Brit embarks upon epic quest across Poland to uncover forgotten history of country’s borders for riveting new book
A British man is travelling around Poland to tell the story of the country’s borderlands in a book he is writing to demystify Europe’s borders for a British audience.
Lewis Baston, a political analyst and writer from London, started his project in 2019 and has since embarked on over 20 trips to borders around Europe.
The majority of these have been with Poland whose borders with Germany, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Lithuania and Russia will feature prominently in his book.
Beginning his fascination with borders from an early age, since embarking on his book, Baston has visited all four corners of Poland as well as several smaller border towns, with a visit to the south east planned for his next trip later this year.
On his journeys he has come across many haunting remnants of past conflicts and former communities that once inhabited the lands he has passed through.
These have included the old Scheuno munitions plant in a dark forest near Forst in Lower Silesia, an abandoned Germany cemetery in Brozek (Forst-Scheuno), a cemetery of the Jewish community of Krasiczyn, and the Totenberg Mausoleum in Wałbrzych, a cenotaph and propaganda monument to glory built by the Third Reich.
The locations feature in one of the book’s chapters entitled “The occult romance of Lower Silesia”, in which Baston explores the darker history of the region in all its ‘gothic horror’.
Looking at “the sense of the uncanny” and the “unhealed quality” the chapter explores the area around the German-Polish border town of Forst, which features “concrete rubble in the river where there was once a bridge” and “roads that seem like they are going somewhere but peter out in a forest or on a river bank.”
Baston told TFN: “I have also greatly enjoyed my trips to Wrocław which is fascinating due to the combination of associations with Polish Lwόw, which is such a big part of the city’s identity and the identity of its inhabitants, and then the associations with Germany, as it was once known as Breslau, and which are visible through the city’s German architecture.”
Though his book is still a work in progress, Baston has written parts of it and has already been able to draw many observations from his travels, as well as about existing inhabitants of the borderlands.
He told TFN: “One interesting observation is the unique closeness of people who live on both sides of the border, though they are officially inhabitants of two different nations. The border gives them a shared identity and a strong solidarity.
“One very cute example of this can be seen from the early days of Covid, from Cieszyn, a border town on the east bank of the Olza river, where on both the Polish and Czech side of the Olza displayed banners saying “I miss you Czech” and “I miss you Pole”, so that the other side could see it…It was also quite striking for me that the Czech-Polish border is a bright blue neon line on a bridge between the two countries.”
Baston also recounts a testimony in the introduction to his book, in which a Pole who lives on the Czech side of the Polish border, explains that his Polishness is different to the Polishness of people on the other side of the border, because it is bound up with being part of a Polish minority on the Czech side.
He said: “Borderers also often have a tense relationship with their own national authorities, whose capitals are often based a long way physically and psychologically from the border, and who skimp on public services and economic development while swamping border towns with customs officers and military barracks.”
He added: “Another interesting thing I find about borders is that they are often a warped, or distorted reflection of the place that one has just come from, a place where what was forbidden in one’s homeland, becomes suddenly allowed.
“I experienced this for example when visiting the border town of Słubice on the Polish side. You see a lot of Germans crossing over onto the Polish side and buying certain things which are not allowed in Germany like dangerously strong energy drinks and fireworks or certain types of fertiliser. The border creates this interesting phenomenon of unlimited freedom just after crossing it.”
When telling his friends and colleagues in the UK about his journeys and book project, Baston says the first reaction of many people is “I’ve never really thought about it”, but he says, “that initial puzzlement is in a lot of people and most people get why I’m doing it”.
It is this sense of puzzlement that Batson hopes to answer with his book. “My hope along this journey is to write a history and travel book that anyone can enjoy. I have spent a fair bit of my professional life involved in drawing boundary lines in the context of elections; nearly every electoral system involves drawing some lines on the map to determine political representation.
“But I have never forgotten my school history lessons, or that first Austrian coach trip.
“I vividly remember crossing my first border between Strasbourg in France and Kehl in Germany in 1984 on a coach going on holiday to Austria with my parents and sister and it making a huge impression on my imagination.”
He continued: “I have been waiting a long time to explore that sense of an abrupt transition that comes with crossing over a line that, however concrete, owes its existence to the human imagination and its limitations. I hope people who read my book enjoy my journey.”
Baston’s book is due for publication in 2023, but regular updates from his journeys can be followed on his twitter @BastonBorders.