Polish Grannies vs. the right-wing: Europe's unlikely democracy defenders

Why We Wrote This

A group of grandmothers in Poland, many of whom lived through German occupation and later Soviet rule, are challenging nationalists and the right-wing government to protect freedoms and push for a more inclusive society.

Dominique Soguel
Hanna Pietkiewicz-Sałdan (foreground, left) and other members of the Polish Grannies hand out leaflets in central Warsaw. The women, as well as a few men, protest against the rise of hate speech, far-right groups, and the polarization of society under a right-wing government.

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The Polish Grannies may sound innocuous from their name, but they are a disparate crew of retired professionals, all impassioned, that has been confronting authorities and nationalist demonstrators for more than a year. The group – most of them grandmothers – have handed out leaflets and hoisted placards to protest against a poisonous kind of patriotism that they see afflicting modern Poland.

Until the onset of COVID-19, they had been meeting on the streets of Warsaw every week under the protective gaze of two police officers. The women believe that consistency is key to getting their message out.

Unlike some other activists, their passion is rooted in the hard history that they’ve witnessed – notably the toll that German occupation in World War II and later Soviet rule took on their nation. They see worrisome echoes in the fear-mongering rhetoric and policies of the Law and Justice party (PiS), the populist right-wing government that came to power here in 2015 and immediately began introducing controversial judiciary reforms, as well as the swelling ranks of far-right nationalists.

“I lived most of my adult life under communism,” Krystyna Piotrowska, a great-grandmother, says. “In 1989, I started to breathe like a human being. I could travel freely. ... And now I feel like someone wants to take this away from me.”

Every Thursday Krystyna Piotrowska, in her puffy parka, has gathered with a handful of other activists near the Charles de Gaulle statue at a busy intersection in central Warsaw. There, until recently, the demonstrators – most of them grandmothers, or in her case a great-grandmother – have handed out leaflets and hoisted placards to protest against a poisonous kind of patriotism that they see afflicting modern Poland. Their signs have been made of plastic foam so they are easy to carry. Their slogans: “Stop Hate Speech,” “Nationalism is not Patriotism,” “Stop Neofascists.”

The disparate crew of retired professionals, some in tennis shoes, all impassioned, has been confronting authorities and nationalist demonstrators for more than a year. While the protesters have stopped amid the coronavirus outbreak, they vow to take up their curbside activism again once the lockdown here ends.

Being grandmothers, the protesters say, decreases their chances of being manhandled by police on the streets as has been the fate of other groups standing in the way of nationalist marches. But their activism is not without risk. Far-right youths have hurled abuse and even flammable projectiles at the intrepid demonstrators. 

“Young people have this freedom and they think that by definition they deserve it,” says Ms. Piotrowska. “Unfortunately, freedom is not given once and for all. You have to take care of it and fight for it, just like love.”

The Polish Grannies, as the protesters are called, symbolize a grassroots movement across parts of Europe that is trying to blunt the most extreme versions of far-right nationalism. Often led by women, these groups are fighting for gender-specific causes such as reproductive rights but also broader issues ranging from democratic freedoms to preserving the rule of law.

From Austria to Germany to rural and urban Poland, they are alarmed by the mainstreaming of hate speech toward migrants, the LGBTQ community, and other minorities.

Dominique Soguel
“Freedom is not given once and for all. You have to take care of it and fight for it, just like love.” – Krystyna Piotrowska, a member of the Polish Grannies

While the groups are not officially linked, many of them share the same goals – to stop modern day fascism. A wide range of female activists has championed the cause of women’s rights but also turned out in the streets to defend the constitution.

“In recent years we have observed in Poland, and also in other countries, a tendency for women to mobilize in progressive movements opposing fascism or right-wing populism,” says Elżbieta Korolczuk, a sociologist at Södertörn University in Stockholm and the American Studies Center of Warsaw University. “This is a conflict around who is really ‘the people.’ Right-wing populists often use rhetoric to claim that they are ‘the people’ and that they have the right to decide how the state should act and what rights the individual groups should have. Women in Poland, Argentina, or Spain oppose this. They say we are ‘the people.’”

The newest star in the protest movement has been the Polish Grannies. They are shattering the stereotype often held here of the quiet, church-going grandmother. Until the onset of COVID-19, they had been meeting on the streets of Warsaw every week under the protective gaze of two police officers. The women believe that consistency is key to getting their message out.

Unlike some other activists, their passion is rooted in the hard history that they’ve witnessed – notably the toll that German occupation in World War II and later Soviet rule took on their nation. They see worrisome echoes in the fear-mongering rhetoric and policies of the Law and Justice party (PiS), the populist right-wing government that came to power here in 2015 and immediately began introducing controversial judiciary reforms, as well as the swelling ranks of far-right nationalists.

“I lived most of my adult life under communism,” Ms. Piotrowska says. “In 1989, I started to breathe like a human being. I could travel freely. ... And now I feel like someone wants to take this away from me.”

Can she and her fellow matriarchs help change the face of Polish society?

***

Ms. Piotrowska is not the eldest member of the group but, at 68, she is definitely the youngest great-grandmother. Over tea in her small Warsaw flat, where floral motifs and pictures of grandchildren dominate the living room decor, she talks about being a “soft” feminist.

Dominique Soguel
Young men listen to far-right leaders at a gathering of the Konfederacja political party in the port city of Gdańsk, Poland.

But her list of grievances with the current government extends beyond women’s rights. She is equally concerned about the environment in a coal-producing nation resistant to change. She worries that high social spending will translate into unpayable debt and frets over the mainstreaming of hate speech and growing polarization of Polish society.

What worries her most are the young people who, she says, behave like soccer hooligans and have embraced far-right slogans such as “Death to the enemies of the motherland” and “Poland only for Poles.” Ms. Piotrowska recalls her first encounter with the throngs of young men, during a massive nationalist march on Independence Day in November 2017. The youth threw red flares as they coursed through the streets of Warsaw. 

“What is their definition of the enemy?” she asks agitatedly. “What they say is hatred. ... I remember the ruins of fascism. Poland experienced fascism. Fascism divides people into good and bad. They are going in that direction.”

Ms. Piotrowska has installed a safety app on her phone at the request of her son, who wants to be able to find her should she end up at a police station. She says the name of her group tends to pique the interest of young people and even elicits good responses from police.

“Everyone has or had a grandma,” she notes. “People usually think positively about them. Our name is also a type of protection against attack.”

Like Ms. Piotrowska, Anna Irena Łabuś works the streets with zeal. One of the oldest members of the protesting grannies, she grew up in a small lumber town in central Poland but as an adult worked in a bank in the capital. When demonstrating, the widow wields a rainbow flag like a lance and glares at passersby who fail to pick up a leaflet.

Dominique Soguel
Anna Irena Łabuś, who has two grandchildren, is a member of the Polish Grannies advocacy group. She says they are fighting "for the young people, for their future."

Her indomitable personality has earned her the nickname “Mother Superior,” but the septuagenarian is actually an atheist and quick to denounce the Roman Catholic Church, which has been a bastion of support for the ruling government. She reveres the Polish Constitution and keeps a copy, which was signed by the president of the supreme court, in a red Victoria’s Secret handbag. Her necklace and bracelet spell out konstytucja (“constitution”).

***

The Polish Grannies staged their first protest on March 1, 2019, when they were counteracting a demonstration in Warsaw by a group of nationalists. Yet the founding members met and found common cause years before.

Ms. Łabuś recalls an encounter on Dec. 3, 2015, when crowds gathered outside the constitutional court in protest of PiS-led government legal reforms that changed the character of the Constitutional Tribunal, the country’s highest constitutional court. The reforms were deemed by many in Poland, as well as the European Commission, as a threat to the rule of law.

“In 2015, my world collapsed,” says Ms. Łabuś. “Since then, I have been saying openly what hurts me. I don’t agree with breaking the constitution.”

Ms. Łabuś has focused much of her energy on directly confronting conservative activists. In February 2018, for instance, she joined a rally that aimed to block a nationalist march in the northeastern town of Hajnówka, on the fringes of the primeval Białowieża Forest. Far-right groups were staging what they call the “March of Remembrance of the Cursed Soldiers” – a reference to Polish partisans who resisted the introduction of communism but some of whom also took part in war crimes against Belarusian communities in the region.

“The government allows nationalism to grow, and it goes together with [fascism],” says Ms. Łabuś, one of many counterdemonstrators to have been arrested for allegedly disrupting that nationalist march, which was officially authorized. “Nationalists feel more and more confident. Nationalists want to subjugate women to live the way they want them to and that is why women are the first to protest against them.”

Dominique Soguel
Iwonna Kowalska uses her background in printing to help the Polish Grannies create banners and leaflets.

Iwonna Kowalska, another grandmother, thought she was done demonstrating and was focusing instead on building her business after 1989. She takes pride in having worked in the past for an anticommunist underground publishing house, Nowa (New). Now she uses her printing expertise to help the Polish Grannies. Her apartment doubles as the group’s headquarters for planning meetings, a place to craft banners and brainstorm slogans.

Ms. Kowalska was showing up at the weekly protests in platform sneakers. She bounded around blasting oppositional songs through a bullhorn. The grannies are anything but stationary: They’ve marched in front of a branch of the state television channel as well as the guarded gates of the presidential palace.

“I didn’t expect that I would have to go out on the streets again,” says Ms. Kowalska, who had printed more than 10,000 leaflets against President Andrzej Duda ahead of elections that were scheduled for May 10 but were not held due the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s our job to signal the dangers to the younger generation,” says Ms. Kowalska. “They have passports, mobile phones, cars, easy access to credit to buy cars and flats, so they don’t care. They don’t realize that all this can lead to such bad things. It is our fault. ... We spoiled them.”

The idea that grandmothers have the responsibility to alert the next generation to avoid the mistakes of the past has also gained momentum in Austria and Germany. Grannies Against the Right took shape in 2017 when the far-right Freedom Party of Austria joined the country’s coalition government. In Germany, the grannies movement (known as Omas Gegen Rechts) spread in response to the rise of the nationalist Alternative for Germany party (AfD). The Polish grandmothers is a distinct group. In fact, the members here were unaware of their European counterparts.

*** 

The grannies share many ideals with, and draw inspiration from, other women fighting the right-wing government in Poland. Zuzanna Hertzberg, for instance, is pursuing her activism with the bristles of a paintbrush. 

CZAREK SOKOLOWSKI/AP
People stroll past the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in War- saw. A stalemate over the independence of the institution has pit- ted the museum’s former director against the populist government.

She had an exhibit at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews that paid tribute to women who formed part of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance in World War II. The museum, a cubic glass structure, lies in a district of the capital city where the Jewish community thrived before occupying German forces fenced it off and created the largest ghetto of its kind in Europe. The war and, in particular, the Holocaust have today become flashpoints for Poland’s right-wing government.

“If you take the definition that fascism is a social practice connected with oppression, then you can see this on a daily basis in Poland,” says Ms. Hertzberg. “In Poland it is on a big scale: fake historical narratives, restaurants [that refuse to admit] Roma people, LGBT-free zones.”

She points out that the museum’s director, Dariusz Stola, was recently pushed out of office because PiS blocked his reappointment. Government meddling has also sparked a legal conflict with historians at the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk. PiS believes Poland is unfairly blamed for Nazi atrocities. Critics counter that the government is trying to rewrite Holocaust history and downplay the role of Poles.

Ms. Hertzberg is worried enough by such historical conflicts that she now devotes more time to political activism than artistic creation. She has reconciled the two through her efforts in support of the “anti-fascist year,” an initiative bringing together public institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and social movements to celebrate those who fought authoritarianism in the past and encourage opposition to it today.

She is a member of the leftist antifa coalition and a co-founder of the anti-fascist Jewish Bloc. The latter made its debut by reading the poem “We, Polish Jews” during Independence Day celebrations in 2018, when more than 200,000 people gathered in Warsaw. The Independence Day rally, organized by Polish nationalist and far-right groups with the blessing of the president, featured fascist flags and symbols.

Dominique Soguel
Artist Zuzanna Hertzberg has an exhibit at a museum that pays tribute to women who were part of the War Ghetto resistance in World War II.

“You have openly fascist people in the Polish government,” says the artist, who takes pride in being the granddaughter of a man who fought fascism in Spain but whose artwork often focuses on the untold stories of women. “There’s not enough people to sit on the street to block them, and if we do, police pull us out of the streets.”

Author Klementyna Suchanow is a street warrior, too. She got her first taste of protests in 2016, when the government announced plans to ban abortion in almost all cases and punish women who broke the law. Poland already has some of the strictest laws on abortion in Europe. All terminations are banned unless the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape, puts the health of the mother at risk, or if the fetus is severely deformed. The bill would have narrowed the right to abortion further – to only when a woman’s life is in danger.

Ms. Suchanow says she could not imagine her daughter growing up with fewer reproductive rights than those enjoyed by Polish women under communism. Large-scale, women-led demonstrations are widely credited with halting the legislation.

“It was just an eruption of women’s voices,” says Ms. Suchanow, member of a movement called Women’s Strike.

Since 2016, Ms. Suchanow and her sisters in arms have regularly found themselves on the streets confronting an increasingly bold far-right nationalist movement that now has members in parliament. A newly formed alliance, Konfederacja, won 6% of the vote and earned 11 parliamentary seats in October legislative elections.

“We allowed fascists to enter the public debate and run in elections,” says Gabriela Lazarek, a former hair dresser who is now a women’s rights activist and who unsuccessfully ran for office in the town of Cieszyn, near the Czech border. “They’re not just street fighters anymore, but men in suits.”

***

One test of how much influence the women activists have will come in the presidential elections. 

While some of the groups, such as the grannies, aren’t backing a presidential candidate, they are making their views felt on issues. Women’s Strike, for instance, has been waging a campaign to pressure candidates to clarify where they stand on abortion rights. The group has put up billboards in 14 cities. The Polish Grannies support that cause.

Yet there is no doubt the coronavirus has changed the dynamic of the election. All candidates were forced to cancel their campaigns because of the pandemic. Public gatherings were banned. People are prohibited from protesting in the streets.

Dominique Soguel
Klementyna Suchanow is a member of the protest group called Women’s Strike.

Members of PiS and their supporters argue the women activists wouldn’t have much influence in the elections whether the country was in lockdown or not. Witold Waszczykowski, a party member and former foreign minister who now holds a seat in the European Parliament, says more people show up to an average football match than to the largest anti-government protests witnessed in recent years.

“Of course, nobody underestimates these protests, but the protests are marginal,” he says, downplaying the influence of both ultra-nationalists to the right of his party and of women and LGBTQ rights activists. The Polish Grannies aren’t even on his radar, he says.

Yet the women activists, and some outside analysts, believe they are leaving a mark nonetheless. They point, for instance, to their help in defeating the restrictive abortion law in 2016. Indeed, women say their advocacy on the issue not only affected the outcome of the legislation but triggered a national discussion on what it means to have a right to abortion and ultimately softened the public’s attitude toward it.

Similarly, in 2019 political pressure from women helped prevent Poland from following Russia’s example and limiting domestic violence cases to only those in which a woman is beaten repeatedly.

Women also say there is value in simply confronting nationalists when they are out in the streets holding demonstrations. They believe it shows there is an alternative voice in the country – and the more women that grab placards and bullhorns, the better.

“We regard ourselves as street feminists,” says Ms. Suchanow. “The movement isn’t based on academic theories. ... It is built on action, street action. That’s why it is so dynamic and diverse.”

For the grannies, there are other incentives to taking to the streets, too. They believe they are not only elevating public discourse on issues but smashing a stereotype about themselves.

“The positive thing is that women are more aware of their rights,” says Ms. Piotrowska taking stock of the gains made by Polish women since 1989. “They don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen or at church. They want to be an equal part of society.”

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