In traditionally ultra-Catholic Poland, currently in the grip of populist nationalists, a very small community of Muslims has survived since the 14th century – the Lipka Tatars, or Lithuanian Tatars (Lipka means Lithuania in Tatar).
These Horsemen who joined the Polish Lithuanian commonwealth as refugees after the fall of the Mongolian Empire were famed as skilled warriors and went on to receive land and noble status. Tatar cavalry divisions, with the crescent moon sewn onto their uniforms, fought for Poland in numerous wars, first against the Ottoman empire, in contrast to its stereotyped classification as a “religious war”, and then, more recently, in the First and Second World Wars.
Today most of them have moved to the cities but in their original villages in eastern Podlasie, an ancient crossroads of cultures and religions, there are still Tatar families living in wooden homes located near the mosque.
Recently this area became the epicentre of the migration crisis on the border between Poland and Belarus, where thousands of migrants massed along the frontiers in a desperate attempt to enter Europe. Just a few kilometres from the barbed wire that marks the eastern edge of the European Union, inhabitants of Kruszyniany and Bohoniki, two villages that epitomize the Tatar minority, showed their humanity in the face of this tragedy. Today the ancient wooden mosque takes in the few cold and hungry migrants that do manage to cross the border, while in its cemetery are buried those refugees that died of thirst and hunger in the forest, their tombs pointing towards Mecca.