The mayor of Gdańsk died after a stabbing onstage at Poland’s biggest annual charity event

Adamowicz shortly before the attack.
Adamowicz shortly before the attack.
Image: Agencja Gazeta/Bartosz Banka/File Photo via Reuters
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Paweł Adamowicz, the popular mayor of the Polish city of Gdańsk, died earlier today (Jan. 14) from injuries sustained in a stabbing the previous night. A man attacked Adamowicz while the mayor was on stage for the finale of the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity (Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy), a massive annual fundraising drive for equipment for children’s hospitals. The investigation is still underway and the motive is not yet clear, but the stabbing has political overtones.

Adamowicz served as mayor of Gdańsk for two decades, and was recently re-elected to another term. He ran as an independent, but was a former member of the centrist Civic Platform, currently Poland’s biggest opposition party. He was also part of Poland’s democratic underground movement during the Communist era. Adamowicz was an outspoken liberal, voicing his support for minorities, refugees, and LGBT rights. The charity event itself has become politicized in recent years. Jurek Owsiak, the head and founder of the organizing foundation, is a vocal critic of the conservative Law and Justice government, and frequent target of right-wing hate.

The alleged perpetrator, a 27-year-old who has been identified only as “Stefan W.,” in accordance with Polish law, was recently released from prison where he was serving time for a series of bank robberies. During the attack, he reportedly yelled during that the Civic Platform had falsely imprisoned him. “That’s why Adamowicz just died,” he said, according to media reports. These also suggest he was able to get on stage by impersonating a member of the press. Security for the event caught him, but he had time to stab Adamowicz multiple times, with a 5.7 inch (14.5 cm) blade. The man is now in prosecutors’ custody, and will be evaluated in psychiatric facility, the investigators said (link in Polish). He denies the accusations.

Multiple public figures suggested afterwards that the attack was a result of Poland’s heated political atmosphere. Wojciech Szczurek, the mayor of nearby Gdynia, said (link in Polish) that an “atmosphere of political hatred and growing divisions” has long been part of Poland’s reality. “Today’s unbelievable, dramatic event forcefully shows where this has led us.”

But Adamowicz’s deputy mayor, Aleksandra Dulkiewicz, asked that the stabbing not be politicized. “We don’t know what motivated this person to attack, but I ask, implore, that we eliminate aggression from our every day lives, from politics. We cannot escalate violence,” she said (link in Polish). “I ask that we avoid using this difficult situation for political or ideological purposes,” she said. Demonstrations against political hatred (link in Polish) are already underway all across Poland.

Every year on a winter weekend, droves of volunteers fill Polish streets collecting money for the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity, in addition to countless online auctions.This year was the fundraiser’s 27th, and it had brought in $25 million as of Monday, and has raised more than $260 million (1 billion Polish zlotys) over the years. Those who donate receive special heart-shaped stickers, which people traditionally put on their winter jackets. At the end of the drive, many Polish cities celebrate with a concert and a customary light show at 8pm local time. The stabbing occurred during the culminating event.

Several days before the attack, a Polish-state-run TV station broadcast a claymation clip of Warsaw’s recent former mayor, a member of the Civic Platform, creating an Owsiak-shaped puppet. The Owsiak puppet then goes around collecting money in giant sacks. Some of the bills are emblazoned with a star of David (link in Polish), an anti-Semitic dogwhistle. The head of the government news agency later tweeted that anti-Semitism had no place on the air of the station and that “there would be serious consequences” for those responsible. On Jan. 14, Owsiak announced he’d be stepping down as the head of the foundation. “Maybe those who got in Poland unbelievable, permissible leeway to act like this, will chill out,” said Owsiak (link in Polish), who is known for using slang and colloquialisms.