I’m at a protest in Warsaw’s central square with dozens of concerned citizens, children on their parents’ shoulders, seniors in wheelchairs. They carry posters and cheer “free the media!” “democracy not dictatorship!” Every day the government passes another unpopular law: restricting abortion and gay marriage, attempting to gut the constitution, curtailing the freedom of the press. Now the government is trying to fill the supreme court and the elections board with politically biased appointees.
It’s a familiar scene echoing protests across the West as resilient Polish citizens register their anger at a never-ending list of grievances. Things have gotten so bad they hold a protest every night for a fill in the blank grievance.
The domed fortress of the Sejm (Parliament) is surrounded by lines of police. Half the street is closed with heavy metal fences that are now covered with graffiti and stickers. “In all of Polish history, this is the first time they put up barricades,” Marek, a high school teacher, tells me, “which is upsetting, considering all the real dictatorships and bloodshed this country has seen.”
TV reporters weave their way through the crowd, broadcasting live across the country. The air is swelteringly still, broken only by waving of hands and banners. Handheld candles in glass jars, cigarette lighters, phone screens, and flashlights lend the dark square a grungy glow.
Like a self-styled Alexis de Tocqueville, I came to explore the struggling democracy of a foreign land: Poland, still in its fledgling years after its post-Communist rebirth. I visited Poland for the first time in February, on an exchange with the Bednarska high school in Warsaw. The democratic school—where rules, curriculum, and activities are decided by popular vote—is based on the ideas of Janusz Korczak, a Polish Jewish educator whose ideas are the foundation of the U.N. declaration of children’s rights. Although the Nazis offered to spare him because of his intellectual renown, Korczak refused to abandon the children of his orphanage and went with them to the death camps.
At my school in New York, we spent the previous semester learning about Polish history. My school is named for another Warsaw Jew, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who narrowly escaped the Holocaust, and spent the rest of his life fighting injustice in America. On the first day of our Polish history class, my teacher, Shmuel Afek—who spends his summers as an educator at the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, among other Polish things—explained to us that as Americans, we may have a hard time comprehending that in Poland, winning wars is not taken for granted.
Victimhood and loss are part of the Polish national ethos from the 19th century partition by Austria, Russia, and Germany, to the six years of Nazi obliteration, to the four decades of Communist oppression, to the anti-democratic government of today. In 1832 the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz called his country “the phoenix of Europe, the Christ of nations” crucified for the sins of mankind, betrayed and left for dead by their allies, but destined to rise again.
I was impressed with Poland’s long legacy of resistance in the face of repeated failure. Catholic priests and Polish artists kept their culture and language secretly alive for 130 years while their country was cut up by Austria, Germany, and Russia. Their dream came true when after World War I, Poland regained its independence. The interwar years were a multicultural golden age in Poland—over a third of the population were minorities like Jews, Czechs, Ukrainians. And after enduring the subsequent re-loss of their country, the destruction of World War II, and decades of puppet rule, the brave working men and women activists of Solidarity peacefully brought down Polish Communism and ushered in democracy smoother than in any other former Communist country.
As the culmination of our learning, our class spent a week traveling around Poland together with the Polish students, visiting sites of significance to prewar Jewish life, the Holocaust, and present-day Jewish culture revival in Poland. The one week was enough to hook me. I knew I had to come back to see more.
On my return trip, other than going to Kabbalat Shabbat at the Nozyk synagogue, I didn’t dwell at Jewish sites. Instead, I paid tribute to my favorite Jewish Warsawian, Rabbi Heschel, by praying with my feet, marching on the Sejm as he marched in Selma. Who would have thought that a nice Jewish boy from New York would be spending his summer attending nightly protests in a country his ancestors fled a century ago? My Polish friends were surprised and amused that instead of touring the Holy Cross Church or the Palace of Culture, I wanted to get down and dirty in Polish democracy. In America, Poland seldom makes world news, and when it does it tends to focus on their refusal to take refugees, or their controversial law that outlaws implicating Poles in crimes of the Holocaust.
I, in turn, was surprised by how closely my Polish friends and their countrymen follow American news. Not just catching the major headlines, but watching full episodes of John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, all available with Polish subtitles online. I gradually understood how Poland’s political situation acutely mirrors ours in America. A demagogic right wing party won an unexpected super-majority in all three branches of government, and now undermines the constitution and democratic institutions, and calls critical media fake. An older, religious, rural working class feels betrayed by globalization and under threat by refugees and multiculturalism; In a smug urban bubble, young liberal intellectuals pay exorbitant rents and sport canvas tote bags with rainbow and pink political pins. The resistance is divided between uninspiring pragmatists and uncompromising idealists. All the while there is a general feeling of civic disengagement and apathy at what’s going on, and the resistance is desperately, urgently trying to be relevant and inspire hope. This fall, as Americans vote in the midterms, Poles will also head to the polls (sorry, I just had to) for local elections, widely seen as a referendum on the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party since their unexpected sweep of the 2015 election.
Perhaps Poland’s tough past prepares them well to take the hardship of the current government—they’ve seen a lot worse. Today’s protests harness the same patriotic hope of their national heroes, inspiring them with persistence in the face of unbeatable odds. Tadeusz Kościuszko, a Polish general and Parisian friend of Jefferson’s, aided the American revolution and then returned to Poland to fight the Germans and Russians in 1794. (The Kosciuszko Bridge in New York is named after him.) Marek Edelman survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising to remain an active voice in Polish politics until his death in 2009. Lech Walesa, an electrician in the Gdansk shipyards, became the leader of Solidarity, a millions-strong trade union and protest movement that created contemporary Polish democracy.
Back at the protest in Warsaw, a chain of 11 people in a line raise cardboard letters above their heads, spelling out “Konstytucja” (constitution). Others raise a large cardboard Kotwica—a “P” with an anchor—the symbol of the Polish underground in WWII, designed by a Jewish girl, now used by the contemporary resistance. At the front, various figures speak to the crowd with a bullhorn, sometimes starting pithy chants, often stopping for the bursts of applause. Finally, hands raise in fists and peace signs as the crowd joins in singing the national anthem.
The upbeat waltz-march of the Polish anthem, Mazurek Dabrowskiego (March On, Dabrowski) bears a great similarity to Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah. Both were written in a time when the state they currently represent was not yet established, and both radiate a hope for a future return to respective homelands. The Polish anthem describes the hope that the Polish legions trained in Italy under Napoleon would return home to liberate their land of the Russians and Germans. “March on Dabrowski, from Italy to Poland. Under your command we shall rejoin our homeland.” It’s no coincidence, then, that many early Zionists were also steeped in the ideas of Polish nationalism. ”Poland is not yet lost, so long as we still live,” the song goes. In other words, “od lo avda tikvatenu,” our hope is not yet lost. March on, passionate citizens, from Warsaw to Washington. Under your command, we shall rejoin the free world.