“There has been a history, let's face it, in Poland of a right-wing Catholicism which has been deeply disturbing for those of us who know a little history, and remember which side of the border Auschwitz was on and know the stories, and know much of the anti-semitic, and homophobic and nationalistic elements in countries like Poland.”
So said Stephen Fry in an interview with Channel 4 in 2009. To his credit, he apologised and admitted that his generalisations were ignorant and wrong. However, it does conform to a knee-jerk anti-Polish sentiment that has dominated the British media since Poland acceded to the European Union in 2004.
It’s not just the tabloids that have printed anti-Polish sentiments. Even newspapers that should really know better, such as the Guardian ("Polish lancers turned their horses to face Hitler's Panzers") and the Telegraph ("anti-semitism is embedded in Polish history") have been guilty of publishing offensive or ignorant remarks about the Poles and Poland.
The winner must surely be Giles Coren of The Times, whose article refers to Poles as "Polacks" and includes lines such as "We Corens are here, now, because the ancestors of these Poles now going home used to amuse themselves at Easter by locking Jews in the synagogue and setting fire to it... My sympathy for the plight of the modern Polack is thus limited, and if England is not the land of milk and honey it appeared to them three or four years ago, then, frankly, they can clear off out of it." When asked to respond to accusations of racism and historical ignorance by the Jewish Chronicle, Coren simply replied. “Fuck the Poles.”
Amazingly, Coren followed it up with another article earlier this year which manages to outdo his previous offerings by having it written from the point of view of a Polish man speaking pidgin English and spouting folky, anti-semitic statements. The mind does boggle.
From the depiction of Poles in the UK media, you could be forgiven for thinking they were all a group of slow-witted plumbers and builders rather than a people that have historically produced some of Europe’s most important art and culture, often under very difficult circumstances. The nation of Chopin, Curie, Conrad and Kieslowski. The nation of the first truly modern pope, the Second World War’s greatest individual hero, and the creator of Esperanto. The heroic Irena Sendler saved the lives of thousands of Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto by smuggling them out in suitcases and providing them with false documentation. Poland was the only occupied country where assisting Jews was punishable by death. She was eventually arrested, tortured and sentenced to death, but managed to evade execution and survive the war. Sendler was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. She lost to Al Gore.
Let’s not be too ingenuous. Poland certainly has its problems with far-right movements, but so do many nations in Europe, including those not so closely associated with nationalism and conservatism. But, as our interview with Polish intellectual Slawomir Sierakowski demonstrates, the country also maintains a flourishing left-wing cultural and political movement that is challenging perceptions and stereotypes inside and outside of Poland.
So What's Left in Poland? Does the country deserve its reputation as a bastion of Catholic conservatism, or does it offer some surprises that challenge its political, economic and social stereotypes? Spotlight on Poland investigates.