A More Tolerant Poland

While racism is real, activists say “That’s not how we see ourselves”

Top Stories | Christian Cummins | July / August 2012

This anti-Semitic graffiti mostly relates to the football team Cracovia (Photo: Christian Cummins)

For many Poles, co-hosting Euro 2012 was a chance to showcase their country on the international stage. After all, it would be the biggest international event staged in Poland since the collapse of communism: Millions of euros were pumped into improving the stadiums and Poland’s often maligned transportation infrastructure and, despite initial fears, all these projects were completed on schedule. For a proud nation, and one of the most stable economies in the troubled EU, it was a chance to demonstrate the incredible modernisation and developments that have taken place in the 23 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the eight years since accession to the EU.


A damning documentary

But then came embarrassing headlines in the international media, with accusations of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. A high-profile BBC documentary Stadiums of Hate showed Polish football fans hoisting white power banners and taunting black players by imitating monkey chants. The word "Jew" was used in football circles as an insult, the documentary showed, with fans of Wisła Kraków chanting "Death, death to the Jewish whore" against rival club Cracovia. So when black players on the Dutch team complained of being racially abused by a small crowd in the Krakow stadium while they were training, it just seemed to confirm pre-tournament fears. Polish police poring over videos of the session found no evidence to confirm the accusations, but the damage was done. Some people even suspected an official cover-up. Instead of being celebrated, Poland found itself being vilified.

"It’s definitely a shame for Poland and it’s harmful for all of Polish society," complained anti-racism activist Iga Machalewska. "We should not be represented by a group of violent and racist football fans," she insists, "That’s not how we see ourselves."

Machalewska, who has set up a pro-tolerance NGO called Interkulturalni, felt the BBC documentary had been "selective" and only showing a "little fragment of reality".

Having seen the footage in Stadiums of Hate, former England player Sol Campbell, who is black, duly warned non-white football fans to avoid Euro 2012 or risk "coming home in a coffin", even though in the past three years, the British Embassy in Warsaw has received no reports of racist attacks against British citizens in Poland.

"As so often in the media," says Nick Hodge, a reporter from Radio Poland, "things get sensationalised because they make a better story."

One of the key voices in the documentary, Jonathan Ornstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, felt his comments had been disingenuously edited to emphasise the negative and airbrush out the positive. In a letter to The Economist, he pointed out that Poland "while certainly not devoid of problems with tolerance, has made great strides in that area and in my opinion has been unfairly portrayed by the BBC." The BBC defended its reporting as "both legitimate and fair", emphasising that football culture had not kept pace with the positive developments in society as a whole.

Undeniably Poland does have a problem with hate-speech and football. The problem is scrawled in big letters over the walls of Polish cities – racist or anti-Semitic graffiti that continually shocks visitors to the country.

Iga Machalewska took me to a side street in the city’s Kasimierz district, formerly a vibrant centre of Jewish culture before it was decimated in the 1940s. Most of the population of Kasimierz were ultimately deported to nearby Auschwitz and murdered in the gas chambers, and many Jewish tourists come there to retrace their family history.

Machalewska took me to a spot where "Anti Jews" has been scrawled on a wall. There is a sub-text here: the taunts relate to the fierce rivalry between two of Krakow’s three football teams. Wisła Kraków call fans of Cracovia, Jews, harking back to the team’s perceived Jewish roots. Some Cracovians have embraced the insult and describe themselves as "Judenbande" (band of Jews). In turn, Cracovia fans call the Wisła fans "dogs". Many people see the street-writing as a part of football rivalry, a sort of gang identity tag, Machalewska told me, and don't really see it as being anti-Semitic. But with Krakow’s history, this use of Jew as a perceived insult is inexcusably insenstive:

"Most people seeing the graffiti will just see two football teams, they don’t even think of it as anti-Semitic." So the term Jew has been hijacked. However, to use it as a derogatory curse, particularly in this historical setting, seems unforgivably insensitive. "What we are struggling against here is indifference and lack of awareness."

Machalewska is more shocked by the majority who unreflectingly walk past the graffiti than the idiotic minority that writes it. "We want to make people aware that you can’t look away when this is happening," she said. To combat this "passive acceptance", Interkulturalni encourages Krakow’s residents to photograph the graffiti and post them on a section of Interkulturalni’s homepage called Walls of Shame.

"If you notice this sort of graffiti and take some action then you are actively taking part in a fight against racism and xenophobia."

It would be unfair to say the authorities are turning a blind eye to the problem. Annually, they spend around 150,000 złoty, or around €35,000, scrubbing Krakow’s walls clean of the racist or anti-Semitic graffiti. Despite her misgivings about its fairness, Machalewska says the BBC film Stadiums of Hate has helped spur local government into more assertive action, and in recent weeks, they have been very open to Interkulturalni’s ideas.

"They are very sensitive to criticism from outside," she said. "It has much more resonance that when we criticise from within Polish society."

These include finding ways to make it easier to assimilate into life in Krakow, investigating, for example, how well Krakow’s institutions meet foreigners’ needs. "Two years ago the authorities said there was no problem. Now, they are taking our recommendations seriously," she said.

Interkulturalni also holds anti-discrimination training with the local police and hosts cultural events. A colleague, Adam Bulandravia, who joins us for a drink in a street side café in Kasmierz, describes a recent African music night and an Asian festival which is being planned for the autumn.

Poland remains a very homogeneous society and you simply don’t see many non-white faces on the streets of Krakow. But Iga says that society is more diverse than you might think, and she would like to see ethnic groups playing a more active role in cultural life in the city.

"We actually need to make Polish people see that foreigners are living among us and that they are part of our community."

The Euro 2012 co-host Poland is a country with many faces. It would be as wrong to sweep the ugly scenes captured in Stadiums of Hate under the carpet as it is to walk unthinkingly past anti-Semitic graffiti just kilometres away from Auschwitz.

But it becomes clear that it would also be wrong to label an entire culture on the basis of a thuggish minority. Poland also has smiling, open-minded Interkulturalni activists. Long boxed in behind an Iron Curtain, Poland’s diversity fell victim to the 20th century history of war and totalitarianism.

"Before World War II," said Machalewska, "a third of our population was made up of non-Poles. Now it is just 3%. We were once a diverse and tolerant society. We can be again."


"Stadiums of Hate" may be viewed in its entirety on the BBC website here.

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