This upcoming May, if all goes well with the world, I’ll be co-leading a travel study trip to Poland with students. Over the past few months, I have been starting to read and study, as any educator does and in much more detail than I ever have before, about Poland during World War II. I gave a talk in Warsaw back in December 2018, and during my time there, I visited various sites such as the National Gallery, the Uprising Museum, remnants of the ghetto wall, and more. I did not get the opportunity to go to Treblinka, and I never made it down to Kraków and Auschwitz. Since my three-day trip, I’ve been thinking about Poland a lot, partly due to the connection I’ve made with Michał Choiński from the Institute of English Studies at Jagiellonian University in Kraków. It is through Choiński that I’ve really started to think about the connections between Poland and the Southern United States.
This connection served, in many ways, as the impetus for the proposal to do a study travel to Poland. In the fall of 2019, I hosted Choiński at my university for a talk about his exploration of the work of Lillian Smith in his book Southern Hyperboles: Metafigurative Strategies of Narration. During our conversations, and during his talk, Choiński pointed out William Styron drew a direct comparison between the locales. In Sophie’s Choice, a novel that contains the interactions between characters from the South and Poland in New York, Styron writes,
Poland is a beautiful, heart-wrenching, soul-split country which in many ways . . . resembles and conjures up images of the American South — or at least of other, not-so-distant times. It is not alone that forlornly lovely, nostalgic landscape which creates the frequent likeness — the quagmiry but haunting monochrome of the Narew River swampland, for example, with its look and feel of a murky savanna on the Carolina coast, or the Sunday hush on a muddy back street in a village of Galicia, where by only the smallest eyewink of the imagination one might see whisked to a lonesome crossroads hamlet in Arkansas these ramshackle, weather-bleached little houses, crookedly carpentered, set upon shrub less plots of clay where scrawny chickens fuss and peck.
I can look at the landscape around the Narew River and see similarities to the marshland in South Louisiana, the…