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Poles no longer the losers in Berlin

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Photo: Darek Gontarski
07:24 CEST+02:00
After it was recently revealed that Angela Merkel had a grandfather from Poland, Matthew Luxmoore set out to discover where the chancellor could connect to her roots in Berlin's sizable Polish community.

Offering a tray of salmon and onion sandwiches and bottles of Żywiec beer, the bar could have been in any big city in Poland – but revellers were actually crammed onto a tiny dance floor in the capital of Germany.

"I come to Cafe Warschau because I love Warsaw. It may be better than Berlin but money's not going to make itself, especially not in Poland," said Magda Podkowinska, who came a bit of home on a Polish-Russian night at the venue.

But the Friday-night scene near Berlin's scruffy Hermannplatz square is not unusual for the city's many Polish establishments. They are becoming increasingly popular with Germans, as interest towards their large eastern neighbour continues to grow.

Today the 44,000-strong Polish community in Berlin is second only to the city's Turkish population. Yet the city's Poles have largely shed themselves of the negative cheap-labour stereotype, with which some of their compatriots abroad are still sometimes branded.

"The Pole in Berlin is no longer the brick-layer toiling for minimum wage. Now he represents the Polish company which replaces your windows or the Polish doctor who takes the place of the retired German. Poles are now part of the city's professional community," said Adam Gusowski, co-founder of the Club of Polish Losers, which has been hosting cultural events in the capital since 2001.

Gusowski, who emigrated to West Berlin with his parents as a fifteen-year-old, said this successful integration into German society means it can be difficult to find places in the capital where Poles congregate. The venue he runs, despite its provocative name, is far from exclusive in its appeal.

“We host a wide range of events and rarely have the same crowd as the night before. We serve as a venue for all kinds of minorities,” Gusowski said.

The opening of the club was the culmination of a series of developments which saw Gusowski and his friends establish a presence in the capital's underground scene. After a number of oddball schemes, they realised that nothing they tried was working out.

"We organised a concert for dogs for example. Everyone likes concerts, but no one thought of dogs. So we had a great marketing campaign, spread the word but in the end only two dogs came to the concert, of which one fell asleep and the other started barking and had to be taken out. After all, you've got to behave at a concert," he said with a detectable hint of sarcasm.

The club's philosophy, Gusowski explained, is that everyone has the right to create art, regardless of their natural talent or ability. The inspiration came from a manifesto published in the 1990s in Kolano, a Polish-language newspaper issued by the self-named Organisation of Polish Losers.

Although the club's name is evocative of the kind of comic self-mockery more commonly associated with British than Polish humour, the message Gusowski and his friends sent out may have encouraged new arrivals from Poland to adapt to their surroundings with a pinch of salt.

While not taking yourself too seriously can be a useful method to cope outside your comfort zone, it is often not enough to integrate into a new culture. Much depends on the reception you are given.

Gusowski believes the change in Germans' attitude towards Poles in recent years has played a great part in their fitting in.

“Germans have a pragmatic and practical approach to immigrants. Here they're viewed on the basis of their contribution. If a nationality is presenting itself well and bringing something to German society, it is received well. This is what's happening with the Polish community,” he said.

And some have wasted no time in facilitating this cultural interaction.

Husband and wife Marcin Piekoszewski and Nina Müller, who run Polish-German bookshop Buchbund in the multicultural Neukölln district, said that the weekly Polish language classes held there are attended by 20 to 30 Germans, with diverse motivation.

“Professional, academic, romantic…various reasons. The same reason you might decide to learn French, for instance,” Marcin, a translator by profession, said.

He put increased interest in Polish language and culture down to a recent “healthy normalization of relations” between the Germany and Poland.

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“Poland today is not seen as any different, and why should it be?” he said.

But Nina, a German who first came to Poland for a student exchange year in Kraków ten years ago and speaks fluent Polish, urged caution.

“We can live in a bit of a bubble in Berlin. We can forget that the city is not representative of Germany as a whole,” she said.

Nina's parents in her native Franconia remain sceptical about her interest in Poland.

“They're quite simply part of a different generation. Certain stereotypes are unfortunately still there, beneath the surface,” she said.

Matthew Luxmoore

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