This is the mysterious story of one of the most notorious whisperer-witches in Eastern Poland. In a battle between society’s God and the devil, the whisperers fill up their own space of ritual, healing and prayer. Journalist Ada Petriczko went on a journey through Poland to discover their unique role in their community. She found a whisperer who would actually talk to her.
To the moon
“There’s always a queue here,” the woman, next to whom we sit, sighs. Blank gaze, bright orange dress. She has been waiting for two hours.
Outside the house of Wiera “Wala” Popławska, the most notorious whisperer in this part of Poland, cars are parked with license plates from across the country. People sit in the waiting room for hours—none seems impatient, but rather resigned. Because, as they say, no one comes here out of joy.
“I traveled with children and my seriously ill father. It’s my third time. Don’t know yet if it helped, but when in distress, anyone would fly to the moon.”
“You don’t have to be Orthodox, right? She prays in her way and we pray in ours?”
“Just listen carefully and take notes. Like at the doctor’s. Because once you come out, your mind will go blank.”
“90 years old and she goes on from morning to evening. I guess this proves some kind of power?”
Podlasie, a region tucked at the eastern border of Poland, is full of contradictions. Over the past years, its capital city, Białystok, became an alt-right incubator. In 2016, the members of the fundamentalist ONR organization marched its streets chanting: “Nationalism is our way” and “Great Catholic Poland.” A few years later, swastikas appeared on the walls of the local synagogue and nationalists attacked the participants of the city’s first equality march. But once you travel an hour south, the countryside around Hajnówka is a crossroads of languages and dialects, unprecedented elsewhere in Poland. Catholics, Baptists, Muslims and Orthodox Christians live here as neighbors.
Among them are people like Wala Popławska, who heal with prayer. Usually women, Orthodox and with Belarusian roots, they pray in the so-called old church language. The locals call them “whisperers” or simply “grandmas” or sometimes “witches.” While the Orthodox Church accuses them of dealing with the devil, they answer: “We just pray.”
My fear comes from the Lord
“All kinds of people come. You don’t even know how many of them spent the night at my house, before heading to the whisperer the next day,” Olga Skoworodko laughs. Together with husband Anatol, a retired Baptist pastor, she runs a guesthouse in Dubicze Cerkiewne, 12 kilometers from the house of Wala Popławska.
“One guest recounted later that when she was waiting in Orla, some woman shouted from the street: ‘Are you people not afraid of God? You take the sin on your soul!’ Myself, I don’t judge but I would never go. My fear comes from the Lord. He opposes the arrogant and graces the humble. If he wishes, he’ll send me health. He already cures us every day. It’s a miracle that we wake up. It’s a miracle that our wounds heal. So if you get sick, you just have to bear it. And it’s interesting that these people whisper. When we gather in the church and someone asks for prayer because he is ill, we pray at the top of our voices. ‘Amen!’ must be loud to confirm to God. But when she whispers, who knows what she’s really saying.”
Over my dead body
Opaka Duża, one of the last villages before the Belarusian border. We do not know the exact address, only the name, but in this region it is enough. “Over my dead body,” whisperer Eugenia shows us the door. “I don’t talk to the media anymore. Oh no, thank you very much. Don’t want to be famous.”
The devil is intelligent
Toilet seat at the crossroads
The whisperer Anna Bondaruk receives us on a bench in front of her house in Rutka. While conducting a ritual, she recalls all those whom Holy Mary helped through her, as she claims. But she refuses to be recorded:
“So many of you have already been here. People arrive, take pictures, don’t ask for permission. A car parks by my house and someone is filming. Foolishness.”
The situation continually repeated. None of the whispers recommended to us by locals in the Hajnówka-Bielsk Podlaski-Białystok triangle wanted to be featured. Małgorzata Anna Charyton, a medical anthropologist who has researched whispering for over 10 years, explains: “Most of them had encounters with journalists and unfortunately they were usually negative.
Backward, exotic and sinister is how tabloids and local media like to portray them. A 2009 report from the Fakt tabloid titled “We Met a Witch” reads that Paraskiewa Artemiuk is a “witch” who “undoes the charms” and Anna Bondaruk “has been casting spells” for 50 years. Reporting on an incident that shocked Podlasie, Gazeta Współczesna wondered: “Did the priest die because of whisperers?”
It was a late evening in May 2009, when Father Tomasz Lewczuk and his family were returning from Slovakia by car. On the road a few kilometers from home, their car skidded and hit a roadside tree. It turned out that the priest was trying to overtake a toilet seat that someone had put on the road. Who and why, is still unknown.
“Was it somebody’s thoughtlessness, an ordinary human stupidity or a battle between the forces of good and evil? The priest’s relatives have no doubt: “His death was no accident. It is a consequence of pagan superstitions,” reported Gazeta Współczesna.
Suspicions fell on the whisperers because the toilet seat was placed at the crossroads – a symbolic spot in folk culture. This is where the material and spiritual worlds meet and human prayers are better heard.
“They say that a woman wanted her husband to quit drinking. So she went to a whisperer who advised her to put the toilet seat with a bottle of vodka inside at the crossroads,” claimed a man whom Współczesna reporters met outside a Hajnówka shop.
When it was established that the toilet seat came from an uninhibited property in Istok, in dispute between a brother and two sisters, Kurier Poranny quoted the man saying: “The toilet was grabbed by my sisters. A whisperer, whom they often visit, advised them to do so. They want to take revenge on me. Casting spells out of jealousy because I made it big in life.”
Must be clean
According to folk legends, when young Jesus Christ was teaching doctors at the temple, he passed on to them the gift of healing and the secret texts used today by the whisperers. It is impossible to establish when the tradition really emerged because it was transmitted orally and few sources have survived. The oldest document mentioning the term “whisperer” is the Polish language dictionary from 1859. However Małgorzata Charyton suspects that the tradition itself has been going on for centuries.
A decade ago, most villages in the region had their own whisperer. Today, only a dozen or so still practice. Most are over 70 years old.
“Usually, these are women who are already “clean”. Menstruation is traditionally associated with the time of impurity and healing is seen as a cleansing process,”Charyton explains. “Besides, older women no longer need to pay attention to children and work hard on the farm. They have time for others. Communities tend to choose for this role people who are trustworthy. They are empathic, warm, ingenuous. The grandma type. They actually often referred to me as “dzieciatoczko” which means “baby.”
Today people resort to visiting whispers mainly in hopeless situations because, as they say, “it won’t hurt, but may help.” Unlike before the war, when medical doctors were practically absent from the countryside. Folk healers, such as midwives, herbalists and whisperers, dealt with all kinds of afflictions – from flu to broken hearts.
Among the most commonly diagnosed folk diseases today, Charyton lists the wind (akin to a draft), fear (a sudden, shocking experience), charm (a destructive gaze associated with the evil eye), rose (a skin disease) and, of course, the knot – so popular that it even gained a Latin name Pilica polonica. The knot combines several dozens of ailments – such as pain, paralysis and tumours – but its characteristic symptom is tangled hair. The longest preserved knot comes from the 19th century and is 1,5 meters long. In folk culture, it was believed that the knot comes from the nether world and inhabits a human body in the form of a being called gościec (a word akin to “a guest”). Most of the time, he is an indifferent guest, but every so often he gets angry, which results in an illness. It is these beings-illnesses that some whisperers address – alongside God, Christ, Holy Mary and other saints. Not necessarily in a whisper.
“They often stress out that healing prayers should be said aloud, that there’s nothing to hide since these are holy words,” Charyton argues “although I once heard from a respected grandpa that the texts, which are used to liberate a patient from a charm, i.e. to “undo”, should actually be spoken in low voice. Because if the patient wants to use them against his enemy, all they have to do is to “invert” their meaning again.
Whisperers don’t expect to be paid for the service, but most people want to express their gratitude.
“In the past, they would bring eggs, flour, whatever they had. Today it is acceptable to leave a chocolate or a coin for a candle in the church or, in rare cases, a small banknote,” Charyton explains “Healers won’t touch the money. They believe that they received a gift from God, which is not for themselves but for the people. One shouldn’t be paid for it, keep it to oneself, nor take it to the grave.
“It’s not a gift, it’s a curse,” Andrzej Pawluczuk, the grandson of Fiedia Pawluczuk, the famous healer from Czeremcha, is slightly irritated. “Imagine that people come to you every day, for eight hours, to talk about their misfortunes and you can’t turn down anyone. Would you like that?”
Pawluczuk was the only one among the whisperers’ relatives who agreed to talk to us. “My grandfather hardly saw a thing, which is why his other senses were sharpened. He began to help at home, in Lady Village. Healed one person, then another, even a cow and a horse. News spread and soon entire families would visit him, just like Mrs. Wala. The problem was that under Communism, a group of 15 people was considered to be a public gathering, so police kept on bothering grandpa. He ran away to Czeremcha. People were so grateful that they built a chapel for him and then found him anyway. He had visitors every day, until his death.”
According to local beliefs, if a whisperer doesn’t pass on the gift to someone in the community—usually it is a family member—she or he cannot die.
“There was a woman once who knew all too well what it meant to help others and refused to put this burden on anyone. She was in agony for days. Finally, neighbours tore the roof off her house to set her free,” Pawluczuk recalls. “And my grandfather? He didn’t pass it on, but it ricocheted and remained in the family. I’m still running away from it.”
“In the communities where there is a demand for such services, the children and grandchildren of whisperers are under substantial pressure,” Małgorzata Charyton comments. “One gentleman told me that after the death of his mother, who used to be a healer, the neighbors kept on nagging him: ’You’ve seen it so many times. You know how to do it. You’re kind. Why don’t you help us?’ After two years, his mother visited him in a dream and taught him the healing prayer. She was accompanied by Jesus Christ who said: “From now on, you will be the one to pray.”
“If the whisperers had true faith, they wouldn’t be doing magic. Every religious person should have a spiritual guide, such as a pastor or a monk. God appointed priests as mediators between heaven and earth.” argues Father Szczerbacz.
The trouble with this line of thought is that until recently, only men could act as such mediators. Both the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches have for centuries denied women the right to priesthood. It was not until November 2016 that the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Alexandria (which oversees the Orthodox Church in Africa) reactivated the institution of a deaconess, i.e. the lowest rank priestesses. A few months later, Patriarch Teodor II ordained the first six women.
This is at once a revolutionary step and a nod to the past because women already served as deaconesses—from the beginning of Christianity to around the 11th century (in some parts of Byzantium). Not long afterwards, Europe began to eliminate women from the field of medicine. “Since the 13th century, long before witch hunts were launched, women were banned from the newly established medical departments of the European universities,” Mona Chollet claims in her collection of essays Witches: The Invincible Power of Women.
Chollet analyzes how gradually, along with the development of modern medicine and the solidification of the Church hierarchy, men monopolized the field of healing, both body and soul. Women were assigned a place at home. Until the mid-19th century, they served only care-giving functions in the religious and medical facilities, as nurses, midwives, nuns and sacristans.
At the same time, war was declared on folk medicine, traditionally the domain of women. Village healers, herbalists and accoucheurs were the first victims of the European witch hunts, because their knowledge and independence threatened the contemporary doctors and scientists. Also in Poland, which contrary to popular myth, was by no means “the country without stakes.” The sources are too scarce to precisely determine the number of victims, but in the book Witchcraft trials in Poland in the 15th-18th centuries, Dr. Małgorzata Pilaszek reports that among 1316 accused, 1174 were women. It was also in Poland that the last European stake burned, on August 21, 1811. The victim, Barbara Zdunk, was accused of witchcraft and an arson attack in Reszel, Warmia. Zdunk awaited her sentence for four years in a prison, where she was regularly raped and gave birth to two children. To this day, Reszel uses the image of the “last witch in Europe” to promote the city.
The witches who managed to avert the stakes were ridiculed. Women’s knowledge of herbal medicine and midwifery was labeled as “magic”. The patriarchal culture created the image of the devil’s disgusting and sinister partner in crime, thereby fueling the hatred of older women. The Slavic Baba Yaga or Disney’s Evil Queen stands in stark contrast with the archetype of the sage, available to older men.
Today, even a domain as dominated by women as whispering is not free from patriarchal stereotypes. According to Małgorzata Charyton, although men constitute only a quarter of the healers, they are still considered to be more powerful On the one hand, this is as expected because rarity is usually seen as more attractive. On the other hand, this can be seen as a patriarchal rule. Whatever a man says, so be it.
Since what happens inside a small community may not necessarily reflect the Church’s official position, we met the pastor of Orla, father Sławomir Chwojko, to talk about the whisperer Wala Popławska.
“A whisperer whispers and this lady helps. She is a healer. You have to be careful not to judge a person on whom God bestowed a gift,” the priest corrects us. “I know Mrs. Wala very well. She is a deeply religious person, leading an ascetic life. She spends her days on prayer and takes little food. She was even fasting in the hospital. And when in December 2017, she broke her leg, people called from all over the world to inquire about her health.
“Before the war, the locals used to seek help from those who had deep faith and lived like monks. You can think of them as lay saints that also healed. Like my father’s older sister who died at the age of a hundred. Locals from neighboring villages came to see her daily. However of course, there are also the so-called whisperers who use matter for healing. But there is no queue to meet them.
After almost three hours in the waiting room, our turn comes. Wala Popławska—a petite, grey-haired woman who emanates fragility—shows me a chair and listens carefully to my story. Then she raises her eyes and whispers in a mixture of Belarusian and Polish. She speaks respectfully, without overusing words or emotions, as if she was asking for something important. With me she is tender, like with a granddaughter.
“Kitten,” she pleads. “What I am about to do—don’t tell anyone”.