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In the end, when the fog of war has cleared and the white noise of recrimination and justice has eased to a distant drumbeat murmur, can we at least try to ensure that Poland's legacy is something more than, "...they're racist..." Can we? Or will the Poles ease back into a collective shoulder shrug and accept the vicissitudes cast upon them by the international community? We are all guilty of wanting to believe the worst, a trait promoted by the very machinations of daily media, be it Wyborcza or Fakt, have no doubt there is not an editor in the world who ignores the dictates of "If It Bleeds It Leads." History is many things, chiefly a generator of tabloid headlines. How else do you explain there being far less scholarly articles written about "forgotten" Polish hero Paweł Strzelecki who saved thousands of lives during Ireland's Great Hunger of 1845-52, than say Kazimierz Pulaski?
Your very own Oskar Schindler then, and yet most Poles would struggle with even the rudimentary facts of what Strzelecki actually did. This is not a criticism but the acknowledgement of what is not a bug but a feature of the human mind. The twin narrative of sex and death are hard to resist. Take Marie Antoinette, the silly bon-bon Queen we would like to believe uttered the immortal line of "Let them eat cake..." and who is better remembered for her hall of mirrors, the drunken banquets where attendees gorged on mille-feuille and her private faux-rustic village where she pretended to be a farmhand with perfumed goats. We know all about her, don't we? Her promiscuities. Her Swedish lover. The illegitimate children. Her pet alpaca. And yet, we don't know how she was a tomboy who dressed down, who took in an orphan child and stopped her carriage to aid a bleeding man.
Poland, at least not in general terms, has nothing in common with the mythic aspects of Marie Antoinette Queen, but there will always be those who try to paint you into the corner of cliche. Claire Byrne, host of Ireland's most listened to radio show, recently berated the Polish Ambassador over racist incidents towards Africans attempting to flee Ukraine. This was at the beginning of the war when Ambassador Anna Sochanska came on air to answer questions on how many Ukrainians were fleeing to Poland. Whatever you may think of Sochanska, if you think of her at all, a PiS appointee, she attempted to highlight the greatest humanitarian achievement this side of 1945, enumerating the selflessness of Poles, the donating of blood, the giving up houses, ferrying thousands of strangers from the border, acts of boundless generosity that we will one day regale our grandchildren with and should be known from here on as the Spirit of '22, the moment when Poland took its rightful place among those very few enlightened nations of the world, when the country fell in love with compassion and a higher cause.
The Spirit of '22, when the Poles acknowledged the great light within themselves and chose not to run away from it.
And yet, Claire Byrne, the show's host, wasn't having it. "Multiple reports that people of colour are facing additional problems, not being allowed on trains, sent to the back of the queue?" Sochanska blew her response and with no proper research to rebut the accusations, the take away from the interview was not that the Polish people were undertaking one of the great achievements of the 21st Century but, "...they're racist".
Allow me then to fix this, both for Ambassador Sochanska and Claire Byrne who was relying on second hand reports. A few days ago I interviewed three Nigerians who came from Ukraine – Adeoluwa Olubori Osadare, his sister and his girlfriend who were staying in a room in Katowice. Adeoluwa worked for a year as a doctor in Uzhorod and he described the 22 hour journey across the border - "there were pregnant women, men who didn't want to leave their families, people of all nationalities, thousands and thousands of people tired and afraid and you have Ukrainian border guards who are nervous and trying to make sense of the situation. They shouted at everyone in Russian as some people were pushing and I stood up and shouted back in Russian saying that we were all tired and afraid." Adeoluwa experienced no racism or difficulty getting across the border and neither did his African doctor friend who is now in Warsaw. That's not to say that racist incidents didn't happen, just as isolated incidents of racism can happen in Dublin or Helsinki.
The Spirit of '22. Don't let it be lost or twisted into a thirty second media segment aimed at generating hits. The Spirit of '22, nobody wins unless everyone wins.
Every day, 400 journalists at Gazeta Wyborcza write verified, fact-checked stories about Polish politics and society, keeping a critical eye on the ruling camp’s persistent assault on democratic values and the rule of law; the growing cultural tension between religious fundamentalism and human rights; and the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. Our journalists are on the front lines in 25 Polish cities, reporting from the streets, hospitals, and courtrooms about issues that move public opinion.
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