Why Poland Rejects Its Best And Brightest

Graduates who come back to Poland after earning prestigious degrees at Oxford or Cambridge often find themselves shut out of the labor market. Blame a mix of suspicion and envy.

Members of the Oxford University Polish Society
Members of the Oxford University Polish Society
Magdalena Szwarc

WARSAW — If you hear Polish Oxford graduates saying they want to work in Poland, there must be something wrong with them. At least, according to Polish employers.

An increasing share of young Poles with Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard diplomas in their hands choose to come back and start their promising careers in Poland. They expect competition and promotion to be easier. What they find is a long road from door to door, with none of them open.

Jakub Szamalek, 28, had a master's degree in archeology from Oxford and a PhD from Cambridge when he came back to Poland two years ago. "In the Anglo-Saxon world, an "Oxbridge" diploma — common shorthand for Oxford and Cambridge — is the magic key that unlocks the door to success," Szamalek said.

Writing his thesis, Szamalek realized that an academic career wasn't his lifelong dream after all. Writing novels became his new source of satisfaction. He did not hesitate for a second when he found a copywriter position at a Polish game production company. But the company's recruiters considered his "Oxbridge background" more as an interesting fact than as a serious asset. What made him get the job wasn't his prestigious diplomas — it was his great writing skills.

"In London, Montreal or New York, I would have never had the chance to get a position like that," Szamalek said. "I would have had to compete with people perfectly qualified for this type of work."

His wife didn't have as much luck. A graduate of the universities of Bristol, Geneva and Cambridge — and a PhD graduate in geochemistry — she turned down many offers abroad to stay with Szamalek in Poland. She sent over 100 applications and stayed unemployed for about six months. Employers, she said, were afraid she would be a "know-it-all." Her desire to work in Poland despite such a brilliant background was also seen as suspicious by many.

"Just another mouth to feed"

"If you can earn money for what you do, why don't you do it in your native country?" Przemek asked. Now 35, he spent seven years studying and working in Oxford. Przemek, despite many efforts, never felt entirely at home in England.

"When a British man said something was OK, I never knew whether he really meant it," he said. When he tried to drill down on conversations "the Polish way," people would start feeling irritated.

When Przemek came back to Poland, he realized the extent of people's lack of knowledge about science outside of the country. "I was just another mouth to feed for them," he said. He finally found several institutions working on global projects, but was only offered a part-time contract with a low salary.

Krzysztof Koczynski, a 26-year-old political science graduate, is also disappointed with what he found on his return. He moved to Warsaw after four years spent in Canada and two in Oxford. Koczynski had never really considered leaving his country once and for all. After sending off twenty applications, he got three interviews. "I would ask every time: "what will I learn with you?"," Koczynski said. He heard the same answer over and over. "You're here to work," they all told him. "If you want to grow, do it in your spare time."

The young graduate ended up working as a journalist for a pan-European publication, where he was able to receive training. But again, his Oxford degree wasn't decisive in the media's decision to hire him. If Koczynski now enjoys a "European work culture", his income remains below the Warsaw average. His temporary work contract doesn't guarantee him any access to social security or retirement benefits.

"We don't know what you learned there"

Anna Zolkiewickz is only one year older. She earned a degree in linguistics from Oxford and speaks five languages — English, French, Spanish, German, and, of course, her native Polish. She came back to Poland with the goal of working in marketing. Visiting career fairs in Gdansk, in northern Poland, she hoped the word "Oxford" would echo among employers. Zolkiewickz was turned down at many stands.

"People pulled faces and said I should have studied marketing, law or finance, preferably in Poland," she said. "Marketing departments don't accept candidates from abroad." The 50 resumes she sent all got negative responses.

"We don’t know what you learned there after all," Zolkiewickz heard many times while trying to follow up on her applications. "Maybe you know nothing at all."

Three months later, she decided to try the London market. The recruitment process was similar for many marketing agencies — a mathematics test, then two interviews followed by an answer two weeks later. Rejections were frustrating, as they would always come with an explanation. "We would like to congratulate you on your education and achievements, but having 187 candidates, we chose those more experienced," she read once. Yet she was encouraged to call back and get a feedback about her performance at interviews.

Zolkiewickz eventually got three positive answers, and had the luxury to choose the best offer. Three years later, she is now in charge of a marketing department.

"We hire people with diverse educational backgrounds," Zolkiewickz said. Marketing graduates are obviously welcome, but she is convinced that they are not better prepared for the job than she was. Daily missions require the ability to think analytically and out of the box. This is something she learned at Oxford, where independent thinking is key.

Zolkiewickz feels very happy with her current situation. She however misses her relatives and would rather be closer to them. "Sometimes, I wonder," she said. "Why didn't I succeed in my own country?"

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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