It’s November 11th 2018: On this day Poland — my dear country — celebrates 100 years of independence. Living in a free, independent state is something my generation takes for granted. None of us lived through the humiliating years of foreign occupation and cultural suppression. And so none of us will ever fully appreciate what independence is. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t grasp the significance and legacy of this historical transformation— the ability to speak our language freely, to vote for our representatives in parliament, to have a recognized identity ingrained on the world map.
While most people celebrate independence day commemorating our country’s rich and turbulent history, imagining its place in the world, or else manifesting on the streets, I tend to reflect about my own place in this nation I call home. It’s not easy being bi-racial in racially homogeneous country which spent decades of its post-war history in the custody of communist rule. You often have to deal with dirty looks and racial slurs conveying the message: “You’re not one of us”. People are genuinely surprised, if not shocked that you speak the language and you find yourself explaining on a daily basis that you’re actually from here, born and raised. Then comes the inevitable, follow-up: “But where are you actually from?”. From my perspective, that’s understandable. Due in large part to the communist period, people in Poland — especially the older generation — aren’t as accustomed to foreigners as, say, people in “The West”. Their reactions are often innocent and largely harmless, unlike the racist slogans in the vein of “Poland for true Poles!” or “Europe Will be White!”. Upon hearing such words, you feel excluded from your own community and stripped of your identity. Reports on TV about Fascist banners and Swastikas being paraded in the streets of several cities evoke anger, and to some extent fear.
These so-called “patriots” proudly display symbols of an ideology which was directly responsible for the murder of millions of their fellow countrymen during the war . That’s not patriotism. That’s the pinnacle of ignorance and stupidity. It is also the dark side of the ambiguous Polish psyche: An exclusionary and irrational form of national pride. One that is both deeply emotional and harmful to the country’s international reputation.
But there’s also a brighter, more positive and uplifting side to the collective Polish psyche. One which draws on Poland’s historical roots as a beacon of multiculturalism and religious freedom. The image of a homogeneous, strongly catholic and intolerant nation only arose as a result of the various tragedies of the 20th century: WW2 and the Holocaust, Soviet occupation, mass immigration etc. Traveling further back in time reveals that historically Poland drew its strength from its diversity: Lithuanians, Russians, Jews, Muslim Tatars, Romes, Armenians, Ukrainians and many other nationalities inhabited its lands. The 1573 “Warsaw Confederation” document was the first of its kind in Europe: A legal guarantee of freedom of religious expression. Protestants from all around the continent, fleeing religious persecution and possible death found refuge in an ethnically diverse, tolerant and modern Poland. That is the history Poland should be proud of: A definition of national community based on mutual history and experience, not race or religion.
In that spirit, I like to think that most people in Poland are actually curious, open and welcoming towards foreigners. They especially love it when foreigners display an interest in Polish culture. Take language. It is impossible for me to count the number of times I received an overwhelmingly positive reaction from people upon hearing me speak Polish. People compliment me on this every single day of my life. Then I get to explain that the reason my Polish is just as good as theirs is a simple one: I am Polish, just as you are. The surprise on people’s faces is priceless. And although this might sound a bit arrogant, it feels pretty significant to be able to challenge people’s stereotypes and assumptions on a daily basis — through the simple act of speaking in my own language. In many ways it makes me feel… what’s the word? symbolic, I guess.
In one of the more homogeneous countries in Europe, sometimes I feel like the personification of diversity. And it feels pretty nice.
Happy Independence Day, Poland.