Monday, July 18, 2005

In Poland, Anti-Semitism is in Retreat

by Jeff Jacoby


Belzec, Poland -- Hanging in the Galicia Jewish Museum, a Krakow gallery opened last year by British photojournalist Chris Schwartz, is a picture of the monument to the murdered Jews of Wieliczka. The modest stone marker recalls the day during World War II when the SS rounded up a group of Jews in that southern Polish town, ordered them to strip and shot them. The photograph shows the monument defaced with graffiti -- in red paint, someone has scrawled "Nazis OK" over the list of the victims' names.

Some months after shooting that picture, Schwartz told me, he returned to Wieliczka and saw that the graffiti had been removed. But there was a new desecration. Where the memorial refers to "Polish Jews," someone had scratched out the word "Polish."

The Wieliczka monument could be a metaphor for the slow transformation of Polish anti-Semitism. Today, naked Jew-hatred, to say nothing of praise for the Nazi genocide of six million Jews (half of whom were murdered on Polish soil), is increasingly viewed as detestable in Polish society. But at the same time, many Poles continue to regard Jews as an alien race.

From President Aleksander Kwasniewski on down, Poland's leaders strongly denounce anti-Semitism -- a far cry from the explicitly anti-Jewish stance of the pre-war Polish government and the Communist regime that ruled from 1945 to 1989. The unknown person who painstakingly removed the "Nazis OK" graffiti from the Wieliczka memorial is not alone: Many Poles today are deeply involved in efforts to eradicate the hostility to Jews for which their country was long infamous.

During the course of a nine-day visit to Poland, I met several of these people, including Andrzej Folwarczny, a former member of parliament and founder of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations (which organized my trip, along with the American Jewish Committee), and Paula Sawicka, the wife of a government minister and president of Open Republic, an organization created to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in the Polish media and public schools. Their efforts, and those of others like them, have had an impact: According to the AJC, Poland has less anti-Semitic violence than France or Germany, and anti-Jewish slurs are now almost unknown in Polish politics. When it comes to foreign affairs, Poland has become one of the most pro-Israel countries in Europe.

But like the vandal who effaced "Polish" from the Wieliczka marker, some Poles persist in seeing Jews as incompatible with "real" Poles. Jews have lived in Poland for nearly 1,000 years; they accounted for a tenth of the country's pre-war population. Jewish roots run deeper here than almost anywhere else in the world. But there are still Poles for whom "Jewish" and "Polish" remain mutually exclusive categories.

I thought of the Wieliczka photograph when I visited the site of the Belzec death camp, where half a million Jews and several thousand Gypsies were murdered in 1942. The director of the powerful new Belzec memorial -- a symbolic mass grave containing the ashes and pulverized bones of hundreds of thousands of the Nazis' victims -- is Robert Kuwalek, an earnest young historian who grew up in nearby Lublin. As he walks around the site, Kuwalek explains that for a long time he resisted studying the Holocaust because he found it "psychologically too difficult."

But each time he interviewed Polish Jews for his dissertation on pre-war Zionism, the conversation inevitably turned to the fate of their loved ones during the Nazi years. Eventually, he took a job with the state museum at Maidanek, the site of another Nazi killing center. Yet, he was so unnerved that he managed to write only a single paper in his first year. "Whenever I had to come to Belzec for research or with survivors," he says, "I would get a stomach ache."

Though he was educated in the Communist era, when the fate of the Jews under Nazism was largely ignored, Kuwalek was always aware of the Holocaust. His grandmother told him when he was a child that the worst day of her life was when the Germans liquidated the Jewish ghetto near her home. Years later, she still remembered the gunfire, the screams and the sight of Jewish babies hurled from windows by the SS.

Today, Polish students learn about the Holocaust in school, and younger Poles are more likely to appreciate the sensitive new memorial, as well as Kuwalek's determination that the history of Belzec be honestly told. But with many older Poles, he says, "it's obvious that they think I am Jewish." They can’t imagine any reason a Pole -- a "real" Pole -- would be working here. "To them," Kuwalek says, "this place is only for Jews."

The Catholic archbishop of Lublin, Jozef Zycinski, is another Polish leader deeply committed to Polish-Jewish brotherhood. He has repeatedly led memorial services for Jewish victims of the Holocaust; in one moving ceremony a few years ago, Zycinski and Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, took soil from the sites of a synagogue and a church destroyed by the Nazis, mixed it together, and planted a Polish tree and an Israeli grapevine in the mingled earth as a symbol of reconciliation.

Zycinski variously describes anti-Semitism as a psychiatric disorder, a cynical political ploy and -- citing Pope John Paul II -- a sin. But when I ask him how many of his counterparts in the senior Polish clergy share his views, he mentions only three. The others, he says diplomatically, have "different priorities."

No, the millennium will not come overnight; the Polish-Jewish divide is old and deep, and it will take time to close it completely. But it is closing, no question about it. For Jews raised on the stereotype of Poles as unshakably anti-Semitic, it comes as a shock to discover that even as anti-Semitism is on the rise in much of Europe, in Poland -- of all places! -- it on the wane.

[This article originally appeared in the Boston Globe of Thursday, July 14, 2005.]

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