How to share history and build a multicultural society?

A debate at St. John’s Centre.

“Gdańsk – New Opening” is the title of a debate that was held at St. John’s Centre May 22 2018. The panelists including Basil Kerski, Fr. Krzysztof Niedałtowski, Anna Kwaśnik and Daniel Urey discussed issues related to the identity of the city of Gdańsk, its unknown history and opportunities brought forth by newcomers.


This was done as part of the project Shared History in connection to the exhibition in Gdansk, following the project's idea to present history as a confluence of individual experiences that together create a portrait of a multinational and multicultural country.

The debate was moderated by Mikołaj Chrzan – editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza Trójmiasto daily, who opened the discussion by evoking a cliché that both in Gdańsk and in Poland we live in a homogenic society: - This claim was brought forth during the public debate about accepting refugees back in 2015 and 2016. On the other hand, statistical figures show that currently as much as ten percent of Gdansk’s population come from a foreign country. I’ve just heard from the Rector of the Gdańsk University of Technology Professor Jacek Namieśnik that for the first time in history their candidate for the Red Rose Award for the best student in the Pomeranian Region is a foreign female student from Indonesia… So what is the situation in Gdańsk as compared to both Poland and Europe in terms of the diversity of its inhabitants?

Director of the European Solidarity Centre Basil Kerski and Anna Kwaśnik of the Immigrant Support Centre, coordinator of the campaign We Are Connected by Gdańsk

Anna Kwaśnik of the Immigrant Support Centre, coordinator of the campaign We Are Connected by Gdańsk: - Although there are thirty thousand immigrants registered in our city, not all of them are included in official statistics. In comparison to Poland, Gdańsk is a diversified city. However, when compared to New York – it is highly homogenic. In my opinion, the key to answering this question is the relations between immigrant groups and the majority rather than the percentage data. Let’s be honest: are we open-minded and treat them as guests? Do we meet up with Ukrainians after work? Do they feel here like fully legitimate members of the society or like second category citizens? In this regard, we are still rather homogenic. However, chances are that in a dozen years or so we will become a diversified society. In addition to good will, building a mutual relation requires specific conditions. And this is optimistic that in Gdańsk we speak in one voice and act together with the Immigrant Support Centre, the European Solidarity Centre and the City Hall implementing a common strategy. Although this provides an excellent starting point, there is a long way for us to go.

Basil Kerski, Director of the European Solidarity Centre: - There’s much more to the contemporary history of multicultural Gdańsk than just the developments of the last few years. A large number of biographies remain yet to be told. I was born in Gdansk as a son of an Iraqi man belonging to the first group of political refugees who found here an opportunity for growth as they graduated from the Medical University of Gdańsk or the Gdańsk University of Technology. This opened up prospects for a professional career all over the world. The homogenic nature of the communist People’s Republic of Poland, which came as a result of purges during the Second World War, started to crack much earlier than it was actually given a name. At the ESC, we’re currently examining the phenomenon of a kebab stand in Sopot. It was started by a Kurdish man from Iraq, a university friend of my father’s. A “genuine” kebab house opened here in the Tricity long before it came to West Berlin. It is very interesting to look at the statistics showing the number of immigrants in Gdańsk today. Three years ago, when a wave of refugees swept across Europe, we met at the ESC with people of all ages. We asked them how many foreigners officially lived in Poland. Their answer was ten percent and they were surprised to hear that with actually 0.3 percent of foreigners Poland ranked as the most homogenic country in the European Union, with the average of seven percent. To date, these figures in Gdańsk have exceeded the EU average and show that we now live in a “normal” European city. To a great extent, Gdańsk has become a place of choice to live among the EU citizens since Poland as part of the community gives them rights such as voting in local elections. And nobody even thinks what we can offer to this group of people who are usually wealthy citizens and contribute greatly to our prosperity. Another group at the centre of our attention includes immigrants from the East. It comes as a nice surprise to me that when Poles meet with Ukrainians or Belarusians, they understand their dramatic situation and choices they have to make, the experience that back in the 1980s was shared by the Polish people who worked in the West accepting jobs below their qualifications. Nonetheless, I have yet to see in Poland the awareness of how important it is to have a relevant policy towards immigrants. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the West made a common mistake whereby all immigrants were considered guests, with the assumption that they would always remain guests. There was no idea of how to tap into the potential presented by those who decided to stay for good. What would happen when they had children? How to deal with their cultural background? Which was the right way to go: assimilation or applying their cultural competence to building bridges? As a result, both in Germany and in other countries, two generations of unwanted people were born. While we work hard towards the integration of immigrants, we must avoid making the mistake of assuming that these newcomers only come here to knock off some quick business. Let’s ask ourselves some questions: do we want them to forget where they come from or rather to become bilingual and cultivate their multicultural background? This is set to become a real challenge and the focus of a debate about multiculturalism.

Daniel Urey of the Swedish organisation Färgfabriken.

Fr. Krzysztof Niedałtowski, Rector of St. John’s Church talked about his relations and work with minorities in Gdańsk: I’ve been attracted to minorities from the early beginning of my 30-year’s ministry service. After returning from a scholarship in Munich in 1991, I decided to hold in Gdańsk a Holy Mass in the German language. I started with German tourists in mind, but with time the service became regular on every Sunday gathering some three hundred people, mainly those born in Gdansk before the war, who for some reason did not leave. Obviously, they were able to speak Polish, but it was their second language so they were most grateful to hear the Holy Mass in German. With time, some of the elderly priests voiced their concern claiming that it was a scandal to see a Polish priest sucking up to the Germans in a city in which World War II was begun… Among the evidence of how valuable this Holy Mass had become was a visit of Volker Schlöndorff, who once tried to make a film based on the novel “Crabwalk” by Günter Grass. He wanted to find somebody to tell his German actress what it sounded like to speak German with a Gdańsk accent. My Gdanskers were keen to share their knowledge of the subject, the skill that was no longer available at that time. The unrelenting time passed its course and twenty years later the group started to dwindle in numbers. Yet, I did manage to keep in touch with them a lot. They showed to me the untold history of Gdańsk that was rarely heard of.
Another group I was attracted to were Ukrainians relocated to Gdańsk, victims of the forced resettlement called Operation Vistula. This again is a scarcely known chapter of Gdańsk’s history. Since they didn’t have their own church in Gdańsk, Archbishop Tadeusz Gocłowski decided that it would be best to hand over to them St. Bartholomew’s Church, where I worked with artists. I made friends with the Ukrainian community, which was several hundred people stron. Again – they carried rich cultural traditions and a beautiful liturgy that differed from ours. For many years now, the younger generations of parish members have organised a festival of Ukrainian culture. And with so many Ukrainians coming to Gdańsk for several years now, this parish is thriving. The church appeared too big to them before, but now it’s too small.

Another example is our cooperation with the Jewish community. These are of course citizens of the Republic of Poland. Although they’ve been living here for a long time, we have known little about them. Following the Bible and Torah festivities that we’d held together several times, I even got to preside the Pesach celebration at the synagogue in Partyzantów Street. The American Rabbi spoke poor Polish so I got to read the Haggadah, which is “our” history in the Book of Exodus, the same I presented two weeks before in church at Easter.

These can become successful ventures on the condition that there is mutual curiosity and open-mindedness. It’s reciprocal, if someone tells me that we should be afraid of foreigners and religious dissenters, I answer in my capacity as a catholic priest: no, we should not be afraid. If you fear that your neighbour will take your faith away from you, than your faith is very weak…

The experience shared by Fr. Krzysztof Niedałtowski was commented on by Daniel Urey, leader of the project Shared History at the Swedish organisation FÄRGFABRIKEN: - The Holy Mass in the German language in Gdańsk is a beautiful way how to unfold history and share the space between different histories and interpretations. Even in the case of a seemingly homogenic history of Gdańsk, we can tell how entwined the individual experiences of its inhabitants are. I’ve been to Gdańsk many times. It is interesting to me how Gdańsk is transforming a little bit to the future, but also a little bit to the past. I can tell this looking at the new architecture in Gdańsk. The Long Embankment is lined up with modern buildings which at the same time remind me of the Hanseatic architecture in Gdańsk. To me, this is an example of how you respect history of the city and its destroyed multicultural heritage. This is the experience you can now share, which is the core value of our joint project.

The discussion also referred to the situation of new residents of Gdańsk – have they become active citizens yet or do they rather act like “ghosts” (a description given by Maciej Nowak to his housekeeper in one of his columns).

Fr. Krzysztof Niedałtowski cited the example of his Italian friend living in Gdańsk, Roberto Polce: - We all say that we love Italy, but he doesn’t like it too much, because there’s corruption and crony economy. He loves Poland, especially Gdańsk. Not only does he show Gdańsk to Italian visitors, but he’s also set up an organisation called Ital-Gedania, with open meetings promoting cinema, literature and Italian cuisine. Gdańsk inhabitants attend these meetings in large numbers, but not many Italians since there are only a few living in Gdańsk. This is a good example of adopting a different perspective onto the so-called “ourness” in order to see things that we ourselves fail to notice around us. We fail to notice that after WW II, we managed to successfully implement integration of all those coming to Gdańsk from different places. Furthermore – we experienced a crash course in integration back in August 1980. It was our non-homogenic group of people that initiated wide-ranging transformations both in Poland and throughout Europe.


Anna Kwaśnik emphasised: - The decision as to whether immigrants remain passive observers of everyday life in Gdańsk or rather become active citizens mainly belongs to us. The impulse must come from us, the hosts. When we invite somebody to our home, we say “you’re welcome to get inside”. If we fail to say that, the guests will stay outside wearing their shoes, meaning “I only hold a temporary residence card and will not disturb you”. We need to provide them with a place and tools so as to activate them. Admittedly, no activation is possible without a sense of stability and meeting their basic needs. A person who lives here under tremendous stress due to the uncertainty of extended stay or legal employment, has no space necessary to take action and become an activist. We ensure that those who achieved this level of stability get the right tools. Under cooperation between the Immigrant Support Centre and the European Solidarity Centre, an agenda for civic practice has been developed in the form of the academy of citizenship. We say to immigrants: Get inside and see how it works. Come and see that we have our civic budget and district councils providing suitable space also for you.” Immigrants make use of these facilities and we can see that those who are willing and able to do so start to feel at home using the potential they carry within themselves. Obviously, not everyone can become an activist – the same holds true with the Polish people living abroad.

Basil Kerski: - Ania Kwaśnik has emphasised the key factor, namely an enormous effort towards adaptation, and we need to keep that in mind. It is very important how we treat newcomers in the streets, in schools and in public offices. My experience with immigrants in Gdańsk is that they are keen or even fascinated to learn about our history since this is the context in which they strive to find a place for themselves. And our narrative goes like: “We, the Solidarity movement and heroes versus the rest of the world” or “we, the nation of victims and, at the same time, the smartest people in the world”. While this is totally extravagant, the opposite narrative, inconvenient to many nowadays, builds on the universal values inherent of the idea of the Solidarity movement promoting not only our own interests, but also supporting the rights of all other people. This makes for an ideal story to share with the newcomers as they can find in it a place of their own.

I fear however that there’s a very hard time ahead for us. I travel extensively throughout Europe and, despite the EU’s internal conflicts, the great masses of new citizens who came to Europe in the recent years have successfully found their place thanks to their huge integration effort and without renouncing their culture and roots. This modern day global multiculturalism provokes many politicians to build negative narratives. In my opinion, the events of 2015 were just a beginning and we have yet to share this experience in Poland. One of the officially announced candidates for the mayor of Gdańsk has recently made a banal argument citing the fact that my father is an Iraqi, thus trying to discredit me on Facebook as a person who doesn’t have the right to manage a cultural institution in Gdańsk. Unfortunately, it is politically correct in nowadays Poland to launch such an attack on me, a citizen of Gdańsk and Poland, who also has a German citizenship. And it seems to me that this is just a beginning.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid that in view of what we have in our heads, in our culture, with the Polish church diverted from the ideals of the letter of reconciliation from the Polish bishops to the German bishops, some political forces will emerge and stoke up conflicts as their main source for winning votes. Are we, who wish for a different political atmosphere, prepared to challenge this type of populism? We’ve recently seen a number of failures. It came as a shock to me to see rallies organised by the National Radical Camp in Gdańsk. You don’t have to be a lawyer to see that according to legal regulations the content they publish on the Internet is a punishable offence in Poland. I haven’t heard of any reaction from the prosecution office, not even here in Gdańsk. My concern is that such inaction only encourages politicians both in Poland and in other countries to try and test how much can be gained by voicing anti-immigrant and racists slogans.


Referring to the role of the church in Poland, Fr. Krzysztof Niedałtowski replied:
- There is no such thing as a uniform church in Poland or one voice shared by all bishops in the episcopate. A colleague of mine is a monk from Africa living in Poland for many years. The colour of his skin has never been a problem. However, over the last few months, he has been hit on his head in the street three times and had his tooth knocked out, despite the fact that he was wearing his clerical collar. This terrifying story sadly gives a very negative picture of the Polish people… The church in Poland could make better effort, but it’s inaccurate to say it does nothing in the matter. There’s a wonderful initiative run by the Polish charity Caritas called “Family to Family”, whereby a family or a parish in Poland can financially support an individual family in Syria providing for their monthly living costs. This is an ingenious action involving hundreds of thousands of the Polish people who want to make a difference.

There’s another thing that gives me cause for concern – radicalised attitudes among the young generations. It’s a real challenge I have to face trying to teach about the Quran at the seminar. I get critical reactions from my students who simply know better: “The Quran is a barbaric scripture and Islam is the religion of fundamentalists and terrorist…” In my capacity of a lecturer, I try of course to explain that they absorb the narrative peddled by the media. The problem however lies in where these young people come from? I realize that the same happens in schools. Suddenly, the youth want to hear national and xenophobic slogans.

Nonetheless, we should look for positive signs. The Cemetery of Non-Existing Cemeteries in Gdańsk is a symbolic, beautifully designed place focused on the idea of shared memories and prayers, be it All Souls’ Day or the commemoration of those who died on their way to Europe. Three years ago, when we first held prayers for the perished refugees, I feared that we would see right-wing counter manifestations. But to my surprise, none took place. This gives hope that the demons of nationalism fall silent at the graveside.

Basil Kerski: - In my opinion, we are not yet prepared in Poland to understand the profound changes and developments that occur in the Islamic world and across the Arab countries. I can recall when during a debate about refugees in Europe, Polish politicians accused their German counterparts of being naïve. They failed to understand a simple truth that there’s a large number of citizens of the Arab origin living in Germany including doctors, professors, businessmen or lawyers, and that they can count on the support of their neighbours who will defend them whenever necessary. Meanwhile in Poland, anti-Islamism serves as a safety valve to discharge all forms of frustration.

Daniel Urey: - Education is the key weapon to defeat the demons of nationalism. However, it has to become multidisciplinary by way of enhancing the academic teaching with culture-related content, thus adding colour to the black-and-white perspective of the world. Nowadays, we have to be creative in terms of both education and economic growth. In today’s Europe we can no longer afford to be racist – in Poland or in Sweden we will go bankrupt if we adopt such a narrative.

The debate was concluded with several comments from the audience, among them the one from Natalia Kovalyshyna: - When four years ago I had to leave Ukraine, I came to Gdansk and received great support here. I’m very grateful to the fate that I made it to this very place. I get support from the school which my son attends, from the Refugee Support Centre and from the soccer academy where my son plays soccer. However, apart from the support provided by institutions in Gdańsk, there’s also the national policy. For four years now I’m in the process of trying to obtain the status of a refugee, which I’ve already been denied three times. Neither my son’s talent nor my participation in the Council of Immigrants affiliated with the Mayor of Gdańsk’s office, nor my active involvement in social issues to the benefit of my new hometown, Gdańsk. It is four years now that we’ve been living out of a suitcase, so despite all the good things that happened to us here, a great deal depends on the Polish national policy.

Translation by Elzbieta Gistel

Original text by Izabela Biała can be found here.

logotypLogosBeneficairesCreativeEuropeRIGHT EN

  • lcca logo
  • en

© Fargfabriken