'I thought this evil was in the past but now it's returning'

Polish post-punk band rages against populism, hatred, and Holocaust denial

Trupa Trupa vocalist and songwriter Grzegorz Kwiatkowski — shaped by his ancestors’ imprisonment at Stutthof concentration camp — speaks truth to power through punk poetry

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Trupa Trupa (Courtesy)
    Trupa Trupa (Courtesy)
  • Trupa Trupa frontman Grzegorz Kwiatkowski. (Flickr/CC/SA-2.0/Paul Hudson)
    Trupa Trupa frontman Grzegorz Kwiatkowski. (Flickr/CC/SA-2.0/Paul Hudson)
  • Trupa Trupa performs in Chamonix Mont Blanc (Adam Furtak/Courtesy of Trupa Trupa)
    Trupa Trupa performs in Chamonix Mont Blanc (Adam Furtak/Courtesy of Trupa Trupa)

Popular Polish post-punk band Trupa Trupa rages against growing Polish nationalism, historical revisionism and international Holocaust denial.

Starting with the track “Never Forget” on the band’s ironically titled 2017 “Jolly New Songs” album, there are clear references to the Holocaust: We never we never forget/humiliation/we never we never forget/those ghetto deaths/they sound like a midnight choir.” Its latest album, “Of The Sun,” has an even more urgent and edgier tone than its predecessors. The song “Remainder” (Well it did not take place/it did not take place”) can be taken as a protest against Holocaust denial and historical revisionism.

Together for a decade, Trupa Trupa sings in English and has gained international attention in 2015 with “Headache,” its first album to be released by a British label. Since then, the Gdańsk-based quartet has released two more albums and toured Europe, Japan and the US, garnering a large fan base and accolades from music critics worldwide.

Trupa Trupa performs in Chamonix Mont Blanc (Adam Furtak/Courtesy of Trupa Trupa)

This is no three-chord, guitar driven Sex Pistols-esque punk band, rather, Trupa, Trupa’s instrumentals are nuanced layers. Likewise, the majority of the band’s lyrics are abstract, and if not obtuse, then at least as obscure as its name: Trupa is Polish for troupe, but it is also similar to the word trup, or dead body.

When pressed about the band’s underlying message in a recent phone conversation with The Times of Israel, vocalist, guitarist and co-songwriter Grzegorz Kwiatkowski said, “It’s about the atmosphere, it’s not direct. People fighting anti-Semitism, and the evil of the right wing can read into it in those terms. Other people may get something else from it,” he explained.

“But we definitely observe the dark side of human nature,” said Kwiatkowski.

Critics noted early on that Trupa Trupa was interested in making serious statements with its songs.

David Fricke of Rolling Stone noted that “you can get the sense that there is a lot of social protest, a lot of noise on behalf of the issues that matter” in Trupa Trupa’s music.

“Songs that feel like dreams, charged with spasms of noise, gut-punch bass lines and hypnotic melodies,” is how Greg Kot described Trupa Trupa’s psychedelic music for The Chicago Tribune.

Will Hodgkinson of The Times compared Trupa Trupa to “Sonic Youth, Radiohead and the kind of rainy, overcoat-wearing bands that Manchester was so good at producing in the early Eighties.”

Kwiatkowski is a published poet whose work confronts the Holocaust directly. He is the most outspoken of the group, which includes Tomek Pawluczuk, Wojtek Juchniewicz, and Rafal Wojczal, about the pressing cultural and political issues that have inspired many of Trupa Trupa’s songs.

Kwiatkowski and his colleagues are in their early 30s and collaborate equally, each bringing their skills and talents to the group. Pawluczuk is a graphic artist, Juchniewicz an artist and teacher, and Wojczal a photographer and documentary filmmaker. Kwiatkowski and Juchniewicz co-write lyrics, and the entire band is involved in composing the music.

“We are not a political band. I am the person who focuses on and speaks openly about genocide, Holocaust denial and populism. My friends are less interested in being in the limelight and more reticent about the exposure,” Kwiatkowski said.

Grzegorz Kwiatkowski (Renata Dąbrowska/Courtesy of Trupa Trupa)

Kwiatkowski’s personal interest in confronting Holocaust denial began as a boy as he observed his paternal grandfather Josef Kwiatkowski crying on visits to the Stutthof concentration camp museum near Gdańsk. The grandfather had been imprisoned by the Nazis as a young man for defying a ban on academic study.

Kwiatkowski’s great-aunt Martha Kwiatkowski, Josef’s elder sister, was also imprisoned at Stutthof. Her crime was abandoning a job the Nazi occupiers had forced her to work at.

“Martha was in the camp during the most brutal period, between 1944 and 1945. After the war my grandfather was able to act normally, but his sister was mentally ill,” Kwiatkowski said.

The poet-songwriter has been deeply affected by his relatives’ personal experiences, as well as by his hometown of Gdańsk’s suffering throughout history — including its having been the first city attacked by Germany at the outbreak of World War II.

“Understanding what happened to my family raised ethical questions for me. It was very formative. As a result, the phenomenon of evil is central to my life and to my poetry,” Kwiatkowski said.

Stutthof concentration identification card for Josef Kwiatkowski (Courtesy of Grzegorz Kwiatkowski)

Not only historical injustices have influenced Kwiatkowski. He was outraged and profoundly saddened by the assassination of liberal Gdańsk mayor Paweł Adamowicz in January 2019 by a criminal newly released from prison. It is believed by many that hate speech and political schisms within Polish society contributed to the killing.

Kwiatkowski, who is married and father to a baby boy, is also making a documentary film about actor, resistance fighter and Auschwitz survivor Albin (Alex) Ossowski.  Ossowski, who died in 2018, was from Starogard, a small town near Gdańsk. Kwiatkowski got to know him when both vacationed on the shores of a lake in the countryside. (Ossowski lived many years in London, but returned to his native Poland after his wife died in 2011.)

“His brother was murdered at Stutthof. He was afraid of Holocaust denial and the return of populist movements, and that is why he agreed to be in my documentary,” Kwiatkowski said.

Stutthof concentration identification card for Martha Kwiatkowski (Courtesy of Grzegorz Kwiatkowski)

Inspired by an account in “Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death” by Prof. Otto Dov Kulka, a Hebrew University Jewish history professor and Auschwitz survivor, Kwiatkowski went to a wooded area near Stutthof to shoot some footage. Kulka had written about hundreds of thousands of shoes — originally shipped to Stutthof from Auschwitz and other death camps for conversion to leather goods for the German army —  that had been dumped in the forest. Kwiatkowski was shocked to find that most of the shoes were still there, and that the Stutthof museum and Polish authorities were not interested in digging them all up and preserving them.

“We’re fighting with the bureaucrats to have these shoes on display. This is a tragic history that should be visible,” Kwiatkowski said.

The poet-songwriter said he was disturbed by how many WWII murderers were freed, and how not enough people empathize with the victims — Jewish and non-Jewish — of the Nazis and their collaborators.

“I used to think that this evil was all in the past, but now it is returning,” he said.

He abhors the resurgence in Poland, as well as in other European countries — both East and West — of populism and right wing movements. He is also no fan of US President Donald Trump.

“Politicians are using people and their dark instincts to win elections. The current zeitgeist is that people are proud of their evil inclinations,” Kwiatkowski said.

But the musician hasn’t lost hope. He still has confidence in Polish democracy, and emphasized the imperative to exercise one’s right to protest. “We can’t be afraid,” he said.

Kwiatkowski believes that education and communication are also key to a better future. He would like to see members of both the left and right speaking civilly to one another, and for both sides to take seriously the responsibilities that come with freedom.

“I don’t blame or attack, but I will always speak the truth and ask why,” he said.

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