Silent Traces and Deserted Places: Materiality and Silence on Poland’s Eastern Border

Available at

Joyce, A. (2021). Silent Traces and Deserted Places: Materiality and Silence on Poland’s Eastern Border. Ethnologia Polona42.


This article explores how silence is held and transmitted through the materiality of deserted and abandoned places along the Polish frontier; and the generative role that silencing plays in local practices of tolerance. The article discusses two specific sites of silence in a town on the eastern Polish border. Both sites were abandoned or destroyed at the same time and are part of a larger landscape of religious and ethnic conflict in the area. This history of conflict is managed through small everyday acts of forgetting, minimising, and silencing. Yet the two sites at the centre of this article demonstrate that silencing is an incomplete process. The fragmented materiality of the two places undercuts local silences, actively invoking experiences and memories of the Holocaust. The objects missing and present in these haunted places are too inconsequential to be considered ruins – one site is notable only because it is an empty field. Yet these sites and objects act as powerful silent traces. Traces, as Napolitano (2015) has observed, are knots of history with an ambiguous auratic presence, located between memory and forgetting, repression and amplification. Traces conjure that which we can and that which we cannot say. The deserted places of the town draw attention to the silences that conviviality is built upon. This article considers how paying close attention to the to specific silences concerning ‘unthinkable’ histories can reveal the power relations embedded in the process of history making and community building locally not just nationally (Trouillot 1995)


Poland, silence, neighbourliness, trace, the Holocaust, absences

V4 Net-Visegrád Anthropologists’ Network Workshop

Workshop “Nation-Building and the Dynamics of Silences, Memory and Forgettings”

Organised by Elena Soler and hosted by the Max Plank Institute for Social Anthropology and Charles University in Prague

October 15-16 2020

Paper: Silent Traces and Deserted Places: Materiality and Silence on Poland’s Eastern Border

Conference Panel: Knowing Historical Traces, Eliciting Possible Futures

Historical traces incite powerful forms of action and imagination in the present, enabling and hindering possible futures. These often physical remnants, which persist in the landscape, the environment, the depths of material collections or the body have become vehicles through which to fathom complex histories in order to open up new horizons of possibility. Traces, as Napolitano (2015) has observed, can be seen as knots of history with an ambiguous auratic presence, located between memory and forgetting, repression and amplification, metonymy and dissociation. They conjure that which we can and that which we cannot know.

In this panel, we explore how traces gain relevance as epistemic sources in exercises of political, cultural and historical transformation. We reflect on how engagements with spatial, material and bodily traces provide meaning to these emergent forms whilst revealing knowledge production practices in the making. How do traces become meaningful in order to articulate new visions of the past, present and future? How are they foregrounded as clues or evidence? How are they silenced? How might traces be individually and collectively experienced and performed as part of novel ethical commitments? Moreover, could traces offer us, as potential methodological tools in anthropology, a way to forge new alliances and unlock new horizons of interdisciplinarity?

We invite speakers with a range of ethnographic material, including anthropologies of history, space, and religion as well as museum and material culture, to consider how distinct epistemologies of the trace engage with debates about radical change and different possible futures.

EASA 2020

“When the orthodox went away”: histories of displacement and extermination on the Polish/Belarusian border


This article asserts that the current rise of right wing nationalism in Poland utilizes a set of nested historical erasures and silences. As Trouillot demonstrates, all history making is about selective acts of remembering and forgetting, and close attention to specific “unthinkable” histories reveals how power infuses the process of history making (1995:29). In the Polish case, the authorized historical record produces a homogeneous model of Polish identity by excluding specific histories of dispossession and destruction. Here, I focus on two places that relate to the horrors of Operation Vistula and the Holocaust. I begin by introducing these two silent spaces which trouble a small town on the eastern Polish border. The article moves first to explore how local people engage and evoke these silent spirits via the fragmented and intricate materiality of these haunted spaces and through acts of remembrance and forgetting. I argue that these practices are an attempt to negotiate a complex multi-ethnic history of conflict and cohesion. Yet they also reveal that some conflicts are more unsayable than others. Finally, the article demonstrates the different qualities of silence around these two historical atrocities. It draws on this difference to understand how local memory interacts with, and is undermined by, the historical narrative espoused by the current government.


Poland, Silence, Affective space, Materiality, The Holocaust, Operation Vistula

“Dying out”: conversion and the complexity of neighbourliness on the Polish Belarussian border


This paper addresses the way that religious affiliation and conversion shape ongoing tensions over historical periods of exile, resettlement, exodus and elimination in a small town on the Eastern Polish border. I explore how local Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian’s negotiations of a troubled past are materialized and managed through narrating family histories of conversion, In particular, this paper focuses on the compromises that enable mixed faith marriages and the conflicts that emerge over the burial of religious converts. In these negotiations, members of both congregations deploy the local model of “neighbourliness” and the ideal of the borderlander, to greater and lesser success. Day-to-day the practice of considered neighbourliness helps local people to acknowledge and minimize religious and ethnic difference. However, conversion brings the realms of religion and relatedness into conjunction in a risky manner: marriage may offer an opportunity to enhance neighbourly connections, but burial is an event where the tensions over histories of conflict become apparent disrupting neighbourly relations and practices.


Borderlands, Conversion, Family history, Poland, Christianity, Neighbourliness, Borders

Tenses: New Graduate Writing


Aimée Joyce, Katie Aston, William Tantam


‘Tenses’ is a publication that emerges from the experiences and reflections and topics of new researchers and their engagement with current anthropological debates on ‘time’. The collection includes a range of writings crystallising critiques and narratives explored in the Goldsmiths, University of London, Department of Anthropology Doctoral Writing Up Seminar, 2012-2103 under the supervision of Professor Victoria Goddard.

Plotting Belonging: interrogating insider and outsider status in faith research


Katie Aston, Helen Cornish, Aimée Joyce


Fifteen years ago an outpouring of new academic material asserted the value of being an insider in religious research. Conventional assumptions that linked objectivity with outsider status were challenged. This valuable burst of scholarship worked hard to critique the kind of research that preceded it, where faith or identity was seen to compromise research values, and undermine integrity and rigour. This special edition interrogates the legacy of the shift towards practitioner-research with religious-spiritual-magical-secular communities, particularly, but not only, when research examines broader social, historical and political concerns as well as the processes of faith and belief. It examines some more experiential dynamics of research to consider how the insider/outsider debate plays out from the inside of the research process.