Holy war in the city of knives: anti-semitism and football on the streets of Krakow
In Krakow, what seems like blatant anti-Semitism is often normalised as nothing more than football-related banter.
I’ve seen enough episodes of Copa90’s ‘Derby Days’ by now to know that every city has its own unique footballing rivalry. But when Krakow’s two top-flight teams Wisła and Cracovia meet in the city’s local derby, there’s a lot more to it than just football. In fact, it’s ‘Holy War’. At least, that’s what matches between the two sides have been known as since the 1920s, when Cracovia defender Ludwik Gintel coined the term in a passionate rallying cry to inspire his teammates to victory. Gintel had probably pinched the name from his earlier spell at Jutrzenka, one of the city’s now-defunct Jewish clubs, whose own pre-1939 derby games against fellow local Jewish side Makkabi, had previously been the only Holy War in town.
The on-field rivalry between Wisła and Cracovia has shown few signs of cooling down since then, but it’s off the pitch where it really gets serious. Hooligans affiliated with Krakow’s two clubs were the only ones in Poland who refused to sign the 2004 Poznan Pact in which all other firms agreed to stop using weapons when fighting each other, earning the city both a fearsome reputation and the nickname ‘City of Knives’. As recently as 2011, members of Wisła’s ultras ‘The Sharks’ were found guilty of brutally murdering a member of a Cracovia hooligan group called ‘The Jude Gang’. Bill Shankly’s oft-repeated quip about football being more important than life and death surely wasn’t intended to be taken so literally, but these guys don’t mess around. Even the COVID-19 lockdown didn’t put an end to the violence, with one incident in June 2020 leading to the hospitalisation of a Cracovia supporter following a machete attack from Wisła fans.
But these kinds of incidents don’t just happen in Krakow. As Poland prepared to co-host the 2012 European Championships, the international media drew considerable attention to football-related violence across the country, most notably in the BBC Panorama documentary ‘Stadiums of Hate’. The potential for hooliganism to overshadow the tournament and inflict considerable damage on Poland’s international image called for drastic action from then Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Long before using his position as President of the EU Council to warn Brexiteers they had earned a ‘Special Place in Hell’ for misleading the British public, Tusk spent time in his youth fighting alongside the hooligans of his hometown club Lechia Gdansk. Not that this caused him to sympathise with such behaviour years later after coming to power. The measures Tusk introduced to control what went on in and around stadiums made him a highly unpopular figure amongst many Polish ultras. It became commonplace to see banners held aloft during games throughout Poland displaying anger towards Tusk, whilst some Legia Warsaw fans even sent him death threats by post.
Views which were once considered too extreme for mainstream politicians to entertain, have now become an accepted part of Polish societal discourse
In contrast, Poland’s current ruling party, right-wing populists Law and Justice (PiS), who weren’t in power at the time, played down the hooligan problem, and even welcomed it as a form of patriotism. Though it would be wrong to say they actively condoned the more violent tendencies of these fan groups, their views on social issues such as immigration and LGBT rights are uncannily similar. Yet, despite Law and Justice seeming keen to build a positive relationship with football hooligans, the desire is not necessarily reciprocal. In fact, an extensive survey of Polish supporters’ voting patterns, found that not only were political views of those on the terraces largely homogeneous, but also, given the choice, they tended to prefer candidates who lean even further to the right than PiS.
This is probably not that surprising. After all, ultras from various Polish clubs have long been a staple of the increasingly nativist Independence Day marches, which take place in Warsaw every year on 11 November. Apart from their annual pilgrimage to Poland’s holiest Catholic monastery at Jasna Góra, the marches are just about the only time hooligans from rival clubs agree to cease hostilities with each other. Instead, it’s the police who are usually the targets of their aggression on Independence Day. Or at least that was the case until recently. Since Law and Justice came to power in 2015, clashes between participants in the Independence Day marches and law enforcement have been much less frequent.
This is unlikely to be because they’ve all suddenly turned over a new leaf. Rather, President Andrzej Duda’s active support for the 2019 march demonstrated that views which were once considered too extreme for mainstream politicians to entertain, have now become an accepted part of Polish societal discourse. And it’s this apparent normalisation of exclusionary ethno-nativism under the guise of patriotism, Catholicism and ‘Polishness’ that brings us back to football and Krakow’s ‘Holy War’.
Writing on the wall
As derby day approaches, you can’t exactly feel it in the air, but you can definitely read it on the walls. Walking through the Krakow neighbourhood which surrounds Wisła’s Henryk Reyman Stadium, I notice a lot of new graffiti has appeared in recent days. ‘Derby Blisko, Tylko Wisła!’ (The Derby is Near: Only Wisła!) is written in huge blue lettering beside a hairdressing salon and ‘Wierność Wisłe’ (Allegiance to Wisła) on the corner by the bakery. But before long, the lines start blurring again between a simple football rivalry and something altogether more sinister. Because, just as prominently sprayed on the façade of several buildings are the words ‘Anty-Jude’ (‘Jude’ means ‘Jew’ in German), accompanied by a Star of David with a line drawn through it.
Insulting opponents by calling them ‘Jews’ has long been a feature of Polish football supporters’ discourse
To my surprise, in Krakow this kind of graffiti is fairly common, and it remains in place for months. But with the horrors of Auschwitz and everything it represents just a short drive away, what surprises me the most, is how what seems like blatant anti-Semitism is so often normalised as nothing more than football-related banter.
Insulting opponents by calling them ‘Jews’ has long been a feature of Polish football supporters’ discourse. And so, I’ve often been told that the ‘Jude’ in that ‘Anty-Jude’ graffiti should actually be understood as having nothing to do with Jewish people at all. Instead, among Polish football fans – like in many other cases, past and present – the figure of ‘The Jew’ has come to be an artificially constructed enemy, taking on whichever undesirable qualities a particular set of supporters decides to give it. Thus while in Krakow it’s widely understood that the ‘Jude’ in that graffiti means ‘Cracovia’ and the club’s supporters, in the central Polish city of Łódź it’s instead usually used as a barb by fans of ‘Widzew’ to fire towards local rivals ‘ŁKS’.
But while this might be an attempt to create some plausible deniability for the prevalence of anti-Semitic attitudes based on historical notions of Jews as “enemies” to the Polish nation, the justification is hard to accept. And to understand why there’s a little more to it than just football, it helps to look back to the history of the Polish game in the 1930s.
Consistent with other discriminatory laws at the time, which excluded Jews from most spheres of public life, some clubs, including Wisła Krakow, Warta Poznań and AKS Chorzów banned ‘non-Polish’ players from playing for them, and appealed to the Polish Football Association to adopt a similar approach throughout Poland. Despite this pressure, the Polish FA, with the support of other clubs including Cracovia, ŁKS Łódź and Pogoń Lviv, refused, and defended the rights of Jewish players and those from other ethnic minorities to continue playing for Polish clubs. As a result of their stance, for some, Cracovia came to symbolise a more inclusive vision of Polish society. However, for others, they were disparagingly labelled as a ‘Jewish’ club, which took on almost indelibly negative connotations when contrasted with Krakow’s ‘Polish’ club Wisła.
Cracovia’s identity as a ‘Jewish Club’ has led to some comparisons with North London side Tottenham Hotspur (Spurs), whose own Jewish heritage means that some of their supporters controversially self-identify as the ‘Yid Army’. Tottenham fans explain the use of the name as a way of reclaiming this anti-Jewish slur after its frequent use as an insult against them in the 1970s by far-right fans of their rivals. And it remains relatively common to hear the word used in anti-Tottenham chants today, most notably from supporters of London rivals Chelsea.
Many Cracovia fans who are not part of the Jude Gang, actually consider being labelled a Jewish club as an insult, due to its incompatibility with their patriotic Polish identity
Regardless of whether the term is used to offend or as a means of self-identification, prominent members of the UK’s Jewish community have called to stop all football fans using the word ‘yid’. Tottenham, however, appear reluctant to take a firm stance on the issue. It doesn’t help that in early 2020 the Oxford English Dictionary included an alternative definition of the slur as simply meaning ‘Tottenham Supporter’, in a move that representatives of the club have condemned as ‘misleading’. Nor that a survey carried out by the club in 2013 about supporter attitudes toward the use of ‘The Y-word’ seems to have concluded that the majority of both Jewish and non-Jewish fans were largely okay with it, provided it was only used in the context of football.
Regardless of the self-identification argument, ‘yid’ is an ethnic slur, and only an estimated 5% of modern day Tottenham fans are actually Jewish. It is therefore difficult to agree that the word is rightfully theirs to reclaim. And in fact, a closer look at comments made by some supporters in that 2013 survey highlights an awareness that the term’s inherent potential to cause offence overrides any arguments about positive self-identification or pre-emptive responses to anti-Semitic opponents. Whether that leads to a discursive shift amongst Tottenham’s, or indeed Chelsea’s, fan base remains to be seen, but, at the very least, in the UK, the issue is being acknowledged and brought into the public debate.
Owner of rivals Chelsea, Roman Abramovich, himself Jewish, has been particularly keen to rid the club of its reputation for anti-Semitism amongst supporters, and funded the “Say No to anti-Semitism” campaign, which was launched in 2018. The initiative meant that Chelsea was the first sports club in the world to adopt the definition of anti-Semitism outlined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. It also included the unveiling of a mural at their Stamford Bridge stadium on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz to commemorate Holocaust victims connected to the club.
In Poland, however, not only is willingness to tackle the issue generally lacking, but the plot thickens when we take a closer look at Cracovia’s supposedly Jewish identity. The ultras group to which the Cracovia supporter, who was murdered in 2011 by Wisła fans, belonged, is named ‘The Jude Gang’. Indeed, ‘Jude Gang’ flags are a regular feature in the stands during Cracovia’s home games, and their initials, ‘JG’, can also be seen sprayed on walls all around the city. However, unlike Tottenham supporters, many Cracovia fans who are not part of the Jude Gang, actually consider being labelled a Jewish club as an insult, due to its incompatibility with their patriotic Polish identity.
The discourse of supporters on the terraces is naturally influenced by that of the society to which they belong
The same is also true in Łódź, where it turns out that hooligans associated with both the city’s clubs, ‘ŁKS’ and ‘Widzew’ are more likely to attack each other, or be attacked by fans of other Polish teams, with anti-Semitic chants and graffiti, than proudly claim Jewish identity for themselves. During matches in 2016 for instance, Widzew ultras hung effigies which appeared to be dressed as Orthodox Jews, and unfurled anti-Semitic banners aimed at ‘ŁKS’. Yet, in 2013, ‘ŁKS’ supporters offered participants in a local charity event the opportunity to throw stones at ‘Jews’ dressed in Widzew shirts. Both Łódź clubs are regularly greeted by opposing fans in places like Poznan with provocative chants about sending them to the Nazi gas chambers of Auschwitz .
It would be easy to lay the blame for the problem with the Polish Football Association, or individual clubs like Wisła Krakow, who undoubtedly should be doing much more to remove anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination from the game. However, football does not exist in a vacuum, and the discourse of supporters on the terraces is naturally influenced by that of the society to which they belong. So, when Law and Justice Party Chairman, and the most powerful politician in Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński, uses anti-Semitic ‘tropes’ on state television to criticise an opponent for lacking a Polish heart and soul, it’s hardly coincidental that those holding similar, and even more extreme views feel emboldened to express them in football stadiums. This also goes some way to explaining why that ‘Anty-Jude’ graffiti on the wall barely raises an eyebrow amongst most of those who walk past it. After all, isn’t it just about football?
*This research is part of a project that has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 765224.
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