The hidden history of Poland’s Muslims.
In the last few years, Poland’s far-right nationalists have worked hard to project an image of a country that is ethnically homogenous and overwhelmingly Catholic. But this nationalist vision overlooks inconvenient realities such as Podlaskie: a forested region that includes the city of Bialystok and that has been home, for hundreds of years, to a small, vibrant Tatar Muslim community.
Podlaskie’s Tatars migrated from Crimea and Central Asia in the 14th century. By the early 20th century, they numbered around 6,000 and maintained 17 mosques in the region.
Then came World War II. In its aftermath, borders shifted, and Poland’s new communist rulers suppressed Islam along with all other religions. Intermarriage and assimilation further thinned the ranks of the region’s Tatars. They now number fewer than 3,000. But in the nearly 30 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Tatar families have breathed new life into old traditions, from dance to prayer to food, and rehabilitated mosques built in the 18th century.
The Polish photojournalist Selim Korycki traveled to Podlaskie twice in August and September 2017 to document life amid one of Europe’s oldest Muslim communities. “Lipkas are a striking reminder that Poland was once a hugely multicultural and multi-religious country,” he notes, using the Crimean term that members of the group use to describe themselves. He explains that Tatar Muslim soldiers first settled in Kruszyniany at the invitation of King Jan III Sobieski in 1679.
According to Korycki, one feature that distinguishes Podlaskie’s Tatars is the intensity of their Polish patriotism. Yet such sentiment hasn’t spared them from the Islamophobic and anti-immigrant xenophobia now sweeping much of the country: Since 2014, vandals have damaged some of the group’s tombstones and defaced at least one mosque with anti-Muslim graffiti.