“My grandmother was hiding Jewish children”: the underground network of refugees in Poland | Global development
IIn the attic of a thatched cottage in the woods near the Polish village of Narewka, a young Iraqi Kurdish crouched down, trembling with cold and fear. Through the skylight, the blue lights of police vans flash on the walls of his hiding place. Outside, dozens of border guards search for people like him in the blizzard. Downstairs, the owner of the house sits in silence with his terrified wife and children.
The young Kurd is among thousands of asylum seekers who entered Poland through the border with Belarus, where countless others found themselves trapped on their way to Europe. The Polish family offered him shelter. But if Polish police find him, he risks being sent back across the border to Belarus’s sub-zero forests, while his protectors risk being charged with aiding illegal immigration.
As people fleeing conflict or famine found themselves trapped on the Polish-Belarusian border in the middle of a freezing winter, Polish families secretly hid hundreds of desperate people in their homes.
Fear of knocking on the door as border police launch a manhunt brings back terrible echoes of World War II, when thousands of Polish Jews were taken refuge by their neighbors during the Nazi occupation.
âLet’s make one thing clear, this is far from being the Holocaust,â said a Polish woman who hosted a Syrian family in her home for five days. âAt the same timeâ¦ when you have six people hiding in your attic who are forced to stay in the dark to avoid being fired, as a Pole you can’t help but think of the similarities to that time.â
Every day since early October, Jakub *, 38, from Narewka, has searched the forests near the border for people in need of water, food and a safe place to sleep. With his dog, Jakub follows the traces of the presence of people who have tried to cross the border: diapers, damp blankets or makeshift huts built with tree branches.
During the war, one of his uncles, who died a few years ago, helped dozens of Jewish families in Warsaw to avoid deportation. Now, 80 years later, Jakub has hid and helped at least 200 people who were at risk of being returned across the border with Belarus. âI never compared what I’m doing today to what my uncle did,â Jakub says. âI help these people because they need help. It’s that simple. “
The European Union accused Belarus of deliberately provoking a new refugee crisis by organizing the movement of people from the Middle East to Minsk and promising them safe passage to the EU, in retaliation for the sanctions that Brussels imposed to his diet. Poland, in turn, has been accused by human rights organizations of violently pushing thousands of people across the border. People like Jakub, seeing desperate families huddled in the snow, decided to help. It is often a race between local volunteers and the police to find the first border workers.
In his room in a small house a few kilometers from Sokolka, 14-year-old Bartek invented a device to locate people at risk of being returned to Belarus. âI opened accounts to connect migrants’ phones,â he says. âI created their accounts on Google and WhatsApp and linked their phones to one of my accounts. This way I can see where they recently logged in and send help.
Bartek and his aunt, Ewa, helped a Syrian family whose eldest was five years old. They had been driven back 17 times to Belarus.
âWhat is happening here is totally unacceptable,â says Ewa, 40, whose grandmother smuggled pork fat and potatoes into the Jewish ghetto during World War II.
âMy grandmother also hid Jewish children in her house,â she says. âThe flap in the floor was covered with a bed that my great-grandmother was lying on. I feel like I’m continuing my grandmother’s work.
Ewa bought thermal cameras to locate people at night. âWhen you go into the forest, you don’t know what to expect, if someone is behind you,â she says. âNext year, when you go to the forest to pick mushrooms, you don’t know if you will find mushrooms or corpses. Some people said they found the bodies of refugees torn apart by animals. In the area where the migrants are camping, you can sometimes smell an intense smell of rot. “
At least 19 people have died since the start of the border standoff between Poland and Belarus. Most of them froze to death. Some of their bodies were buried in the Muslim cemetery in the village of Bohoniki, near Sokolka, in the heart of the forest that claimed their lives.
As temperatures drop near freezing, Bartek, Jakub and Ewa are part of a network of Poles who are working desperately to prevent more deaths.
âWe’re doing something normal to help other people,â says Ewa, âbut they make you a criminal. “
Since Poland imposed a state of emergency, all aid to the woodland dwellers has rested on the shoulders of local residents and activists. In recent weeks, more aid workers and citizens have been arrested by police, who searched at least three homes for migrants.
“The situation appears to have worsened and agents have become more violent towards aid workers,” said Witold Klaus, professor at the Center for Migration Law Research at the University of Warsaw. âIt is part of bullying and is probably calculated for its chilling effect – a discouragement to offer help to immigrants. Providing humanitarian aid is not a crime. But it’s the law on the books and that doesn’t stop the authorities from breaking it.
On December 14, a group of activists were arrested by soldiers in the forests near the village of Zabrody. They were forced to lie face down on the ground and searched. On December 15, Polish armed police forces raided one of the humanitarian aid centers in the Podlaskie border region, seizing cell phones and laptops.
âThey suspect us of organizing illegal border crossings,â says Anna Alboth, of the NGO Minority Rights Group. “But if anyone creates space for the illegal border crossing, it is the Belarusian and Polish authorities, who have forced frozen and starving people with no choice at all to cross the border.”
The Polish interior and defense ministries made no comment when approached by the Guardian.
During recent pro-immigration protests in MichaÅÃ³w and HajnÃ³wka, young activists met older people who had sheltered fugitives during World War II. Jakub said, âThey said they hid Jews during the war and had something in common with us.
In 1939, Tatiana Honigwill, a young Polish Jew from Warsaw, was deported to the German concentration camp at RavensbrÃ¼ck. After the liberation of Russia in 1945, Tatiana returned to Poland. She passed away a few years ago, leaving behind several granddaughters. One of them is Maria Przyszychowska, 43, a painter, who now lives near the border town of HajnÃ³wka.
She and her husband, Kamil Syller, 48, have started an unofficial network of local residents and activists who have placed green lights on their windows to show that their home is a temporary safe space for refugees. At first, it was a symbolic gesture. Then all of a sudden the first people started to show up at their doors.
The couple welcome them into their home and provide them with basic necessities. âWe are trying to protect asylum seekers and now our activity has become a form of resistance,â says Kamil. âBut we don’t want to be heroes. And it gets really frustrating.
For weeks, Maria and Kamil’s home has been under surveillance. Border guards patrol the streets around their building. The green lights have also started to attract the guards, who are hiding in the forests and waiting for people to come out to push them back.
To deny an individual the right to seek asylum is a violation of human rights. Although individuals have expressed their intention to seek asylum, arrivals in Poland have been turned back in the context of systematic mass expulsions.
âMaybe one day, when this is over, we can talk openly about what the police did to the migrants and what we went through to help them,â says Jakub. âI don’t know when, but I’m sure that day will come. Until then, we will continue to work in the dark. Ultimately, we are what they called us: secret guerrillas. “
(* Some names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals)