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NGO paints over Nazi symbols

Carefully attired in her black Sunday best, 72-year-old Henriette Bower picked up a paintbrush after mass August 29 and delicately traced a layer of white paint over the German word "Raus," which was scrawled on a building in downtown Bratislava. A drop of paint fell on her sleeve, but she didn't seem to mind.
The word erased, she passed the paintbrush to a fellow chuch-goer, who ground it into another graffiti Nazi symbol with surprising vengeance, as if erasing the hated sign of the past was something he had wanted to do for a long time.
The Bratislava chuch-goers had come together after being summoned by their priest that morning to help erase anti-Semitic graffiti within view of the church gate. The priest, in turn, had been asked to make the appeal by an ageing Slovak revolutionary who wants to show others that it is possible to do something about the signs of hatred in their society.


Churchgoers and students turned out August 29 to white out racist graffitti in Bratislava.
photo: Sharon Otterman

Carefully attired in her black Sunday best, 72-year-old Henriette Bower picked up a paintbrush after mass August 29 and delicately traced a layer of white paint over the German word "Raus," which was scrawled on a building in downtown Bratislava. A drop of paint fell on her sleeve, but she didn't seem to mind.

The word erased, she passed the paintbrush to a fellow chuch-goer, who ground it into another graffiti Nazi symbol with surprising vengeance, as if erasing the hated sign of the past was something he had wanted to do for a long time.

The Bratislava chuch-goers had come together after being summoned by their priest that morning to help erase anti-Semitic graffiti within view of the church gate. The priest, in turn, had been asked to make the appeal by an ageing Slovak revolutionary who wants to show others that it is possible to do something about the signs of hatred in their society.

Though it was more than a year since he had organized such an event, Peter Marianek, 48, said he had decided to lift the brush once again after seeing a picture of the scrawled slogan "Jude Raus," or "Jews Out," in the August 23-29 issue of The Slovak Spectator. The picture reminded him of the undercurrent of hatred that still flows in Slovak society, he said.

Marianek did more than just ask Štefan Herényi, the priest of Blumental Church on Florianské námestie, to give a rousing speech; he and his colleague Peter Šimove, 26, also posted signs in the Mlynska Dolina dormitory complex to attract university students to the clean-up.

"With 10 minutes of your time and a 10 cm brushstroke, you can stop being passive about racism," the sign announced. "Lift a paintbrush today, so that you won't have to lift a gun tomorrow."

After the painting job was done, Marianek was on an evident high. "It was good to see these people in their nice clothes painting over the signs," he said. "Even if nothing more comes out of this experience, at least today was different for them than an ordinary Sunday. At least today in church the priest didn't talk only about the relationship between man and God, but also about the ties between man and man."

Something deeper

The anti-Semitic graffiti struck different chords in those who came to remove it. Some of the older members of the church said it reminded them of writing they saw on walls during WWII, when an independent Slovak state was allied with the Nazis.

"It's a dirty thing that there is someone racist enough to write this," said church-goer Bower, who remembers the war. "There are plenty of people who survived concentration camps and there were a lot of people who went to the gas... and still people can write this."

For Marianek, the slogans were a reminder of the explosion of nationalist, anti-minority graffiti which followed the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when the spectre and common enemy of communism suddenly vanished and was replaced by a new evil.

"Soon after society got rid of the communist enemy, it tried to find another enemy, and the old repressed sentiments arose," he said. "Instead of the Slovak self-concept becoming strengthened, an inferiority complex began to be expressed on the walls against Hungarians, Czech, Jews, and Gypsies."

"Hungarians back across the Danube, Romanies to India, Jews to the gas, and Czechs on foot to Prague," he said, remembering what he had read. "I think it was impossible for people to understand pluralism. There was an abuse of the word freedom."

For Marianek, what happened over the following years was even worse. Instead of being quelled, he said, racist sentiments were encouraged by the nationalistic Slovak government which took power in 1992, and which then "turned this hatred into policy." Though things are improving with the current government, some symptoms remain, he said.

An open opponent of some policies advocated by the nationalist opposition SNS and HZDS parties, Marianek said he had personally been a target of violence and propaganda. During a graffiti cleanup in 1990, he said, he was accused by the nationalist newspaper Zmena of having written the graffiti himself.

Today, Marianek's focus is on organising a series of teacher-training workshops in conjunction with Europe House, an Austrian NGO located in Eisenstadt, Austria. The workshops show teachers how to organise their students into student governments, and teach them how to instruct in a way that encourages students to question what they learn.

His NGO, Project HUMAN, is on the outskirts of the mainstream Slovak NGO community, which he says is better at organising conferences than promoting real action. As such, he has had trouble getting funding for his activities, and was recently forced to moved into an office which measures six meters by six.

Still, he says he feels more "honest" to himself by remaining a somewhat radical voice. His sense of accomplishment comes not from grant writing, but from awakening people to their roles as political beings. Inspiring the graffiti clean up was a perfect example, he said.

"Passivity is an expression of a lack of democratic tradition," he said. "During the 50 years of two totalitarian regimes, the principle of coexistence was repressed very hard in society. Teachers and parents could not be honest... and even now few children know what their parents think about those times because the parents are ashamed."

Though he was one of only a few young people who were there, Gabriel Jurin said he was glad he joined the event. The 25-year-old had seen the graffiti the day before and had remarked on "how stupid it was. But I never thought that today it would be me painting this over," he said, after his girlfriend brought him Sunday. "It felt good," he added, his eyeglasses marked with telltale specks of paint.

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