by Susan Cahn
How could there be anti-Semitism when there were so few Jews?
There are not many Jews left in Poland. Maybe 10,000. There used to be more than three million. The secular American Jews with whom I traveled to Poland in June, 1990, predicted that Polish antiSemitism would be as weakened and diminished as the numbers ofPolish Jews. How could there be anti-Semitism, we reasoned, when there were so few Jews? In the old days, disproportionate numbers of Jews were doctors, lawyers, bankers and professionals. Now, with such small numbers, even if Jews were “overrepresented” their presence in the professions would be so miniscule as to pass almost unnoticed. But my traveling companions and I were wrong.
None of us was wholly unprepared for some antiSemitism, of course. We had all lost relatives in Poland during World War II. We had all seen Shoah and followed the controversy over its “antiPolishness.” We had read about the Carmelite nuns who had established residence in Auschwitz, creating a violent dispute in 1989 between Jewish organizations and Catholics. We had also noted the anti-Semitic comments of the Polish primate on this issue. Yet my traveling companions and I believed the anti-Semitic past was truly past. We knew that millions of non-Jews had also died in concentration camps and that Poland had been devastated by the Nazis. We admired the courage of Solidarity leaders and members, and had been watching with interest the efforts of the Polish people to overthrow the Stalinist practices and institutions imposed on them after the war.
Unfortunately, we came to realize that, for many Poles, an important goal of the nation’s “democratization” is the restoration of the legitimacy of Polish anti-Semitism. Jews residinginorvisiting Poland cannot escape noticing escalating anti-Semitism. On a bus tour of Warsaw, for example, we stopped at many memorials connected to the “glorious Polish past.” The tour took us to the memorial to the Warsaw uprising, to churches which had, the guide told us, fought in vain to “save the Polish nation from communism,” to statues commemorating Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund’s great victory in the 15th century over the infidels. At all these places, the bus stopped and the guide directed us to get off to look around; everyone dutifully did. At one spot, however, the guide asked if any passengers wanted the bus to stop so they could get off to look more closely. Here, only a portion of the sightseers disembarked. The spot was the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
Across Poland, we saw campaign posters for the just-completed elections defaced with handwritten Stars of David. Many Catholic candidates, we were told, had been accused of being “secret” Jews. A joke making the rounds during our stay asked the difference between the Hungarian government and the Polish. The answer: The Hungarian government was made up half of Hungarians and half of Jews while the Polish government had no Hungarians at all.
We encountered copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, openly sold on Warsaw streets and we learned that these are new, updated editions. The new introduction blames Jews for 20th century problems, including Poland’s current economic crisis. Some leaflets distributed in urban areas even blame Jews for the attempted “genocide ofPoles.” World War II, according to these leaflets, was “provoked” by the Jews and the genocidal deaths of 30 million Poles must be laid at their door. Pamphlets and the banners callingfor “Jews to the Ovens!” on display at a Warsaw meeting convened by the “Confederation for an Independent Poland,” are obviously extreme examples of the still festering hostility to Jews in what is a “country of mostly pale blond Slavs” (NY Times, 8/15/90), but they are not an isolated phenomena.
The Polish Jewish weekly, Folkssztyme, began observing, in October, 1989, that “everywhere, in shopping lines, on trams, and at tenants meetings, antiJewish slander accusing the Jews of guilt for all Poland’s calamities is being spread.” Shortly after our visit, the Committee of Jewish Organizations sent a letter to former President Jaruzelski, with copies to Church officials and leaders in the parliament, calling attention to a rise in the number of overt acts of anti-Semitism, which now include attempted arson. During this period of “transition to democracy,” ordinary people and political leaders alike seem to have accepted antiSemitism as a normal part of daily politics; some leaders encourage it.
The Poles we met were largely secular. Many decried the increase of open hostility toward Jews. One woman, a member of a government committee working for the reform of school curricula, told us how anti-Semitism had affected her family. Her son had become a target of a whispering campaign at his school, when other students spread the rumor that he was partly Jewish. Of course, his mother explained to us, this was a terrible slander which he could not tolerate. When he questioned her, she told him that he certainly had no trace of Jewish blood and that those who said he did were jealous of his success. She added that, if he were Jewish, it was nobody’s business. Yet, her son felt so slandered that he engaged in a fight over it. The fight resulted in his hospitalization.
The mother protested to the head of her son’s school. Something, she said, must be done to prevent future incidents. The head of the school showed distress at the outbreak of serious fighting but showed no willingness to confront the issues underlying the fight. Nor did the mother acknowledge the need for regular classes and discussions in which students could learn about discrimination and tolerance, and explore ways to recognize and honor, rather than penalize, differences. She also did not suggest that her son had overreacted: That accusations of Jewishness could be wrong without being terrible, intolerable slander.
We raised the question of anti-Semitism with a Polish senator of the newlyelected Sejm with whom we met. The senator sighed and agreed that, yes, Polish anti-Semitism was something of a problem. He described anti-Semitic actions he had himself witnessed in the last decade, acknowledged the recent increase in anti-Semitic acts, and mentioned the existence of two avowedly anti-Semitic political parties.
The senator expressed an opinion common to many with whom we spoke: Anti-Semitism, they said, had not been eradicated under the Stalinists; it had only been silenced. Except in 1968, when the government itself used anti-Semitic propaganda to attack the emerging opposition, anti-Semitism was repressed. But, the repression merely sent antiSemitic stereotypes and beliefs underground. It did not hold these beliefs up to the sunlight of public discussion and education. Indeed, a study conducted in the late 1970s showed that Polish peasants overwhelmingly believed that Jews kidnap Christian babies to use their blood for Passover matzoh. When the government’s repression ceased, these beliefs came out into the open. As one politician put it, “The fall of Communism opened a Pandora’s box, from which all demons escaped, among them antiSemitism.”
This particular demon had been nurtured in part by Church traditions and, even, theology in this overwhelmingly Catholic country. In the face of the vigorous resurgence of antiSemitic activity, Jewish groups are beginning to organize and to form liaison committees with officials of the Church to monitor anti-Semitic activity, to rewrite textbooks, to confront the demon. One outcome of these and higher level meetings between Church officials and international Jewish organizations is that the Catholic church has promised to send a document to Polish parishes instructing priests in how to dispel anti-Semitic myths and the stereotypes of Polish folk-beliefs.
We asked the senator what he or other government and political leaders were doing about the demon, whether any of the “camps” within or outside Solidarity were actively grappling with the issue. He responded that Lech Walesa, the founder of Solidarity, had made a comment condemning anti-Semitism. Walesa has also, however, made several comments which feed anti-Semitism. He has, for example, charged that “a gang of Jews had gotten hold of [Poland’s] trough and is bent on destroying us.” He has accused Jews of stirring up anti- Semitism themselves in order to “get into the limelight” and thus, somehow, rise in position. And he has made clear allusions to popular notions of Jewish conspirators in his repeated assertions that there are Jews in positions of political power who “hide their nationality.”
The senator discussed the dilemma of Adam Michnik, editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, Solidarity’s weekly newspaper, who has not hidden his Jewish origins. A powerful leader of the non-Walesa camp, he has made several statements calling for religious tolerance and condemning racism and chauvinism. Yet, said the senator, given his Jewish background, Michnik’s statements are suspect and Michnik can do no more. Other leaders of the non-Walesa camp, including the devoutly Catholic prime minister, have been rumored to be of Jewish origin. These rumors seem to have prevented them from tackling the issue of antiSemitism directly — or at all. They, too, could be accused, as Walesa has accused Michnik, of pushing people toward antiSemitism and racism.
Our discussion with the senator showed us one way these accusations work. To our surprise, the senator told us that American Jews were exacerbating the problem of Polish anti-Semitism. When asked how American Jews had done so, he answered that many Poles had read about or heard about American Jews who said Poles were anti-Semitic. Such statements, he went on, themselves aroused anti-Semitism, for what Polish person, on hearing such an accusation, could remain open and friendly to Jews? The suggestion was that, if there were no “anti-Polishness” among American Jews, there would be no anti-Semitism among Poles. Condemnations of anti-Semitism by Jews, in other words, are worse than useless.
What was so striking about our conversations with the senator and the member of the government’s committee on educational reform is that they are both members of political and intellectual elites that “deplore” anti-Semitism. They are “enlightened” Europeans, opposed, as were many of the Polish people with whom we spoke, to intolerance, to censorship, to discrimination. Indeed, they publicly argued against the return of religious instruction to state schools on these grounds: That instruction in Catholicism might breed divisions and, perhaps, intolerance and discrimination. Yet religious education has returned to state schools and, thus far, the Polish Catholic Church has not responded to the rise in overt acts of anti-Semitism with a statement of condemnation. Nor have church officials released the promised document combatting, rather than acquiescing in, anti-Semitic stereotypes and folk-beliefs. And even these “enlightened” Poles believe that accusations of Jewishness amount to “fighting words,” that Jews bear responsibility for Polish anti-Semitism, and that the new leadership of Poland has no affirmative obligation to combat it. If this is the attitude of those who oppose anti-Semitism, what can one expect from those who espouse it?
While in Poland, we visited Auschwitz. Millions died in Auschwitz, Jews and non-Jews alike. Auschwitz stands today as a grotesque monument to bigotry, to unreasoning and unreasoned hate. Its most frightening aspect is that Auschwitz does not stand as a monument to a past that is dead and gone.
Susan Cahn is a freelance writer from New York City.