Poland / 07-08-2013
Once a melting pot, Polish city sees uptick in ethnic violence
By Glenn Kates and Anna Zamejc
Bialystok - A local prosecutor in Bialystok -- a once majority Jewish city in northeastern Poland -- recently dismissed charges against vandals, calling the swastika they allegedly painted on a building an Asian "symbol of luck."
Prosecutor Dawid Roszkowski's words should have shocked, but they came amid a string of racist, often violent, incidents directed against the town's non-Slavic minorities, who make up less than 1 percent of the local population.
Since the beginning of the year, violence has included a physical assault on a black radio and TV host, an arson attack on a Polish-Indian couple, and several assaults on Chechen families. Vandals have sprayed swastikas throughout the town, including on historically Jewish sites.
And activists warn that the incidents in the city of 300,000, which appear to be at least indirectly connected to the hard-core fans of a well-heeled local soccer club (known as "ultras"), indicate that there is growing acceptance of the far right in Poland.
"In our view, spraying walls is like a [fascist] brown-shirt kindergarten," says Konrad Dulkowski, a local community organizer and the director of the Trzy Rzecze Theater. "If you don't stop it immediately these groups turn into criminal organizations."
If vandalism is for kindergartners then 24-year-old Humid has met the graduates.
As a Chechen asylum seeker who wears a long, red beard consistent with his Muslim faith, it is perhaps not surprising that he has attracted the attention of extremists.
Late one night in April, someone sprayed a propane-like substance under his apartment door and lit a match. Humid's mother awoke to the smell of smoke and the family -- including Humid's wife, brother, and two children -- hustled into the corridor and outside to safety.
When Humid called the police, he says they came, surveyed the damage, and told him to call the next morning when his landlord would be available.
An investigation started only after the local press began reporting on his story.
"To be honest with you, we don't sleep at night anymore," he says. "Every night there are these drunks, these skinheads in the hallways. We think it will happen again."
Humid, who left Chechnya four years ago after his brother was involved in an unspecified conflict with the local government and who has asked for his full name not be used, says his family faces constant harassment.
He was recently involved in an altercation with a group of Polish teens who shouted xenophobic insults as he walked with his mother from the grocery store. When his brother was attacked by a group of skinheads on a public bus, he said the driver did not do anything to stop the assault.
"I can tell you with a 1,000 percent confidence that if it had been a Chechen [assaulting a Pole] they would have stopped the bus immediately and called the police," he says.
In Bialystok before World War II, Humid's presence in the town square, where he met with RFE/RL, may not have even raised eyebrows.
The city, over 60 percent Jewish, also included Poles, Germans, Tatars, and Belarusians. Its ethnic diversity played a role in inspiring native son Ludwig Zamenhof to invent Esperanto in hopes of creating an artificial language that could unite distinct cultures.
But the Nazi occupation ghettoized the city in 1941 and, despite an uprising in 1943, the Jewish population was annihilated.
According to the most recent census information, the city is 97 percent Polish, with Belarusians making up another 2 percent of the population.
Racism on the rise
Official statistics from 2002 show that non-Slavic minorities, including Roma and various migrant groups, number in the hundreds, but an influx of asylum seekers from Chechnya over the last five years has likely increased the share of non-Slavs.
The string of attacks in Bialystok drew condemnation from Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and local authorities were embarrassed when Interior Minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz issued a warning on the incidents after a visit to the town.
Tusk, who in April helped open a new Jewish history museum in Warsaw, has vehemently rejected accusations of Polish bigotry and both officials said cracking down on skinheads would be a priority.
Racist incidents have not been limited to Bialystok, however. According to a survey from Never Again, a Warsaw-based antifascist watchdog, there were over 600 reported cases of xenophobic or racist acts from 2011 to 2012 -- a 40 percent increase over the previous two-year period.
Jacek Purski, an analyst with Never Again, says that, when the far right is given a media platform, its ideology spreads. Independence Day marches, which have become de facto nationalist rallies, are covered widely by national media, and radical right-wing political leaders are invited onto popular television programs.
Although Polish far-right parties currently poll in the single digits, their leaders have told RFE/RL that they were inspired by the recent electoral successes elsewhere in Europe of groups like Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece.
And in academic settings, nationalist leaders have recently encouraged supporters to heckle at least two influential Jewish lecturers, calling them "leftists" or "communists."
In June, up to 100 nationalists interrupted a lecture at Wroclaw University by Zygmunt Bauman, who escaped the Holocaust, but was expelled from Poland during an antisemitic purge in 1968.
WATCH: Zygmunt Bauman's lecture at the University of Wrocław is disrupted by Polish extremists. (WARNING: Contains graphic language)
According to Purski, soccer clubs serve as the key organizing and fundraising arm for extremists at the local level.
"Building such structures at the basis of fan culture and fan movements and fan associations creates enormous possibilities," he says. "Because, you know, you have people in each single big Polish city who are ready to spread leaflets, ready to put up posters, ready to vote. And also to gather more votes by interrupting other election meetings."
Conversations about bands of skinheads in Bialystok inevitably lead to the local soccer team, Jagiellonia, and its notorious "ultras" club, Children of Bialystok. Activists say the fan club's charitable ventures and even its name are a cover for its promotion of organized skinhead hooliganism.
In September, Children of Bialystok was briefly banned after fans spat on and verbally abused a Nigerian player on their own team. Members are frequently photographed waving racist and xenophobic banners.
Jagiellonia's chairman is the brother-in-law of Bialystok Mayor Tadeusz Truskolaski. A local public official, who asked not to be identified for fear of his personal safety, said top city leaders, the soccer team, and the fan club work in tandem to get financial and political support.
In July, the city awarded the team $500,000 for players to wear a promotional logo on their uniforms -- the latest in a series of financial contributions from the local government.
A June investigative report by Polish "Newsweek" claimed that despite numerous acts of violence by Children of Bialystok's head, he had seemed to miraculously escape serious charges until the attacks drew national attention.
According to the prosecutor's office, 70 percent of cases involving racist incidents have been dismissed, but publicly, at least, the city has recently taken steps to address racism.
Dulkowski, the local activist, says that the prosecutor's office has suddenly opened several investigations, including the case of the swastika that was originally dismissed as an eastern symbol of luck.
In June, the city council put aside $33,000 o promote tolerance and a Jagiellonia spokesman promised that the team would take action against racist fans attending games.
Nonetheless, Children of Bialystok appears to still have a close relationship with the soccer team, which did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
According to a statement from the club, it recently held a meeting with the fan organization to reinforce "their openness and willingness to establish broader cooperation."
Far from the soccer field, Humid, the Chechen arson victim, says he wants to move his family but cannot. Prospective new landlords tell him he is bait for property damage.