Photo Credit: Jakub.zabinski via Wikimedia Commons

Poland’s Halloween has always been a solemn national holiday with pagan roots called All Souls Day, known long ago as Forefathers’ Eve, and immediately followed on November 1 by All Saints Day.

Normally, it’s a contemplative period of reconnecting with those who are not with us anymore, whether grandparents, veterans, or national heroes of science and the arts. It’s a time when the cemeteries, illuminated by thousands of candles, look brighter from above than cities, and amongst the ornate headstones one breathes in the bittersweet aroma of chrysanthemums, candle wax, and evergreen wreaths.

But this year is different. During a full-blown COVID-19 surge, the cemeteries are locked. At the same time, a revolt began ten days ago against a state power that by decree of the Constitutional Court has virtually eliminated the right to abortion.

Protests spearheaded by women quickly spread from Poland’s largest cities, and on Halloween a general strike took place in hundreds of mid-size cities and towns. Seeing the faces painted with the omnipresent red lightning bolts that have marked this popular revolt, hearing the earthy language of the enraged crowds, one understands the vehemence of many banners. “This is war,” proclaims one; “Abort the Government,” suggests another.

These protesters are declaring war not only against the ultra-conservative government, but also—for the first time—against a previously untouchable center of power in Polish culture: the Catholic Church.

It is striking that the women who have been launching protests for a long time have now been joined by younger people of a generation that till now had appeared to be less alarmed by the dismantling of democracy in a relatively prosperous Poland. It is also interesting that some of us can’t help but recall that in 1968 when the Communist Party cancelled performances of Forefathers’ Eve, a classic romantic drama of the 19th century by Poland’s greatest poet Adam Mickiewicz (once a rebel and young political prisoner himself), the cancellation provoked historic student protests in Poland in support of free speech.

The night before this year’s Halloween general strike, and in defiance of Covid-19 restrictions on public gatherings, a large crowd in masks gathered on Warsaw’s Mickiewicz street to watch Forefathers’ Eve (part II) staged in the second-floor windows of a building facing the villa of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chairman of the PIS party. In the play, ghosts appear who are trapped between heaven and earth for their misdeeds; in the performance that night, Mickiewicz’s epic verse was frequently interrupted by the actors themselves and also by the audience. The ghost of a cruel and greedy landowner gave them a chance to address Mr. Kaczynski directly with the poet’s version of “Get lost!” and to add “You won’t divide us!” Similarly, the ghost of a beautiful shepherdess, who had broken many hearts by refusing all advances, prompted both actors and crowd to interject in rhythm with an electronic score “My body, my choice!“

According to the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, the most moving moment of the performance, uncannily befitting the premise of Forefathers Eve, was when the actors broke into John Lennon’s “Imagine” and were quickly joined by the protesters:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky

Imagine all the people
Livin’ for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

In trying to make sense of what is happening in Poland today, it is hard to avoid the memory of the youth revolt launched by students in March 1968, the key political experience of their generation.

It is also hard to avoid the continuing resonance of the Polish romantics who have long been a bulwark of a nationalist strand in Polish politics and culture. In recent years, the conservative government has tried to activate this tradition in the service of an ultra-nationalist political agenda. But I sense that the protests that erupted ten days ago in Poland have stumbled on a direct way to challenge this official appropriation, by appropriating in turn Adam Mickiewicz’s famous play.

That same night on Jerusalem Avenue, in the very center of Warsaw, crowds gathered at a traffic circle to take part in a dramatic coming out event. Here under a work of conceptual art, a huge fake palm tree erected on a small mound, women—one after another—stepped up and declared “I had an abortion.” Individual stories followed.

It is astonishing to see young Polish women taking charge by declaring the war against the state and the church that collaboratively stripped them of their reproductive rights. During the protests on Halloween, everything was out in the open. Everything was bluntly named, and everything was clear.

(It is also hard not to wonder though, where these young people were during the presidential elections earlier this summer that further strengthened the conservative ruling party. Why didn’t more of them turn up then?

On the other hand—given who I am—I think perhaps we have to rethink elections, electoral systems, and the entire concept of representative democracy, where so often we women are misrepresented, or not represented at all.

What about trying to organize our lives in a less centralized way, where being a citizen of a smaller community would make a real difference for our lives. Where our bodies matter, where we matter?

Are you going to tell me that this was already tested, that it does not work? Well, do tell me)

Elzbieta Matynia is a Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research and Director of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies