My first encounter with the Polish community was around the age of 8 or 9, when I shared my primary-school desk (one of those old-fashioned affairs, big enough for two and with holes for ink-pots) with a Polish boy called Jon Mikes. Contact with people from central or eastern Europe was unusual then – the only other person I knew from “behind the iron curtain” was a Ukrainian man my grandad knew, w3ho sold homemade lemonade in his shop and whose history involved WW2 – and I never found out what had brought Jon to a school on the outskirts of Bolton in 1968. We were both quiet and shy, but the simple act of befriending him gave me the courage to challenge our teacher, the fearsome Deputy Head, on the pronunciation of Jon’s surname (he rhymed it with “bikes” whereas Jon pronounced it “Mikesh”).
Any thoughts of Poland in the 70s are, for me, overshadowed by cold-war associations with the Warsaw Pact. But in the early 1980s we had early glimpses of a new political order taking shape behind that iron curtain, in the shipyards of Gdańsk. As a PhD student in London, I lived near the Polish centre (now known as POSK) on King Street, Hammersmith, and wore my red-and-white-plastic Solidarność badge with pride.
I didn’t travel to Poland until 2007, when I took the train from Berlin with my daughter, through the endless forests of Silesia, to one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, Kraków. On the train we experienced first-hand the quiet, courtly politeness of an elderly Polish couple, described so eloquently by Norman Davies (and explored linguistically by Anna Wierzbicka). Once in Kraków, we visited the Jagiellonian university, one of the oldest in Europe, whose professors were arrested and deported to concentration camps in 1939; and Kazimierz, now a monument to hatred but for 500 years until 1941 a thriving adjacent town housing the Jewish community. Alongside the history we saw a vibrant member of the European Union – no longer one of the “new boys”, following the accession of Romania and Bulgaria.
Back in the UK, EU membership had of course attracted a growing population of Poles. The first time I recall becoming aware of this was again around 2007, when my husband came back from a factory visit in the midlands talking enthusiastically about the new hard-working employees from Poland. It soon became evident that the growing coffee bar chains were reliant on Polish workers too. Over the years since then, I’ve seen members of the Polish community move into jobs that are in many cases more appropriate to their qualifications. I’m not sure what became of the woman who tended my mother-in-law’s tiny garden in London using expertise from her hydrology degree, but in the last couple of years I was delighted to meet Poles (and other Europeans) helping to collect tax on the civil service graduate recruitment scheme.
And then came June 2016. This blog is not about the referendum per se. But within a day of the result, on the morning of Saturday 25 June, disturbing news stories started to emerge about messages of hate being left on cars belonging to Poles in Cambridgeshire. On Sunday 26 June, abusive graffiti was daubed on the POSK centre in Hammersmith. That was just the beginning.
On the night of Saturday, 27 August, two Polish man were brutally assaulted in Harlow, just 8 miles from where I live. One of them, Arek Jóźwik, later died from his injuries. A police enquiry is underway, so it’s safest just to state the bare bones and quote Essex police: six teenagers have been arrested and bailed, and the police “are investigating it as a hate crime … but are continuing to keep an open mind about the motive”.
An evening vigil for Arek was held on Wednesday 31 August, and on the afternoon of Saturday 3 September Eric Hind, a local Polish resident, organised a ceremony at site of Arek’s murder in The Stow, Harlow, and a silent march into the centre of Harlow. I had intended to take part in the march for Europe in London, but decided to go to Harlow instead, to show my support for and solidarity/solidarność with the Polish community in the UK.
The short ceremony included moving speeches and prayers from local Polish residents, the brand new Polish ambassador to the UK, Arkady Rzegocki, and the local MP, Robert Halfon. We had a minute’s silence, sang the Polish national anthem (which some of us had hastily learnt that morning), and left flowers in the colours of the Polish flag. But the silent march was for me the most moving part of the afternoon. We were led off, as quietly as possible, by a group of (very polite) Polish bikers draped in Polish flags, and then around 700 people walked slowly and silently into the centre of Harlow, about a mile away. We had been asked by Eric Hind to behave as though at a funeral. The silence was eerie, reminding me of the sudden extinguishing of bird-song during a total eclipse of the sun.
We ended the afternoon – by now in pouring rain – in a church in the centre of Harlow, saying the Lord’s prayer simultaneously in Polish and English.
Since then has been further violence against Poles in Harlow. Again it’s too early to be certain of motives. But the Polish government is taking the matter seriously enough to send an urgent deputation of three ministers to the UK to discuss the safety of Poles in the UK, and they are on their way to London as I write this.
Some in the UK (see twitter, passim) are denying that there is any reason for concern. Nothing is proved, they say. However, what is certain is that there are members of the Polish community in the UK who no longer feel welcome or even safe in the UK, as the journalist Jakub Krupa has documented both before and after the murder. What is equally certain is that some of us will stand in solidarność with them and will not tolerate the hatred that seems to have been unleashed in the UK.