Compared to the South Korean or Brazilian landfills I saw in my brother’s Newsweek, the municipal dump of my Silesian hometown looked small, hemmed in by a forest of coniferous trees and the joyful self-sufficiency of allotment gardens. As my dog, Luksik, a mutt the size of a miniature pinscher, marked this new territory with his leg lifted against the wide-open, rusty gate, I measured my expectations against the pile of trash in front of me. No seagulls, obviously, because Siemianowice is far from any significant body of water. No crows even. Surprisingly, not much stench. But above all, no people scavenging in sight.
It was 1991. Only two years prior, the anti-communist Solidarity movement won the first free election by a landslide that buried Polish Communism dead. Supported by the Vatican and Ronald Reagan, Solidarity was suspect to my Marxist parents, but most Poles were tired of the equalized poverty of communism and the shortages of the eighties. After the brief euphoria of a smooth, democratic transition, which inspired other revolutions in the region, including in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, Poland entered a long phase of deep economic crisis. Those who voted for Solidarity candidates had hoped for Swedish-style socialism but instead got “shock therapy”: deregulation, privatization, and austerity. The vacuum created by the end of communism, exploited to introduce neoconservative free market policies, demanded a complete restructuring of every institution and every person’s life: where and how we got food, what we read and watched, what we admired and what we believed was true.
I was almost fifteen. I had just started high school, where instead of Russian (the tool of Soviet imperialism now phased out of schools) I had begun studying English, its global vistas and promises of mobility so alluring that no one yet noticed its imperial power. My brother’s Newsweek magazines replaced in our house the glossy weekly Kraj Rad, or “Land of Councils,” a magazine about the Soviet Union to which my father had subscribed until it folded in 1990. Kraj Rad projected propagandist images of USSR prosperity: smiling faces of pioneer children, five-year-plan-smashing workers shaking hands with apparatchiks, vigorous volunteers harvesting in idyllic settings. Newsweek imagined abundance differently. Its advertisements showed happiness as leisure and consumption: expansive golf courses, couples snorkeling in crystalline seas, peachy faces with perfect teeth grinning over piles of exotic fruit.
In the articles, though, images of claustrophobic poverty outnumbered those of spacious plenty. I was only just learning they were sides of the same coin. As I pored over the weekly’s unfamiliar vocabulary—North Korean “famine,” Brazilian “overpopulation,” global “starvation”—I acquired the many words for scarcity.
The day I found myself at the dump, conducting an investigation of my own making, I thought about my father, a devoted communist who trusted the equalizing state policies that subsidized food, energy, and housing to eventually pull Silesia out of centuries of colonial and wartime exploitation. He grumbled whenever he heard mention of Leszek Balcerowicz, the Minister of Finance responsible for the shock therapy policies, because they hit our regional homeland, the heartland of Polish heavy industry, the most painfully. Since the transition, Dad practiced his newly adopted contrarianism, shaking his head over the newspapers’ obfuscating rhetoric of the Polish Tiger. “Wild East! People are poor, hungry, and homeless,” he jeered at the television, while reels celebrating Poland’s economic boom played on.
My father’s complaints, in combination with the landfills I saw in Newsweek, led me to believe that people must live at our own municipal dump. So here I was, just past the chicken-wire fence surrounding it. To my left, I saw a shed made of rusted corrugated iron. When I approached it, pulling at my reticent dog’s leash, I noticed the structure had only three walls and a roof—more of a bus stop, built for sun and wind protection. Inside, a couple: a man and a woman on rickety deckchairs. I pooled my courage into a smile and asked if they lived there.
“What are you looking for?” the woman frowned, a ruddy face with a wisp of a mustache. She scanned me up and down—my black T-shirt, my short jean skirt, which I loved because denim symbolized the West, but also because it was the only skirt I owned. Throughout the crises of martial law and post-communist restructuring, I wore mostly pants handed down from my brother or our distant family in East Germany, but I was maturing into a woman, learning what it meant to feel feminine. Plus, I knew my mom and grandma would be more likely to trust my ruse of walking the dog if I wore a skirt, and they would never have allowed this investigation. They always warned me not to wander through chaszcze, the thickets, which was their word for many places: the large park with the swimming pool behind our neighborhood; the dump and forest behind the allotment gardens; any uninhabited, uncultivated space.
“My father said people lived here, and I wanted to write an essay about it,” I said.
“We will be on television!” the man exclaimed, as he stood up to shake my hand. He was shorter than I was, slight of build, dark-haired, enveloped in a smell of sweat and unwashed clothing. Unsure how to respond and unwilling to disappoint him, I shook his hand, calloused and rough, and waited. My dog sniffed the man’s worn-out dress pants.
“No. No people live here,” the woman pronounced with authority. “But a lot come here to scavenge. You can find food, clothing and furniture. Anything! It’s just not their hour right now. Most show up in the evenings.”
“So, what did you find today?” I asked, settling into my reporter’s mode.
“We work here,” the woman said, clearly peeved at my question. “Somebody has to make sure no one sets this thing on fire, no illegal dumping and such.”
The man nodded in agreement. “But, you know, if you want to see where the homeless who scavenge here live, I could show you.”
“So…there are homeless people in our town?”
“Ja, pani,” the man laughed, a German “yes” preceding the formal honorific for an adult woman. He spoke Silesian, as did the woman. Though my whole family is Silesian, my mom made sure we spoke “proper Polish” in the house; she was a Polish teacher in a country that considered her borderland language substandard, and she wanted us to avoid the stereotypes associated with our region. I wasn’t comfortable in Silesian and thus aroused the mix of suspicion and respect reserved for an outsider, a Pole—a neighbor with a history a world apart.
“Obviously, many homeless people in our town,” the woman said, nodding. “And poor people, and people who, at times, have to find some stuff at the dump to get by. And others who only come to get some scrap metal to sell for vodka.” She cackled at this. “They pay us to let them search through this pile of trash.”
“They don’t live here,” the man added, “but in a system of underground dry pipes around the steelworks. I could take pani.” Luksik stretched impatiently on the muddy ground.
I didn’t hesitate a moment.
“Yes, thank you,” I said.
Sometime later, the post-communist restructuring would also render my father jobless. But in the early 1990s, he was still employed in construction, as he had been his whole working career. As a procurement manager at a state-owned construction company, he knew that the few new houses going up in our town were too expensive for the average Pole. Meanwhile, the cheap workers’ hotels—and the institutions that ran them, the massive, outdated factories and agricultural collectives—were closing down, leaving over three million people unemployed and scores more unhoused (their numbers are less clear; they were purposefully uncounted). Even those lucky enough to hold on to their jobs, like my parents, were either not being paid, because the state that employed them was bankrupt, or saw their income and savings melt down to nothing with the inflation, which was racing at a speed that took everyone’s breath away. In the few years since the 1989 election, unemployment rose to 16.4 percent, the highest on the continent. Eighty percent of people without jobs in those years had been previously employed.
In the extreme insecurity of the transition, I was learning to see numbers and histories as partial and one-sided. When I entered high school, I had been given a new set of history books that negated everything I had learned before, proving the ease with which national narratives can obscure what’s uncomfortable. Everything struck me as propaganda, as a mirage that could be dispelled if seen from another vantage point. Though I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at fifteen, this was a potent lesson in distrust of the power of institutions.
I grew instead to trust the emotional complexity of literature, its ability to represent reality with fewer distortions. In my Polish literature classes in middle school, which my mother taught, I learned to ask first about the social class of a protagonist and to believe that literature at its best was politically engaged. At school, we read anti-colonial texts concerned with the survival of the Polish language in the face of imperial powers—Russian, Prussian, and Austro-Hungarian—that surrounded or occupied our small nation. At home, I devoured my mother’s collection of Anglophone literature in translation. The post-Stalinist thaw saw publication of Faulkner and Steinbeck, writers describing poverty and inequities in the United States. The eighties brought translations of Orwell and Atwood with their dystopian visions of totalitarian societies. Literature uncovered facts hidden behind official narratives. That’s what I, too, wanted to do. To align myself with my parents’ politics, I aspired to write engaged literature, what we call in Polish “literatura faktu”—the literature of fact, nonfiction. To do that, I needed facts, the kind available to me only if I dared to touch our new reality for myself.
That’s what brought me to the municipal dump, the very thicket of transitory reality, in direct defiance of my mom and grandma’s warnings. The man in front of me, my would-be escort, said something to the woman that I didn’t catch. She just nodded and smiled at me. “Don’t worry, dziołszka. He’s okay.” Though I noticed that she no longer called me “pani,” but rather Silesian for “girl,” I was not worried—I didn’t even know why she felt the need to reassure me. I was that naive.
The man pushed his hands in his pockets and started walking, hunched over, toward a neighborhood on the other side of the allotments. I knew this neighborhood well. We passed by the school building where I had attended preschool. We crossed the main street, busy with people, and reached more familiar architecture: two blocks of single-family homes of a simple, boxy, postwar design, similar to the house I lived in. These were surrounded by fruit trees, flowers, and people working in their vegetable gardens, just like my family did. It was only when we reached the train tracks that I felt a jolt of the unfamiliar: the surprising sight of an open green field, a buffer zone, leading up to the silvery behemoth of the town steelworks. Nebulous steam rose from its two chimneys, gray with red-and-white stripes on top.
My Virgil—who, until then, had guided me wordlessly—stopped here and pointed at the gravel road snaking through the grass toward the steelworks. “You just have to walk down there to the higher part, you see it?”
“You mean that hill?”
“Ja. There you will find the entrances to the sewer system. That’s where they live.”
I assumed he would lead me all the way there, but he needed to get back to work. He smiled and said I could come back some other time with my camera crew. Only then did I realize he probably expected a tip for showing me the way, but I had no money, no allowance. Though employed and housed, my family too was struggling to survive—my grandma sold off family antiques one by one for our food—so I just thanked him. We shook hands again. He nodded and walked away.
I stood by the train tracks for a while longer, breathing in the landscape. Framed by spring green grass and puffy, cherubic clouds, the steelworks’ cool exterior projected an image of bucolic tranquility. But I knew what it concealed. In middle school, they brought us on a tour of its explosive entrails, where workers tended to enormous furnaces like guardians of an infernal fire. I had seen how it wanted to be perceived, and I knew what it was.
And yet, the unspoiled, vivid, green expanse in front of it held some promise for me—something true to hold onto in the shifting mirage of the world around me. I weighed, for a moment, whether to explore the tunnels right then, but my lengthy absence under the pretext of walking Luksik would soon worry my mom and grandma. Besides, I thought, finding this secret space was momentous enough to share with Kasia, my best friend since the first day of school. So I strolled back down the main street, planning to return as soon as I could. My dog wagged his tail all the way home.
There is a Polish proverb about curiosity as the first stair of a ladder down to hell, which I assume derives from Eve’s reaching for the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Though I can find no proof of this interpretation, it fits with the omnipresent cultural narrative of women’s curiosity as transgressive: my mom and grandma’s chaszcze, Red Riding Hood’s forest. We are advised not to push at the perimeter of our circle of action—to stay in our place, however confined—and shamed for provoking men’s violence. I don’t mean just Silesia or Poland thirty years ago. I read the same frustration in feminist writers in English. I hear it from my friends now: why is it still so difficult to engage with the world in a female body? And why is it that, in moments of heightened economic and cultural upheaval, uncertain nations tighten their grip over women’s bodies?
I was too young to articulate or even think any of this when, the following Friday, I recounted my discovery to Kasia. We were sitting in her backyard, rocking in the hammock taken out for the first time that spring. It had rained earlier that day and the world felt particularly fresh. Though we had rarely played outside of our houses when we were children, the confines of our experience were slowly expanding when we reached our teens. At first, we only visited the nearby ice cream store, owned by the same family for thirty years. And later, other local attractions, like the cultivated park around the former Prussian landowners’ palace, or the main street. But Kasia did not readily agree when I asked if she wanted to accompany me to see where the homeless people lived. She rocked in the hammock for a long while, indecision twisting her face.
“Let’s just tell my grandma we’re going there,” she said finally.
“No way, she would never let us.”
Kasia took a deep breath. “You’re right. She wouldn’t. But maybe that means that we should not be doing this on our own?”
“It’s not dangerous. It’s just behind those people’s houses,” I said, yearning to return to the sublime landscape and the story it hid. “I want to show you the view.”
“Okay, I’ll just tell my grandma we’re going for our usual walk.”
We jumped off the hammock and I waited for Kasia by the front gate. We left her small street and turned onto the larger throughway, Komuny Paryskiej, which quickly became the poorest street in town. Its squat, red-brick row houses, divided into tiny apartments with shared toilets on the landings and chicken coops in backyards, had been built in the nineteenth century by the Prussian owners of the Silesian coal and mineral deposits to lodge their workforces, and had hardly been updated since.
Catcalls. Men—who, I now understand, must have been unemployed—sitting on doorsteps, cigarettes and beer bottles in their hands, talking to each other, catcalling us. It was two in the afternoon, and our skirts were short enough to be noticed. Through Kinderstube, the proper German upbringing we received as girls in Silesian homes, we were taught to pretend we didn’t hear their calls at all, to raise our heads high above the men who dared speak to us. But as soon as we were out of earshot, we dissected the comments into their constitutive parts—“nice legs,” “a gorgeous behind,” “what hair”—out of which we proudly constructed our new adult bodies. We were fifteen, not fully aware of the meaning of men’s attraction, nor fully afraid of its dangers.
Where the Komuny Paryskiej hit the main artery of our town stood a set of tall apartment blocks once built with regularity by my dad’s construction company: communist housing, equal and affordable for all, the promise he mourned once the system fell. Across the street, the tank factory.
Kasia and I turned left and dawdled alongside the window displays of the few businesses that had survived the economic transition, still occupying the interwar art deco kamienice that lined the main street. Other storefronts either stood empty or, like the banks or pharmacies that proliferated then, protected their surplus from the outside’s hungry gaze with mirror glass. After we passed another cluster of my dad’s apartment blocks, we finally reached the neighborhood the guide from the municipal dump had shown me. We crossed the two streets of single-family homes and stopped at the train tracks to admire the view.
Kasia gasped with awe. “I know,” I said, smug. I had found this place for us. “We have to go down this path to the gravel road, and then up this hill.” I pointed toward where the man said the homeless people lived.
“Okay,” Kasia said, looking slowly all around. “But you know, there is no one here.”
“Doesn’t this make it all the more amazing?”
“Come on,” I started down the path. I heard the grass rustle as Kasia followed me.
When we reached the road, she caught up with me and we walked side by side. We didn’t see anyone. I eased into the elation of curiosity I still feel when away from places I know. We were squinting in the sunlight, going up the slight hill; the ground undulated almost imperceptibly, and the intense young green of the grass resembled the golf courses I saw in Newsweek. This no man’s land—its sweeping green vista spectacularly contrasting the cold beast of the steelworks—dramatized our country in transition: the waning of the heavy industry of our Silesian homeland, the promise of the world opening to us now that we no longer lived behind the Iron Curtain. Kasia began skipping down the delicately sloping road. I don’t think we talked. We were happy just to have each other to explore this world together—an unknown world, a world that thrived new.
We neared five manholes, raised above the level of the grass on cement rings. A cloud covered the sun and threw an irregular shadow on the green. I wondered how we were going to open the manholes, and I pictured the people living inside those dungeons, whole families sleeping in complete subterranean dark: mole people, Morlocks, protected like in a bomb shelter from a hostile economy.
Suddenly, one of the manholes opened, like the trapdoor on a tank in our favorite World War II television series for kids, Four Tank-Men and a Dog. A man emerged, climbing out rung after rung.
“Should we go back?” Kasia whispered under her breath.
My instinct was to seize the opportunity to talk to the man about the tunnels and the people who lived there, perhaps even be invited inside, but the worry in her voice convinced me to abandon the plan. We turned around and began to walk quickly back the way we came.
Despite our long, hurried strides, the man caught up with us in no time. He was dressed in dark, shabby clothing and a newsboy’s cap. He carried a white plastic bag that looked heavy, bulging with its contents.
“Hello girls. What are you up to?” He was short, shorter than either of us, but stocky. A hairy chest peeked out from his partially unbuttoned shirt—a wolf in grandmother’s clothing.
I forced a polite smile. “I heard there were people living in the underground tunnels around here,” I told him, walking. “I plan to write an essay about it, so our city can provide relief.”
The sky cleared up. Grass greened around us. Ahead were the fledgling fruit trees among houses where we would feel safe.
He laughed and attempted to put his arm around my moving waist. A stench of sweat, mold, and alcohol hit me. I kept walking, though I still grimaced another smile.
“No one’s there right now. You wouldn’t go visit someone else’s empty home, would you?” he asked, in a tone that reminded me of a host of a children’s television program, someone delivering a moral. Kasia and I strode even faster, but he caught up to us every so often, his short legs notwithstanding.
I half expected him to continue his moralizing—curiosity is the first step down to hell—but he tried a new tactic instead. “What if I raped you now?” he asked. “No one would hear you scream.”
“Pan żartuje. Mister is kidding,” I said, more surprised than scared, using the formal, respectful construction. I had only ever heard that word—“rape”— whispered or alluded to, when mom and grandma conferred about whether to let me join the swim team, or when they explained that I shouldn’t walk from Kasia’s on my own at night. And here it was, suddenly tangible.
What happened next I remember in slow motion. The man dropped the plastic bag. Its contents rattled, bottles breaking on the ground. With a clumsy grip, he caught Kasia’s wrist and yanked her toward himself. She struggled to free her hand while kicking him with her knee, her foot on his ankles. But he was stronger. He enveloped her with his arms and held on to her waist tightly, lifting her off the ground. His hat fell off as he strained to contain the animated rag doll of Kasia, her legs in the air, her arms hitting him wherever they fell—his head, his shoulders. I hit him wherever I could, too. “Let her go, let her go,” I repeated, trying to scream but only thinly wailing, pitiful.
His large pink tongue emerged as he strained to hold her. When I saw it, I finally screamed, an animal scream of disgust. He glanced up and sideways at me and let Kasia go. We tore away from him and heard his loud, lewd laugh behind us. “Dobra, dobra, girls,” we heard him say, derisive. “I wouldn’t rape you. But this is not a place for girls.”
Kasia’s mouth drew narrow and thin. She ran for a while without turning around. Only when she saw that he hadn’t followed us did she slow down. We looked back and could see him standing in place, yelling obscenities after us. The further we ran the louder he spoke, and the more aggressively. “No roaming around here! Kurwy. Go home.”
“Shut up,” Kasia said quietly, under her breath, “shut up, shut up, shut up.” But for the tears in her eyes, her face resembled a piece of white marble: stern and cold. I extended my hand toward her shoulder, but she shrugged it off. She wrapped her arms around her chest as if trying to warm up. In tense silence, we reached the train tracks. The man, now silent as well, had turned around and walked in the opposite direction.
As we crossed back over the tracks into the neighborhood, I saw a gray-haired woman in a flowery housedress, much like the one my grandmother wore when cooking our meals. She was sitting on a makeshift bench under an apple tree, a small white dog on her lap. And she was smiling: her gaze was, I’m sure, turned inward, fixed on some still point in the past.
Years later, haunted by memory and compelled to retrace my steps, I would seek out the buffer zone again—and find it filled with the scattered rubble of the demolished steelworks, overgrown with weeds. The homeless would be gone, as would many people who had lived in the neighborhood’s squat row houses. And I remembered the gray-haired woman I waved to that day, though greeting strangers wasn’t the custom in our town. I don’t think she saw me.