Never Forget What Hate Can Do: Grzegorz Kwiatkowski, Musician and Poet

Channeling Darkness to Bring Light

I am pleased to bring you this interview with Grzegorz Kwiatkowski, a member of the Polish psychedelic post-punk band Trupa Trupa, and the author of several books of poetry that address history, remembrance, and ethics. His latest poems will appear in the review Rain Taxi in November. Kwiatkowski's musical and literary works have been published and reviewed in The Guardian, Modern Poetry in Translation, Rolling Stone, and the BBC and other places. Trupa Trupa's songs have denounced Holocaust denialism, as in the tracks Remainder and Never Forget. The band has performed at Desert Daze Festival, South By Southwest, Iceland Airwaves, and Haldern Pop Festival. In 2020 they took part in an NPR Tiny Desk session. Their latest EP is I'll Find. Our conversation was held on March 23, 2021, and has been edited for clarity and flow.  

Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): How did you decide to take this path of becoming a voice through your art for repressed histories and warnings against new hatreds? When you grew up were you aware of the histories you address in your work? I know that your grandfather was a prisoner of the Germans during World War Two in the Stutthof camp, near your native Gdansk, and after the war he would visit the local museum and cry. This in a way was part of your education.

Grzegorz Kwiatkowski (GK): I've always been inside this topic because of my roots, and I was a coordinator of Amnesty International in Gdansk for many years. But it was the shoes that shocked me into action. In 2015 a friend and I discovered a huge pile of shoes in the forest near Stutthof, some of what turned out to be 500,000 shoes from Stutthof camp prisoners. The Nazis intended to use the shoe leather to make holsters and other items. During Communism, some of the shoes had been exhibited in the local museum, but the rest had been left there, buried in the forest. We went to the officials of the museum but they didn't want to do anything about it. I gave them six months to take action and when they still did nothing this was the start of my public activism in history and human rights.

My grandfather was one of the many non-Jewish Polish people imprisoned by the Nazis. In school we did not learn about Poles as perpetrators or Nazi enablers, only about Poles as victims. When [the historian] Jan Gross published his groundbreaking book Neighbors [2001], it started a public debate about Poles who murdered Jews during World War Two and it was a big shock for Polish society and also for me. It was the start of my deeper investigations.

Many years later, I asked my wife's grandmother what she did during the war and she said, "I was hiding in the forest." And I said, "were you Jewish?" She said no, "I hated Jews." Then I found out that my wife's family was Jewish, but it was a family secret. Even today they don't accept this knowledge. Poland is so antisemitic that I think she was afraid, living with a mix of trauma and fear.

RBG: The episode of the shoes brings to mind that your activism is part of a struggle not just against forgetting difficult histories, but also against the dehumanization of victims. Each of those shoes belonged to someone.

GK: Yes, and the last shocking part of this is that after years of coverage by the BBC and other media, the head of the museum took the shoes and just buried them. These shoes disappeared again. It shows a total lack of care for the memory of those people in Stutthof, which was a camp for Polish intelligentsia and priests, not Jews.

RBG: We are living through the acceleration of historical revisionism and persecution of some of the same "enemies" of the fascist and World War Two era. Poland is now governed by the right-wing Law and Justice party. 2018 legislation makes anyone who draws attention to Polish Holocaust perpetrators and accomplices liable for charges of libel and slander, and more than 80 towns have passed resolutions against LGBTQ "ideology."

GK: I think that the Polish government is cynically playing with demons from the Polish past to be able to win an election. It aims to provoke resentment and fear. I have no problems in my private situation with censorship or stuff like that. We're not yet like Hungary. we have more freedom right now. But of course playing with this fear of others, through antisemitism and anti-LGBTQ feeling, is very frightening.

RBG: When I listen to Trupa Trupa, I'm struck by the contrast between the hypnotic and dreamy vibe of the music, which has a timeless quality, and the directness of some of your lyrics. In the video of the song Remainder, the keyhole point of view of the camera instantly reminded me of the view from a boxcar, like the cars the Nazis used to transport prisoners to the camps. And your lyrics, which seem to take on the voice of a Holocaust denier, "It did not take place," are very powerful.

GK: The video shows a kind of a catastrophe, some human catastrophe or ecological catastrophe, but there is always space for multiple interpretations and usually people think about this song as a protest against Holocaust denial. The listener decides the final meaning of our videos and our songs, we give the listener a lot of space.

RBG: I imagine this openness, this room for different interpretations, lets you reach many different types of people. There's also a sense of something uplifting and magical, almost therapeutic, in songs like Dream About.

GK: Well, we as a band are very much children of Gdansk, which saw much death during the war but also was where the Solidarity movement started. So even if we deal in fear and in gloomy and dark things it's not so pessimistic. It's got some brightness inside. In music and poetry, I take the reader or listener for a moral journey to the past, to let him feel just a bit what it's like to be in this very tragic situation. And in my opinion, then he could really open his eyes and be conscious about those in vulnerable situations today, like LGBTQ people. This kind of art can be productive because it takes us to dark places but then takes us to the light.

RBG: What do you do personally to stay energized and keep a sense of perspective?

GK: Walking is a super important thing for me. I walk one hour per day minimum. The second thing is that I'm addicted to classical music. Every day I have to listen to The Magic Flute or the Goldberg Variations. Fresh air walks and classical music keep me clean in a spiritual way. I am also the father of two year-old boy, and that's a joyful struggle!