Second Republic of Poland’s borders rediscovered online

The project “Borders of II RP. A photographic journey through the Borders of the Second Republic of Poland” created by a journalist Tomasz Grzywaczewski and his wife Kaja Grzywaczewska is an online photo gallery presenting Polish borderlands from the time before WWII.

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“5,529 km of the border biting into Central Europe, separating the Second Polish Republic (II RP) from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary (for several months), Romania, the USSR, Latvia and Lithuania. A line crossing the Kashubian forests, Greater Poland lowlands, Silesian mines, Carpathian peaks, Volhynia gorges, Polesie swamps, Lithuanian lake districts and Masurian primaeval forests on the map. Carefully erased by the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, German and Soviet aggression, the Yalta Conference,” states the description provided by the gallery.

But the authors stressed that nature, landmarks or the areas themselves were not the most important elements of the borderlands of II RP.

“The most important thing in this photographic journey is not stone pillars, but living people. This story is about them – the borderland inhabitants, who formed the multinational mosaic of the Second Polish Republic. Adventurers, smugglers, writers, artists, explorers and dreamers. But most of all, it’s about ordinary people who, despite the atrocities of the 20th century, were trying to survive on the erased border,” they wrote.

Poland IN spoke with Mr Grzywaczewski, a creator of the website.

Adam Kielar, Poland IN: What made you create such a website?

Tomasz Grzywaczewski: I saw a map of the Second Republic of Poland and its borders. I realised that this country differed significantly from modern Poland, those borders do not comply with the current ones. I wanted to see and show how the borders of the II RP looked because they were varied from a social and cultural point of view. This is what I have also shown in my book titled “Erased border.”

Usually when we speak about the borders of II RP, we see the Eastern Borderlands

This is how we are educated in schools. When we hear “Borderlands” [”Kresy”] we think about Volhynia, Podolia or Vilnius Region. But this is only a fragment, there was Zaolzie, the peripheries of Greater Poland or Kashubia. Inhabitants of those regions often said that they live in the “Western Borderlands” and nowadays this expression is nearly forgotten. I come from Łódź, and before WWII łódzkie voivodeship was also a border one, with its small part. When looking at the modern map, it is hard to imagine that.

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Like Wieluń, the first target of Nazi Germans during WWII

Exactly, and why was this town chosen as a target? Because it was located near the border with the Third Reich.

The cultural differences in II RP borderlands must have been vast

They were. In the West, we had areas of the German borderlands: Silesia, Kashubia or the Greater Poland, where the post-German tradition remained. People after partitions commented: “Germans left.” Silesians and Kashubians have a very strong ethnic identity. These were highly industrialised areas.

People lived differently in the former Russian partition, in the East. It was particularly observable after WWII when people exiled from there moved to the West. Their customs were different and they could surprise others.

We also have to remember that there were other nations and ethnic groups in the II RP, such as Ukrainians, Belarusians, Ukrainian highlanders Lemkos and Boykos or Germans.

This variety, present in a way until today shows that the plan of the communists to create a new, unified Polish nation failed. Of course, in some ways, they succeeded, but the differences remained, showing how multinational the pre-WWII Poland was.

Have you found something unusual or completely forgotten while documenting old Poland’s borders?

For sure there were a number of such places or situations, but I would like to point out Zaolzie and Cieszyn Silesia, as an element of the Western Borderlands. Many Poles lived there, nowadays their descendants form a group of over ten thousand. At that time Marshall Józef Piłsudski was not popular there, many Poles blamed him for choosing some “marshlands on Polesia” where people did not speak Polish instead of them.

Today, while crossing the Freedom Bridge in Cieszyn, we can have a beer in a Czech hospoda, but we can also think about the fate of this place, inhabited by thousands of our compatriots.

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The website is available in four foreign languages – English, Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian. Who is your target audience?

We wanted to create a place online, broadening knowledge about the borderlands of II RP, and make it available for such institutions as embassies or culture and education facilities.

We also wanted to make it as accessible for foreigners as possible. So we chose English as “lingua franca” for the West and Russian for the East. I also invite you to visit the Polish version of the website.

The Ukrainian and Belarusian languages are the nods to those nations, which were elements of II RP. On the other hand, we did not want readers from Ukraine and Belarus to be forced to read the website in Russian. The story of the Republic of Poland is our common, not only Polish history.

From the formal side, the project is realised by the Podlaskie branch of the Association “Common Poland,” which helps Poles in the East. We also cooperate with various organisations there.

You encourage readers to share their stories about the Borderlands of II RP

That’s right, we encourage them to send photographs, both current and archive and tell us their stories associated with those lands. If they send us some photos, of course, we will credit them properly. We want our readers to help us develop the project.

Thank you for your time.


Tomasz Grzywaczewski is a journalist, an author of books, documentaries and TV programmes. He is also a member of the American “Explorers Club”. During his career, he was a correspondent from the armed conflicts in the Donbas, Turkish Kurdistan and Nagorno-Karabakh.

The project was co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland in the “Public Diplomacy 2020 – a new dimension” competition.