Poland's Two Faces

The plague of Jew-hate once again rears its ugly head.

The article below is the continuation of a dialogue/debate Frontpage is hosting on the question of Polish Culpability in the Holocaust? -- the title of Joseph Puder's Frontpage article that sparked this conversation. We have run two previous pieces by Danusha Goska on this issue: Poland's New Law Criminalizing Speech about the Holocaust and The Brute Polak Stereotype Strikes Again. John Radzilowski also recently countered Joseph Puder's critique of his viewpoint. Frontpage continues to welcome contributions to this dialogue and debate. 

In the small town of Ulanow, in southeastern Poland, back in 1996 I encountered graffiti on a wall next to the Catholic Church which read, “Juden Raus.” Never mind the fact that there are no living Jews in this town. What remains is a common grave site where 1,500 Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their helpers. The graffiti on the wall best symbolized the irrationality of anti-Semitism. Now, in 2019, it appears that the plague of anti-Semitism is once again rearing its ugly head. Stanislaw Krajewski, a University of Warsaw professor and prominent member of the Warsaw Jewish community, is quoted as saying, “Twenty years ago, I would have said that anti-Semitism is on the wane (in Poland) but this is no longer the case. Old stereotypes are resurfacing.” He added, “Anti-Semitism is still present in Poland. It is part of the overall climate.”

Yet, in Warsaw, unlike Paris, you can still walk around with a yarmulke on your head without being harassed or worse. The comment by Israel Katz, Israel’s interim foreign minister, that “Poles suckle anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk,” even if substantially true, stirred unnecessary tensions between Israel and Poland, and Catholic Poles and Jews. It triggered a wave of hate speech on the internet in Poland. Konrad Dulkowski, head of an NGO that monitors racist and xenophobic behavior in Poland pointed out that those internet comments “unfortunately confirm in a way what Israel Katz has said,”

It must be said however, that unlike the past, when anti-Semitism was incited from the top, namely the government and the Catholic church, it is no longer the case now. In fact, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party (PiS), (the governing party in Poland) a national-conservative Christian democratic party, considered by many as a rightist party, condemned anti-Semitism and even stressed that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism. This has been reported by Konstanty Gebert, a Polish-Jewish journalist. But, when the European Union (EU) Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) released a survey in 2018 on discrimination and hate crimes against Jews in the EU, Jewish respondents from a dozen EU states were asked how often they heard or had seen non-Jews make anti-Semitic remarks, Poland had the highest percentage of respondents having witnessed anti-Semitism.

Monika Krajewski, wife of Stanislaw Krajewski, herself an artist and writer, summarized it all by saying, “People don’t realize, even in Israel, that there are two Polands.” This is exactly what this reporter concluded in his previous articles on this subject. To personally illustrate this point, I shall present two experiences in Poland. In Krakow, I came across a group of high-schoolers from the western Polish city of Wroclaw, on a school vacation to historic Krakow. Congregated on the grass along the bank of Vistula River, a short walk from the Old city where I came from, I asked the students if any of them spoke English. One of them volunteered. I pointed out to him that coming out of the Old city I saw a poster which had crossed the name Aleksander out and replaced it with “Zyd Kwasniewski,” the serving president of the Polish Republic. “Zyd” is the derogatory for a Jew, and Kwasniewski was clearly not Jewish. The boy explained: “We don’t like Jews because they sold us things we did not want and cheated us.” I asked if he has known any Jews? “No, he said, but his dad told him so.” I followed by asking him if his dad knew any Jews? And once again the answer was “no." He went on to mention that his grandfather told his father about the Jews, and the grandfather as well, had never met a Jew. At this point even his friends realized the absurdity of what he was saying and shouted at him to shut up. The bigotry displayed by the student was obviously inherited from his parents or even grandparents, and it is deeply rooted with negative stereotypes of Jews, without knowing a single Jew.

In Warsaw however, I encountered the other face of Poland. Seated with a young medical student at Warsaw’s Old City “Pizza Hut,” (the hottest restaurant in Warsaw at the time) we struck up a conversation about Poland’s past and present. Somehow the conversation led to the question of Jews in Poland. The young man, in a sincere and intelligent way said, “We in Poland are poorer today because we don’t have the Jews. The Jewish people gave us culture, they contributed to our arts, sciences, and to our economy.” The young man did not know my religious background, and wasn’t pandering, he spoke from the heart.

Regrettably, it was the Polish government that initiated the current impasse in Israeli-Polish relations. The Krakow Post, in an opinion piece by British historian Daniel Tilles, based in Krakow, argued that: “While it is completely understandable that Poland wants to stamp out the misleading and offensive phrase ‘Polish death camps,’ this should be done through education, not by threatening prison sentences for those who use the term, as the government has proposed. Even more worryingly, the new draft law on this issue - combined with the threat to withdraw a state honor from historian Jan Gross (author of the book Neighbors, which tells the story of the Jedwabne massacre of 1,600 Jews by fellow Poles), has the potential to be just the opening salvo in a far broader attempt to impose the ruling party’s historical vision, potentially impinging on academic freedom.”

Polish anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism notwithstanding, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry website, “Today, Israel and Poland enjoy very solid and profound relations, which include close cooperation in the political, military, economic, cultural, and educational spheres. Those relations are based on mutual interests, shared values, and similar analysis of the situation in the international arena, but they are also a natural continuation of the joint Polish-Jewish history of almost a thousand years

Interviewed last December by the Jerusalem Post, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki [pictured above] pointed out that Polish-Israeli relations are very good, Jews make an important contribution to Polish society, and their situation in Poland is better than those living in the vast majority of western European countries. Morawiecki added, “All across Europe, synagogues are protected with heavily armed police or even military forces. In Poland, there is no need for that. We of course, condemn any hatred against Jews and prosecute it with full force – but I am happy to say that incidents of such hatred are marginal and do not represent the views of our nation.”

Monika Krawczyk, the newly elected President of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland told the Jerusalem Post (February 26, 2019) that Holocaust history is not properly taught in the Polish school system, and that she intends to take up the matter with the proper authorities. This would appear to be the right solution to the current impasse in Polish-Israeli relations, which otherwise can be most productive for both nations and people.

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Photo by Kancelaria Premiera

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