Tragedy doesn’t create character, as the old saying goes, it reveals it. A couple of weeks ago Paweł Adamowicz the mayor of Gdańsk was stabbed while appearing on stage at a charity event and died the next day. A terrible incident like this raises a lot of questions and for me one of them relates to how Polish society reacts to such an event – and the answer is actually pretty encouraging.
The charity in question is Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy (most translations I’ve seen are awful so I’ll use my own – The Grand Orchestra of Holiday Helpers). The goal is to buy equipment for the underfunded Polish healthcare system, originally for childrens’ wards but over the years they’ve expanded to other areas. Money is raised by children and young teens with cannisters ssoliciting money and giving heart shaped stickers in return and celebrities donating things for special auctions. It culminates in a Grand Finale with concerts in the major cities. It dates back to the early 1990s (the first televized Grand Finale was in 1993). The charity is important far beyond the money raised as it was one of the first citizen initiative after the communist period – that is it wasn’t planned by the government or church but by private individuals who saw a problem and wanted to help.
In Poland even hearts can be political…
The current government has run something close to a subdued… strong dislike campaign against the charity and its frontman (Jerzy Owsiak, who also organizes a Polish Woodstock festival every year). This is mostly because they don’t like anything outside the church that they’re not in charge of. The church takes a neutral approach leaving it to local dioceses and priests whether to support it or not (some do… others don’t).
The killer in this case was a small time hood who was put in prison for robbing four banks and while in prison began deteriorating and was diagnosed with schizophrenia (and moved to a mental hospital). He was released in December, went off his meds and decided the previous ruling party (and not his ambition to be a gangster) was the cause of all his problems and after the stabbing announced over a microphone that he did it because Adamowicz belonged to the former ruling party (he hadn’t actually belonged to the party in question for a couple of years).
So to get back to the question of how has Polish society reacted.
As I mentioned, the reaction has mostly been in the direction of civic engagement. Even Owsiak’s political enemies toned down their rhetoric. Owsiak himself was horrified and demoralized by the murder and initially vowed to resign before overwhelming pressure from the public caused him to stay. People left candles in a giant heart design at the site of the murder and tens of thousands showed up at memorial services. One small-scaled private initiative “Paweł Adamowicz’s final collection” on facebook originally had the aim of raising 1000 zl (between 250-300 dollars) in his name for the charity and it quickly snowballed and by the time it ended had collected 16 million (over four million dollars). Also people have been conspicuous about wearing the heart shaped stickers (formerly they would take them off their jackets after a day or two now people still had them on two weeks later.
To understand the importance it’s important to contrast this with how public tragedy was met with immediately after the communist period. The three leitmotifs would be, in no particular order fatalistic cynicism (it just goes to show you….), personal victimization (it made me feel so bad! or you think that’s bad let me tell you about what happened to me!) and a search for the guilty so that the problem could be ignored (they’re to blame, it’s nothing to do with me!).
To be sure, all of these are still present but alongside the ongoing growth of civic awareness and citizen responsibility that was stunted during the socialist period. So the event has provoked a lot of discussion about the boundaries of civil discourse. As these things go the public manifestations of this new civic engagement will fade from public view but the fact that they appeared it what’s really important.