Europe’s biggest charity takes on the government

Last year (2018) the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity collected 126 373 804 zł, or some 29 million Euro, making it one of the largest charity events in the world. This year final figures are still unknown, the provisional figure is… well, check the status here in real time.

Jurek Owsiak started this charity project 27 years ago to help children, as the Polish hospitals were in a terrible state in early 1990s. Number one problem of the hospitals back then was: lack of modern equipment. The solution: provide financial support for the medical equipment needed by most vulnerable, the newborns.

Young WOŚP volunteers in Warsaw, 13 Jan 2019

In 27 years Owsiak has risen an army of volunteers. Last year there were some 120,000 volunteers selling the hearts with “WOŚP” logo on them. Some of them are young people born with equipment purchased from WOŚP charity. The circle of hope.


The fairytale lasted for 25 years. WOŚP cooperated with the public television for its January grand finale since its inception in 1993 until 2016.  In 2017 for the first time the society event was turned political. TVP refused to cooperate with the great orchestra. The event was non political until end of 2015, when Law and Justice won elections and begun to change the country with its revolution in which there was no room for independent institutions, officials or civic organisations. Stanisław Pięta, PiS MP tweeted in December 2015: “if somebody employed in the public sector engages with the great orchestra, the following day they should resign from their job” and the bomb exploded.

Not everybody in the Law and Justice have the same radical approach. After all, this was primarily about helping the children. President Andrzej Duda (a former PiS MEP) and many PiS officials wore the recognisable red heart. The public TVP station, a long-time supporter of the great orchestra event, took nevertheless a radical approach: in 2016 the event was still aired on TVP. In 2017 not only WOŚP was banned from the TVP news (bare for 14 seconds on the main evening news), the TVP has censored the WOŚP red heart from one of its interlocutors, Arkadiusz Myrcha, MP for the Civic Platform (PO).

Arkadiusz Myrcha speaking to TVP in 2017; edited/censored photo on the left; real shot on the right. Source: Twitter

In 2018 Law and Justice was not ready to give up so easily. The Ministry of Interior drafted a law, according to which the Minister could stop a public collection of funds whose purpose “is contrary to the rules of social coexistence or violates an important public interest”. Since the discretion would be with the minister the civil society organisations did not trust, the threat was real.

Yet by 2018 the Law and Justice changed. Embattled in many fights over the judiciary reform, Constitutional Tribunal, economic and social reforms, the party already faced its first defeats: it wanted to take over the control over the Nordic funds allocated to the Polish NGOs from the Nordic governments – the Norwegian government said NO; the fine given to TVN by the state supervisor was cancelled due to American investor pressure; and the same TVN aired a documentary about Polish neo-nazi organisation commemorating Hitler’s birthday. The Prime Minister changed, too. Mateusz Morawiecki was supposed to be a “lighter”, more approachable face of the government. And most importantly, the electoral marathon was looming over the party. Taking on the country’s last independent unifying event (WOŚP has a popularity among the general public at 85-90%) was no longer a priority.

How much money was WOŚP collected, by year, 1993-2018. Source: Wikipedia

Since 2017 the WOŚP grand finale is aired on TVN. The event continues to grow, beating its previous year records. Law and Justice did not stop the show, and the orchestra continues to play. It became political as there was an attempt to take it over the same way the governmental party did with so many other independent institutions (the journalists association SDP, the TVP, or the general courts, to name a few).

Jurek Owsiak, however, started to be politically outspoken. He has defended WOŚP, the mid-summer follow up currently called the Pol’and’Rock Festival and the secular approach to charity. A few quotes from his interview back in November 2018 for Gazeta Wyborcza: “I just voted, and called on others to vote, too. It turned out many people felt the same way – those were key elections. On 21 October 2018 I felt partly the atmosphere of 4 June 1989. People were smiling, talking politics, they knew why they came to vote.” and added rhetorically that “today there is an open question about our membership in the EU. We wonder if Law and Justice truly wants to leave the Union. Can you imagine those topics being even discussed?”.

And he started to be attacked more and more. Already in 2014 the outspoken PiS MP Krystyna Pawłowicz said: “I have never given and I shall never give even a złoty for the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity. If you don’t want your money to be spend on wallowing in the mud, on the festival of hate towards the Church and the Catholics, on that demoralisation, then do not support WOŚP”. By summer 2018 Owsiak and Pawłowicz met in a court for the second time. Emotional Owsiak had to apologise for offending his idealogical arch-nemesis. For the second time.

In 2019 the TVP seems to haven toned down. A little bit. Ahead of the 2019 WOŚP grand finale the TVP Info aired a plastic figurehead show in which a character looking like Owsiak was fully controlled by a plastic figurehead looking like a former Warsaw mayor (and another hated person by Law and Justice) Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz. The website called the show “disgusting”.

“Owsiak” brings the WOŚP money to “HGW”, who fully controls him. Source: Twitter.

Under criticism of the show TVP has suspended cooperation with the plastic figurehead maker. In a classical style, not because it was offensive towards Owsiak or ex-Warsaw mayor. Apparently the show was accused of anti-Semitism as one of the banknotes presented the portrait of the adored-by-PiS former president Lech Kaczyński next to the Star of David.

Despite all this, the Great Orchestra continues to play. Its 2019 final accounts will be known in a few months. Will another record be smashed? The whole country awaits.

Can you help?

Yes you can. Today the Orchestra plays all around the world. In 2019 for the first time there are events organised for example in Russia. You can contribute in Brussels, Paris or London to any of the volunteers, or online here. The most interesting option is to participate in the auctions. Last year, a day spent with the President of the European Council Donald Tusk costed the winner some 172,000 Euro. This year, you can bid for your day with Mr Tusk here.


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