A Barrel in Czerniejów
How a tragedy in rural Poland became emblematic of the country’s Women's Rights struggle.
Be advised: This story includes descriptions of murder, domestic and sexual violence.
Any earnings from this story will be donated to Aborcyjny Dream Team, a Polish non-profit helping women access abortion in defiance of the country’s inhumane laws.
In August 2003, two young girls living in Czerniejów, a village in Eastern Poland are asked by their grandma to empty out a barrel of cabbage that had begun to stink. The girls roll out the barrel to the far end of the field behind their home. Instead of rotten cabbage, they find 5 dead newborns.
The gruesome discovery prompted a media storm in the country. The small village has already seen a dead newborn left on the steps of the local church, making a lot of people suspect that someone in the village was an unregistered midwife. To add to the confusion, the barrel was found in the home of a well-regarded, well-off family.
Andrzej and Jolanta K (censored to protect the privacy of their children) ran the village shop, living in one of the fancier houses in the otherwise mostly low-income community. The neighbours said they didn’t see anything suspicious. A good Catholic family. Two daughters and two sons. In Church every week. Somebody must’ve left the barrel in their home.
However, the Police would soon discover that Jolanta left for the nearby city of Lublin, to “settle a debt” a few days before the gruesome discovery. She was only found about a week later after what could be considered a manhunt by Polish standards. Upon being questioned by the police, she revealed that the children in the barrel were her and her husband’s.
Jolanta said that she killed the newborns out of fear. Andrzej would repeatedly rape her, however, he didn’t want more children. Fearing for her life, Jolanta would give birth in the bathtub, drown the newborns and hide them deep in the freezer. This started when the couple was living in Lublin and continued when the couple moved back to Czerniejów in 1998.
Andrzej would deny the allegations made by his wife, and denied knowledge of the pregnancies, attributing his ignorance to Jolanta’s obesity. As the trial continued for 7 years, it became obvious that he knew more than he was letting on, however, the court only convicted him to 8 years in prison for inciting the murder of the first newborn.
Jolanta was sentenced to 25 years in prison. The court decided that Andrzej’s influence and violence weren’t the primary reason for the murders, instead ruling that Jolanta “felt a sense of joy when pregnant, but couldn’t handle the consequences of actually giving birth to a child.”
The ruling was lambasted by women’s rights organizations in Poland, however, to no avail. Jolanta is still in prison to this day. Andrzej has been free for over 2 years now.
To a lot of people in Poland, the tragedy was always an abstract one. A tabloid sensation from Bible-belt-like Eastern Poland. To many, it was emblematic of “Eastern rednecks being Eastern rednecks.” It was always easy to dismiss as a one-off, an anomaly from a place where these anomalies always seem to happen. “Lublin Man” was often the Polish equivalent of “Florida Man”, after all.
For me and my family, it was never quite that simple. My Great-Grandparents lived in Czerniejów, and I’d visit them every summer, buying ice cream in the couple’s store. I’d play hide-and-seek a few lots down from the field where the barrel was emptied. I’ve probably said hi to the K kids on a couple of occasions. While many people forgot about the barrels or turned it into gruesome anecdotes, I remember it for what it was. A testament to a country that hates women.
“Wypierdalać” — “Get the fuck out.”
Now, the Constitutional Court — illicitly stacked by Law and Justice, the ruling populist right-wing party — has ruled that virtually all abortion is illegal in Poland. The only bases for abortion that remain in Poland, are if the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life directly, or if the fetus is a result of rape.
Prior to this ruling, an additional clause was available, wherein should prenatal screenings show a high likelihood of a child being born with an incurable, debilitating disease, women could get an abortion until the 22nd week.
This wasn’t always a guarantee, either. Medical professionals in Poland were permitted to call on a morality clause to avoid performing abortions, selling morning-after pills. A few years back, the clause was extended so that they wouldn’t even have to point the women to a hospital that would perform an abortion, even if it was completely legal under the current rules.
The ban has led to the largest civil rights protests in Poland since 1989. Hundreds of thousands of men and women marched all over the country with one unifying cry. “Wypierdalać” — “Get the Fuck Out.” Enough was enough. The “compromise” of the previous law was to be no more. Women demanded their rights to be equalled with the rest of the EU. Yet, Law and Justice is yet to budge on the issue, calling protesters leftists, with some suggestions of foreign involvement.
A Hell for Women
Despite all this, it’s estimated that between 100 to 200 thousand Polish women terminate their pregnancies every year. Usually, abroad. Poland is the only country in EU save for Malta to not offer abortion on demand in the first trimester, meaning that well-off women with the right knowledge can easily travel to Germany, Czech Republic or Slovakia to terminate their pregnancies… for a price.
This means that the women affected by the ban are women who do not have the financial means to pay the rather hefty price of a trip to another country and a clinic visit there. This is why tragedies like the one in Czerniejów happen, far more often than you would think.
A cursory google search has revealed that similar tragedies have happened all around Poland. One article presented 10 eerily similar cases. Women who weren’t ready to have a child. Abusive partners. Horrifying desperation.
Of course, a lack of access to abortion for women who can’t afford it isn’t the only factor contributing to the prevalence of infanticide in Poland. Over the years, right-wing parties along with the Catholic church have waged a war on sexual education in schools, deeming it demoralizing and unhealthy for children. Currently, the government is considering introducing a law that would punish educators discussing LGBTQ+ issues, as well as “promoting sexual activity.”
Mind you, the age of consent in Poland is 15.
On top of that, morning-after pills are prescription-only. Access to OBGYNs through the public healthcare is limited anyway, getting to one last-minute is once again, a rich man’s game.
And finally, the Polish government offers virtually no support for victims of spousal abuse. Recently, president Andrzej Duda pardoned a convicted pedophile at the behest of his wife and daughter.
The man abused his daughter repeatedly, however, the women were forced to request the pardon to remove his restraining order. They were unable to fend for themselves, as he was the only breadmaker in the family.
Despite a fund for victims being created by the Ministry of Justice, most of its funds were sent to municipalities that declared themselves “LGBT-free zones”, to make up for the money they lost when the EU cut funding. The remainder was spread across a multitude of fundamentalist Christian organizations, serving as pro-life and anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda machines.
The new ruling has more than guaranteed that these tragedies will keep happening, as our fascist ruling class hurls us back into the Dark Ages. The protests have already somewhat died down. It’s hard to keep going for 3 weeks, especially when neo-nazi groups are making the protests their hunting grounds. The next election is in three years, and our only hope, unless a miracle happens, is to unseat Law and Justice and appoint people who will respect women. If they don’t use their unprecedented parliamentary majority to topple the democratic order beforehand, that is.
Until then, we’re bound to suffer from the strictest abortion laws in the EU. A lack of sex-ed will create a generation that won’t know a thing about their identity, sexuality or safe sex. Now, with the right-wing regrouping to challenge the rape clause, it’s very possible that abortion will soon be virtually impossible in Poland.
All of this makes it really hard to judge Jolanta, or any of the other women whose lives have led them to that particular point. Did they know that they had options? Did they have access to them? What would happen if they left their abusive partners? I can imagine, that in Jolanta’s mind, her actions were her only way of surviving.
The tragedy in Czerniejów was revealed when I was 11 years old. Things seemed simple back then, a crazy woman killed her newborns. An open-and-shut case in a child’s mind.
Now, 17 years later I find myself understanding what really was revealed in that barrel — the terrifying reality of a country that hates women.
If you want to help women in Poland access safe abortion, regardless of their financial status, you can read more about how you can help on Aborcyjny Dream Team’s website.