Thursday, 15 October 2015

How Poland is responding to the Syrian refugee crisis - and why....

Poland goes to the polls in 10 days time and according to an article I heard on Radio 4 last night, the election debate is dominated by the migration crisis.

The political right wing do not want to take in Syrian refugees, especially not in line with any suggested European quota and there appears to be a good deal of support in the national population for this.

Poland is, according to the article, Europe’s largest monoculture and many of the people interviewed last night – including a half Syrian woman who runs a charity to help refugees – are adamant that they do not want a large influx of people coming into the country for fear that it would have a negative impact on Polish culture and religion.

The article said that the rhetoric in Poland has been likened to that of the Nazi’s in the Second World War. Strong stuff then.

'What the West accepted'

But I’ve been very fortunate to go to Poland a number of times in the past few years (Gdansk/Gdynia/Sopot, Warsaw and most recently Krakow) and this isn’t the Poland I’ve experienced.

So this morning I contacted one of my Polish friends to find out how much of the story is true and how much is filtered through the media’s need to make a story interesting and clear-cut, eschewing all grey areas.

“Imagine that 70 years ago 80% of England was destroyed...Noone in the generation of your grandparents had a university degree.”

His feedback was, as always, fascinating and insightful.

“Absolutely we are a monoculture” he said, “95% Catholic, 99% Poles. But this wasn’t our choice. This was a result of what the Nazi’s and Soviets did and what the West accepted.”

Even stronger stuff then.

“Before World War II it was 60% Poles and the rest was a mixture of Ukrainians, Germans and Jews. And they managed to get on together.”

“Imagine that 70 years ago 80% of England was destroyed. 90% of people with higher education were killed or in exile.  Noone in the generation of your grandparents had a university degree.”

“Then follow that up with 40 years of communism that effectively discouraged any entrepreneurship, development and openness. How on earth can we expect grandsons of peasants to act as a normal Western society?”

Different Polish tradition 

He paints a vivid picture. And yet this isn’t and hasn’t been my impression of Poland or of the Polish people that I’ve become friends with over the years.

There are many remnants of a very different Polish tradition that exist and are exercised in the country today, that I’ve experienced first-hand, and that are at odds with the anti-refugee sentiment.

Firstly, and perhaps most famously, is Polish hospitality. I have travelled to a number of countries and the vivacity of spirit, the sense of sociable adventure and desire to ensure that you have a good time, you eat well, you drink well, you are warm and well cared for when you are with Polish people is second to none.

And this dates back and back – read Norman Davies God's Playground: vol. 1: A History of Poland if you want to reference it.

(My only caveat to this welcome is be prepared to deal with the most gruesome hangover of your life the next day. Also you need to know from the get-go that you can’t handle vodka a) like a Polish person can and b) that vodka is seriously tricksy and will make you think you can handle it like a Polish person can. Double danger…..You have been warned!)

Secondly there is what I would describe as a real European intellectualism in the country. There is a passion for story, for sharing with you the riches of the nation’s history, its culture, its traditions.

Technicolour vision

History for many Polish people is a lived thing. Most of my friends were kids when communism fell and in some senses that makes their stories ever more poignant – there is a before and an after, and it is remembered through the technicolour vision of a child’s eye.

The child who remembers not knowing for when she was little that oranges were orange because Polish trade agreements meant items were only imported from fellow communist countries and so their oranges came from Cuba and were more green than orange.

The child who remembers the first MacDonald’s opening in Warsaw and despite everything they know today about the downside to the fast food industry – the environmental and health impacts – they still struggles to not see those golden arches as indicative of a better, more open and free way of life.

"We lack a class of public servants that would think of their responsibility towards the republic and its people"

The adult who even today will read something about the events that took place in the Second World War and be surprised because they were taught an entirely different and at times blatantly inaccurate version of history. There is a jolt, a shock as they experience worlds colliding that they had thought they had reconciled.


I ask my friend if he would consider going into politics, if he would be part of making the change he feels is needed in Poland today.

“I wouldn’t think of going into politics. Ever,” he says.

“It’s currently more based on serving the party rather than the state. It’s very tribal and this is actually what I think needs changing.”

“We lack a class of public servants that would think of their responsibility towards the republic and its people. We have only party members and people serving closed communities.”

He jokes about ending his rant, but it has been a revelatory conversation. I believe Poland and the Polish people have so much to give to the world,  especially as they are so central and have such an acute sense of being part of the continental landmass of Europe – something that we seem to be intellectually, emotionally and spiritually severed from in the UK.

I can’t help but hope my romanticised and idealised version of Poland is the one that breaks through this crisis and that it becomes the best it can be – a hospitable, welcoming, intellectually engaged and engaging nation that moves beyond the tribal and the self-serving to embody older and newer traditions of inclusion and refuge and a place of solidarity and hope.

For more information on….

The Polish Parliamentary Election 25 October 2015 click here

For more Polish history read:
God's Playground: A History of Poland, Vol. 1: The Origins to 1795 (Volume 1)

God's Playground: A History of Poland, Vol. 2: 1795 to the Present (Volume 2)

What makes these books fascinating if you’re from the UK is that we’re so used to thinking and learning about events from (understandably!) a UK centric version of history. In the history of Poland you get a history of Europe and the viewpoint is dizzyingly and stimulatingly different.

If you want something a little more literary then you can’t go far wrong with the beautiful magical surrealism of Bruno Schultz – Street of Crocodiles

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