Between noise and silence in Poland

Citizens of Gdansk mourned the death of their mayor, Paweł Adamowicz, last year. Photo: Maciej Moskwa
One year ago today, Poland came to a standstill after the assassination of Gdańsk’s beloved mayor, Paweł Adamowicz. We take a moment to ponder that tragic moment in Polish history, as well as Adamowicz’s life and legacy.

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was
planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

So contemplated the thousands assembled on Long Market in the port city of Gdańsk, just hours after learning that they had lost their treasured mayor, Paweł Adamowicz. On that frigid January night in 2019, the people of Gdańsk turned to Simon and Garfunkel’s eternal words for warmth, hoping to make sense of the horrific attack from the night before. Not long after, Poland as a whole joined Gdańsk in reflecting upon Adamowicz’s legacy and to ask whether the tragedy might usher in a shift in public discourse – or indeed, bring ‘solidarity’ back to Poland.

Lights to Heaven

It was a surprisingly mild January evening on the Baltic, three degrees above, the clock about to tick over to 8 pm. Just as they have done for the past 27 years, a crowd of thousands had assembled on Targ Węglowy Square in downtown Gdańsk to celebrate the annual finale of the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity (Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy, WOŚP). It is a nationwide charity that raises funds for hospitals to purchase essential medical equipment.

Leading the way on stage was the bear-like figure of their mayor, Paweł Adamowicz, whom they had voted in five times by a majority. He had just lit up the crowd with a few heartfelt words: “This is a wonderful time to share all that is good. You are all so lovely. Gdańsk is the most wonderful city in the world.” 

Just as the crowd sang out the countdown to the ‘Lights to Heaven’ fireworks show, a man appeared on stage without seemingly causing alarm and proceeded to attack Adamowicz with a knife, stabbing him multiple times in the upper body. 

With fireworks now blazing in the background and the crowd waving their smartphones in the air, the man seized a microphone and announced to the world: “Hello! Hello! My name is Stefan, I was jailed but innocent. … Civic Platform [Platforma Obywatelska] tortured me, that’s why Adamowicz just died.”

Adamowicz was resuscitated at the scene and rushed to the University Clinical Centre where he underwent five hours of surgery on his heart, diaphragm and other internal organs. Despite the best efforts of the medical staff and hundreds donating blood, Paweł Bogdan Adamowicz succumbed to his injuries the following afternoon on 14 January 2019. He was 53 years old, survived by his wife Magdalena and two daughters – and a divided country in shock and distress.

And quiet flows the Vistula

When Adamowicz’s life support was switched off, a palpable silence shuddered throughout Poland, rolling into a pall of national grief that seemed to transcend party, religious and ethnic lines. The crowds flooded the city streets of Poland, laying flowers and candles in silent vigils. Flags flew at half-mast and thousands signed condolence books in municipal buildings. Bars and cafes handed out free tea and coffee to passers-by. 

In the following days, processions against hate and intolerance sprung up in Gdańsk, Warsaw, Kraków and other cities around the country. Donald Tusk, the then president of the European Council and founder of opposition party Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska: PO), returned to his hometown of Gdańsk to tell the crowd: “I want to promise you today, dear Paweł, that for you and for all of us, we will defend our Gdańsk, our Poland and our Europe from hatred and contempt.” 

From the other side of politics, President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki shared similar messages. “Hostility and violence have brought the most tragic result and pain. This is something we must not accept,” said President Duda after attending Adamowicz’s funeral mass in St Mary’s Basilica where multi-faith prayers were also performed. 

Prime Minister Morawiecki later reached out to politicians, commentators, intellectuals and the media to plead, “make our public life better and the political debate calmer, wiser and filled with due mutual respect … We very much need national reconciliation and accord.”

‘Poland’s grief, Poland’s hope’

Poland’s grief quickly spilt over into the world’s consciousness. From Auckland to Madrid, Tokyo to Rio de Janeiro, Chicago to Jerusalem, Fox News to The Guardian, the world’s press covered the attack, death, funeral and aftermath.

“Mayor Adamowicz was a deeply courageous, moral leader who showed the way in helping refugees and migrants to integrate,” said Montserrat Feixas Vihe, the UN HCR Regional Representative for Central Europe. “He received hate mail for his pro-refugee stance, but he did not weaken in his belief.” The American Jewish Community of Central Europe lamented on Twitter: “He was a true friend & ally in countering xenophobia. We must confront hatred in the public sphere.” 

From the Vatican, Pope Francis sent rosaries to the Adamowicz family along with his prayers and thoughts. Across town in Rome, La Repubblica featured an old interview with Adamowicz from 2017. As though tragically portending his own death, Adamowicz said: “Physical abuse is normally preceded by verbal violence … When the language of the elites violates the limits imposed by decency, it causes more and more physical violence.” 

This message was echoed by the editorial boards of The New York Times and the Financial Times. They each called out the toxic environment of hate that has marred political discourse not only in Poland but also around the world. 

Underneath the headline ‘Poland’s grief, Poland’s hope’, Der Spiegel reminded the world about a day in June 2018 when Adamowicz joined a select group of Polish mayors in Warsaw to loudly declare “No to hate.”

Explainer:

After being arrested at the scene, the assailant was identified by the authorities as Stefan W, a 27-year-old native of Gdańsk with a long criminal history, including bank robbery and violent assault. He had been sentenced to prison in 2014 and released in December 2018. 

In May-June 2019, Stefan W. was subjected to a four-week psychiatric examination in a detention centre in Kraków and a forensic-psychiatric report was submitted to District Prosecutor’s Office in Gdańsk, which has subsequently announced that a new examination will take place with another team of experts. It is now reported that the investigation will be extended until 13 April. 

Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska: PO) is the main opposition party and was in government when Stefan W. was first imprisoned.

Paweł Adamowicz

Vale Paweł Bogdan Adamowicz (2.11.1965-14.01.2019)

Paweł Bogdan Adamowicz was born on 2 November 1965 in Gdańsk. As a law student at the University of Gdańsk, he was an active member of the ‘Solidarność’ movement in the 1980s, distributing underground literature and participating in the 1988 Strikes. In 1990, he became a city councillor and after four years as chairman, he was appointed Mayor of Gdańsk in 1998. Over his 21-year tenure as mayor, he was an advocate of a diverse range of causes, earning him the appreciation of the Catholic, LGBTQ, Jewish, Muslim and Kashubian communities, as well as the ire of the Law and Justice party. Most notably, he responded to the 2016 migration crisis by establishing a task force to develop an immigrant integration model for Gdańsk. He was the recipient of awards, including the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice in 2001, the French Legion of Honour medal in 2012 and the Polish Cross of Freedom and Solidarity in 2014.

‘The end of the age of innocence’

Many parallels were drawn in the wake of Adamowicz’s brutal murder. The first case seized upon was the 1922 assassination of Gabriel Narutowicz, the first democratically-elected president of Poland. His murder in the Zachęta National Gallery in Warsaw came at the height of a brutal nationalist campaign against him. 

Next came the more recent attack on Marek Rosiak, an aide from the Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość: PiS) office in Łódź who was murdered in 2010 during another toxic period in Polish politics. International commentators also noted the fracture and vitriol preceding the assassinations of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and British MP Jo Cox during the Brexit referendum in 2016. 

But none could quite explain the depth and magnitude of grief that ensued after Adamowicz’s murder. Three key factors made the assassination stand out from the others.

The location of the tragedy was particularly significant. Gdańsk has long been a city marked by its ethnic, religious and cultural pluralism. “For most of its history, Gdańsk was a multinational city, a kind of united Europe in miniature, where different nationalities lived together in peace,” Jerzy Limon, professor of English at the University of Gdańsk, told The Guardian.

The city was, of course, the birthplace of Solidarność (Solidarity), a movement that was founded and guided by both sides of today’s political divide. Adamowicz himself had fought for the Solidarity movement as a law student at the University of Gdańsk in 1988, leading a student strike with the shipyard workers. He was a proud son of Gdańsk who lived by her motto: nec temere, nec timide (neither rashly, nor timidly).

Seemingly not afraid to make uncomfortable decisions, his political career was defined by a constant state of evolution. He entered politics as a freedom fighter, settled into the ‘90s as a member of the Conservative People’s Party (Stronnictwo Konserwatywno-Ludowe: SKL) and embraced the new millennium as a leading liberal figure in PO. And just last year, he broke away from the political establishment altogether by founding his own local party, ‘Wszystko dla Gdańska’ (Everything for Gdańsk).

Though not without his detractors, he generally enjoyed a broad and diverse base of support, from the LGBTQ world to the local Catholic Church, as well as the Jewish and Muslim communities. Somehow, he could carry out this conversation directly with the world, despite the direction pursued by successive governments in Warsaw. And by the reaction to his death, it seemed the world had listened.

Lastly, Adamowicz’s brutal murder occurred on a cherished date in the Polish calendar. For at least one day of the year, Poles from all walks of life and politics come together in the depths of winter to raise millions of dollars for hospitalised children and the elderly. It is a day when people literally wear their hearts on their sleeves with each donor receiving a red heart-shaped sticker. As Olga Tokarczuk, the winner of the Man Booker International Prize, wrote in The New York Times, “It has enabled Poles – a gloomy people on the whole – to warm themselves at the fire of community. I would have nothing against the Orchestra declaring itself a nation unto itself; I would happily become a citizen.” 

It’s perhaps why Bogusław Chrabota, the Editor-in-Chief of the centrist Rzeczpospolita newspaper, declared that Adamowicz’s murder will be remembered as “the end of the age of innocence”.

The sound of disquiet

At Adamowicz’s funeral, Father Ludwik Wiśniewski, an anti-communist hero and family friend, held the congregation in St Mary’s Basilica in awe. “We must end hate. We must end hate speech,” he said. “We must end contempt. We must end baseless accusations against others.” 

In the direct aftermath, in most areas of society and the media, the Dominican priest’s wishes were largely upheld. The country came together just as it had done after the 2010 Smolensk air crash. Hate was the first target with a largely bipartisan finger doing the pointing. As mentioned earlier, the prime minister and president joined their colleagues from the other side of the house to call out hate. Marking a new age of zero tolerance, the police quickly arrested suspects for disseminating hate speech on the internet.

But it did not take long before the unified wall began to crumble. The state-broadcaster TVP quickly came under fire for its less than favourable coverage of Adamowicz and his political career, as well as for the treatment of the WOŚP charity and its founder, Jerzy Owsiak. A multi-party coalition of MPs then called for a boycott of TVP and the resignation of its chairman, Jacek Kurski. Members of the ruling coalition promptly reminded the boycotters of the treatment they had themselves received in opposition before 2015, especially in the period prior to the assassination of Marek Rosiak. And in scenes reminiscent of the government shutdown that was occurring in Washington at the same time, the Polish Senate debated over the official wording to honour the late mayor.

The people of Poland, however, showed signs that they had already heard enough, such was the level of political rancour that they had been subjected to since 2015. Even before the assassination had rocked the nation, the government’s own internal polling had suggested that people were sick of hearing about ‘liberals’, ‘castes’ and ‘elites.’ Political scientists read a similar message in the first IBRiS poll that followed the event. “This poll reflects a return to a balance in political discourse,” Prof. Ewa Marciniak, a political scientist from the University of Warsaw, told Rzeczpospolita. “Contrary to what is often repeated in public that people hanker for heated political debate, we have reached the maximum of political fever and it is time for it to break.”

‘Within the sound of silence’

Just before Father Wiśniewski had stirred up the funeral congregation, Magdalena Adamowicz, the mayor’s widow, had brought the crowd to tears, including two old political warhorses in the front row, Lech Wałęsa and Aleksander Kwaśniewski. Flanked by her 15-year-old daughter, Mrs Adamowicz cast a resolute gaze over the crowd and said: “Today we need silence, but silence does not have to mean quiet, because quiet is too close to indifference … We must examine our conscience, like we did when evil was once upon us.

A year on, it is still difficult to determine whether her brave words have left a lasting mark on the national consciousness, let alone heeded. But at least on that ice-cold day in January, it was clear to see that her message had been deeply etched onto the faces of the 45,000 souls who had congregated in and outside the basilica. 

They heard a widow’s call for positive change, a mother’s plea for national harmony, broadcast from a sacred site in Polish history, where both sides of the current divide once fought together under one banner, Solidarność. The last time that occurred, as Mrs Adamowicz alluded, Poland defeated communism.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the Poland Today magazine, H1 2019.

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Written by: William Burke

William Burke is an Australian writer based in Warsaw and the Managing Editor of Poland Today. In 2010, he brought the WWII-rescue story of Albert Göring to the world in his book ‘Thirty Four’ and the BBC documentary ‘Goering’s Last Secret’.