Polish xenophobia and ‘besieged castle’ mentality strengthened by a BBC documentary about racism on Polish stadiums and Barack Obama’s ‘Polish death camps’.
Barack Obama’s statement about the ‘Polish death camps’ is a reason to be worried. It is not because it blames the Poles for the Holocaust, but because it has rallied the nation under the banner of being offended and morally outraged. Influenced by the American President’s statement, the Polish people once again has raised the mental drawbridge and retreated into the ‘besieged’ mentality, which our compatriots seem unable to discard altogether. Unfortunately, this defense reaction will strengthen the anti-American attitudes or perhaps even xenophobia, and will make coming to terms with national history even harder. Jarosław Kaczyński has already called: ‘Let’s end this pedagogy of shame, let’s end this constant atonement of our nation for no reason, let’s end this self-accusation.’ And I guess that the true meaning of these words escaped nobody.
Obama’s statement does not mean that the American President or the American public opinion thinks of WW2 concentration camps as having been established by the Polish people. This is a typical mental shortcut meant to describe only the territory, not the perpetrator. As proven by Sławomir Sierakowski in the studio of TVN24 channel, Zofia Nałkowska, in her ‘Medalions’, also writes about ‘Polish extermination camps’. There certainly were other camps, on the territory of Germany. What was obvious for Nałkowska and her contemporaries in 1946, may not necessarily be clear for the Americans, born half a century later. Therefore the Polish diplomacy campaign against the term Polish death camps, or using the name Auschwitz instead of Oświęcim, is the right initiative. However, it also has certain unintentional consequences – it unites the nation in its feeling of injustice due to wrongful and malicious foreign slanders, while in fact the problem is ignorance or carelessness on the part of the ‘offenders’. Polish inferiority complexes, the resentments towards the West, the Jews, the Germans and the Ukrainians – all of them use such anti-slander campaigns as fertile ground.
Jude, Jude, Jude
A similar effect had been caused by a BBC documentary about racism on Ukrainian and Polish stadiums. The film, although unilateral, presents a real phenomenon, which we, unfortunately, got accustomed to. The fact is that racism in Poland is not a widespread phenomenon – the question is, if this is not because there are a few people of different races living on the banks of the Vistula river. Undoubtedly, reactions based on self-defensive statements like ‘Yeah, and in your country they beat the Blacks’ are completely uncalled for (despite the fact that in England or Italy the problem with stadium hooligans was certainly present and perhaps it still is). The Polish racism may be a truly marginal issue, but its foothold on the soccer field is strong. Anti-Semitic chants are the norm, as well as harassment of soccer players of African descent.
Because of its widespread nature, this phenomenon is exceptionally hard to counter and largely has been left alone. We can blame only ourselves and the prosecuting attorney. As reported by the ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ daily in June 2009, the attorney considered the fans of the Wisła Kraków soccer team not anti-Semitic in their chants of: ‘Always over You, You fuc*ing Jew!’ aimed at the fans of Cracovia during the Cracow Derbies. In the eyes of the lawyer, the fans wanted to: ‘humiliate the Cracovia team by calling them »Jews«, which is justified by the tradition and history of the soccer club. The chant was neither aimed at Jews nor at persons of Jewish descent, but at the opposite soccer team as such’. So the song was to humiliate the Cracovia team, and not the Jews, because ‘Jew’ is not an abusive term (those who think differently are anti-Semites). What a twisted logic – they sang to humiliate the fans of the opposite club, so they used a term subjectively considered to be offensive. Should somebody using ‘Jew’ as an insult be considered an anti-Semite? We can of course agree that they sang just to ‘lift their spirits’. Or maybe the chant was in fact a complement, meant to make peace with the older brethren in faith, just as pledged by the fans to John Paul II. In such a case we should also accept that ‘fuc*ing’ is an expression of respect for the rich sexual life of the opposing fans. This argumentation however, will probably be beyond comprehension of even the already expandable logic of Cracovian public prosecution office.
Unfortunately, condemning the reprehensible external phenomenon (as it does not concern only Poland) often results in an effect opposite to what was originally intended – just as in case of the ‘Polish death camps’, which resulted in a radical need to save our collective face, to receive apologies and to react with outrage. In this sense, Obama and BBC did a good job for those who exploit the Polish resentments. On the other hand, the ‘foreign’ nature of the film on Polish stadiums racism (we obsessively care about the opinions of ‘the West’), presents us with a chance to overcome the problem once and for all, or at least to notice it as a real and not imaginary. If only we liberated ourselves from the ‘they’re beating our guys!’ thinking, which is dominant in Poland.
We should protest against the ‘Polish death camps’, but we should not let it soften our sensitivity to the wrong done to others. If we demand such sensitivity, let’s give the same right to those, whose sensitivity we do not accept – as Americans do not accept ours in this case. Obama’s statement is an example when the speaker, having the best of intentions, offends the receiver because of the other party’s sensitivity. The fact that there is no ill will does not change the feelings of the offended and is a lousy consolation. May we remember our outrage at the American President, when some ‘Negro’, ‘Gypsy’ or God forbid ‘sodomite’ will start to protest against such traditional, ‘Old Polish’ terms.
The measure of self-confidence and maturity is whether a reaction to an unintentional ‘offence’ is hysterical or serene. Those sure of their claims can afford to be calm and generous, making their class obvious. Persistent protestations of injustice and cries for admission of guilt may force an apology. However, it will neither make others respect us, nor make us respect ourselves.
Translation: Aleksandra Sobocińska