Elżbieta used to travel to Włodawa to go mushroom picking. Now she helps save the desperate as they try to reach Europe.
Every year for the last two decades, Elżbieta has made the two-hour drive from her home in Warsaw to close to the Polish-Belarussian border to go mushroom picking.
In 2021, she arrived at her rented holiday home near the town of Włodawa to find it very different from the quiet rural idyl she knows so well. A day before she arrived on September 4, a state of emergency had been declared and border guards now patrolled the entrance to the town.
After Belarus opened its borders to migrants and refugees wanting to cross into the EU, thousands of men, women, and children made the dangerous crossing into Poland. Poland’s right-wing government calls them “terrorists” and “sexual deviants”, while Polish border guards call them “illegals” and brag in social media posts about how many they have “bagged” since the crisis began.
Like many Poles, Elżbieta has a different perspective. She has been personally involved in the rescue of migrants that have got into difficulty traversing the forests and swamps of this part of Poland. On one occasion, three Syrian women were found nearly drowned in a swamp near the border.
“They had been in the forest for two weeks. When she was found she was clinging to a piece of wood in the water,” Elżbieta told Euronews.
“The swamps can catch people unawares, suddenly surrounded by water. Especially at night.”
Elżbieta heard the women were in trouble and called the fire brigade, and by the time she arrived the women had been rescued. The border guards arrived and the women were taken first to a hospital in Włodawa and later to detention centres. She does not know what happened to them after that.
The border guards, however, were not happy with her intervention, nor the fact that she is increasingly involved in what is going on with the refugees at the border. She told Euronews that they have physically prevented her from taking pictures.
Before 1939, the borderlands in Polish Kresy were where several religious and ethnic groups had lived for centuries alongside each other. The remainder of a Tartar Muslim community still exists, but much of the Jewish community was wiped out in the Second World War, in Nazi concentration camps like Sobibor and Treblinka, which are not far away.
For Elżbieta, the treatment of the refugees here in Poland’s eastern borderlands is a chilling reminder of how people doing nothing in the face of injustice led to those darkest of times.
“Sobibor straddled this zone, the railway tracks leading to it run alongside it,” Elżbieta said.
“When I talked with the border guards they had no idea about this, so I told them. They were from Kraków and Kielce and were as lost here as many of the refugees. It was then I realised how the Holocaust was possible. People just doing their jobs, turning a blind eye.”