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Dzemil Gembicki, the caretaker of the 18th-century Kruszyniany Mosque.

The boundary of the town of Bohoniki. Tatars first settled in the village in 1679. Today, residents told Selim Korycki, only 14 remain.


Longtime Neighbors

The hidden history of Poland’s Muslims.

Text by Sarah Wildman

July 16, 2018

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.

Eugenia Radkiewicz, a docent at the Bohoniki Mosque, which was built in the 1870s. Radkiewicz’s parents moved to Podlaskie from what is now Lithuania as World War II came to a close.

Inside the Bohoniki Mosque. The craftsmen who built Podlaskie’s mosques were unfamiliar with Islamic architecture, which explains why their structures resemble the churches that dot Poland’s countryside.

Witaj szkolo!” is Polish for “Welcome to school!” At this Bialystok elementary school, the local Muslim Religious Association helps organize classes on Islam. The students include Polish Tatars and Chechen refugees.

The shell of what would have been the Islamic Cultural Center of Bialystok. Construction began in the early 1990s but stalled when the Polish economy began to tank. In January, Saudi Arabia announced it would fund the building of a new Islamic cultural center in Bialystok.

A list of permissible baby names issued in 1936 by the office of the first mufti of Poland, Jakub Szynkiewicz.

A dalawar (or hramotka) is a pocket-sized Muslim prayer book in the form of a tiny, handwritten scroll. This one belonged to Kontus Jablonski, who, according to his daughter, Halina Szahidewicz, handwrote the prayers before setting off to fight with the Polish army’s Tatar cavalry in 1939. The prayers are in Polish and Belarusian transliterated into the Arabic alphabet.

Bunczuk, a 20-year-old Tatar dance and song company, performs at a Polish weekend festival in the small town of Czarna Bialostocka, near Bialystok.

Siblings Emilia and Selim Mucharscy are part of Bunczuk. The group performs dances that trace back to the traditions of Crimea, Tatarstan, and the Bashkir, a Turkic ethnic group, as well as Islamic religious songs and Polish poetry.

The mizar of Kruszyniany. Mizar is a Polonized word of Turkic origin meaning cemetery. The oldest legible tombstone dates to 1699. The languages on the tombstones are in Arabic, Russian, and Polish.

The 41-year-old mufti of Poland, Tomasz Miskiewicz, stands in the prayer room of the Muslim Religious Association in Bialystok. As mufti, Miskiewicz serves as an Islamic legal scholar. A Tatar from Podlaskie, he has held the office since 2004.

Selim Korycki is a documentary photographer originally from Gdansk, Poland, and is currently based between London and Hanover, Germany. Sarah Wildman is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

A version of this story originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of  Foreign Policy magazine.

See more photos from this reporting here.

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