthralled with nationalist ideas.  In the neglected neighborhoods of Lublin, jingoism is the drumbeat of youth.  Worse, their xenophobia is being updated with a new anti-gay, anti-feminist and anti-progressive emphasis. To such extremists, Tektura is an especially obvious enemy, and is often raided by skinheads.

It’s easy to understand the resurgence of the Polish right. Since the end of the communist era, the costs of healthcare, food and utilities have skyrocketed. For example, the price of medicine is now the highest in Europe. The social costs have been immense, leading to the disenfranchisement of entire sectors of Polish society. Subsequently, the ranks of extremist organizations and gangs (dres) have swollen, leading the pronounced, street-based rightwing politics, in concert with the increasing strength of conservative politicians

During the attack on Tektura, extremists shouted “left-wing trash” and “with hammer and sickle on the left-wing rabble.” Grodzka City Gate-NN Theater are often called “the slaves [footmen] of Jewry.”  The local daily Gazeta Wyborcza Lublin has been reporting regularly on the subject, bringing much-needed attention to these issues. Covering the new extremism, reporter Pawel Reszka made a point of recalling a pogrom in nearby Zolkiewka in October 1939, where 23 Jews were killed. You get the idea.

That’s why the work of memory is vital. Remembering the past is essential to understanding what’s happening in contemporary Polish politics. The breadth and sophistication of the resistance, of two generations of Lublin dissidents, is testimony to the serious of the situation. In an era in which parallel political crises are replicating themselves throughout Europe, it is well worth reminding ourselves that such efforts are as inspiring, as much as they are warnings of catastrophes to come.

Photograph courtesy of Jean and Nathalie. Published under a Creative Commons license.

1 comment

  1. Really interesting reading this article after listening to a recent podcast of This American Life. If you get a chance check it out, it’s titled “Solidarity for Never.” It’s about the brief moment after the tragic plane crash in which the “Two Polands” Poland A and Poland B, came together and then split back apart.
    It touches upon the same issues mentioned in this piece, the importance of historical context and the different ways in which memory can work in one time and place. History is an important lens.
    thanks for sending me the article.

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