Image Credit: Shutterstock / Thomas Ragina
In this essay on the practices of hospitality and hate, I adopt an autobiographical and intersectional perspective based on my own experience. I was born in the city of Lublin in the eastern part of Poland, and for the last 20 years I have been involved in social and artistic activism to restore the intercultural traditions of this old Eastern European city. At the same time, I have watched as far-right and neofascist tendencies presented by local right-wing politicians and nationalist and fundamentalist groups have intensified in Lublin and in Poland generally. I have observed how every pro-democratic action has been accompanied by an antidemocratic counteraction, opposing hospitality with hostility toward all forms of otherness. I have also noticed the intersectionality of hate practices that combine antisemitism, homophobia, misogyny, and xenophobia. I have sought to counter them with equally intersectional pro-democracy projects. This text is thus a tribute to the struggle of a culture of hospitality against various forms of exclusion and to the people who have participated in it, now and in the past. Socially and culturally, the case of Lublin, with its many traditions and many contradictory policies, shows how difficult it is to practice democratic hospitality in the contemporary world and how fragile our democracy is. Let the testimony of Lublin and my artivism and research be examples of this fragility but also of the persistence of and the need for hospitality in our times.
INTERSECTIONALITY OF PREJUDICES
Antisemitism and homophobia are on the rise in Lublin and are often combined with other dangerous prejudices against the stranger, in particular anti-refugee hostility. Eastern Europe in general is experiencing these hostilities. In Lublin, there is a conflation of different forms of hostility against marginalized groups and historical antisemitism, which has its roots in the seventeenth century and later evolved during the interwar and post-communist periods. But, simultaneously, certain segments within Polish society have mobilized to intervene in the spirit of hospitality. Acceptance and public endorsement of LGBTQ rights have been deliberately linked to the fight against antisemitism and xenophobia. The following account of these developments is written from an insider’s perspective and focuses on my personal experiences in Lublin.
Prejudiced imageries of Jews, migrants, and LGBTQ people as “foreign bodies” remain influential in Polish far-right politics. In 2013 former Solidarity leader and Polish president Lech Walesa went on a rant against transgender and gay MPs. He referenced Poland’s antisemitic interwar practice of confining Jewish university students to “bench ghettoes” and suggested that these MPs should sit on a similarly segregated backbench “behind a wall.” Hence the Spiegel headline, “Walesa will Homosexuelle hinter Mauer verbannen.” In a TV interview with the popular anchor Tomasz Lis, the filmmaker Agnieszka Holland commented on Walesa’s homophobic comments, saying that it seems that the Jew has been exchanged for the homosexual. However, antisemitism persists—and so does a strong resistance against these interrelated prejudices. Let us not forget about the movement of, as Antony Polonsky calls them, “anti-antisemitic people” in Poland that has been around for a long time, as exemplified by an anthology of Polish writings against antisemitism from 1936 to 2009 edited by the legendary anti-communist dissident and current editor-in-chief of the broadsheet Gazeta Wyborcza Adam Michnik (2010).
Simultaneously and paradoxically, the country extends some hospitality—infrequent, limited, and conditional—to the LGBTQ+ community, albeit without any legal protection from hate speech and with no same-sex partnership provisions. In this way, repulsion and attraction, horror and hope work together. These are the workings of abjection as theorized by Julia Kristeva (1980). This polarization is representative of Poland’s culture war, wherein a “moral majority” strives to establish ethno-nationalist hegemony; the hatreds are expressions of a larger crisis of failed social justice. In philosophical terms, there is more Fichtean hating than Kantian hosting. Poland has made a transition from false communism to false Christianity, from late Stalinism to early fundamentalism. While Polish society is progressing, the political class is stuck in extremist prejudices, a lethal cocktail of antisemitism and homophobia.
Yet alternative culture and democratic tendencies have always been strong in Poland, hence, the current thriving of LGBTQ+ artivism and anti-government feminist opposition.
Art historian and curator Paweł Leszkowicz has argued, “For a country like Poland that’s struggling with both democracy and religious fundamentalism, the problem of sexual difference can give art a margin for subversiveness and even revolutionary potential.” Cultural activism has exercised an important transformative effect on Polish society. There is a hospitality of Poland’s art and cultural scene toward LGBTQ+ issues, which has created a backlash—the current homophobic policy of the far-right Law and Justice government that has been in power since 2015.
Tensions rise “glocally”—including in my home city of Lublin in eastern Poland, 50 miles from the Ukrainian border, which before the Holocaust was home to a very vibrant Jewish community. That is why in 2011 Leszkowicz and I curated the Transeuropa Festival with Chechen refugees, feminists, and queer activists and artists. A whole section of the festival was devoted to the Jewish heritage of Lublin. Among our guests was Irena Grudzińska-Gross, coauthor of a book about Polish indifference to the Holocaust and brutality during and after it. Other speakers included the activist Tomasz Pietrasiewicz, the Holocaust scholars Robert Kuwałek and Dariusz Libionka, the feminist artist Katarzyna Hołda, and the antifascist and anarchist activists Michał Wolny and Szymon Pietrasiewicz. Perhaps that’s why we later found our mug shots on a hostile poster, produced in January 2014 by neo-Nazis, that said: “Run out of Lublin!” Of course, we remained undeterred by such threats.
Instead of being pushed out of Lublin, all “strangers”—minorities, refugees, migrants, the Roma—should be encouraged to participate in our society. This was the message of the Transeuropa Festival. Ethno-nationalism may be remedied by Kristevan “confederations of strangenesses,” while I posit moving-from-grassroots-toward-the-world intersubjectivities; we should cultivate antifascist, democratic togetherness of all guests of the earth—without inequalities and exclusions—and move toward a glocal civil society. After the Hebrew Bible, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, and Hélène Cixous, hospitality is “a task to welcome strangers beyond duty and law.” Thus citizenship is not enough; refugees and all migrants should be respected, loved—and allowed to participate in civil society.
As Adina Cimet notes, “The remnants of the Majdanek extermination camp, among the biggest camps operated by the Nazis in occupied Poland during World War II, are just a bus ride away from Lublin city center.” Three hundred and sixty thousand Jewish detainees from all over Europe were murdered there; a dozen Norwegian gay men were imprisoned in this camp. The site remains one of the tombstones of the Holocaust and the destruction of the Jewish community of Lublin.
A veteran of Lublin’s alternative theater movement, Tomasz Pietrasiewicz, founded the Grodzka Gate–NN Theatre Centre, whose aim is to memorialize Jewish life and culture in Lublin through plays, exhibitions, a publishing house, and workshops for high school and university students. (Pietrasiewicz has also been targeted through antisemitic posters that were pasted in his apartment building and at . bus stops throughout Lublin.) Independently of each other, Elzbieta Matynia (2009), Teresa Pekala (2013), and Louise Steinman (2013) ex-̜ amine this important memory project. To this municipal institution I invited Griselda Pollock, Irena Grudzińska-Gross, and Christina von Braun, who are scholars of Jewish studies. I also moderated a meeting with Louise Steinman, author of The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation; the president of Lublin Jewish Community, Roman Litman, was in the audience and congratulated us thereafter. At an event at the Grodzka Gate–NN Theatre, I called for the rebuilding of the Jewish City of Lublin, expressing my dream for Lublin to become a hub of hospitality where minorities and majorities enjoy equal rights, are visible, and decide together on the affairs of our polis.
THE POWER OF ARTIVISM
But Lublin today is far from being such a place. Chechen asylum seekers who participated in the Transeuropa Festival say that they don’t feel treated as human beings in the city. Traditionally a country of emigration, Poland doesn’t welcome refugees. In October 2012 over 70 refugees in detention centers throughout Poland held a hunger strike against the legal and material conditions to which they were subjected by Polish authorities. A journalist from Georgia, Ekaterina Lemonjava, wrote a dramatic letter to Gazeta Wyborcza, in which she described the humiliations that she had been subjected to as a refugee in Poland. The newspaper later reported: “Poland is allegedly the only country in the European Union where refugees, including children, being held for months in detention centers, are called from their rooms by whistle to stand at attention.” Helsinki Human Rights Foundation representative Karolina Rusilowicz confirmed that “these detention centers hold a penitentiary regime.”
At the Transeuropa Festival, Chechen refugees shared their problems—in fact hardships—with an attentive audience. Generally, asylum seeking should be decriminalized and immigration facilitated in the European Union. Migrants and refugees must not be treated as criminals. The Seyla Benhabib–inspired Lublin political scientist Sylwia Nadgrodkiewicz (2010) writes that one needs to go beyond the logic of exclusion in order to make immigration easier. Lublin has been a city of women, minorities, and migrants. Let us remember the historical residents of Lublin: Jews, Roma, Ukrainians, Russians, Italians, Greeks, Germans, Armenians, Scots. Today we must embrace present-day migrants, including economic ones. Lubliners have enjoyed hospitality abroad, and metaphysically we are all migrants to this world. We must not allow prejudices in our region—that is why social change is badly needed.
In the sixteenth century, Lublin was a hub of an antiwar and anti-feudal religious group, the Socinians, who, exiled to Transylvania and the Netherlands, influenced the political philosophy of John Locke. In the Renaissance this city attracted dissenters, in modernism the avant-garde, and in the 1970s and 1980s conceptual artists and alternative theater. Today it is home to several artists who work with historical themes. One of them, Piotr Brozek, created the Facebook profile of Henio Zytomirski, a Jewish child murdered in the Holocaust, and was posting updates in the first person and using the present tense. Invitations to add Henio as a friend read: “I would like to tell you the story of one life.” Internet users befriended Henio and sent him messages, comments, and even gifts. Another artist, Mariusz Tarkawian, drew a monumental panorama of bloodshed throughout human history on the walls of Lublin’s Biala Gallery. The Holocaust and the Armenian genocide were presented, as the artist’s ancestors were Armenians who had for centuries been living in Poland. Tarkawian also graffitied a house with the lyrics of a Yiddish song in order to commemorate the Jews of Lublin.
The LGBTQ+ community has shaped Lublin as well. In the nineteenth century Narcyza Zmichowska a feminist and the author of the gothic novel The Heathen Woman (1846), which celebrated love between women, was imprisoned by tsarist authorities in the Lublin prison house for her political rebellion. In the twentieth-century interwar period, avant-garde writer Józef Czechowicz authored homoerotic poetry and photographed Jewish Lublin.
In the twenty-first century Lublin is not free from majoritarian and exclusionary policy. In 2006 the president of Lublin’s Maria Curie-Skłodowska University banned an anti-fundamentalist exhibition, T-shirts for Freedom, and in 2009 skinheads threatened a peaceful LGBTQ+ demonstration. In spite of antifascist protests, in 2010 neo-Nazis paraded on the main avenues of the city, including the streets of the former Jewish quarter. Clearly, much more artivism is needed to awaken the civil society and intercultural heritage in the city.
During the 2011 Transeuropa Festival, Labyrinth Gallery featured the exhibition Love Is Love: Art as LGBTQ Activism—from Britain to Belarus, evoking a space of otherness in the heart of Lublin’s Old Town, in the Jewish Lublin. The show opposed cultural exclusions in Lublin and called for equality across the continent. Love Is Love featured the Polish lesbian and gay visibility campaign Let Us Be Seen, vandalized in many cities by far-right groups in 2003; similar visual actions from Croatia, Italy, and Britain made up a panorama of activist art in the exhibition. Such an interaction of art and the public could be defined as performing human rights in art, performative democracy, the politics of small things, or intimate revolt. Love Is Love examines performative campaigns for LGBTQ+ rights and queer art across Europe with works by Igor Grubić (Croatia), Franko B (Italy/UK), and Bergamot (Belarus). Through aesthetics, erotic diversity calls for the ethics of transnational equality. Beyond borders, beyond prejudices, queer and anti-prejudice Lublin and Europe have been created in an art show.
Tomasz Kitlinski lectured at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin for 25 years and is a New University in Exile Consortium and Academy in Exile fellow, supported by IIE-SRF, at Freie Universität Berlin.