The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2022

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APRIL 2022 Issue
Field Notes

Letter from Warsaw

Dear Human from the West,

I’m writing to you from the corner of the world which I imagine in your mind lies somewhere at the dusty crossroads of the Iron Curtain and Auschwitz, south of the Baltic Sea and oblivion. You associate it with cold (because of the Cold War, perhaps?) and frost; in general, something remotely Russian with funny susurration in speech. Or Slavic, I should say, since all our respective histories, literatures, and cultures in universities always fall into this one box of Slavic Departments that, sooner or later, become subsumed by Russian Studies, anyway.

Well, I am writing one of these letters to you at night, because I think you should know that words don’t mean much, especially when promises are not met with actions or when war breaks out suddenly and innocent people die (oh, forgive my truism, but I’m sending thoughts and prayers to your sense of taste!). Or should I say, they mean too much sometimes? Not enough? I’m a bit confused, but perhaps it’s just the tiredness. I see you like writing letters too, often open ones, or long institutional statements (the kind that sound like “look at us, we care too!”), or write out on the digital walls of social media how outraged you are and how horrible it is… Don’t get me wrong, I am not criticizing you because I truly understand the sense of helplessness you must feel right now. I’m just indignant and worried that when the first dust of shock settles, you will forget about us again, just like you forgot about Belarus. August 2020, does that ring a bell, or you were too busy disinfecting the surfaces in your kitchen back then? So you will forget about us and move on. And there is so much more in the word “move” than you might think at first glance. Take the people from Ukraine, for instance, imagine having to move quickly, right now, and at the last moment, because the experts, with their soothing pens, spent weeks reassuring everyone that there is practically no logical danger and no reason to move. So now they are moving and what does it mean, what does that word encompass apart from the simple A to B?

It’s a complex web of interconnections. To move is to find a train, bus, someone to pick you up to help you out, to direct you to the nearest border or to walk, walk, walk. I must sound drunk, but I wanted to reassure you that we don’t rinse our teeth with vodka before going to sleep. Sorry, again, recently thinking is like scrolling through Twitter, a collection of loosely connected threads, images and associations. It’s like falling into an abyss, but gripping onto anything less frightening and therefore more stable. A Russian tank towed by a tractor? Why not. And then the war, the first iskander missile and we are falling but suddenly—Zelenskyy’s Dancing With the Stars video? Gimme more. And falling again.

See? I lost my train of thought. I’m sorry, this happens a lot to everyone here. We talk, and we pause and there is a tangent and a tangent to a tangent and another long pause, and then we forget what we were talking about to begin with.

Speaking of scrolling—I bought a mouse for my laptop to be able to scroll better and faster, I am a navigator now. From my peaceful home in Warsaw, I click and scroll, attempting to connect the refugees with some paths to safety. Friends and strangers from abroad call me and tell me about a refugee awaiting transport/accommodation in Poland, and I do my research as best as I can, sending cars and helpful hands their way. I am one of thousands of navigators. My Facebook feed is now a giant bulletin board for Ukraine—dozens of help groups, hundreds of spreadsheets shared around, millions of questions—how to get people out of Kyiv? I have four people in Vinnytsia, will cover the cost of transport. Anyone? Transport, shelter, transport, shelter, who is going to the border? I have three spots in my car. Basic necessities needed! Blankets, diapers, pads and medicine, and clothes for children, of course, the lives they took with them from Ukraine fit in one small light suitcase. We need to replace it, replace the life they had and lost in the blink of an eye. Scroll, scroll, I’m offering a place for a mother with a child. In our living room, but we’re gonna make it work. Even the most unthinkable problems are solved on the boards. There are always solutions (still!), beds and spots in the car up for grabs. Short pause, Oleg is calling from Berlin. Never seen the guy. He got my number from someone I haven’t seen in ten years. A refugee’s car broke down. She—Katya—is here in Warsaw, needs help so she can get to Germany safely. Do you think it’s impossible to make it happen? Nothing seems impossible lately, Oleg, I chuckle stupidly. On our neighborhood Facebook page I find someone who meets Katya and who connects her with his friend who owns a car parts store. This stranger—I don’t even know his name—changes the oil and filters in the car, in the meantime someone finds a nearby workshop and it just so happens that the manager’s wife is Ukrainian and the guys working there are Ukrainian as well, therefore no translator needed, what a relief! Although my call to the local group is also answered by a girl who offered to translate, if need be. Finally, Katya is good to go, I get the report about it from the people I don’t know nor ever met before, and I cry a little. Just a tiny little story in a boundless ocean of complex and layered stories which will never be written down because there is no time and really, the feed is swelling with help inquiries, and sometimes with other stories, and we are swelling up too and so are our hearts and our apartments. Scroll, scroll. On one of the groups a question is posted: “Hello, I need helmets and bulletproof vests for my brother and uncle in Ukraine. Do you have any idea where I can find them?” and I cry a little and we fall again.

At our local collection space, an empty confectionery turned into an emergency meeting place, we divide the donated baby clothes by size, fold them and place them neatly in marked boxes so that the refugees are able to take whatever they need once they arrive. A bunch of guys are packing their car with donations—they are going to Lviv, to bring back three kids from an orphanage. Their faces are all somber and focused, they look like fearless soldiers in civilian clothes, ready to depart into battle. Short pause, a stream of hieroglyphic words on my phone, Natasha finally texted! I take a second, copy her message and paste it into the translator to know what’s going on, a consequence of learning Western languages in school (twentieth century fears of another German invasion combined with a post-communist mentality). The only thing I know about Natasha is that she is driving four mothers and four kids on the autism spectrum disorder to Berlin. We were in touch during their journey; one day she said she was worried, I told her not to be and that everything was going to be alright (what the hell do I know?!) It took them three days to make it through the border but finally fantastic news: they are in Poland and I feel warmth and I melt inside because they are safe. I didn’t do anything, didn’t do enough, they did it all by themselves, and yet she wrote “your answers and support helped me and us not to give up” and I cry a little. Written words made a difference for once, but it’s still not enough, this must be an exception. Deep breath, what was I doing? Back to folding clothes, yes. Wait, there is another message waiting to be answered, people of color are stranded at the border, can you help?

Scatterbrained. That’s what we are, everything is scattered. So maybe we fell already and simply got shattered at the bottom like a colorful matryoshka doll uncharacteristically made of glass?

You ask me about hypocrisy and racism, you leaf through the New York Times and ask me, “how come you’re welcoming white people with your arms open and let the non-white ones freeze in the woods?” And you have to believe me that I rage at this double-standard myself, a lot of us do, despite the fact that—no surprises nor denying—we have plenty of racists here, just like you do. Then I look back at the newspapers you read, I read the words in headlines and see the lacunae you cannot see, I feel the weight of words you cannot feel. “Poles welcome Ukrainian Refugees, Unlike in Last Border Crisis.” I’m not the one to lead you through the politics of bigots who use human beings as political ammunition. Weaponizing refugees is in the playbooks of both Putin and Lukashenko, I’m sure you know that already. Polish politicians got their share of that too, armed with the power to assign humanizing words here and there, marking the refugees at the Belarusian border illegal, and others as legal. The words you read highlight this horrifying practice as they should, bigotry should always be targeted. But those same words don’t tell you that the same government declared the area at the Belarusian border under a “state of emergency” preventing common people from helping (get caught with a refugee in your car? Up to eight years of prison!). You won’t read about the systems locals came up with to “fish'' for the refugees in the woods to save them (despite their skin color, if you can imagine…), you might not see the bags of food local people hung on branches like ornaments on bizarre Christmas trees nor the system of green porch lights they came up with to signal to strangers where they were safe to ask for help. In the same way, you might not hear about the Polish NGO Ocalenie that specifically focused on rescuing refugees of color from both crises, making sure they all get necessary shelter and care.

This is beside the point, however. What I was getting at is the use of the word “Poles.” Because, you see, there are Poles and there are Poles. There are racist Poles and there are welcoming Poles, there are Poles in the government who make it illegal to help refugees and Poles in the government who do absolutely nothing to help the Ukrainians. And they all somehow end up under the same umbrella. And that’s another thing that pains me recently, standing there soaking under the leaky umbrella. Because you see, this time you are not targeting bigots with your headlines, but people who create magical grassroots webs of help without which none of the recent rescue missions would be possible. So let me fix that headline for you, “Poles welcome Ukrainian Refugees, Unlike their Government Did Last Border Crisis.” Phew, at least more accurate, I hope you get me better now. I know it would be easier to understand everything in black and white, I feel you. Stark and shocking comparisons sell much better though. Would I make it even more convoluted if I told you that historically we’ve never had an easy relationship with our neighbors, the Ukrainians? Despite the same skin color, animosity goes way back, but it seems that certain shared experiences are more effective than a truth and reconciliation commission.

Fine, let me dive into it just for a second, for a better context, despite that it feels like dwelling on the long-forgotten grudges you had with your ex way back when, while your current relationship is something you should be focusing on. Just a couple of months ago, when children in Ukraine were sitting in classrooms, having safe roofs above their heads instead of deadly Russian missiles, they were studying how for centuries their people were oppressed by their Polish neighbors. They were learning that Poles suppressed their language, religion, and culture. They read about the so-called “pacification” of 1930 when Polish police officers rampaged through Ukrainian villages, killing women and children. Bloody, bloody history, the stuff that puts an unpleasant grimace on your face just thinking about ruthless people living so close to you. At the same time, kids of the same age right across the border (the same border where hundreds of thousands are crossing these days), were learning about the ethnic cleansing of Poles in Volhynia carried out by Ukrainian nationalists; a genocide of fifty to sixty thousand Poles during World War II. Bloody, bloody history, the stuff that brings tears to your eyes just thinking about your so-called neighbors. None of this matters now. The present moment took over, life is finally for the living and for the surviving, and the narratives of the past are fading away. As I write this, we’re weaving completely new threads of history, perhaps stitching that which was torn before.

Not long ago, Poles would travel to the Ukrainian city of Lviv and joke, “Let’s take this city back, it’s ours, after all,” referring to the period before WWII when Lviv was mainly populated by Poles and Jews. These days they say, “Let’s take them out of this city quickly, mother with three sons, they need spots in a car, anyone?” At the cemeteries of Lviv, Poles and Ukrainians are buried side by side. One can spot the difference and know who is who right away. Headstone photographs of deceased Poles are shattered, as if someone went from grave to grave in a rage, wanting to break into pieces the faces of the oppressors who used to live here, so that they can’t be remembered, so that they could be erased. I remember strolling through the cemetery, looking at those remnants of anger and thinking, clearly, we’re not welcome here, I don’t think we will ever be good friends. Now when I think of Ukraine, I think resilience, incredible courage and pride, steadfast soldiers and fearless mothers. It’s that kind of feeling when you discover your long-lost brother or sister, and they are hurting, and you want the best for them, you cry for them and then do all you can to ease their suffering and pain just a bit. Can’t stop won’t stop weaving those invisible threads of contact and help because we are lonely here, and if we stop, it will all collapse because there is no governmental structure magically holding it together. 

I guess we can be likened to spiders. We’re weaving webs that go above and beyond, but instead of catching prey, we’re trying to catch those who are falling into the abyss. We make alliances with the least expected partners (twist of fate: Poles texting and calling Germans to find spots for refugees fleeing Russian aggression, Germans calling Poles to coordinate transport for them) to make up for the lack of institutional support. The swiftness of the moment surprised even the most prepared NGOs, not even mentioning the people in power. And if you see the Polish government boasting about the number of refugees Poland is taking, know that by “Poland” they mean individual Poles who used Facebook to start connecting, collecting, structuring and bringing people into their homes. While individual Poles were organizing, often taking days off from work or spending nights and days at the border, spending money on pricey gas and food, doing everything pro bono, the government resembled a lifeless ventriloquist dummy, sitting in the corner of a room, cynically taking advantage (and credit!) of the masses who came forward with help. To be fair, they finally did a couple of things: launched a website (listing all the charities and NGOs who could help, once again pointing fingers at others: YOU must go and help, YOU must donate!) and they worked on a special bill to provide assistance to Ukrainian citizens (mind you, wording again: ‘Ukrainian citizens’ and not refugees as a whole). Meanwhile, they also tried (but fortunately, failed!) to push through an amendment that would exempt officials from criminal liability during the times of war or pandemic. Phew, in short, people here, and I mean the common people, feel forlorn by the government and exhausted but still somehow motivated. I know, I know. Generally spiders are not likable. I always choose to look away too, not my cup of tea. But can't deny they are very productive these days. 

Oh wait, I think I got it—finally a moment of rare clarity these days. It’s not so much about the meaning, but about doing. I’m writing to you at night to tell you that words don’t do much, they don’t do shit (this expletive is a substitute for much worse words that come to my mind). Words can’t do shit when it comes to war and humanitarian crises. All kinds of letters, articles, statements and appeals sound trite and sound like vomit because who needs to read what YOU have to say, what YOU think about people who are dying as you write it? I heard the other day you finally learned to pronounce and spell Kyiv correctly—huzzah!

Also, please forgive me, am I not hypocritical to tell you “words don’t do much” and still sit down and write this letter to you at night? I agree, it makes no sense to write this, and I hate myself for it. Nothing annoys me more recently than people who write instead of doing, so during the day I’m doing instead of writing, and then I am too tired to write. But today I can’t sleep because there is no peace there nor here in my brain that is unable to fight off those missiles of thoughts, words and full phrases. So I hide behind the shield of my screen (coward!) to write this letter and tell you that when you read it, this letter won’t mean anything because everything will look different, as every minute looks different in this part of the world. It’s like turning a Soviet kaleidoscope around and around, at the speed of light; things shift and twist and turn, and something that seemed necessary and helpful just two minutes ago now seems futile and dumb. What matters is the pure, ineffable here and now, whatever little we can do.

I’m writing to you at night because I can, and they don’t have the privilege of sitting down and gathering their thoughts. Because there are windows in my room where they have cold damp walls of bomb shelters deep underground. Because I have a blanket to cover myself from the evening chill, and they are standing and waiting at the border, freezing, kicking their heels, moving around to keep warm. I’m writing to you because this is the only time when you are paying attention and looking back at us. Don’t stop and don’t look away, please, not this time. Words don’t do much, can you prove me wrong?

March 2022

Contributor

Agata Tumiłowicz-Mazur

Agata Tumiłowicz-Mazur is a scholar, writer, translator, and occasional theater critic currently based in Warsaw. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from New York University, where she wrote a dissertation on the living link between archive and performance.

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The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2022

All Issues