Poles are by far the largest immigrant group in Iceland, so it was high time someone made a movie about them. So Pawel Ziemilski did. The result is an hour-long documentary, not just about Iceland’s Polish diaspora, but also about those who stayed behind, and distance in the virtual age, when keeping in touch is easy, but loved ones can still be agonisingly far away. Listening in on real conversations, projecting Icelandic scenes on Polish walls, makes for both authenticity and originality.
From Poland via Skype
Equally as interesting is the story behind the Iceland Poles, related by the director after the premiere, fittingly from Poland via Skype. Just as Iceland has its own origin myth, that of Ingólfur and his columns, and Icelandic-Canadians have theirs, about drifting over Lake Winnipeg to found Gimli, so the Poles here have the makings of their own origin story.
Sometime in the late-70s, an Icelandic sailor by the name of Valdi found himself in Poland. This was the era of Prince Polo, when Iceland traded a lot with the Eastern Bloc, leading not only to the advent of the beloved chocolate in Iceland but also to more personal connections between Iceland and that region. On his trip, Valdi met a Polish woman and stayed in touch with her, but after receiving three letters she suddenly broke off.
Undeterred, Valdi returned to Warsaw and took a taxi to Stare Juchy, which he assumed to be a suburb of the capital, but it is actually a small village some 300 kilometres away. There, he found that his love interest was already married, but her sister, Jasia, was not. A courtship ensued between Valdi and Jasia and eventually the pair married and moved to Iceland. Geopolitics mingled with microhistory, and ten years later the Iron Curtain came down and the communist government in Poland collapsed.
This was a mixed blessing for the inhabitants of Stare Juchy, an industrial town whose communist-era factory was soon closed. Faced with mass unemployment, Jasia’s relatives eventually moved to Iceland, followed by other villagers. Eventually, around 400 people, or a third of the village’s inhabitants, moved to Iceland and none of them have returned to Poland. While this may be a small share of the roughly 20,000 Poles living in Iceland today, it is proportionately high for one small village. As you may know, Icelanders are fond of thinking in terms of ‘per capita.’
Polish style sausage
In Touch showcases some of the descendants of Jasia and Valdi, one of whom is an Icelandic policewoman. Iceland’s Polish community is finally making their presence felt culturally, with regular screenings of Polish films in Bíó Paradís and shops selling Polish foodstuffs exclusively. There is even Polish-style Icelandic sausage.
As Polish-Icelanders will continue to hand down their traditions from one generation to the next, it will become increasingly important to document where it all came from. And that is to be applauded.
In Touch was showing in Bíó Paradís in Polish with English subtitles.
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