Soft Spot for Nutjobs

Talk with Maciej Zaremba-Bielawski

I wrote this book out of frustration – ‘Hygienists. From the History of Eugenics’

6 minutes reading left

AGNIESZKA WÓJCIŃSKA: You’re best known as a journalist, yet Hygienists. From the History of Eugenics (De rena och de andra: om tvångssteriliseringar, rashygien och arvsynd.) reads like an academic treatise. Can you explain your choice of form?

MACIEJ ZAREMBA-BIELAWSKI: I would prefer to have written a historical investigation report along the lines of Małgorzata Szejnert’s book about Ellis Island (Wyspa klucz). That would have been perfect. But I lacked the journalistic skill to pull it off. For instance, how would I come up with appropriate genre scenes from the American prairie in the 1920s? There’s no fiction or journalism on the subject, just academic studies. The other problem was that I wanted to show a whole range of aspects present in the story, such as religion, misogyny, and legal issues. To describe all that through a made-up character would be taking things too far, in my opinion.

Maciej Zaremba-Bielawski, photo: Paul HansenDidn’t you find the challenge daunting?

I used to write a lot of long topical pieces. I wrote a big essay in the 80s on Solidarity and Catholicism, incorporating elements of analysis, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. The form was a natural choice for me.

What made you decide to write this book?

I wrote it out of frustration. I published a few articles on the topic in the Swedish press in 1997, with which I finally managed to provoke a great social debate and inquiry by the government after years of silence. That’s an interesting story by itself. If Princess Diana had died in a car crash just two weeks earlier, Sweden would not have passed its bill on retribution for victims of compulsory sterilisation. But I’ll get back to that. After the debate, which quickly subsided, the reaction of most Swedish historians and journalists was: “We’re really sorry it happened, but if Sweden had laws on sterilisation, then they must also have existed in other civilised countries.” Sweden obviously couldn’t have been the odd one out. I knew that it wasn’t true, because sterilisation laws were largely a Germanic, Scandinavian, Japanese, and to some extent, American phenomenon. Meanwhile, according to their interpretation, these laws were simply part of the zeitgeist. No one even attempted to determine how it could have happened in the first place. I wrote the book in order to help those who succumbed to this way of thinking understand what analysis means. Scandinavia was both the pioneer and the exception when it came to eugenics. There’s something in our genes that makes us prone to such extreme behaviour.

Maciej Zaremba Bielawski

Maciej Zaremba Bielawski was born in 1951 and emigrated to Sweden in 1969. He worked as a delivery boy, an orderly in a hospital, and a crane operator, and studied the history of ideas at university. His career as a journalist began with the Solidarity movement. He returned to Poland in 1981 with commissions for articles from several newspapers. Working as a truck driver, he delivered assistance to Poland during Martial Law and researched stories that he would then publish in Sweden under the pen name Zaremba.
He is now a renowned journalist at Sweden’s largest daily newspaper, “Dagens Nyheter”. In 1997, he broke the story of Sweden’s compulsory sterilisation programme, to which thousands of “undesirable” citizens were subjected in 1935–1976. His articles led to the payment of over 250 mln kronor in restitution. His pieces sparked a stormy debate on similar procedures conducted in other Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, and the USA. His articles have won numerous awards, including several Swedish Academy Prizes, the Swedish Great Journalist Award (for his series titled The Polish Plumber, published in Polish by Czarne, 2008), and the Journalist Club’s Golden Pen Award. Zaremba has received an honorary doctorate from Sweden’s oldest Law School at the University of Lund.
He is married to Agneta Pleijel, a Swedish writer and translator of the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert.
The Polish edition of De rena och de andra was published in 2011. (Higieniści. Z dziejów eugeniki, Czarne, transl. Wojciech Chudoba). Read the review by Kinga Dunin in Biweekly.

Why is it that no native Swedish journalist covered the topic before you?

I wasn’t the first, but I was the first to break through that wall of apathy. Perhaps it’s because I was more deeply shocked by the story. It struck me as a very surprising and extraordinary topic. Meanwhile, they were convinced that it was just how things were done in those days. It’s probably no coincidence that Maija Runcis, who studies the issue from an academic perspective, is from Latvia.

Does the fact that you weren’t born in Sweden but immigrated at the age of 18 give you an advantage?

Of course it does. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I’m grateful to Władysław Gomułka, but had I stayed here, I’d probably be a worse person in general, because I wouldn’t have the perspective that you gain when you emigrate, and I would probably never have become fascinated with Polish history or Swedish society. We’re fascinated by otherness in which there is something that needs to be understood. Everything seems obvious when you’re at home. I feel fortunate to have emigrated. After all these years in Sweden, I find myself surprised less and less, and I have to make an effort to consciously evoke that feeling of surprise.

What happened after the publication of your articles on eugenics?

The story went global as soon as Reuters picked it up. Within literally three days, Stockholm was teeming with journalists from all the major papers and TV networks in Europe and the United States. Even though I was very clear about the fact that nearly identical laws had been on the books in almost every Scandinavian country, from Finland to Iceland, the media showed up in Stockholm instead of Oslo or Helsinki.

Was it because the story had been broken by a Swedish journalist?

Yes, but that wasn’t the only reason. Sweden was a symbol of humanitarian modernity. It had the aura of the most progressive, democratic, and friendly country in the world. The myth was made up by Americans in the 1930s, and the Swedes weren’t about to protest. All of the sudden, a flaw appeared in that spotless myth. The story just wasn’t as sensational in Denmark and Finland.
Books on eugenics had already been published in Sweden, but none of them managed to spark any debate. It wasn’t until my paper, Dagens Nyheter, ran front page pieces on eugenics for three days in a row and Reuters picked up on it that the government finally decided to do something about it. I’m certain that if it weren’t for the reaction of the American, French, and German media, none of this would have happened. The government decided to nip it in the bud, knowing that otherwise the debate would drag on endlessly. Four days later, they admitted that the practice had been barbaric and they appointed a commission to research the subject for two years. Parliament passed a bill granting retribution to surviving victims of sterilisation. So far, Sweden remains the only Scandinavian country to have taken that step.

What does Lady Diana have to do with sterilisation in Sweden?

Stockholm was crawling with hundreds of journalists. They were preparing reports and looking for victims of sterilisation. And then, all of the sudden, everyone disappeared. Lady Diana had died. If she had been killed a week and a half earlier, on 23 August, the media invasion of Sweden would never have happened. And the topic of sterilisation would have disappeared, buried under the bigger story. Such is the frightening dynamic of the media.

Thanks to your articles, eugenics victims received restitution and, more importantly, were rehabilitated. This demonstrates the influence that journalists can wield in society.

I strongly believe that we do. I think the press has a special responsibility in naming social problems that are not being discussed due to a lack of vocabulary. I don’t mean that they have to make up words to describe these issues, but it is their job to fill concepts with content that reflects what’s going on.

Maciej Zaremba-Bielawski, Hygienists.
From the History of Eugenics
Czarne, Wołowiec 2011
Reading Hygienists. From the History of Eugenics
reminded me of Anna Bikont’s book about the Jedwabne Pogrom. I talked to her about how the story she had chosen ended up becoming a major subject in the press. The story of compulsory sterilisation in Sweden is a topic of similar caliber.

I wouldn’t say that eugenics is my career topic. The truth is less dramatic. I stumbled upon the story as an immigrant filled with wonder about his new country. I first heard about the compulsory sterilisation laws in the late 70s, about 10 years after I first arrived in Sweden. My first thought was, “This couldn’t possibly have happened.” But I read a book that touched upon the issue. It didn’t quote any data, but it cited laws that made your skin crawl. What more, they were practically identical to the German laws introduced more or less at the same time, and the so-called scientific foundation of this legislation was developed in the world’s first Institute for Racial Hygiene, a state-run facility in Stockholm, not some private institution. I was certain that nothing of the sort had happened in Poland. I was surprised to learn that journalists and academics had no idea of how exceptional this situation had been. Everyone was convinced that in historical terms, the Swedish eugenics program had not been anything out of the ordinary. Sweden is strongly future-oriented and remains wary of history, believing that there is nothing to be learned from it. These convictions were even stronger back then. Poland, a nation obsesses with history, is just the opposite: it has an overabundance of history. I started mentioning sterilisation in articles on other topics, but I didn’t get any reactions. So I decided I had to write a solid, monumental piece about. I just didn’t know how.

You did end up writing it in 1997.

Two events led me to write that article. In 1996, I stumbled upon a book about eugenics in Scandinavia, published in the United States: Eugenics and the Welfare State. It was an academic title written by professors from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. Not only had it never been reviewed in Sweden, there wasn’t a single copy to be found in the entire country. The authors did not attempt to publicise their findings. They associated eugenics with the welfare state, which was a highly controversial approach. When I would tell my friends that sterilisation was part of the social-democratic project, they would reply, “No, it was the doctors who got caught up in Nazism.” It was at that time that I discovered one more interesting fact. I called one of the authors to ask why the book had never been promoted in Sweden and why there was no entry for eugenics in the Nationalencyklopedin. He told me that the entry had been written, but was later rejected. Being a calm person, he decided not to make a fuss over it. Besides, he had to answer to his university, which in turn had to answer to its board, and the board answered to the ruling party. He mentioned that there was a historian in Sweden who was writing an empirical doctoral dissertation on the subject and had access to the files of those who had been sterilised.

That historian was Maija Runcis, whom you cite extensively in the book?

When I met her, she had not yet realised how great a time-bomb she was sitting on. I remember talking to her in a café by the water. When she told me what she had discovered, I jumped up like a kernel in a corn popper. That changed everything: we knew the details, we knew what had happened to those women, we had extraordinary quotes from the files, detailing the reasons behind the sterilisation verdicts. I thought to myself, “Well, now I know how to write this.”

You then proceeded to write articles on the topic and conduct interviews with the victims?

Two of my articles, written in a similar style as my book, were published in “Dagens Nyheter” in two consecutive issues. The next day’s paper featured an interview conducted by a different reporter with a woman who had been sterilised at the age of 15. She had been deemed retarded due to poor eyesight and the reading and writing problems that stemmed from it. The interview included a picture of the woman, a typical Swedish blonde, sitting in a typical Swedish kitchen. Her story touched a raw nerve with the readers.

But in the book you mention that you talked to sterilisation victims as well. Why didn’t you publish those interviews? Why were they not included in Hygienists?

That was stupid of me. It would have been better to do so. But what I wanted most was to understand the ideological foundation of the sterilisation campaign, and to figure out where eugenics came from. How did it end up in such a progressive place as Scandinavia? It was an intellectual puzzle, a challenge. I’m a historian of ideas by education, and that’s what I focused on. It wasn’t about shocking the public opinion with stories about the victims, but to show that things like this had happened in the very heart of the welfare state, whose program, after all, is to protect the weakest. This paradox is what interested me the most. The accounts of the sterilised were later published by other journalists.

Tell us about your encounters with the victims of sterilisation.

It was psychologically horrifying. I was the first person whom they told what had happened. The responsibility was enormous. The subject had always been shrouded in shame, to the extent that husbands sometimes wouldn’t know why their wives were infertile. There was a lot of crying during these talks, and I broke down in tears a few times myself. It was very difficult. Their stories stayed with me afterwards. I wrote a series on mobbing in the workplace some time ago. I found myself in a similar situation. I was the first person whom my interviewees had trusted with their stories. This was a year and a half ago, and they still call me to cry and vent their emotions. I can’t tell them, “Look, I don’t have time for this.” Serving as a quasi-therapist is the price we pay for the trust of our interviewees.

You can’t just abandon them after a article like that, can you?

I still think reporters are hyenas, but we do have our limits. If it takes me a week to convince someone to talk to me and then that person bares their soul to me, and I want to write an article about it, then I have to take some responsibility for the consequences.

So what are your limits?

One of the people I interviewed for my piece on mobbing believed that since I wrote about her story once, I should do it again and keep doing it until the Swedish government agreed to pay her restitution. She was disappointed that I couldn’t and wouldn’t do it, and we had a few tense exchanges on the issue. I don’t write commission pieces for my interviewees.

Those were difficult topics.

Writing about mobbing took an enormous toll on me. I became depressed, not unlike the victims of mobbing, who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and experience a sense of complete helplessness. Their powerlessness was contagious. But the article was a success, and the paper turned it into a series. It caught the attention of politicians, so perhaps it’ll lead to some changes in the future.

The Polish Plumber and other stories
from Sweden
How do you cope with the emotional burden that comes with writing about topics such as these?

I don’t have a therapist, but I do have a wife, who is extraordinarily smart and tolerant, and with whom I share some of these emotions. It gets me through the day. Besides, I’m really a superficial, shallow, and thoughtless person, so I find it easy to just shrug off any feelings of excessive responsibility. I’m not the coquettish type. Oscar Wilde said that only the shallow know themselves. A certain wise woman once told me: “Maciuś, you’re not omnipotent: you can’t take care of everything, not everything is your fault, and not everything depends on you, so don’t worry so much.”

Your writing shows how committed you are to hunting down those who smugly stigmatise others for being different, be they refugees, or social workers who do more than their share of work, or Polish or Latvian plumbers who take jobs alongside Swedish workers. Where do you get this sense of obligation?

I don’t know. I don’t even want to answer that question, because I don’t know if I really need to know what it is that drives me. A theologian once wisely said that God gives everyone a single sentence. The purpose of life is to find out what that one sentence says.

Yet while reading The Polish Plumber and now Hygienists, I had the impression that there is a certain mission or purpose to your work as a journalist.

It’s probably fate. I’m convinced that something happened in my childhood, something I no longer remember, that sends me into a blind rage whenever I see a poor soul mistreated in the name of noble ideals. It’s what gets me going. I’m not as horrified by normal brutality, but I get worked up about cold brutality disguised as humanitarianism. If I were to go to a psychoanalyst (which I will never do) to figure myself out, I would stop chasing these specters.

Do you believe that writers are led by their own personal dybbuks?

They’re worth following for the good articles they help us write. That’s why I believe that therapy is a very unhealthy choice for journalists and writers.

Your book came out in Sweden in 1999. The much-belated Polish edition has just been published. Do you think Poles need this book?

Everyone needs this book. It describes a certain paradox present in modernity and progressive ideologies, and it explains the phenomenon of how science or pseudo-science can impose certain ways of thinking on us. In order to understand history, you have to remember that the belief that intelligence and even morality are hereditary, and the conviction that the immoral and stupid reproduce faster than others, were just as common and respected as the modern belief that the climate is getting hotter and that we are to blame for it. We don’t know if it’s true. It seems probable, but it could turn out to be false and that what we’re seeing is a natural shift in the climate. This applies to developed nations, as I’m sure no one in Sudan cares about global warming, assuming they’ve even heard about it. And just as it was with eugenics, the ones who are most convinced are those who regard themselves as responsible people — those on the left — while conservatives remain skeptical about the whole issue. I’m not saying either side is right. I personally believe that if there is as any chance that we may be responsible for climate change, then something must be done about it. But I consider it to be a hypothesis, just like eugenics was.

Having read your book, I get the impression that you want to tell us Poles that this could have happened here, too. We were saved by providence or by the fact that we were busy with something else at the time.

Your interpretation of the book is spot on. Poland enjoyed the moral fortune of being a backwards at that particular moment in time. There were other key elements as well, such as the important role of the Catholic Church. But I’ve seen a resurgence of ideas resembling eugenics in Sweden, such as the belief, motivated in part by scientific and economic reasons, that citizens must answer to society about their heath. Some have been saying that the obese only have themselves to blame for their heart problems, and ask why the public health budget has to foot the bill for their overeating. It’s a certain frame of mind that’s coming back. Not to mention prenatal diagnosis. Articles recently published in the Swedish press revealed that women who decided to carry their babies to term despite adverse prenatal diagnoses were mistreated in hospitals.

Your exposés seem different from those written by Polish reporters. Svensson, the Swedish “Smith”, is a stock character that makes frequent appearances in your stories.

I try to tell interesting stories, but I include a variety of hypothesis or ideas in an attempt to understand the phenomena I report on. I recently wrote a series of pieces on the Swedish school system, which is currently going through a deep crisis. You could say, with some exaggeration, that it’s a doctoral dissertation split into five articles and sprinkled with theatre skits. I don’t identify with the Polish school of journalism as much as I used to, back when I considered it the pinnacle of its genre. Polish journalism almost always requires a main character. I hardly ever use main characters, or I’ll choose a collective character, because that’s the only way to tell the story. I would feel like I was stretching the truth if I were to tell my stories through two or three people. The form I employ matches what I try to do. My exposés are more editorial and structured. But sometimes reporting needs an editorial element. When I stack up a series of contradicting facts, I realise that the reader is going to wonder, “What is he trying to say?”. That is the right time for a change of tone, for me to say that I have my own hypothesis, and that we’ll see if it turns out to be correct. That’s when I use my own voice. In my opinion, that even adds credibility to the article because the reader can be certain that I’m talking about a hypothesis instead of trying to sneak my opinions into the article. My dream is to write a piece in the style of Hanna Krall, to tell the story of a single person. I have a few such stories stashed away, but I still need to grow as a journalist.

You dedicate your book to the memory of your father, Oskar Bielawski. He was one of the pioneers responsible for the humanisation of psychiatry before World War II. Is that why you chose this topic?

I believe he has a greater subconscious effect on my work as a journalist than I think. It’s very hard to describe. He talked a lot about how being mentally ill is just one version of our personality, not some different sort of person. He believed that the key to treating the mentally ill lay in their home environments and the treatment they experienced. There was sympathy and understanding in his approach. As a young man, I made some stupid mistakes working as an orderly in a mental hospital. For instance, I decided that psychopaths weren’t dangerous as long as you knew the right way to approach them. One of them almost strangled me. Thanks to my dad’s stories, I’ve always had a soft spot for nutjobs.

Your father stayed in Poland when you emigrated to Sweden with your mother in 1969. How did that happen?

My father was 78 years old at the time. He was 30 years older than my mother. He was a respected, professionally active doctor in Poland. Besides, he was a Polish patriot and he didn’t accept the fact that Gomułka had the support of the masses. Antisemitism and the events of March ‘68 were just freak events in communism, my father believed. He was convinced it would pass, even though there was no evidence that it would. He just didn’t want Poland to be like that, so he said that we should stay, that everything was going to change. I think he was deluding himself that we would come back. He died four years after we left.

You mother decided to leave the country.

She had gone through horrible events during the war. She survived the Warsaw Uprising, escapes from the ghetto, and many other experiences that she wouldn’t talk to me about. She survived under a false name, with Aryan papers. It wasn’t until December 1968 that I learned she was Jewish. When that wave of antisemitism came back and the Security Service found out about her ethnicity, something broke in her. She resolved that her children would not have to grow up in that world, and that was that. She was a very energetic person. She took me, my two younger brothers, and my grandmother, and we left. I understand exactly what she was going through. The situation was like something out of a Greek tragedy. Everyone had their own opinion, and there was no common ground to be found. Our family is still together, but a lot of bad blood simmers on both sides.

Do you consider yourself Polish, a Polish Jew, Jewish, or Swedish?

Asked what time was, St. Augustine replied that he knew what it was before they asked him, but as soon as he heard the question, he no longer new the answer. I don’t think anyone actually walks around feeling an identity. It comes out whenever it is provoked or challenged. I don’t have the slightest problem with that. I consider myself 100% Polish, 100% Swedish, and in special circumstances, 100% Jewish, even though I know little about Jewish culture and practices. These three identities are something I can’t and don’t feel the need to escape. I just don’t want to be put in situations where I’m forced to choose between them. I feel torn when I hear, for instance, some naïve American accusing Poles of sucking antisemitism with their mother’s milk, and I believe he has no idea what he’s talking about, but on the other hand, I feel that there might be some truth to it.

Polish readers know your work in translation from Swedish. How did you manage to become so fluent in the language?

Eighteen is he best age to do what I did. You have your native language down pat, and you’re still young enough to absorb a new one. Swedish is difficult from the phonetic standpoint, but it’s simple in terms of grammar. I’ve always like playing around with language. Language is a kind of cosmos: not just different words, but different connections between them. The world looks different when filtered through the Polish language than it does through Swedish. Feelings have a slightly different tone, and red isn’t quite the same colour.

How is writing in Swedish going for you?

It doesn’t come easily. But constructing sentences is the main obstacle. I keep telling myself that it makes for better writing. That when you chisel granite, you get better quality than you would sculpting clay. If Swedish were my native language, I would feel more comfortable writing in it, but I would probably write more conventionally. This way, I’m constantly forced to look for new words, phrases, and usage.

You have become one of Sweden’s leading reporters, and you target a large number of issues in your pieces: abuses by county councils and trade unions, improprieties involving the work of social workers, and now the school system. What do Swedes think of you?

There have been a number of attempts to ostracise me. My critics wrote that I showed up and carved out a niche for myself, where I sit and criticise Swedish society. But people didn’t fall for that, and despite my weird name, I’m seen as a normal Swedish reporter whom they sometimes praise: “He has a better view of us, because he’s not from here.” Besides, I’m not the only one. Sweden has undergone an enormous transformation over the past 40 years, and there are at least a hundred oddly-named journalists who write in flawless Swedish. I’m positively surprised by the fact that Swedes are so tolerant of my work. I imagine that if a Chinese person were to write this way about Poland, he would get his passport revoked.

Investigative journalism is currently enjoying great popularity in Poland. Do you see similar tendencies in Sweden?

Poland is a country that is shedding its skin like a snake. The story of Poland’s systemic transformation is very dramatic, and society thus has an enormous need for self-understanding. Journalism is the best solution. What a historian would do in 30 years, a reporter will do on the fly. This surge is only getting started in Sweden. The reasons are similar: there has been a shift in our self-awareness. We are beginning to ask ourselves the question: “Who are we?”, “What does it mean to be Swedish?”. The world has changed. The cold war is over. What does our neutrality mean now? We’re not the leading country we once were, and society is growing increasingly multicultural. There are many topics to be discussed, and this is where journalism steps in, the kind of journalism that doesn’t just give you the news, the “who? where? why? and when?”, but attempts to answer the question: “Why?”. With the flood of information and badly-written sentences, on Twitter for instance, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find articles in which someone has made an effort to tell a compelling story. People are hungry for stories, they’re hungry for journalism. That’s probably why the benefits at my newspaper are better than ever.

translated by Arthur Barys