Dr Anna Machcewicz

Curriculum Vitae

Anna Machcewicz is a historian and journalist. She received her PhD from the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences for the study, Rebellion: Strikes in the Tri-City in August 1980. Her first monograph was a biography of Kazimierz Moczarski, the Polish journalist and important member of the Polish anti-Nazi resistance movement who spent almost eleven years in a communist prison (including ten months with the Nazi perpetrator Juergen Stroop, which he described in his famous book, Conversations with an Executioner). Her other book, Prison letters of Zofia and Kazimierz Moczarski, was awarded by Polityka weekly in 2016. She worked in the Polish History Museum and Museum of the Warsaw Uprising as a coordinator and editor of many projects. She has also worked as a freelance journalist with the Polish public TV, the BBC and the newspapers: Polityka, Tygodnik Powszechny, and Newsweek.

Research project at the Kolleg

The prison system and labour camps that existed in Poland from 1944 to 1956, functioned as a place of post-war retribution, political and ideological repression, and mass-scale terror towards the population. These functions have already been researched. Instead, I would like to make a further step and focus on the dimension of everyday life in the prisons and labour camps: that is, the functioning of the individual in a closed prison microcosm.

A prison and labour camp world requires analyses of the behaviour of an individual in a situation of extreme oppression and his/her ability to accommodate and create rules and strategies for survival. In the accounts which I have already collected from former prisoners, one can find important statements such as, 'prison is not life,' and, 'in order to survive, you should forget what is outside,' or, 'you cannot struggle all the time.' I am going to analyse the mutual influence of individuals and groups within their cells, their rituals, and also look at how connections and ties between inmates and their overseers were forged.

Such an approach would make this narrative more balanced and manifold. I would like to analyse the problems of prison life from the perspective of individual choices and attitudes, and I seek to answer to what extent the latter could interfere with the system and change the way it functions. This approach is possible when we look at concrete roles and situations. For instance, the case study of a prison doctor who took care of inmates, who of course, was restricted by existing rules; or, the example of a prison commandant who diligently fought against analphabetism in the prison.

The arrest and conviction of a relative was never a neutral fact for the prisoner's family members. The latter were ostracized and often lost their jobs. They perceived this situation in various ways, often as a stigma. It is worth researching to what extent, at what expense, and by which means the family members supported their prisoner relatives. An inmate in a cell who was in a remote prison turned out to be an important point of reference and attachment for people living in distant parts of Poland.

The subject of the behaviour of prisoners in Poland should be compared with the same experience of people from other communist states in East Central Europe in the Stalinist period. This point of view would be reconstructed by means of case-studies of Syghiet (in Romania) and Wronki (in Poland), the towns in which the harshest prisons were located. I will analyse the various categories of convicts which were incarcerated there, the conditions of life in the prisons and the subsequent attitudes of the prisoners.

I hope this project will help us better understand this experience which shaped a considerable part of the post-war generation.

Main areas of research

  • The functioning of the Stalinist penal system in Poland and in East Central Europe
  • Everyday life in prisons
  • Political prisoners / prisoners of conscience