So Similar, Yet So Different
In the sixteenth century, Poland served as a role model for Europe. In addition to Poles and Lithuanians, the country was also home to Russians, Armenians, Germans, and Tatars, and even Italians, Scots, and Dutchmen. Cities had synagogues, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches located next to one another, but differences did not give rise to conflicts. Five hundred years later, due to political events, it was almost exclusively Poles who lived within those borders. Currently, national and ethnic minorities account for only a fraction of the population. They include mainly Germans (about 147 thousand), Ukrainians (51 thousand), and Belarusians (46 thousand), and the Karaites, Lemkos, Roma, and Tatars represent the ethnic groups most significant in numbers. Interestingly, in the last census (2012), only four thousand people described themselves as Jewish, while before World War II, the Jews were a third of the Polish population.
Poland’s cultural homogeneity does not mean that its culture has no different shades. Regions such as Silesia (Silesians), Pomerania (Kashubians), northern Mazovia and Podlasie (Kurpie) or Lesser Poland (Gorale) have developed very specific local cultural features (language, rituals, and costumes). Some inhabitants of those areas claim to be an ethnic, or even national, minority.
The situation is similar when it comes to religion. According to surveys, as many as 95 percent of Poles declare to be Catholic, although this percentage has been dwindling in recent years. The Orthodox are a relatively large religious group in Poland (mainly in eastern Poland), and there are also Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Protestants – including Jerzy Buzek, former President of the European Parliament.
Many cultural and social initiatives are aimed at the rediscovery and popularization of the lesser-known cultures in the Polish population. These include the Łódź of Four Cultures Festival (German, Jewish, Polish, and Russian), the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow or the Lemko Vatra. Respect for the history of Polish Jews is also expressed by the establishment of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in 2012. More information about events that promote multiculturalism can be found at www.kalejdoskopkultur.pl. Interesting initiatives to promote multiculturalism organized by young people are supported by the EU Youth in Action program, implemented in Poland by the Foundation for the Development of Education.
Cases of intolerance, xenophobia, racism or anti-Semitism never took on a mass character in Poland, and since 1990 have been systematically combated by all successive governments. Equal rights are protected by the Polish Human Rights Ombudsman and NGOs, such as Nigdy Więcej and the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.