Fake noses, pointy hats, joy: Poland’s witches find healing in performing

Monika Rębała
The witch troupe Wiedźmuchy performs in Tuławki, Poland, on Sept. 11, 2021. The troupe’s founder, Alicja Tomaszwska, says she established Wiedźmuchy to teach women to be strong and to fight for their rights.

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Armed with broomsticks and wearing colorful, jagged-edged costumes, a dozen women break out into a lively dance routine in the tiny Polish village of Tuławki. Children marvel at the end-of-summer rock performance by these buoyant women who dare embrace the archetype of the witch in such a highly Catholic nation.

But the women of Wiedźmuchy (Polish for witches) do more than just put on a good show. They are also a lifeline for women in all kinds of trouble. Rehearsal sessions are a safe space to share stories, help each other cope with the hardships of their past, and heal together from the extraordinary blows that life can deliver.

Why We Wrote This

The path to healing can take many forms and even ruffle feathers. A group of Polish women playfully invokes the archetype of the witch to bring cheer to the community and comfort to one another.

Together, they have discovered that there are many ways of healing and that each person makes that journey at their own pace. For one member, it was a symbolic funeral for her murdered daughter. For the mother of a child with cancer, a friendly visit.

“The good thing is that they support each other,” says Agnieszka Sakowska-Hrywniak, the mayor of Tuławki. “However, you don’t have to belong to their group to have their support. You can always talk to them, get advice.”

Armed with broomsticks and wearing colorful, jagged-edged costumes, a dozen women break out into a lively dance routine in the tiny Polish village of Tuławki. Adults join in the end-of-summer rock performance, casting giant shadows across the park. Children marvel at the crazy hats and noses of these buoyant ladies who dare embrace the archetype of the witch in such a highly Catholic nation.

But this group of outlandish witches – as many in the rural villages surrounding the northern town of Olsztyn already know – do more than just put on a good show. They are also a lifeline for women in all kinds of trouble. Rehearsal sessions are a de facto safe space to share stories, help each other cope with the hardships of their past, and heal together from the extraordinary blows that life can deliver.

The women of Wiedźmuchy (Polish for witches) are bound by a common zest for life but also resilience in the face of terrible hardships. Together, they have discovered that there are many ways of healing and that each person makes that journey at their own pace. Different types of pain call for different restorative gestures. For one member, it was a symbolic funeral for her murdered daughter. For the mother of a child with cancer, a friendly visit.

Why We Wrote This

The path to healing can take many forms and even ruffle feathers. A group of Polish women playfully invokes the archetype of the witch to bring cheer to the community and comfort to one another.

“We keep taking in new people because we learn from them: among other things, humility,” says founder Alicja Tomaszewska. She describes her experience of rape and the long road to recovery as traumatic, but finds the stories of women who have lost a child the hardest to hear. “Everyone thinks that their pain is the greatest, then someone comes and tells you such stories that you think you have no problems. Nothing is by force. We don’t make anyone share things.”

“This group is for you”

As a professional performer at weddings and other events, Ms. Tomaszewska always found solace from her problems on stage. The idea to form a band of female performers came to her after watching a raucous group of male carolers trigger roars of laughter with their kitsch attires and goofy gestures during a mountain town festival.

So five years ago, Ms. Tomaszewska made a fake nose out of modeling clay, donned fake, gold teeth, and covered her face with garish makeup. She turned to her camera and launched an invitation on Facebook for others to join her in celebrating life and letting go of pain.

“I told the camera that no matter if you are a CEO, store assistant, doctor, or teacher, this group is for you,” she recalls. “We will dance, sing, overcome our barriers, and pretend to be other people because thanks to that we are allowed to do more.”

Monika Rębała
Villagers join the dancing as Wiedźmuchy perform in Tuławki, Poland, on Sept. 11, 2021. Women in the troupe have taken part in dozens of festivals across Poland and regularly participate in charitable activities.

She borrowed – with permission – the theme song of a German group of witch performers and hosted the first meeting of Wiedźmuchy near Olsztyn. Seven women turned up. The group has grown over the years and now counts about 20 regulars: the eldest over 60, the youngest (the daughter of another attendee) just 8 years old. They spend their time dancing, chanting, singing, and crafting choreography.

“I like the dancing and the support, and the anonymity too, because nobody recognizes us when we’re dressed up,” says Jolanta Kiapśnia, who first hit the stage with the group on her 60th birthday, two years ago. She credits Wiedźmuchy with helping her to expel negative emotions rooted in the trauma of an abusive marriage that ended in divorce when she was young, as well as joyless years of working in a bank.

“At first I had moments of doubt that I couldn’t dance like that,” she says, joined by her current husband at the event. “Now I can’t wait to rehearse. I always liked people. When I retired, I was afraid that I would end up sitting at home watching TV.”

A different kind of support for women

According to human rights organizations, Poland under the Law and Justice government has become a country where women’s rights have been increasingly restricted. Since 2020, after a controversial ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal, it is almost impossible for women to access legal abortion in Poland. Last year, the minister of justice said that Poland would withdraw from the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women and domestic violence. And the minister of education said that women were called on by God to have children, and should focus on that before their careers.

Ms. Tomaszewska thinks that women’s rights in Poland are violated and that politicians use the women’s agenda for their own purposes. “I always thought about supporting women, but all the women’s organizations that I came across were involved in politics and were often fighting with each other,” she says. “That’s why I thought, ‘I have to create my own group.’”

She says she established Wiedźmuchy to teach women to be strong and to fight for their rights. “A witch in Polish language and culture means a woman who has knowledge, who is wise and strong,” Ms. Tomaszewska says.

The women have taken part in dozens of festivals across Poland and regularly participate in charitable activities such as reading books to individuals in comas or children at libraries, and collecting books for foundations. Their approach has also ruffled feathers – members of the community have written complaints to local authorities voicing concern that their approach promotes occultism. But that has never been part of the program.

“Witches can encourage everyone to have fun,” says Agnieszka Sakowska-Hrywniak, the mayor of Tuławki. “The good thing is that they support each other. However, you don’t have to belong to their group to have their support. You can always talk to them, get advice.”

An opportunity to laugh, and to help

Former policewoman Ewa Lapinska says her daughters were initially unhappy by her participation in the group. They would have preferred her to act like a “typical grandmother,” but they came around after they saw how much the group meant to her. Thursday practice is the highlight of her week – an opportunity to laugh and sweat. But it is also a moment to help and pass on strategies for exiting abusive relationships, the kind of words that would have helped her leave her first, abusive husband all the sooner.

“First we talk and laugh, then we practice,” she says. “If someone needs help, if something bad happens to them, we act. At our meetings, I learned most women have been through something [difficult] in their lives, but they just hide it inside.”

Ewa Leończak says she initially joined the group out of pandemic fatigue. “I had to find positive people. I was missing positive energy and witches are positive fun,” says Ms. Leończak, who is a professional caretaker for an elderly woman in Germany, and also helps her husband run a small horse farm in the village of Florczaki, near Olsztyn.

But being with the group has also given her a safe space to process the loss of her daughter, who was discovered dead on the train tracks during the summer of 2007 – a case she feels the police mishandled.

“Each of us, despite the baggage of experience, is a positive person,” she says of Wiedźmuchy. “I have depression and I will have it for the rest of my life. How I deal with it depends only on me. Life has a finite number of seconds, minutes, and hours, so I’d rather laugh than cry. It takes me the same amount of time.”

Dominique Soguel contributed from Basel, Switzerland.

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