The Borderland Foundation in Sejny, Poland
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Far from the big-city museums and tourist destinations of Warsaw and Cracow that honor Poland’s Jewish heritage and the martyrology sites of World War II, the Sejny-Suwałki region has been marked by history on a smaller, but no less painful, scale: anti-Lithuanian riots, destruction of its large Jewish population during the Holocaust, anti-Semitic pogroms, and hostility toward ethnic Belarusians, Russian Old Believers, and Roma. Housed partly in the reclaimed Jewish structures of Sejny—a northeastern Polish town that has no living Jews—the non-governmental organization (NGO) Borderland Foundation and Borderland Centre of Arts, Cultures, and Nations combine hands-on cultural activism with literary, public intellectual, and scholarly endeavors that center on the recovery and celebration of rich East-Central European regional heritage.
In a recent interview for the liberal Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, the president of the foundation, Krzysztof Czyżewski, commented on the difficult craft of local and international cultural activism:
Building bridges between nations is a continuous process. It is not that with a single action, you can take care of business once and for all. It must involve long-term activism, workshops, conversations, and engagement of the locals in collaboration. The work toward cultural understanding cannot end with a few declarations, smiles, and organizing a nice festival. This is not enough.
Czyżewski made this comment upon receiving the Honorary Jerzy Giedroyc Award on behalf of the Borderland Foundation at the Royal Castle in Warsaw on November 7, 2008. It echoes many of his lectures, speeches, and published works, the most recent an anniversary collection of his writings entitled Linia Powrotu (The Line of Return, 2008). The prestigious Giedroyc Award, established in 2001, is given by the Polish publication Reczpospolita. It distinguishes those who have contributed to the Polish state through public activism that promotes democracy within the European community of nations and especially the cultures of East and Central Europe. The Giedroyc Award was named in honor of the legendary intellectual leader and anticommunist activist editor of Kultura, the Polish émigré publication in France. In its eighth year, the award was presented to Czyżewski and the foundation for nearly two decades of breathtakingly diverse and successful activities. They could not be more worthy of this honor, having received personal attention, encouragement, and support from Giedroyc himself, whom the founders considered a mentor and guardian angel until his death in 2000.
The Borderland Foundation was established in 1990 and today boasts an impressive library of world-class resources on multiculturalism. It runs the Borderland Publishing House, which is famous for issuing controversial titles, such as historian Jan Thomas Gross’s book on the pogrom of Jews in Jedwabne, Poland, entitled Sąsiedzi (Neighbors, 2001). Borderland Publishing House has brought to the Polish readers a host of East-Central European authors and related titles that have been published in its Meridian series that began in 1999. It also issues an impressively detailed Almanach Sejneński (Sejny Almanac) devoted to the multicultural past of Sejny, whose editorial board brings together Polish and Lithuanian historians, social activists, and writers. The cultural journal of Borderland Publishing House, Krasnogruda, or “beautiful soil,” surveys various genres and authors of numerous parts of East-Central Europe and takes its title from the village and manor house that belonged to the family of Czesław Miłosz, the Polish-Lithuanian poet and Nobel Prize winner. With its eighteenth volume under way, Krasnogruda has appeared since 1993. The first issue opened with a memorable interview with Miłosz that was conducted by Czyżewski. In 1996 the journal was recognized by Kultura for its impressive overall contribution to promoting international authors, and in 2008 the prestigious journal Literatura na Świecie (World Literature) honored Borderland Publishing House in the same manner.
Founded by a collective of extraordinary artists, intellectuals, and stage practitioners with links to the legendary alternative theater community of Gardzienice—including Krzysztof Czyżewski, Małgorzata Sporek-Czyżewska, and Bożena and Wojciech Szroeder—the foundation defines its mission broadly as the reinvention of the agora, by which it understands a democratic space for open exchange of ideas in the contemporary world. The foundation’s specific activities span regional and international locations and center on the artistic rediscovery, preservation, and promotion of the East European borderlands’ rich multicultural and multilingual heritage. Ideologically, their goal is humanistic: to overcome regional and nationalistic divisions and to build bridges between local ethnic groups, thus promoting dialogues among various, and at times conflicting, identities, memories, and religions. In effect, the foundation’s cultural activities dare to redefine the very notions of patriotism and participatory democracy for individuals, communities, and nations alike.
As one of its collaborators, Professor Andrzej Strumiłło, comments: “[Traditionally] patriotism has been measured by means of one’s hostility toward one’s neighbors. ... This is wrong.” Remembering his childhood spent with Jewish and Belarusian playmates, Strumiłło calls for embracing everyday “human contact without declared divisions” based in national borders, languages, or religions. Czyżewski wrote in Ścieżka pogranicza (The Path of the Borderland, 2001) that the culture of the nation-state is “that of the gatekeeper. Closed. ... [It is one that] erases all traces of the Other, opposing and forgetting it.” The borderland, in contrast, “is a life-giving buffer zone ... protecting diversity. ... [It] does not erode the borders, but rather expands the sphere that they encompass, absorbing those who live there, accepting their intermingling as a matter of course.” Most important, the “borderland is an agora. Here he [sic] who is not in dialogue with others simply vegetates on the periphery” (Czyżewski, 2001).
This vision of a many-voiced borderland agora is not utopian; instead, it recognizes the wounds, scars, and scabs of the painful past. Despite the destructive binaries set up by national borders and their gatekeepers, those who dwell around and on the borderlands create and enable the survival of hybrid and vital cultures. The kind of cultural recovery and dialogue espoused by the foundation resonates with Latina author Gloria Anzaldúa’s powerful iteration of the U.S.-Mexico border culture in La Frontera/Borderlands: The New Mestiza (1987): “Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. ... [A] borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition.”
The various activities of the foundation take this state of transition, hybridity, and constant shape shifting of border culture for granted, as their starting point. They emphasize hands-on engagement locally and internationally with what its main movers and shakers term “culture animation” and span educational youth and adult programs in the town of Sejny that often travel around the country and abroad. Their activities include a teenage theater troupe and a klezmer band that perform regularly; oral history projects in the area that bring together Poles, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Roma, and Russian Old Believers; meetings for teachers and academics from similar NGO’s in Poland and abroad; and workshops, performances, exhibits, conferences, cultural forums, and festivals for international visitors and local communities. The Foundation’s many years of local activism and regional and international outreach are impossible to sum up in a brief essay, but two theatrical projects deserve special mention for their international and local impact.
The first, Kroniki sejneńskie (Sejny chronicles), a performance created, crafted, and performed by Sejny’s young people under the direction of Bożena Szroeder, celebrates the history of their town in several languages, in song and ritual. Clay models of the temples, houses, and landmarks that once stood in their town were made by the young actors and occupied center stage during the performance, helping to make this theatrical meeting between past and present even more palpable. The play traveled to Denmark and Germany and most recently received rave reviews when it was shown at La MaMa E.T.C. theater in New York in April 2008. The second project, Miłosz’s novel The Issa Valley, was adapted to the stage and has been performed under the direction of Małgorzata Sporek-Czyżewska by teenage amateur actors of the foundation on the grounds of Miłosz’s estate in Krasnogruda village. In July 2008, I was part of a large crowd of Polish and international visitors to be mesmerized by the performance. We braved the darkness and uneven terrain to follow the actors and singers from one stage set to another. Miłosz’s words and the young performers’ bodies seemed to rise from and melt into the landscape and night sounds around us.
The ambitious scope of Borderland’s latest project is marked by the International Center for Dialogue, which is being built around the manor house and on the grounds in Krasnogruda that Miłosz bequeathed to the foundation. This construction seems to bring the ideas, aesthetics, and artistic passion behind both performances together. The center confirms the Foundation’s commitment to building bridges between local and global identities. As Czyżewski told me in an interview in May 2007, when the architectural drawings for the buildings that would constitute the International Center for Dialogue were just being finished, he envisaged the “world coming to Sejny and Krasnogruda to sort out its differences.” The goal is to develop “everyday practices which create open communities in areas where different national, ethnic, religious and cultural minorities co-exist, and to find and develop means to preserve traditional cultures, sometimes also minority cultures,” as well as to share those with communities from other parts of the world and to learn from them. As the New York Times wrote about Czyżewski, he “has based his life’s work on pushing the limits of borders, whether it involves going beyond the acceptable, bringing the past to the present, or bridging one country or culture with another.” Appropriately, Czyżewski was named Ambassador of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue in 2008.
What interests me as a scholar about the Foundation’s achievements and activities are the ways in which they have combined material recovery of cultural artifacts—for example, reclaiming Sejny’s Jewish heritage by rebuilding its surviving structures—with the re-creation and dissemination of the often displaced or erased ethnic and racialized identities. For example, although no Jews now live in Sejny because of their eradication during World War II, by taking over their historic structures—a synagogue, a shoe factory, a Hebrew school, or yeshiva—and reviving their heritage, the activists of the foundation (whom the locals often call “Jews”) have been able to transform the perceptions of that religious/ethnic/racialized group in a community scarred by the memory of the Holocaust and the prevailing historical divides between Jews and Catholics. And yet the goal of the foundation is not only to remind those living in the region today of their homeland’s Jewish heritage, but also to teach them that the very notions of homeland, local culture, and roots are intrinsically hybrid, multilingual, and cross-cultural; that history is the people we honor, the stories we tell about them, and the places where they lived, in order to explain who we are and where we live today. Miłosz’s legacy and patronage can be seen throughout the projects of the Borderland Foundation, and his name will grace the walls of the International Center for Dialogue in Krasnogruda. In the interview Czyżewski conducted with Miłosz, the famous poet talks about the West looking at his region in particular, and at the Second World of East-Central Europe in general:
In the course of many years living in exile I have wondered about the strange way that the so-called West imagines our central and eastern Europe. It’s an example of how the human mind copes with the geography and politics of distant and little-known countries. It in fact replaces everything that is concrete, every detail, with so-called general ideas, those idée générales in which French intellectuals are such specialists. But we know how many vital matters, conflicts, and complications are obscured by easily accepted generalizations.
It is through attention to detail, the ways in which the minutia of the local translate into larger ideas and transformations that reach across national, ethnic, and religious borders, that the Borderland Foundation contributes most to making the world a better place—one story, song, performance, one student, community, and town at a time.
Magdalena J. Zaborowska is Associate Professor in the Program in American Culture and the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. Her research and teaching interests include immigration and ethnicity, and the ways in which race, sexuality and architecture intersect in the narratives of national identity across the Atlantic. She has published such titles as James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile (2009) and Over the Wall/After the Fall: Postcommunist Cultures in the East-West Gaze (2004).
Anzaldúa, Gloria (1987). La Frontera/Borderlands: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute.
Czyżewski, Krzysztof (2001). The Path of the Borderland/Ścieżka pogranicza. Sejny: Borderland Publishing House.
“Czuwające oko Redaktora Giedroycia.” Interview with Krzysztof Czyżewski by Monika Żmijewska. Gazeta Wyborcza Białystok, November 9, 2008. See: http://miasta.gazeta.pl/bialystok/1,35233,5901120,Czuwajace_oko_Redaktora_Giedroycia.html
Among others, the authors and artists featured (some of them in translation) in the series include Jerzy Ficowski, Daniel Kac, Andrzej Strumiłło, Joseph Skvorecky, Ruth Gruber, Staniłsaw Vincenz, Tomas Venclova, Said Kaszua, Samuel Bak, Gershom Scholem, Timothy Snyder, and Joanna Tokarska-Bakir.
Ośrodek Praktyk Teatralnych Gardzienice (Centre for Theater Practices Gardzienice) was founded by its present Artistic Director, Włodzimierz Staniewski, who opened it with a troupe of collaborators (Jan Tabaka, Wanda Wróbel, Tomasz Rodowicz, Waldemar Sidor, Jan Bernad, and Henryk Andruszko) in the village of Gardzienice located near the city of Lublin in 1977.