Article published in EL PAÍS by María Hervás. Copyright: María Hervás/EL PAÍS
Numbering around 3.000 in the entire country, they’ve become fully integrated in Polish society centuries ago. But today, Tatars are witnessing the rise of Poland’s far-right with growing distress.
After arriving at the mosque in the morning, Dzemil Gembicki parked his Land Rover and bid us welcome, with his distinguishing effusiveness: “Dzien dobry!”; Gembicki emits this singular countryman’s warmth that extends to foreigners as well. He’s used to welcoming and hosting people almost every day: apart from being the mosque’s administrator, he’s also its guide. And to anyone who visits this remote place, located in the north-eastern part of Poland only five kilometres from the border with Belarus, he revels in explaining the history of his village, Kruszyniany, which is also the story of Poland’s Tatar community, his own.
“Right now, eight families of Muslim Tatars live here; this land has been our land for centuries”. Originating from Central Asia, this ethnic minority first arrived in Poland in the 14th century. At the end of the 17th, king Jan Sobieski III offered these vast lands of forests and pastures to the Tatar soldiers who fought in the war against the Ottoman empire – including during the decisive 1683 battle of Vienna, where the Polish cavalry (with the help of the Tatars) played a major role in the victory of European Christianity against the Turkish enemy.
Since then, Muslim Tatars’ have assimilated into society to such an extent that their faith is the only trait that truly differentiates them from their Slavic countrymen. But today, the number of Muslim Tatars in Poland barely amounts to 3.000 souls in a country of over 38 million people. “Many Polish tourists cannot believe that there are mosques in Poland”, according to Gembicki. “They are not familiar with our culture, and that’s where the challenges come from”. In the last few years, Tatars have felt targeted and threatened by the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim rhetoric of Poland’s far-right, including from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.
Gembicki says that he’s not afraid, but nonetheless witnesses the current developments with dread. “The only thing I can do is to show and explain to Polish people our culture, which is also part of their own”. At noon, he welcomed a group of students. When the teenagers got out from the bus, the fog that enshrouded Kruszyniany’s freezing landscape cleared up. “Look up. Look at the golden crescent moons on the mosque’s dome”, he said, pointing to the sky with pride. This 18th century wooden building painted in green (the colour of Islam) almost looks like an Orthodox church. “The Tatars were warriors and didn’t have any knowledge in architecture. That’s the reason why our ancestors turned to local residents, Orthodox Christians, to build the mosque”, Dzemil Gembicki explained. “Everyone here is nondenominational” he pointed out, himself married to a Catholic woman and father of two. “My son is Muslim and my daughter, Catholic. We decided so before their birth, and it’s perfectly alright like this”.
Today, Poland is ethnically homogeneous and almost entirely Catholic. “But it wasn’t always like that. Between 1919 and 1939, non-Poles accounted for one third of the country’s population, including Jews and people from Ukraine, Russia… Before the Holocaust, roughly 3 million Jewish people lived here. But the 20th century turned Poland into a homogeneous society”, explained Radoslaw Markowski, sociologist at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 50.000 Tatars in Poland. Today, their numbers shrunk below 3.000. “After the post-1945 change of borders, many of them remained in Ukraine or Belarus. There are so few of us now that it’s rare to meet a Tatar couple”, explained the mufti of Poland, Tomasz Miskewicz. “We’ve lost part of our idiosyncrasy. And some Tatars are ashamed to assert their true roots, especially in the cities, partly because of the rise of the xenophobic discourse” added Miskewicz, the leader of Poland’s Muslim community.
During the municipal election campaign that took place last October, Patryk Jaki, the PiS candidate for Warsaw mayor, went so far as to say: “Letting Muslims come into Poland represents a threat similar to the Nazi invasion”. But even though they only account for 0.1% of the population, Muslims are already part of Polish society.
“There aren’t many of us, but we’re here to show that we’re a model of integration”, argued 66-year-old Bronislaw Talkowski, head of the village’s Tatar community. “Every week, I play bridge with my Orthodox, Catholic and Tatar neighbours”. Some of those games take place in the restaurant of his own mother-in-law Dzenneta Miroslaw. Her signature dish? Pierogi filled with cottage cheese and served with raspberry marmalade. “Preparing those meals is a way to preserve our culture”, highlighted the 59-year-old woman, whose angular-shaped face and slanted eyes highlight her Oriental roots.
But both Talkowski and Miroslaw are worried about the “anti-Muslim discourse” that spread in the country since the outbreak of the 2015 refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks that hit Europe. “Since that time, I’ve been receiving phone calls from extremists, threatening me and telling me to leave”, confessed the grand-father Talkowski.
In 2014, xenophobic graffiti were painted on the mosque and Kruszyniany’s cemetery. The previous year, vandals started a fire in the mosque of the northern city of Gdansk. “These are only isolated incidents, I’m confident Poles see us as their compatriots”, said Miskewicz. Members of this small community, however, disagree on which stance to adopt towards refugees, who are predominantly Muslim migrants coming from Arab countries. The Polish government rejected the EU’s relocation quotas, which paved the way for disciplinary action. “It would be better for these brothers to be accepted in states closer to their home country”, argued Miskewicz. “They’re very different from us: religion is the only thing we have in common. We are, above anything else, Polish”.