Borderland Foundation: building bridges between diverse peoples

When discussing the current re-emergence of xenophobia in most European countries, there is a general agreement that there is a dramatic dearth of documentation and analysis of projects and experiences adequate to unveil the demagoguery, and often the mere lies– on which xenophobic arguments rest.

The article by Ian Watson we publish here offers a detailed account of the BorderlandFoundation (Fundacja Pogranicza), an organisation established in Sejny, Poland, by Krzysztof Czyżewski and three colleagues, Małgorzata Sporek- Czyzewska along with Bożena and Wojciech Szroeder in 1990, following the collapse of communism in Poland.

In conjunction with its Borderland Center of Arts, Cultures, and Nations, the foundation’s intention is to harness the arts as a medium that addresses issues of cultural, national, and ethnic difference. It promotes multicultural education and understanding locally through a variety of initiatives that in addition to publishing incorporate community involvement in performance, oral history collection, filmmaking, and conflict resolution workshops.

Twenty years after its creation, the Borderland Foundation offers an impressive array of creative and inspiring projects with which to contribute effectively not only to oppose and fight xenophobia, racism, and any sort of anti-democratic policies and social practices, but also to experiment and build forms of social relation, solidarity and cooperation between people of the most varied traditions living together.

The publication of Sąsiedzi: Historia zagłady żydowskiego miasteczka in Poland at the dawning of the new millennium shocked much of the nation. This was because the revelations in the deceptively slim volume by the Polish born, Princeton university professor of history Jan Tomasz Gross challenged a pillar of the country’s very historical narrative. Sąsiedzi, which appeared the following year (2001) in English as Neighbors, describes how in the summer of 1941 it was ethnic Poles from the small village of Jedwabne who murdered 1600 of their Jewish neighbors. The findings of Gross’ investigations flew in the face of what had been accepted fact for nearly sixty years, that the massacre was carried out by occupying Nazis forces. It also, as one commentator puts it, “forced Poles for the first time into a head-on confrontation with their own role in the Holocaust” (Zubrzycki 2006, xiii), not to mention a heated debate about national identity and Polish-Jewish relations.

Considering what is at stake in Sąsiedzi, it took no insignificant amount of courage for Gross to investigate and write about the Jedwabne massacre. The book’s publishers, Pogranicze, took an equally courageous stand. However, they were not, as one might expect, a large publisher with the broad shoulders to absorb criticism and translate it into commercial success. Pogranicze is a small publishing house in the village of Sejny (population 6500) in the northeastern corner of the country, far from Poland’s cultural and economic capitals led by Krzysztof Czyżewski who, apart from being a publisher, describes himself as a social activist, poet, and essayist; but never a businessman.

There is possibly less risk for an author living abroad to challenge an accepted historical truth in his former homeland than for a publisher, most especially a Polish-based, precariously small publisher, to take on a book attacking one of its own nation’s article of faith in itself. Needless to say, Czyżewski was severely criticized following the release of Sąsiedzi, with many angrily questioning why he was opening old wounds and what he hoped to gain from providing an outlet for such a “distortion” of history.

Issues of truth, moral culpability, and challenges to a national narrative aside, we might well ask a similar, though more pragmatic question: why would an economically and geographically marginal publishing house produce a book that was bound to be controversial and that could, in a worse case scenario, have led to it being boycotted by the public, the withdrawal of government funding, and its demise? The answer is revealing, most especially because it is rooted in a performance-based social engagement philosophy and practice influenced by Poland’s post-war intellectual history as well as the work of the Polish theatre troupe Gardzienice and aspects of Jerzy Grotowski’s Active Culture research.

Pogranicze is a division of the Borderland Foundation (Fundacja Pogranicza) which was established in Sejny by Czyżewski and three colleagues, Małgorzata Sporek- Czyzewska along with Bożena and Wojciech Szroeder in 1990, following the collapse of communism in Poland. In conjunction with its Borderland Center of Arts, Cultures, and Nations, the organization’s intention is to harness the arts as a medium that addresses issues of cultural, national, and ethnic difference. It promotes multicultural education and understanding locally through a variety of initiatives that in addition to publishing incorporate community involvement in performance, oral history collection, filmmaking, and conflict resolution workshops. The foundation’s performance and arts-based techniques for memorializing, rebuilding, and sustaining a rich cultural and ethnic diversity that was all but destroyed by history have been so successful that the Ford Foundation invited it to employ the techniques in international conflict zones, including the Aceh province of Indonesia, the Caucuses, and Bosnia, while Czyżewski, as President of the foundation, was invited to become a member of the European Cultural Parliament and an advisor to the European Union.

The Sejny Chronicles

Indicative of the work done by the foundation and its Center of Arts, Cultures, and Nations is The Sejny Chronicles, a production created by Bożena Szroeder who also heads the organization’s Youth Theatre Studio. The Sejny Chronicles premiered in 1999 and has been performed in various parts of Europe such as Bosnia, Lithuania, Germany, Denmark, at festivals such as the Malta International Theatre Festival in Poznan, and at La Mama in New York City. Chronicles is the story of Sejny’s multicultural heritage prior to the mass emigration from Poland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the slaughter coupled with the displacement of peoples on an unprecedented scale during the Second World War. It is told through songs, oral histories, dances and simple vignettes in the various languages of the village’s past. The centerpiece of the play is a large baked clay model of the pre-war town on a rough hewn wooden table in center stage around which the cast, consisting of teenagers from Sejny rather than professional actors, plays out the real stories and legends handed down by their own grandparents and great-grandparents. The production is a journey of discovery for both the young performers and audiences, as the former move from house to house in the model village, uncovering histories and those who lived them. These discoveries come in the form of prayers, songs, traditional dances as well as tales in Yiddish, Polish, Lithuanian, and the various other languages spoken along the shifting borders of Eastern Europe; they reveal Slavic solstice customs, pagan legends, Roma caravans, the joyful exuberance of a Lithuanian wedding and the pious poverty of beggars gathering before the church.

The production has been warmly received by critics and the public alike. Despite limited publicity, it played to solid houses during its April 2008 New York run, for example, and Andy Webster of the New York Times felt that, “The hour-long show is a modest, gentle expression of cross-cultural appreciation, conveyed by a cast impossible to resist. It’s a humble triumph….” (Webster 2008); while the Polish critic Roman Pawlowski from Gazeta Wyborcza wrote, “I would gladly give up any premier in our capital city to once again delve into the poetical climate of this performance….one of the most important theatrical experiences of my life” (cited in the Polish Cultural Institute. 2008).

As successful as the production has been, the story of its creation is even more revealing of the Borderland Foundation’s intentions than what is presented on stage. The young are central to the work. This is the third generation of Sejny teenagers to perform Chronicles, with each generation before it passing down the performance text through the combination of a traditional play script of sorts, oral transmission, and the keen eye of a director who, in conjunction with the original cast of teenagers, created the first production and has guided each iteration of it since. This transmission is rooted in the foundation’s belief that young people have a major role to play in developing understanding among different social, ethnic, and national communities over the long term. As they put it themselves, “The Sejny model” (that is, the promotion of “multicultural education and understanding locally”) “involves the whole community, but especially young people, as its mission is to educate them to be community builders, in the belief that they first need to understand the past in order to shape the future” (Polish Cultural Institute 2008).

This consideration of the future, through combining the creative with educating the young about their past, played no small role in how Chronicles came into being. The production evolved from a 1998 exhibition, “Our Good Old Sejny,” mounted at the foundation’s Borderland Center of Arts, Cultures, and Nations in the town. The exhibition consisted of postcards and photographs from the center’s archives augmented by photos collected by the children from Sejny that documented the town and region during first half of the twentieth century. The public showing prompted a competition of creative responses to Sejny’s history that yielded many art and literary works by children. In conjunction with this competition the eventual director of Chronicles, Szroeder, in her role as head of the center’s documentation archive and director of the children’s theatre studio, had the children gather oral histories from their parents and grandparents. These oral histories were compiled into individual mini-histories and family trees that were used to shape a partially true, partially mythical plan of the town’s past that incorporated matching the stories and legends they had heard to specific sites. During this process, the children, whose family roots were drawn from most of the various ethnic and national groups in the region, learned each other’s songs, among them, those sung at a traditional Lithuanian wedding, old Slavonic chants, and Polish folk songs, all in their native tongues. They also learned the songs of former residents no longer represented in the village, such as Yiddish tunes and those of the Roma. As part of this process, Szroeder encouraged the children to recreate in baked clay the pre-war, multicultural Sejny. This ‘town’, that included houses, narrow alleyway and broad streets on main thoroughfares, the old town hall, the village’s synagogue and old Yeshiva as well as the Catholic and Evangelical churches became the centerpiece of the next stage in the foundation’s “dedication to building bridges across ethnic, religious, and national borders, and between older generations and the new” (La Mama E,T.C. 2008).1

Why Poland, Why Sejny?

A casual acquaintance with Poland’s and the Sejny region’s histories is a helpful segue into understanding the genesis of Chronicles and how indicative it is of the Borderland Foundation’s larger objectives and various activities.

Poland’s current population is one of the most ethnically and religiously homogeneous in the world with over 95% of the population ethnically Polish and a slightly higher percentage Catholic (Zubrzycki 2006, 62). The country’s demographic history is more complicated than this would suggest, however. Its homogeneity is largely a product of borders established after World War II, the enforced displacement of minorities, and Nazi atrocities. The country’s citizens have, since the middle ages, encompassed a mix of Poles and Lithuanians with other significant national groups such as Germans, Russians, Tatars, Belarusians, and Ukrainians. Jews were an important minority from the 16th century until the Second World War, due primarily to the constitutionally guaranteed recognition of religious freedom; and there has always been a small but significant Roma community. As the prominent sociologist Geneviève Zubryzycki points out, this multicultural heritage, combined with the country’s troubled international history has gone a long way towards Poles still defining their national identity in terms of opposition to “The Other,” (Ibid., 54) with even the imposition of communism being viewed as part of the larger narrative of the nation’s struggle for independence (Ibid. , 23).

No small factor in this construction of national identity is Poland’s geographical location and powerful neighbors, which have contributed to a history marked by wars, invasions, and annexations since it first emerged from its tribal roots in the tenth century. Germany and Russia have loomed large in Poland’s history from the very beginning. Both have had designs on parts or all of Poland since the days of the Holy Roman Empire, designs that only increased as both evolved into major powers. These territorial ambitions have been characterized by battles, regional, and large scale conflicts that culminated in Poland vanishing from the map altogether for more than 120 years. From the beginning of the eighteenth century to the outbreak of World War I, Poland ceased to exist as a separate country when its territory was divided among the occupying powers of Prussia, Russia, and Austria. This domination of the powerful has been repeated in more recent times after the country emerged once more as a sovereign nation between the great wars, with Germany’s brutal occupation in World War II and the imposition of communism by the Soviets following the war.

Poland has an equally contentious history with its neighbor Lithuania, a history that has moved from a formal alliance as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1572 – 1795) to border disputes and conflict. Shifting borders, national pride, and hegemonic suspicions, most especially in the Poland’s northeast that includes the town of Sejny, culminated in a major war between the nations in 1920 in the aftermath of World War I, the legacy of which has exacerbated already strained relations between the two neighbors, most especially up until 1990 when the countries emerged as democracies free of communist domination. Both have been guilty of claiming cities within each other’s territory as their own and both have persecuted the sizeable minorities of the other’s nationals within their borders. The ethno-linguistic history of the man who is often claimed as Poland’s national poet, the 1980 Nobel Prize winner Czesław Miłosz, is instructive. He was born in 1911 in the village of Setaniai, more-or-less in the center of today’s Lithuania. At the time, the village was part of the Russian Empire. Miłosz grew up in a multilingual environment in which Polish was the language of the gentry, Lithuanian, tainted with Russian-Polish bilingualisms the lingua franca of the local villagers, and Yiddish was spoken by the Jewish workers while their intelligentsia preferred Russian (Miłosz 2001, 219-220). The current capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, where Miłosz attended university, was known by its Polish name, Wilno, at the time, and was dominated by the Polish language. Little wonder that a man of his intelligence was fluent in Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, and had more than a passing knowledge of Yiddish by the time he was in his early twenties. Despite his importance to a country he lived in for many years and to which he returned with communisms’ demise after many years of self-imposed exile, Miłosz identified himself as a product of The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a national entity that ceased to exist in the 18th century but that continues to exert influence on Lithuanian nationalist thinking. Miłosz’s identification aside, his story, highlighted because of a literary success connected to the one of the foundation’s genesis inspirations (more of this below) and because he was an early supporter who was instrumental in the foundation gaining local political backing for its ambitions, is shared by many on Poland’s margins.2

The Augustów-Suwałki region, that Sejny is part of, marks Poland’s northeast border and is at the matrix of the cultural conflicts fueled by national sentiments and the troubled history that helped shape Miłosz and his contemporaries. The region borders Lithuania, Russia (the Kaliningrad Oblast) and Belarus; the Ukraine is less than a day’s journey away. Prior to the German occupation in World War II, Sejny had been one of the most important Jewish centers in the region for almost 300 years, with its own synagogue, Yeshiva, and Hebrew school. In the 20th century alone, the town was ruled by Germany, Lithuania, and Russia at different times. This heritage of different masters, coupled with its still significant Lithuanian population, and scattered settlements of Russian Old-Believers as well as Belarusians in nearby villages, suggest Sejny as a map of Poland’s multicultural histories.3 It is little wonder then that people drawn to developing strategies that address these histories and the conflicts they continue to feed chose to settle in this heartland of the marginal.

The Borderland Foundation and its Center of Arts, Cultures, and Nations

The Foundation’s response to its objectives has taken many forms since it opened its doors in January 1990. All of them have been and are designed to engender a deep understanding of tolerance and what it means to accept ‘the Other’ in a region and increasingly global world where borders are more often markers of complex histories, national and ethnic identities, ownership, exclusion, and conflict than clear lines on a geographer’s map.


The most widely disseminated of the foundation’s initiatives are the publications of the Borderland Publishing House. Gross’ Sąsiedzi was part of the Meridian series that focuses on Central and Eastern European culture and history. Other volumes in the series have included works of poetry from countries such as Slovenia, Bosnia, and Lithuania, essays on Sarajevo as well as Polish borderland literature, novels set in the Polish-Lithuanian borderland and among Lithuania’s Jewish community, as well as historical and cultural studies of the Roma and about the Polish-Ukrainian border region. In addition to the series, the publishing house produces the quarterly journal Krasnogruda, which, like the Meridian series, is concerned with the culture, history, and creative writing of Central and Eastern Europe, most especially as it relates border region issues.

Krasnogruda and the Meridian series are clearly directed at a broad Polish reading public, however, the Borderland Publishing House, also produces a Sejny Almanac. The Almanac might best be described as the neighborhood’s creative response to the aspirations of the foundation. It is an entirely local effort with most, and often all the poems, short stories, family histories, and articles on regional issues written by people from the town, and surrounding district. It is printed in much the same professional manner as the materials the foundation publishes for the national market with cover art work produced by local artists and is launched each year with a banquet to which all the authors and their families are invited.

The Documentation Center

The importance the foundation places on the dissemination of knowledge is reaffirmed in its documentation and research facility, specializing in Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucuses, and Central Asia. The facility, housed in Sejny’s former post office that in a previous incarnation was one of the only Hebrew schools in the northeast of Poland, includes an extensive research library and a collection of over 4,500 videos and films, all available to researchers. The building, which in addition to the research facility contains a museum, a gallery space, and digital video-editing studio, has also served as the foundation’s headquarters since its formal opening following extensive renovation on January 23, 2002, the eleventh anniversary of the center’s founding.

The former Hebrew school is one of three buildings that make up the Borderland Center of Arts, Cultures, and Nations. The other two are an abandoned synagogue and what was a Talmudic school adjacent to it. The former, currently known as the White Synagogue because of its distinct color, serves as a multipurpose space accommodating a small bookstore, exhibitions, workshops, as well as concerts organized by the foundation. The latter houses the center’s music school (more of this below) and provides a much needed equipment storage location for the organization.


Consistent with its focus on young people as the community builders of the future, the foundation sponsors numerous educational proposals aimed at both the local community and beyond. One is the ongoing “Memory of Ancient Time” project that each year works with different groups of local children drawn from the various ethno-national communities of Sejny. This proposal takes the form of extra-curricular, hands-on creative workshops that explore the history, cultural heritage, and different traditions of the communities living in the immediate region. The artistic and written products of these workshops are frequently displayed in one or other of the Center’s exhibition spaces while the performance-oriented works are presented to the public.

A similar local undertaking that serves a more formal role in the region’s education curriculum are the classes of cultural heritage organized by the foundation. These classes are part of a European-wide secondary school plan to provide elective programming to students on the history and culture of their own region in order to promote tolerance among the continent’s various national and ethnic populations. As one might expect, the foundation’s classes tend to the practical. They organize seminars with poets, authors, journalists, historians and ethnographers, as well as excursions to various minority populated villages in the region where students document their meetings with local people in the form of diaries, photos, recorded interviews, and documentary videos.

A related educational project aimed at school-aged children explores memory and local identity through what the foundation calls The Glass Bead Game. The nomenclature, borrowed from the novel by Hermann Hesse, highlights the game and mystery component of a program that involves young people in a detective-like exploration of the signs, symbols and history evident in landmarks or architecture indicative of the various cultural populations in a particular region. The ‘game’ often culminates in lectures and/or an exhibition of the young people’s findings that are shared with their communities.

These formal, ongoing educational ventures are augmented by once-off workshops and seminars directed at children and adolescents mounted throughout the year. Indicative of these are the two-week long ‘Multicultural Vilnius – Following the Tracks of Poets’ expedition organized in 2003. This expedition involved 19 secondary school students from Sejny exploring the identity of the cities, villages and populations they visited through the eyes of poets from the region as they traveled to Vilnius and Szetejnie, the village where Miłosz was born; and “The Ark” project, later the same year, that explored ways in which the creative can be harnessed to examine serious issues as 25 teenagers from Sejny and Jedwabne, two groups linked by the publication of Gross’ Sąsiedzi, designed, built and decorated a symbolic ark and moving wooden cart with the aid of a designer and the Hip Hop Academy of Chicago that culminated in an exhibition and theatrical presentation.

The Theatre

The latter workshop drew upon the expertise of the Sejny Theatre whose youth studio mounted The Sejny Chronicles described earlier. Chronicles is the best known of the theatre’s production, mainly because of its success beyond the northeast of Poland, but it is far from the only production mounted by the company. As might be expected of an organization whose founders were actors in leading Polish alternative groups (Czyżewski and his wife in Gradzienice initially, and later in Arka with both of the Szroeders), theatre has played an important role in realizing the foundation’s ambitions. Beginning with a theatrical model that owes a debt to Gardzienice, the theatre developed small-scale works combining improvisation, choreographed movement, and music that toured local villages and towns during the summer vacations. This was a performance that both entertained and enabled direct contact with the people, cultures, and living histories of the numerous ethno-national communities in the region.

The current incarnation of the Sejny Theatre, led by Sporek-Czyżewska and Wojciech Szroeder, has moved away from touring to mounting more sophisticated productions in Sejny’s White Synagogue. Despite this move, the company’s work remains focused on the communities and multicultural history of the region in productions such as Wijuny, an original piece that draws its inspiration from several sources: journey’s taken by cast members around Polish villages in parts of Belarus, a Polish play by the same name written by Teresa Lubkiewicz-Urbanowicz, as well as the writings of the iconic Polish romantic author Adam Mickiewicz (premiered in 1998); and a version of the S. Ansky’s famous play The Dybbuk, that drew heavily upon the rich history of Jewish tradition that was so much part of daily life in Sejny prior to World War II (premiered in 1999).

Meanwhile, the theatre’s youth wing mounts an original large-scale outdoor production each summer in the grounds of the nearby Krasnogruda estate. These productions bring the youth from many, if not all, of the various ethno-national groups across the region together to create a work exploring the history and culture of their immediate homeland. This past summer (2008), the production was fittingly based on the The Issa Valley, a novel by Miłosz whose family originally owned the estate, that explores the Lithuania of his youth.

The Music School

One of the Center’s oldest on-going initiatives is the Sejny Theatre Klezmer Band and the music school that provides its young musicians. Both, led by Wojciech Szroeder, focus on local youth and draw upon the once all but forgotten heritage of Jewish music from the region. As mentioned earlier, the school is based in the old Yeshiva and provides classes for young people during most of the year. The band frequently performs in the White Synagogue as well as throughout northeast Poland and Lithuania. It also takes part in productions mounted by the Center’s youth theatre and been invited to take part in the famous annual Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow. The latter, in fact, has proven most important in the band’s development because it was there that Szroeder and his musicians first met Michael Alpert, the New York musician and artistic consultant to the festival who is generally regarded as one of the finest Yiddish singers and musicians in the world. Alpert, who for over 25 years has worked tirelessly to revive klezmer and other world folk music traditions, was so impressed with the band and its role in the larger mission of the Borderland Foundation that he, together with the foundation, developed ‘The Musician’s Raft’ project. The on-going project, which began in 2000, is a two-week summer music workshop in Sejny open to young musicians from Central and Eastern Europe. These workshops are taught by leading klezmer musicians from the United States that aims to not only teach music but to revive a heritage that was integral to the cultural fabric of the land where the young musicians live.

Despite its commitment to youth, the foundation is well aware that the inter-ethnic and national animosities that so concern it are hardly limited to the young. As they make clear in articulating their goals, the various enterprises that focus on the latter are for tomorrow’s leaders. But, today’s reality is too often one of tensions fostered through lived histories, prejudices, and national affinities among adults of the borderland. It is for this reason that the foundation has also developed a number of conflict resolution projects aimed at them. It is these, more than their work with youth, that have been exported to conflict regions in other parts of the world. These projects include various workshops and conferences, programs such as their Café Europa and New Agora as well as The Borderland School and Krasnogruda International Center of Dialogue (all discussed in greater detail below).

Workshops and Conferences

The foundation mounted its first workshop and conference within the initial twelve months of its formation. The ‘Meeting the Other, or On a Virtue of Tolerance’ was a cycle of workshops and seminars organized across the Suwałki region in November 1991 in which members of its various ethno-national communities were brought together to explore each of their cultures as well as their common heritage and experiences. A similar series of meetings the following year, ‘The Central European Culture Forum’ expanded participants to incorporate people from Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, the Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland. These were but the beginnings, however, as the foundation developed further programs modeled on them that over the years have included international colloquia in the Ukraine, Indonesia, and the South Caucasus; projects that have explored the multicultural societal links between northeast Poland and cities such as Sarajevo, Jerusalem, and New York; another developed in conjunction with the Polish-German Society for Mental Health and the Suwałki Psychiatric Health Care Center that explored the issues of banishment and displacement; and even partnering with Warsaw University to provide workshops for students that train them in the techniques for promoting multicultural accord developed by the foundation.

Café Europa

The Café Europa is another conflict resolution program developed by the foundation that combines the dialogue strategies of their workshops and conferences with creative expression. The Café Europa is loosely based on the 19th century European café, places where intellectuals, artists, singers, musicians and writers gathered to share their passions in a relaxed, but stimulating atmosphere. The foundation’s Café has its beginnings in a need Czyżewski identified during the inter-ethnic Bosnian war to provide a safe, liminal site for intellectuals from both sides of the ethnic divide to “exchange their views on art, philosophy, and shared catastrophes” (Polish Cultural Institute 2008). The Café combines music, songs, readings by novelists and essayists, poets reciting their works, and intellectuals sharing their thoughts, all in a stress-free, café ambience of coffee, wine, and dialogue. In more recent years, the Café’s have also been adapted as points of meeting between writers and musicians from former communist countries and the West at gatherings organized by the foundation at its Sejny home as well as places like Amsterdam, Iowa, and New York City.

The New Agora

A project of larger ambitions that combines the methodologies of the Café Europa with the more programmatically rigorous workshop/conference initiatives is the New Agora. Named for the site of open assembly in the ancient Greek city-states, the New Agora is an academy of sorts mounted in different places that fuses intercultural workshops with art practice, performances, lectures, and classes on conflict resolution. The most ambitious to date was the 2006 three day Bosnian Triptych in Sarajevo that combines all of the above in an examination of the consequences of modern interethnic conflicts with children exploring, through arts-based, creative projects, what organizers described as “new ideas in response to the challenges of a contemporary multicultural Europe” (cited in Ibid.). The following year, a similar New Agora in Wroclaw, Poland focused attention on a less recent history of multicultural conflict among Poles, Germans, Czechs, and Austrians, the legacy of which continues to fester among many of southeast Poland’s communities to this day.

The Borderland School

In addition to the once-off strategies such as the New Agora, Café Europa meetings, conferences, workshops, and symposia organized by the foundation, it offers an annual Borderland School program. This Sejny-based summer school, which is supported by the European Union, provides non-government and local community leaders, teachers, journalists, artists, ethnographers and historians with a range of classes on conflict resolution and intercultural dialogue techniques ranging from leadership training through seminars examining the multicultural regions of Central and Eastern Europe to workshops exploring how to deal with issues such as human rights, national minorities, tolerance and educational equality. Ancillary to the school, the foundation also mounts similar, though less expansive and thorough, leadership coaching sessions for what they term ‘cultural dialogue animators.’ These workshops have been offered in various countries including Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Mongolia.

Krasnogruda International Center of Dialogue

In an attempt to offer a more comprehensive education than is possible in the Borderland School’s limited summer curriculum, the foundation is currently developing an International Center of Dialogue to be housed in the former mansion on the Krasnogruda family estate. The mansion, donated to the foundation by Miłosz, is being transformed into an academy that will offer one and two-year courses developed from the foundation’s years of experience creating and applying intercultural dialogue strategies. It is hoped that the renovations of the old mansion will be sufficiently completed to allow the first of these courses to be offered in 2010.


Roots of an Aspiration

Theatre and Performance

Czyżewski was a member of one of Poland’s leading alternative theatre groups, Gardzienice, from 1978 through 1983. It was here that he first met another performer in the company, Małgorzata Sporek, who was to become his wife and future cofounder of the Borderlander Foundation. Gardzienice, begun by Włodzimierz Staniewski, a former colleague of Jerzy Grotowski, in 1976, represents Czyżewski’s theatrical formation since prior to joining the group his performance experience was limited to the inventive, though non-professional, student theatre movement in Poland. Stanwieski was a product of the same background some years earlier, as a member of STU, one of the country’s leading student companies. While still a member of STU, Grotowski invited the future leader of Gardzienice to join his company and participate in its evolving paratheatrical program. Staniewski susequently played a leading role in Grotowski post-theatrical activities for five years (1971 – 1976). This was the period of Grotowski’s Active Culture research in which he moved out of the theatre to conduct performance-based experiments that removed the barrier between performer and spectator.

Grotowski’s concept of Active Culture, the first phase in his paratheatrical work, largely grew out of his disenchantment with the active performer/passive spectator relationship in the theatre. It was his conviction, based on his years of theatre research and a longtime fascination with Indian philosophy and ritual practice in different cultures, that performance had the potential to move beyond an aesthetic frame into the realm of personal ontological exploration and what, for want of a better word, might be termed the spiritual. This conviction, consistent with his attempts to recapture the power of ritual in his earlier theatre practice, discarded the actor/spectator divide, embracing instead a performance practice involving all participants equally.

Following his intial paratheatrical activities in the early 1970s, documented extensively in Leszek Kolankiewicz’s comprehensive history, On the Road to Active Culture, Grotowski’s research delved into an evermore refined and focused study of performance-based research till his death in 1999. Despite the range of performance traditions and practices embraced by this research, which continues today at the center established by Grotowski in Pontedera, Italy under the leadership of his disciple Thomas Richards, the emphasis has always remained on exploring the link between performance and the ontological. Most of the literature has followed Grotowski and the research he pursued, but there is another, less well documented legacy of his Active Culture activities. This legacy has been important to the Borderland Foundation.

Even though there is scant documentation about Stanwieski’s official role and duties during his years with Grotowski, it is clear, as Paul Allain points out, that he was a close collaborator with him, was involved in organization and recruiting participants, and took a leadership role in practical work (1997, 50). He also spent considerable time working with Grotowski and others at the isolated farmhouse, Brzezinka, outside Wroclaw, that was ground zero for the paratheatrical research for many years (Stanwieski and Hodge 2003, 3; Cuesta 2006).

As several commentators have noted, when Stanwieski and Grotowski went there separate ways in 1976, the latter to continue his research outside of the theatre, the former to return to his theatrical roots, Grotowski’s influence was evident in Staniewski’s early journey with his recently formed company, Gardzienice. Among these influences were a concept of theatre taking place beyond the four walls of a conventional theatre building, a blurring of the line between performer and spectator, and an endorsement of Active Culture’s emphasis on inclusive creativity (Allain 1997, 51; Stanwieski and Hodge 2003, 3 – 4).

Staniweski moved to the eastern Polish city of Lublin when he abandoned his work with Grotowski and began, almost immediately, exploring theatrical work among the outlying villages of the region (Stanwieski and Hodge 2003, 4). In contrast with the intimacy of Grotowski’s research, this was a very public work, focused on local songs, folk dances, and the performance traditions of villagers. The actors employed a barter of sorts in which they presented songs and performance fragments they were developing in exchange for the local communities doing the same. This both provided source material for evolving productions and the inspiration for what very soon became a more formalized company program, the Expeditions and Gatherings. The latter, centered exclusively on the isolated, rural areas of Eastern Poland in the early years, involved the company traveling for days at a time from village to village, often in horse-drawn carts because of the poor quality roads and isolation of the communities they visited. Once there, performance became the means of engaging the local people through exchanged and shared presentations; a means predicated on the unspoken understanding that creative expression is not limited to the trained and that it can be an active dynamic in social interaction and a tool for bridging difference.

As a member of Garzienice in its formative years, Czyżewski took part in numerous Expeditions and Gatherings. The legacy of this experience quite literally traveled with him and his colleagues from their former base in western Poland to their current borderland home. With the fall of communism, four members of Arka, the theatre company Czyżewski formed in Poznan after leaving Gardzienice, traveled with their families over 500 kilometers by horse-drawn cart from village to village across Poland mounting Gatherings and giving performances until they arrived at their destination in Sejny. These future founders of the Borderland Foundation arrived as a theatre troupe and, as described earlier, began their Sejny theatre life in much the way one would have anticipated of those influenced by Staniewski. But their ambitions called for a broader set of strategies.

The latter developed gradually over time, but all have been informed to a greater or lesser extent by ideas that can be traced through Staniewski back to Grotowski. The foundation’s iterations of these ideas are evident in the strategy of collective engagement that is at the heart of all their various activities. Likewise, its application of the creative as a catalyst for change, its belief that active involvement rather than passive witness by participants in the activities it organizes is vital to helping change deeply engrained socio-cultural attitudes, and its fusion of the creative and tolerance education as a means of realizing a multicultural community devoid of ethno-national tensions.

Though untouched by its influence to my knowledge, the foundation echoes many of the rationales and premises of the community arts movement in the United States and elsewhere, a movement predicated upon harnessing the arts for social good at a local level. The success and conviction that its world view has implications beyond its regional homeland has led the Borderland organization to apply what it has learned in Sejny outside of northeast Poland. This move was not made at the expense of the foundation’s genesis mission, however, because community always remains a point of reference, be it in Sarajevo, Aceh, or in the case of its publications, the broader community of Polish speakers. Meanwhile at home, it is as dedicated as ever to its community and to the premises of what community arts commentators term an “arts-based civic dialogue,” that is, using “civically engaged cultural work” as part of a larger “community-based practice” that engenders dialogue and “civic engagement” for the benefit of all (Korza, Pam, Barbara Schaffer Bacon and Andrea Assaf 2005, 4).

Full Circle

The community of ideas has always been a touchstone for Czyżewski that bridges the invisible divide between the local, national, and beyond. When he and his colleagues arrived in Sejny on their horse-drawn cart, included in their baggage were what he refers to as “the damned books,” works by the Polish authors Miłosz, Stempowski, Stanisław Vincenz, Bruno Schulz, Isaac Bashivis Singer, Jerzy Ficowski, and Tadeusz Konwicki. These were the damned because they were on the ‘wrong’ side of communism, these were writers born in or obsessed with the marginal (Czyżewski 2007, 4). The broader palette of their works confirmed the importance of engaging with community that Czyżewski and his colleagues brought with them from the theatre. These and a growing list of authors remained as signposts of sorts for the foundation’s journey as its work expanded and received wider recognition. It would seem appropriate that when the organization instituted its Borderlander Award (an honorary title “given every two years to a writer or artist whose work and life exemplify the ethos of the Foundation and the finest values of the borderlands: respect for Others, suppression of stereotypes, building bridges between diverse peoples” [Polish Cultural Institute 2008]), the first recipient (in 1999) was one of those who accompanied them on the horse-drawn cart. Jerzy Ficowski, a poet and author who championed the marginalized, who wrote of the Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust, one of the first to write on Poland’s too often ignored Roma, after living and travelling with them for several years, and the person most responsible for drawing the world’s attention to the then all but forgotten Polish Jewish writer Bruno Schulz who was killed by the Nazi’s during the war.

This is the history that produced Gross’s Sąsiedzi, a work, that among its many other accomplishments, straddles the local/national divide. What happened in Jedwabne, a northeast Poland village not unlike Sejny but with a very different history, is both a site of shared communal identity and confirmation of the dangers lurking in unchecked ethno-national animosities. Upon reflection, rather than questioning, as I did at the outset, why the foundation would publish such a book, one might wonder at its long-term impact on Poland’s emerging sense of a nationalism that is inevitably being shaped by a Europe of blurring borders. The book is a provocation, a challenge to those who hold Poland dear that is very much in keeping with The Borderland Foundation’s promotion of social tolerance and multiculturalism through a strategy of collective engagement and cultural production.

Works Cited

  • Allain, Paul. 1997. Gardzienice: Polish Theatre in Transition. London: Harwood Academic Publishers.
  • Borderland Foundation. 2003. “Annual Report.” (viewed Nov 16, 2008)
  • Cuesta, Jairo. 2006. Unpublished Interview with the Author. Chicago, November 11.
  • Czyzewski, Kryzysztof. 2007. “The Line of Return.” Transitions on Line5/1/07. (page citations in the text from a copy of the original manuscript given to the author by Czyżewski)
  • Korza, Pam, Barbara Schaffer Bacon and Andrea Assaf. 2005. Civic Dialogue, Arts and Culture. Washington, DC: Americans for the Arts.
  • La Mama E.T.C. 2008. “The Making of a Play.” Unpublished Program for Performances of The Sejny Chronicles at the La Mama Annex Theatre, New York, April 10 – 20, 2008 (no page numbers).
  • Miłosz, Czesław. 2001. Miłosz’s ABC’s. New York: Farrer, Straus and Giroux.
  • Profiles, Literature: Jerzy Giedroyć. 2008. (viewed Nov 16)
  • Polish Cultural Institute. 2008. “Borderlanders: Finding Their Voice.” Unpublished multi-page pamphlet with information about the Borderland Foundation’s Visit to New York, April 9 – 20, 2008 (no page numbers).
  • Staniewski, Włodzimierz, with Alison Hodge. 2004. Hidden Territories: The Theatre of Gardzienice. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Webster, Andy. 2008. “Yes, Borders Everywhere, but Nary a Barrier in Sight.” (viewed,  Nov 16, 2008)
  • Zubrzycki, Geneviève. 2006. The Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post Communist Poland. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

The author would like to acknowledge the Rutgers University Research Council who supported the research phase of this article.
Originally published in About Performance, Issue 9, 2009

© Ian Watson
© About Performance, University of Sidney

The description of The Sejny Chronicles and how it evolved are drawn largely from information materials accompanying the foundation’s visit to New York in April of 2008 under the auspices of The Polish Cultural Institute and the program distributed to audience’s during the Chronicles’ New York run at the La Mama theatre. Its accuracy was confirmed in a private conversation during its New York season between the author and Krzysztof Czyżewski, the President of The Borderland Foundation.

Apart from providing a biography that personifies the clouded history of northeastern Poland, Czesław Miłosz has been an important figure in the foundation’s history through direct contact with Czyżewski and his colleagues. Following many years of exile, first in Paris and later in the United States, Miłosz made several trips back to Poland after the fall of communism. He traveled to his home region on some of these visits; during one of them he met Czyzewski who, at the time, was struggling to realize his as yet fully formed ambitions. Miłosz provided encouragement and counsel to what he regarded as a mission in keeping with his own philosophy of ethno-national tolerance and inclusion. He was subsequently, in conjunction with Andrzej Wajda, the internationally known film director and then new senator for the region, instrumental in assisting the foundation obtaining its initial funding. As explained below, Miłosz later donated his family’s former mansion on the Krasnogruda estate to the foundation. Quite apart from this functional role, Miłosz also represented a direct link back to one of the foundation’s genesis inspirations, the émigré journal Kultura to which he was a regular contributor.

Old Believers are those who broke with the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century as a protest against reforms introduced at the time. They continue the liturgical practices of the church prior to the reforms.


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