One morning in June, the owners of the African restaurant La Mamma in Warsaw found ugly and offensive graffiti near its entrance. Someone in the Muranow neighborhood, the site of the former Jewish ghetto, apparently did not like the restaurant, which is a meeting place for Nigerian immigrants. To make sure the eatery’s owner got the message, the offender painted a black man hanging from a rope and added the words, “chocolate daddy.”
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Within a few hours, dozens of people were gathered in front of the restaurant; they had responded to a Facebook call to come show support for its owner and help remove the graffiti. Among them were members of the Project Poland group, which in recent years has been working to promote tolerance in a country that still suffers from expressions of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
The rapid and positive response of the residents in that case encouraged four members of Project Poland to harness the Internet and Facebook to help find and remove other racist graffiti. Soon afterward they launched a website and Facebook page called “Hejtstop” (“stop the hate”) whose concept is simple: Poles who see offensive graffiti on buildings in their neighborhoods are asked to photograph it and send it to the website or Facebook page administrators. The site then posts the pictures and calls on other residents to come help get rid of it.
To date some 80 pictures of racist daubing have been posted, mostly of anti-Semitic messages. One, for example, read “Auschwitz-Birkenau” and another, “Jews, out!” But there has also been anti-Islamic graffiti. Some of the slogans have been removed; others are still waiting for good people to come paint them over.
One of the organizers is Kalina Lewandowska, 28, who was born and raised in Warsaw and works for a large advertising agency. She was disturbed by the indifference of many Poles to the offensive slogans scrawled on local buildings.
“People have stopped seeing them. They become less aware and less sensitive,” she says. “But how can you look at a swastika and not care? It's terrible, and you find it in so many places – in cities, towns and villages across Poland,” she told Haaretz by telephone this week.
At first she and her friends took advantage of the fact that Polish law punishes the owners of the buildings who leave such graffiti on their buildings; the group would report the graffiti to municipal inspectors, which led to some of the writing being removed. But later they realized that often the buildings’ owners are neither guilty nor responsible.
“If it’s a public building and no one bothers to remove the slogans, then they deserve to get cited,” says Lewandowska. “But in most cases these are private buildings and it's not fair to punish the homeowners.”
She said private home owners are in a problematic position; they don’t like the graffiti but they don’t have the money to clean it. “So we found a more efficient way – to enlist the residents themselves,” she says. “We can’t fix the world alone. We need other people to join us.”
Next month the group will organize a few days of concentrated work, in which racist slogans will be removed, one after the other, from buildings in Warsaw and Poznan. Later Krakow will join the list. “We are seeking local leaders to oversee the project in cities that we can’t get to,” Lewandowska says.
Shortly after the graffiti was removed from the African restaurant, the group received a report of more racist graffiti, this time aimed at Jews. Near Anilevitch Street, adjacent to the famous monument commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the new Museum of History of Polish Jewry, someone had daubed, “Jews, out.”
In that case the municipality mobilized to remove the offensive writing, a picture of which appeared in the mass-circulation daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.
“That was very good, but unfortunately in places further from the downtown area you don’t get such a systemic response from the municipality," said Lewandowska. “That’s exactly where we as citizens need to act.”