Global Dialogues

21 Notes on Poland’s Culture Wars, Part 1 (1- 11)

Grassroots Political, Intellectual and Art Activism versus Censorship, Soccer Hooliganism and Far-Right Threats in the City of Lublin

1. Art representing Roma, gays and Jews has been banned and destroyed in Lublin, Poland, twice host to Transeuropa Festival. Stop Toleration for Toleration, a far-right soccer hooligan march, with hate speech chants, has lashed back against the social-artistic campaign Lublin for All, led by Szymon Pietrasiewicz. The campaign included bus tickets with the images of national and sexual minorities who have shaped this city for centuries as a hub of Jewish, Romany, Protestant and queer cultures. City Hall, under pressure from the soccer hooligans, censored and shredded this art. As the municipal authorities have caved in to the extreme right, Lublin — it appears — is not welcoming at all.

The destruction of art crushes the human geography of Lublin: this is a blow to the heritage of this intercultural city and to the current art activism working to make Lublin hospitable.

We need to reclaim Lublin from the far-right soccer hooligans. That’s why the ground breaking Holocaust scholars Jan T. Gross and Irena Grudzinska-Gross of Princeton, Poland’s leading feminist Kazimiera Szczuka, and this country’s only out gay MP Robert Biedron have all signed an open letter “Let’s not give Lublin up to intolerance, aggression and social exclusion,” authored by Agnieszka Zietek, a political activist and lecturer at Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin.

2. “Lublin free of fags!” “Run Pietrasiewicz out of Lublin!” “F … Gazeta Wyborcza [Poland’s progressive newspaper]!” “A boy and a girl are a normal family!” “Lublin, a city without deviations!” These were the chants of the soccer hooligan marchers. As editor-in-chief of the local branch of the Gazeta Wyborcza broadsheet Malgorzata Bielecka-Holda writes, the catcalls were received with sympathy by City Hall. This is just one element of the rise of the far right in Lublin. Other ominous developments: the mobilization of the National Radical Camp (ONR) and the hosting of these Brown Shirts by the local Solidarność trade union, evictions and layoffs of the underprivileged, the predicament of refugees and women, refusing abortion to the fourteen-year-old rape victim Agata, and attacks on those who are reviving Jewish life.

3. Activist for Jewish Lublin, Tomasz Pietrasiewicz, 57, has been assaulted with swastikas sprayed on his flat and with an explosive device. In 1990, he established Grodzka City Gate Centre-NN Theatre, devoted to the commemoration of Jewish culture in Lublin through plays, exhibitions, a publishing house and workshops for high-school students. Pietrasiewicz was also attacked with anti-Semitic posters that were pasted in his block of flats and in bus stops throughout Lublin. The perpetrators have not been found. As Pawel P. Reszka reported in Gazeta Wyborcza, the National Radical Camp (ONR), at a press conference hosted by Solidarność, insinuated that Pietrasiewicz attacked himself.

4. In 2006 Tomasz’s son, Szymon founded Tektura Space for Creative Activities, a squat with concerts, exhibitions and campaigns for human rights, women, LGBT, the homeless and seniors. This alternative collective opposes consumerism and neo-Nazism. Tektura is often threatened by skinhead raids, but, significantly, it is also not respected by economic neoliberals because of its stance for fair trade, the redistribution of goods and social justice, countering Poland’s widespread belief in the infallibility of the free market.

5. This year Szymon Pietrasiewicz started the Studio for Socially Engaged Art Rewiry, responsible for the campaign Lublin for All. The Rewiry has worked intensively in the deprived areas of Lublin, involving their residents in art activism. Pietrasiewicz’s Studio has also invited such artists as Joanna Rajkowska and Rafal Betlejemski to work with the local residents. The Rewiry is planning to bring the representatives of the international scene like David Cerny as well as Svajone and Paulius Stanikas to Lublin, too.

6. Tomasz Pietrasiewicz was a dissident in the 1980s, active in alternative theatre and underground publishing. Now two generations of nonconformists run the Grodzka City Gate Centre-NN Theatre and Tektura that champion independent culture. NN and Tektura hosted Transeuropa Festival which foregrounded LGBT, intercultural Lublin and refugees.

7. Chechen asylum seekers have told us at Transeuropa Lublin that they don’t feel that they’re treated as human beings here. A country of traditional emigration, Poland doesn’t welcome refugees. In October 2012 over 70 refugees in detention centers throughout Poland held a hunger strike against the legal and material conditions to which they had been condemned. A woman journalist from Georgia, Ekaterina Lemondzawa, wrote a dramatic letter to Gazeta Wyborcza, in which she described the humiliations that she had been subjected to as a refugee in Poland. The broadsheet later reported: “Poland is allegedly the only country in the European Union, where refugees, including children, being held for months in detention centers, are called from their rooms by whistle to stand at attention.” Helsinki Human Rights Foundation representative Karolina Rusilowicz confirms that “these detention centers hold a penitentiary regime.”

At Transeuropa Festival, Chechen refugees shared their problems — in fact hardships — with us. Generally, asylum-seeking should be decriminalized and immigration facilitated in the European Union. Migrants and refugees must not be treated as criminals. The Seyla Benhabib-inspired Lublin political scientist Sylwia Nadgrodkiewicz writes that one needs to go beyond the logic of exclusion in order to make immigration easier.

8. International experts, in a report on Lublin as an intercultural city, indicated that refugees should be more visible in this city. Szymon Pietrasiewicz’s campaign Lublin for All attempts to present Lublin’s coexistence of different cultures and the need for acceptance and cooperation; these images embody the ethics and aesthetics of diversity and equality. The censorship, ban and destruction of the bus tickets hurt the cause for an open Lublin.

9. The art expert and political economist Mikolaj Iwanski writes ironically: “Lublin’s leadership have begun a race to see who can condemn the action [Lublin for All] faster … It turns out that a smiling black man shouting Motor [the name of the club] is a deadly threat to the city, to this second-league club and to the municipal transportation.” On a serious note, Iwanski adds that “anti-Semitism, homophobia and ethnic prejudices are still present in Polish stadiums.” The Lublin area is very poor. Amidst economic hardships, scapegoating, conspiracy theories and prejudices are rampant.

10. Submitting to the far right could not be more dangerous here. That is why an MP Michal Kabacinski, 24, protested against Lublin City Hall’s submission to the soccer hooligans. “The mayor has failed to respond to these events. This was show of hate speech, a presentation of anti-Semitic and xenophobic positions. A scandal. We must not accept these events.” On the door of Lublin city hall Kabacinski hung a picture of the mayor next to a portrait of Adolf Hitler and an image of the Ku Klux Klan. The MP explained how he had intended to demonstrate that City Hall agrees with the promotion of ideologies which these figures represent.

11. Lublin has been a city of women, minorities and migrants. Let us remember the residents of Lublin: Jews, Roma, Ukrainians, Russians, Italians, Greeks, Germans, Armenians, Scots. Nowadays we must encourage contemporary migrants, including economic ones. Lubliners have enjoyed hospitality abroad, and metaphysically we are all migrants to this world. We must not allow prejudices in our region — that is why social change is badly needed. Let’s find within ourselves more than toleration: acceptance, more than integration: recognizing otherness as value, more than dialogue: cooperation among cultures. Zygmunt Bauman recently spoke about such a collaboration at both the Grodzka City Gate Centre-NN Theatre and at the Catholic University of Lublin.

  • Jeffrey Goldfarb

    I think this is one of the rare cases where the words revolution and counter-revolution apply. The post explores a culture war in the city of Lublin. The details
    illuminate a general problem, the battle between cultural change and
    resistance to the change. The specifics are Polish, but they could just as well be American or from somewhere else.