LEICHEN IM KELLER

Poznaj zyda! (Recognise the Jew!)”. “Tematy niebezpieczne (Dangerous Topics)”. “Strach byc Polakiem (Fear of Being Polish)”. Or: “Why the Jews Have to Ask Poles to Forgive Them”.

In the air there is soft and joyful music. The female employee behind the desk is young and friendly. The quoted titles represent only a small spectrum of the books she has to offer. The “Patriotic Bookstore ANTYK” is the best place in Warsaw for buying anti-Semitic and nationalist literature. Here one finds not only reprints of anti-Semitic classics of the pre-war period, but also periodicals like “Szczerbiec” (Sword), the pseudo-scientific magazine of Poland’s extreme nationalists, and T-shirts of “Narodowe Obrodzenie Polski (National Revival of Poland)”, the country’s most violent skinhead organisation.

The bookstore’s location is unusual: it occupies a hall in the cellar of the All Saints’ Church, whose mighty baroque front frames the southern side of Plac Grzybowski in the centre of Warsaw. Outside, in the middle of the tiny green square, a sparrow flies his rounds before landing on one of the trees. An elderly woman crosses the street. On one of the benches next to the trees she recovers for some minutes. It is not warm, but there is already a hint of spring in the air. In 1941 it was here that the German occupation regime established the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto.

Today, most of the few existing fragments of Jewish culture in Warsaw can be found around Plac Grzybowski. Opposite the church’s facade, the square is framed by the building of the Jewish State Theatre. Hidden behind the theatre, there is the only remaining synagogue in Warsaw. Left of the synagogue, the American Lauder foundation has opened a Jewish kindergarten. And finally two Jewish restaurants around Plac Grzybowski complete this tiny Jerusalem. The walls of the synagogue are speckled with patches of fresh white paint. It is the result of the ongoing fight against anti-Semitic graffiti.

“No one is concerned if swastikas and Stars of David are scrawled on walls. It is just normal.” For Professor Pawel Spiewak, Professor of Sociology at Warsaw University, what is alarming is not so much the pure existence of nationalist organisations and their publications, but the fact that almost no one in Poland seems to be concerned about it.

The hidden animosity of Plac Grzybowski, where Jewish institutions neighbour a Polish Catholic church that rents its cellar to a bookstore selling anti-Semitic literature, shows the relationship between Jews and Catholic Poles in an interesting light ­ Interesting, however somewhat extreme and one-sided. Over hundreds of years, anti-Semitism has become a part of traditional Polish culture. As in other Christian countries, the Church has played an important role in the spreading of hate and prejudice. In Poland, however, the existence of anti-Semitic stereotypes did not even disappear after most of the Jews, the object of people’s hate, either were killed by the Nazis or left for Israel or the US.

“Of course, anti-Semitism didn’t disappear but it has lost power.” Professor Spiewak comments that in Poland today, there is a polarisation between people who are free of anti-Semitic beliefs and those, who foster such beliefs. And: “Among the younger generation anti-Semitic attitudes are indeed declining.” This positive tendency towards greater tolerance is connected with more open political discourse in recent times. In communist times, it was impossible to discuss anti-Semitism because the problem officially didn’t exist. But on the other hand, it is this same political freedom that created the space for the popularisation of radical ideas and for the foundation of militant organisations who aim to fight for their nationalist ideas, not only in political ways. Jews are rare and not very visible in today’s Poland. This might be one reason why anti-Semitic violence seldom occurs in Poland. Not Jews, but Gypsies, punks and other different-looking groups are the main target of violent extremists.

But the propaganda against the invisible minority goes on: usually, the right hand corner of street bookstands in Warsaw is reserved for some anti-Semitic best-sellers. Even more problematic is the fact that fascist magazines and some of the anti-Semitic best-sellers are also distributed by the kiosks of RUCH, a nation-wide press distributor that belongs to the Polish State. For Rafal Pankowski, graduate student at Warsaw University and leader of the anti-fascist organisation “NEVER AGAIN”, this fact is a good example of the State’s schizophrenic policy towards the radicals: “From a legal point of view, Poland has sufficient laws for forbidding organisations that openly promote racial hate. But there are many organisations that do this and there were also public discussions about this. But the Ministry of Interior Affairs never made any attempts to forbid neo-fascist organisations.”

During a demonstration of workers in front of the parliament, the crowd was proclaiming: “Jews! Come out to us!” According to Professor Spiewak, this is one example of the serious problem of the “judaisation” of political enemies: “Every political, sporting or societal enemy is denounced by declaring him to be a Jew. This has nothing to do with nationality but the denunciation as “Jew” implies a negative evaluation. There is a steady tendency to change the names of political enemies to make them sound Jewish. For example, the enemies of the former prime minister Hanna Suchocka, who is from a Catholic family, call her Haja Suchocka.” Some of the books in the patriotic bookstore ANTYK also reflect this tendency: In one publication about the past ten years of transformation, the author tries to prove that all key functions in Poland are occupied by Jews: Adam Michnik (publisher of “Gazeta Wyborcza”)? A Jew, correct name: “Aaron Szechter”. President Alexander Kwaœniewski? A Jew, correct name: “Stolzmann”. And so on, and so on.

In the last year, the publication of the book “Neighbours” by Jan Tomasz Gross, a Polish American professor of history, caused the most dynamic public debate ever to have taken place in Poland. For months, newspapers were discussing the author’s provocative thesis that the Jewish population in Jedwabne, a small town in Eastern Poland, had been killed not by the Nazis, but by their Polish neighbours. The possibility of the voluntary participation of common Polish citizens in the persecution of the Jews challenges the traditional Polish view of history, in which Poland is seen as a heroic victim of foreign aggressions. The discussion about Jedwabne widened the gap between a progressive-thinking Poland, willing to rethink old positions, and its nationalist and often anti-Semitic counterpart, which views Gross’ book as no more than a new example of a conspiracy against the Polish fatherland. It is no surprise, that Gross’ theses have provoked several counter-publications. Some of them have their space reserved in the right hand corner of Warsaw’s street bookstands.

A sociological survey taken last year on citizens’ opinions about Jedwabne showed which societal groups are divided by the above-mentioned gap. In general, educated people living in larger cities tend to be more tolerant towards Jews and more self-critical about the Polish role in this tragedy. The opposite is true about less educated people living in smaller towns and villages. What is interesting about this survey, is the indicator of church attendance: The more frequently a Pole attends church services, the more likely he or she is to be intolerant of Jews. To specify the role of the Church, people were also asked, if they agree with the statement that Jews are the Christians’ older brothers in faith. The result is paradoxical: The more often people go to church, the less they tend to support this statement of Pope John Paul II.

From an historical perspective, Catholicism can be considered to be one of the main sources for anti-Semitism in Poland. In recent times, it is not so easy since the Church is as full of contradictions as the State: On the one hand, there is the Pope who has always promoted peace and dialogue between religions and who still possesses a strong authority among Poles. But on the other hand, not everyone follows the Pope’s policy of tolerance. This is most obvious in the case of Radio Marja, a popular nationalist radio station run by a priest in the city of Torun. Radio Marja stands in the centre of a large Catholic nationalist milieu, which is also represented in parliament by the extreme “League of Polish Families”.

Recently, while the Polish parliament discussed the annual report of the “Institute of National Remembrance”, deputies of the “League of Polish Families” shocked the Polish public with overt anti-Semitic statements. Originally established to investigate crimes committed against Poles, the institute recently investigated the role Polish citizens played during the massacre of Jedwabne. In the view of nationalists, by doing so, the institute betrayed its constitutional mission. Hence, they charged director Leon Kieres with "yielding to Jewish influences," "participating in manipulation, concealment and lies" and "falsifying historical truth." During the debate, a few of the party’s members referred to Kieres’s "alien background”. Deputy Antoni Stryjewski appealed for Kieres’s resignation so that "the post of IPN president could go to a Pole, someone who cares about Poland’s historical truth and who loves the Polish nation.”

The relationship with the Jews divides the Church even more than it does the rest of society. No wonder the discussion about Jedwabne presented a big challenge for the Catholic Church. After a lengthy discussion, the Polish bishops decided to make a gesture of apology to the Jews. They asked God to forgive the Poles for the bad things they have done to the Jewish people. For this ceremony, which was transmitted by press and TV to the entire world, they chose the beautiful All Saints’ Church on Plac Grzybowski. Lucky for Poland and its Church that no one from the press had a look inside the church cellar? Maybe for now the paradox would be too great to handle, but, in the long term, it is only public awareness which could alter the daily schizophrenia in Polish normality.

This entry was posted in Issue No.4 »Normal«. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.

^ top