The Writing on the Wall: anti-Semitic Graffiti in Poland’s Major Cities

Police, prosecutors and judges are doing little to curb growth of xenophobic art form employing phrases such as 'Jews out.’

Roman Frister
Roman Frister
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Roman Frister
Roman Frister

Building walls in Poland’s major cities are the place where members of nationalistic groups express their opinions. It’s an embarrassing phenomenon, but for now nobody is fighting it. Building residents claim that they have no money to clean the xenophobic slogans off the walls, while the police are making no effort to catch the bullies. The prosecutor’s office hesitates to indict anyone finally arrested, and the courts are in no hurry to punish even those officially convicted.

Most of the judges treat these acts like such minor offenses that there is no legal charge under which to punish the offenders.

Recently, the general prosecutor in Bialystok rejected a lawsuit about the drawing of a swastika on a fence, saying that it was nothing but “an auspicious symbol in Indian culture.” The general prosecutor in Warsaw stopped legal proceedings against a person who spray painted the slogan “Jews out” at a site commemorating Mordechai Anielewicz, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The prosecution stated that it was an offense against... a monument. And of course, the law books do not list offenses against monuments as crimes.

Common spray-painted slogans include phrases such as “Jews out,” “Poland for the Poles,” or “Only a real Catholic is a real Pole.” Other popular ones denounce blacks or political rivals, particularly those who want Poland to be an enlightened country and a worthy member of the European Union. Occurrences increase as national holidays approach or during times of vigorous political debate about the character of Polish culture.

Warsaw and Bialystok in northeastern Poland are among the champions of this new art form; those in the know claim that in most cases, the graffiti is the work of the same young people who, on occasion, shout anti-Semitic slogans during soccer games. The display of an enormous banner reading “Jihad” in a Warsaw stadium during a game against an Israeli team was one of the few acts that was publicly condemned. Other common slogans spray-painted in visible places in Warsaw do not receive such condemnation. They usually complement nationalistic websites and are intended for people who do not use computers.

Paula Sawicka is the chairwoman of Otwarta Rzeczpospolita (Open Republic), a non-profit group that fights anti-Semitism and xenophobia. In a conversation on October 2 with journalists of the Gazeta Wyborcza, a prominent Polish newspaper, Sawicka said that average citizens had grown accustomed to passing by the graffiti slogans without any response, since such slogans have been part of the landscape in large cities for quite some time.

“We’ve resigned ourselves to it for a long time,” she said. “The slogans did not bother us. We walked past them and kept going. So the people who spray painted them felt they were allowed to do it, or at least that it was a symbol of free expression — and that’s a big misunderstanding. It’s very sad that our politicians choose not to condemn this phenomenon for fear that doing so might harm their chances of being re-elected. They often say they want to be fair to both sides, but when it comes to hatred of human beings, there is only one side.”

A worker removing anti-Semitic graffiti from a Holocaust memorial at a former Nazi concentration camp in Plaszow, southern Poland, in 2010.Credit: AP

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