In If the Walls Could Speak: Inside a Women’s Prison in Communist Poland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), Anna Müller has penned a monograph on female political prisoners during the early stages of the Soviet occupation of Poland after 1944. Unfortunately, because of ideological Marxist and feminist blinders of the historian, the monograph falls woefully short of the mark.
The author concentrates on three categories of political prisoners: Communists, Ukrainian nationalists (OUN-UPA), and Polish activists and soldiers of the pro-Western, independentist camp. Yet, she fails to explicate why she excluded German women, both the Reichsdeutsche and Volksdeutsche (the latter ethnic Germans born outside of the Reich), as a separate category of political inmates (p. 139). She does acknowledge their existence and even seems surprised at them fulfilling official prisoner trustee functions (p. 122).
Müller frequently avoids referring to such prisoners in congruence with their nationality and, instead, identifies them as mysterious “Nazis” (p. 132). In their prison files, however, they are unequivocally marked as “Germans.” That was also usually their own self-identification. Has the historian seen their Nazi party identification cards? What is the basis of pegging those German women as Nazis? Is serving the Third Reich a justification sufficient to refer to them ideologically to override their German identity? However, the author insists on eschewing national categories because, for her, national “identity is an unstable category” (p. 214) allegedly. Here she employs the currently sexy theory of Judith Butler on “gender fluidity,” projecting it onto nationality.
If Müller is correct, then is there any sense to distinguish Poles, hence, independentist prisoners, as a separate category of persons jailed by the Communists? If their identity was fluid, it makes no sense to call them Poles, or anything at all for that matter. Yet, it is absolutely certain that the Polish victims themselves would have never concurred that their national identity was fluid. Their understanding of their predicament was suffering precisely because their Polish national consciousness was rigidly set. They rejected both Nazism and Communism, which, for them, were the anti-thesis of Polishness. And so was Germandom. Hence, they could and did distinguish themselves from others.
Further, most Polish women political prisoners considered by the author stemmed from the elite, mostly urban upper classes (p. 211). They were the very essence of conscious Polish nationalism. The historian strangely fails to recognize that reality.
If the Walls Could Speak: Inside a Women’s Prison in Communist Poland lists eight archives, 35 interviews, seven testimonies of witnesses collected by other scholars, and eighteen private collections. This should impress, even though the Ukrainian survivors mostly refused to share their stories with Müller (pp. 153-154).
Unfortunately, however, the scholar was incapable of processing the material correctly because of her feminist-Marxist ideology’s straight jacket. Instead, she generated a dualistic monograph: some historical facts mixed with currently appropriate academic propaganda.
There is an adequate description of the Communist law (pp. 48-50) and an appropriate depiction of the prison conditions (p. 105). For example, the author tells a compelling story of communicating by knocking on the wall using the Morse alphabet (p. 164), in particular even praying the Holy Mass by this method (p. 192). However, outside of sparse rays of sunshine in the monograph, the reader is subjected to a paralyzing jargon and artificial intellectual constructs, which prevent one from comprehending the psychology of female prisoners and their imprisonment circumstances.
The author reveals herself as an alchemist who turns gold into base metals. For example, that means that Müller entirely misses the opportunity to understand the victims on their own terms. Instead, she contrives a crude, ideologized feminist butcher’s knife to dissect their past without any finesse whatsoever. That also indicates that the post-modernist scholar refuses to recognize universal laws applicable both to women and men (p. 31). She believes that women can be stripped of their universal humanity and garbed in the straightjacket of feminism. In reality, though, there were not many differences between inmates of both sexes, except, of course, the physiological one’s bestowed by nature: women gave birth, menstruated, and so forth (pp. 111-112).
Müller has promised us “gendered analysis” (p. 32), and, unfortunately, she keeps her word. She dresses the entire contrived intellectual contraption in jarringly stupefying jargon. For instance, she deadpans that the forced undressing in the presence of the guards “stripped prisoners of individuality and reduced them to pure physicality, in which they became primarily concerned with pain and the difficulties of controlling their own physiology. The pain was magnified by an emotional and very subjective dynamic of fear and cultural meaning attached to one’s body” (p. 102). It is supposed to pass for “empathy” but, in fact, this is a pure semantic cesspool deriving from Michel Foucault.
One could yawn at such post-modernist slang. How about writing plainly that the Communists resolved to dehumanize and degrade female prisoners (just like the males) by denying them decency and privacy as stipulated by traditional Western, Christian, and, specifically, Polish cultural norms? Further, it is worth pointing out that pain and fear are both integral parts of our individuality. So, where is the logic? Either one loses one’s individuality, and then one feels neither pain nor fear, or individuality perseveres despite horrific conditions such as in a Communist prison.
Only the tormentors, i.e., the Communist wardens, could classify individual prisoners as collective chattel, which the author seems to concur with. The same concerns Müller’s artificial construct about “reclaiming her body” regarding a female prisoner (p. 107). Since when would the body cease to belong to its owner? Does it really have to be reclaimed? This seems to be a strange prelude to disparage the ideal of the Polish Mother (Matka Polka) so hated by the feminists (p. 116).
If the Walls Could Speak is a methodological and ideological cliché of the pioneering deconstructive achievements of Katherine Jolluck in the field of Polish history, the Gulag in particular. Like her guru, Müller also tends to suffer from tunnel vision and sees everything through Marxist-feminism’s ideological prism with obligatory prostrations to Michel Foucault. Thus, in the material she consulted, the author could only find what the straightjacket of her ideology dictates, not what the documents really contain.
For instance, Müller claims to have discovered that prisoner Stefania Broniewska, a soldier of the National Armed Forces (NSZ), was allegedly a lesbian (pp. 149-150). Through the good offices of Dr. Rafała Sierchuła, I acquired the files in question and analyzed the sources of Müller’s revelations – from the thick dossier of the Security Office in Bydgoszcz.
According to the secret police records, a prison stool pigeon Janina Enderle did indeed tell her handlers that she was a lesbian and had sexual relations with Mrs. Broniewska. The agent observed that the secret policemen were positively disgusted with the lesbian fantasies as unnatural and that such “intelligence” threw them off the track in their investigation, desisting from squeezing the snitch too much. Thus Enderle persisted in lying. Only two years into the game, the uneducated primitives (as evidenced by barely literate reports they generated) of the Communist secret police realized that Enderle had deceived them all along. She had passed false information to them. They wrote about that deception openly, yet Müller either cannot process the data in plain text or read the file very selectively with her ideological blinders on. One guesses that in certain circles, a lesbian makes for a better story. But that is far from the truth.
An incredibly intrepid underground fighter, Stefania Broniewska, was the penultimate Commander-in-Chief of the NSZ’s wife. The author of If the Walls Could Speak either does not know or care that Broniewska was one of the very few exceptional individuals who withstood Communist torture without breaking down and revealing underground secrets (http://www.projectinposterum.org/docs/chodakiewicz1.htm). In October 1945, she was arrested and tortured mercilessly but remained defiant throughout. According to a secret police report,
“on November 11, 1945, I, Szlek Kazimierz, a functionary of the UB in Będzin, would like to report that, during our interrogation, Kowalska aka Broniewska Stefania, the wife of General Bogucki [i.e., Colonel Zygmunt Broniewski, the Commander-in-Chief of the NSZ], refused to testify about the organization of the NSZ and other matters related to it. She behaved arrogantly, wanting to show her superiority over us, the working class. She stated that she had been working in the NSZ since its inception, that she was devoted to its ideology, and that she would never recognize as correct the Government of National Unity’s policies [i.e., the Communist proxy regime of Soviet occupation]. Further, she expressed her negative feelings about the Polish-Soviet alliance calling the [Red] Army and the Soviet Nation [sic] her enemies. When questioned, she refused to give any information about the organization and people she is affiliated with. She said she would die and take the secrets to her grave, but the current democratic system [i.e., Communist dictatorship] would not persevere. He who laughs last wins, she said, believing fervently in the victory of the NSZ.”
Next, while interrogated by the secret policemen Jan Matejczuk and Antoni Trybus of the Warsaw UB, Stefania Broniewska provided similar answers, despite torture. On December 11, 1946, she was sentenced to 8 years in jail. While in prison, she embraced fellow prisoners, especially the younger ones, with motherly love. The late Hanka Rozwadowska, imprisoned at nineteen for participating in student underground in 1949, related the story to me.
This was a default, standard modus operandi in our milieu, which was also confirmed by the stories of my late grandmother, Irena Chodakiewiczowa, and her friends. It was similar with the men. This sort of attitude stemmed from a religious and patriotic upbringing as well as war-time and post-war solidarity.
But Müller prefers to spew salacious stories in congruence with Marxist-lesbianism. Sure, one can proceed so. But how is that scholarship? Were there lesbians in Communist jails? Of course, there were. But there are no grounds to ascribe such preference to Stefania Broniewska.
Sadly, the historian fails to incorporate the female fighter’s story into her feminist narrative. The part that is sadly missing from Müller’s tale is very relevant for female empowerment and, incidentally, presents an alternative venue to such empowerment: Polish Christian nationalism and anti-Communism.
At times one has a feeling that the author really does not know what she is writing about. For example, at one point, she describes a prison hunger strike. She stresses that the prisoners were “in control” (pp. 129, 132). Yet, soon after, she adds that the wardens force-fed them shortly after that. That is a bizarre notion of women “in control,” unless, once again, Müller has given rein to her fantasies this time in the realm of S&M. Perhaps the author then should switch to a different genre of studies and emulate, say, its pioneers: Marquis de Sade and Pat Califia.
The author pontificates about imprisoned women but entirely out of a broader context. If we are to accept that they really suffered, what is Müller’s frame of reference? They suffered, all right, but in comparison to whom? If we fail to receive even a superficial description of the male experience in a Communist jail, then how can we compare?
Further, the author frequently fails to understand the material she is supposed to have processed. For example, she has no idea what self-censorship is. Even beyond 1989, the prisoners of both were extremely reluctant to talk about their experiences or commit anything to paper. Thus, whatever shards of memoirs were recorded must be appropriately contextualized and, sometimes, accepted with a pinch of salt only. A scholar should likewise become fluent in the Communist new-speak, including a very peculiar secret police jargon.
Also, Müller is incapable of differentiating anti-feminist motifs from a picaresque narrative (pp. 199, 207). Thus, she proves that feminism entirely lacks a sense of humor. Where the historian sees ambivalence, one so obviously detects silence, glossing over, and, perhaps, a fatal love for the Big Brother, a Stockholm syndrome (p. 212).
One should moreover point out the softness and gentleness of the author’s approach to Communism. If one removed, in some places of her narrative, the word “Communism” and replaced it with “Nazism,” Müller could most certainly be taken for a Hitler apologist (p. 155). While mentioning a Communist fanatic, the author waxes lyrical about “an innocent commitment to an ideology that made her life fuller” (p. 227). Why didn’t she write the same thing about a German woman devoted to the “joys” of National Socialism? That would be scandalous.
Müller routinely dismisses anti-Communism as one of the most essential mechanisms of the struggle for female prisoners’ lives. She puts it as follows: “Polish historiography tends to see imprisoned Polish patriots as a symbol of injustice and suffering or an extension of the struggle for independence. But this is a rather one-sided view that ignores the fact that identity is an unstable category… Rather than anti-Communism, they defended a model that helped them survive in dignity, a model that they coined after their release but which the majority of them claimed helped them in prison” (p. 214).
Barring that the above is an auto-projection of the author’s own perception of her “unstable” identity, one is prompted to ask: And what kind of a paradigm helped the imprisoned heroines survive their appalling ordeal? It was the paradigm of the Polish Mother (Matka Polka), religious and patriotic. It was not Polish historians but, instead, the prisoners who self-identified in such a manner, albeit usually without the pathos, but almost invariably in an anti-Communist way. Male prisoners did too. After all, anti-Communism undergirded each objection against the reality of the prison. Everything that negated Communism was anti-Communism.
Alas, once again, the author does not comprehend that. She contorts herself to eliminate anti-Communism as the main driver of the objection to the Communist system. Thus, anti-Communism, in addition to faith and patriotism, which were the polar opposites of that totalitarian ideology, helped the women survive in dignity.
Instead of dazzling us with feminism, Müller should first polish her basic historical knowledge. The author shows her ignorance of the secret police agent’s recruitment mechanisms (p. 162) but proceeds nonetheless to tell us tall tales about female assets. She falsely claims that the underground Polish Home Army (AK) existed before the Second World War (p. 29). Müller further embraces moral relativism: she posits parity between the Volhynian and other massacres by Ukrainian nationalists and the self-defense and revenge actions of the AK (p. 153).
Moreover, the author has a penchant for anachronisms. Everywhere she insists on Vilnius and Lviv (pp. 35-36, 154), but also Peremysl instead of Przemyśl (pp. 38, 232), although she employs the latter name occasionally as well (p. 47). Why? What are her categories? Is it because she would like to show off her political correctness for the benefit of national minorities? How would Müller feel if someone calls her Miller or Młynarz? The author is also a bit confused about her geography. “Wroclaw” (sic! Wrocław) is not in “central Poland,” but in her south-west.
Perhaps it is the editors’ fault, where Oxford University Press has frequently shown sloppiness in Polish matters. Otherwise, it should have made sure to render correctly: rtm. Zygmunt Szendzielorz, and not “Szyndzielorz” (p. 108), Ilia Ehrenberg, and not “Erynburg” (p. 197), Jerzy Ślaski, and not “Śląski” (p. 237). There are also slips in translation. For example, there should be an “authoritative source,” and not an “authoritarian source” (p. 198), and a “dulah hag” rather than an “obstetric hag” (baba położnicza, p. 214).
In a way, Müller’s confused book is an academic equivalent to the cinematically dubious “Interrogation” by Ryszard Bugajski. Mixing together in the same monograph anti-Communist prisoners with Communists inmates and others is a morally relativistic slap in the face of the long-suffering Polish female freedom fighters. Further, before one deals with menstruation, one should learn about human physiology in general. A treaty about menstruation, in particular, fails to substitute for learning history in general (p. 258).
Thus, feminist methodology suffocates the entire monograph. Instead of logocentrism, the author serves us regurgitated leftist slogans. “Gender” reigns ubiquitous, an artificial construct that is supposed to have substituted “sex,” and, as a rule, it signals that our sex is a question of choice and not biology. Set identities do not exist. Each has been allegedly “constructed” – by the patriarchate, of course.
Generally, If the Walls Could Speak is a deeply flawed effort to translate the horror of the experiences of political prisoners of Communist jails into the language of post-modernist pseudo-sensitivity with the aid of deconstructive and chaotic narrative, expressed employing a hermetic academic jargon.
Let us hope that someone not paralyzed by Marxist-feminist ideology will take up this important topic soon. The political prisoners of Communism deserve it amply.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 30 September 2020
Raport z przesłuchania Kowalskiej vel Boguckiej Stefanii, 11 November 1945, quoted in Sebastian Bojemski “Pisane krwią bohaterów,” in: Nasz Dziennik, 22 August 2000. Next, while interrogated by the secret policemen Jan Matejczuk and Antoni Trybus of the Warsaw UB, Stefania Broniewska provided similar answers, despite torture. On December 11, 1946, she was sentenced to 8 years in jail. Bojemski’s research is based, among other things, on Akta sprawy Antoniego Symonowicza i towarzyszy and Akta sprawy Mirosława Ostromęckiego, Archiwum Historyczne Miasta Stołecznego Warszawy, Wojskowy Sąd Rejonowy [afterward AHMSW, WSR], files Sr. 23/46 and Sr. 78/47. See also Kazimierz Krajewski et al., Żołnierze wyklęci: Antykomunistyczne podziemie zbrojne po 1944 r. (Warsaw: Oficyna Wydawnicza Volumen and Liga Republikańska, 2002), p. 352; and Grzegorz Wąsowski and Leszek Żebrowski (eds.), Żołnierze wyklęci: Antykomunistyczne podziemie zbrojne po 1944 r., 3rd ed. (Warszawa: Oficyna Wydawnicza Volumen and Liga Republikańska, 2013); and, more broadly on Broniewska and others, Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, “The Dialectics of Pain: The Interrogation Methods of the Communist Secret Police in Poland, 1944-1955,” in: Glaukopis, no. 2/3 (2004-2005): 99-144 also posted at http://www.projectinposterum.org/docs/chodakiewicz1.htm; and excerpted in News of Polonia, vol. 13, no. 12 (April 2008): 9-11.