The popular Catholic nationalist radio station Radio Maryja is still the most influential source of anti-Semitic propaganda in Poland. Outright Holocaust denial, which appeared for the first time in a book by the historian Dariusz Ratajczyk, was also propagated by the well-known historian Ryszard Bender. Vandalism and desecration of Jewish sites continued in 1999.
THE JEWISH COMMUNITY
On the eve of the Holocaust, Poland was home to 3.25 million Jews, of whom some 85 percent perished. The remnant of the community was later depleted in the waves of emigration that followed the Kielce pogrom in 1946, the relaxation of emigration restrictions in 1956-57, and finally, the communist witch-hunt against persons of Jewish origin in 1968. In the years leading up to the collapse of communism, and especially in its aftermath, the Jewish community has revived, its numbers bolstered by young people rediscovering their Jewish roots. There are some 5-10,000 Jews in Poland out of a total population of close to 40 million. Most Jews live in Warsaw, Wroclaw, Krakow and Lodz, but there are smaller communities in several other cities. There are virtually no Jews in the eastern part of Poland where once large, important communities existed, such as those of Lublin and Bialystok.
The Union of Jewish Religious Communities (Zwiazek Kongregacji Wyznania Mojzeszowego), or Kehilla, and the secular Jewish Socio-Cultural Society (Towarsztwo Spoleczno-Kulturalne Zydowskie), or Ferband, are the two leading communal organizations and these, together with other Jewish groups, are linked by membership in the KKOZRP, which acts as an umbrella organization.
There is a Jewish primary school in Warsaw maintained by the Lauder Foundation, which has been active in rehabilitating Jewish life in Poland, especially through youth projects, including summer and winter camps. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is also active in Poland, particularly in social welfare activities. The leading Jewish publications are the monthly Midrasz, Dos Jidische Wort, Jidele for youth and Sztendlach for primary school children. Significantly, all of these publications appear in Polish, except for Dos Jidische Wort which is published in a bi-lingual Yiddish-Polish edition.
Other important institutions are the Jewish Historical Institute (which opened its revamped museum in June 2000), E.R. Kaminska State Yiddish Theater in Warsaw and the Jewish Cultural Center in Krakow. There are centers for Jewish studies in Warsaw University and the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. At the beginning of 2000, it was announced that the first Polish chair of Holocaust studies would be established at the University of Gdansk. Plans are proceeding to build an inter-active museum of Polish Jewry in Warsaw.
POLITICAL PARTIES AND EXTRA-PARLIAMENTARY GROUPS
No party with an overtly anti-Semitic platform is represented in the Polish Sejm, or Senate, although anti-Semitic utterances by some deputies have been reported. Several deputies of smaller parties who are in electoral coalition with the Akcja Wyborcza “Solidarnosc” (Electoral Action Solidarity), such as the Liga Republikanska (Republican League), a militant anti-communist group with one seat in parliament, include anti-Semitism in their anti-communist agenda.
The most openly anti-Semitic, extra-parliamentary parties are the Polska Stronnictwo Narodowe (Polish National Party), Odrodzenie Narodowe Polski (Polish National Renaissance) and Polska Wspolnota Narodowa (Polish National Commonwealth), headed by Boleslaw Tejkowski, who has a long history of anti-Semitic activity and has on occasion even suggested that the pope is a closet Jew. Tejkowski has frequently been involved in libel and defamation suits and, except for the most die-hard of his supporters, is regarded as a crackpot by nearly all Poles. In the 1997 elections the party’s most successful candidate received fewer than 800 votes, in Warsaw. Tejkowski is especially popular with a small band of skinhead-hooligans who constitute the base of his support and who have frequently attended party demonstrations.
Anti-Semitic critics within parties such as the liberal Unia Wolnosci (Freedom Union),which was a part of the ruling coalition until June 2000, have often pointed out the Jewish origins of Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek and suggested that others in the party’s inner circle, such as Jacek Kuron, are “closet Jews.” President Kwasniewski has also been attacked as a crypto-Jew. In April 2000 a Katowice court charged Kazimierz Switon (see below) with incitement of racial hatred for distributing a document, purportedly from secret Interior Ministry files, revealing the “real” Jewish names of many leading Polish politicians, including Lech Walesa (“Lejba Kohne”) and President Aleksander Kwasniewski (“Izaak Stolcman”).
Although vandalism and desecration of Jewish sites does not seem to have increased in recent years, there were several incidents in 1999/2000. In February 1999, anti-Semitic graffiti, including “Jude [sic] Raus!” and a Star of David hanging from a gallows, was daubed on the site of the Umschagplatz memorial (from which trains left for Treblinka). The Jewish cemetery in Krakow was vandalized three times in 1999 and in the 30 May attack, tombstones and the funeral chapel were damaged. Participants in the 2000 March of the Living photographed the slogan “Fucking Jewish dogs go to hell” painted on a wall surrounding an industrial enterprise on the road leading from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II (Birkenau).
Lodz was the venue of a number of attacks, perhaps provoked by claims for the restoration of Jewish property, which one observer described as akin to a red flag being waved in the face of a bull. Among the buildings defaced was the home of the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and former activist in the Solidarity Movement Marek Edelman. This vandalism was roundly condemned by the Polish mass media. In March/April 2000, hundreds of youth participated in a campaign to clean up the graffiti. The next day, however, anti-Semitic graffiti re-appeared throughout the city, including on the synagogue and on Edelman’s home.
Jewish community officials also report occasional crank telephone calls and hate mail. Foreign Jewish visitors to Poland, especially those who travel in the country as a part of organized groups, such as the March of the Living, with their distinctive blue jackets, regularly complain of verbal abuse. In May an Israeli representative of the March of the Living was assaulted by four knife-wielding hooligans in Rzeszow, but he disarmed one of the attackers and they all fled.
An investigation was begun in Poland, following the accusation by a Jewish delegation (including Israeli parliamentarians) visiting Majdanek with the May 2000 March of the Living, that anti-Semitic leaflets were distributed from a private car adorned with a banner bearing the slogan “Jews to the Gas.” This delegation also alerted the Polish security forces when a group of youth with short haircuts, made seemingly menacing gestures. It later emerged that the Poles were off-duty soldiers. Prime Minister Buzek issued a denunciation of the “reprehensible incidents which disturbed the solemnity of the March of the Living.”
The popular Torun-based Catholic nationalist radio station Radio Maryja is the most influential source of anti-Semitic propaganda in Poland today. During the controversy surrounding the crosses at Auschwitz, the station was particularly virulent in its condemnation of Jewish “interference” (see ASW 1998/9). In a May 1999 homily delivered at the Polish-American shrine at Doylestown, Pennsylvania (also known as the “American Czestochowa”), and broadcast on Radio Maryja, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, director of the station, described his vision of a homogeneous Poland: “Poland is a great nation, a nation with a single language, a single culture, a single religion, the minorities are sparse. This is unity and it is very dangerous to those [the Jews] who wish to divide us, those who are liars and murderers...” In January 2000 the radio ha talk show devoted to the theme “What is the Auschwitz Lie?” in which Holocaust denier Dariusz Ratajczyk presented his views (see below).
Nominally Catholic publications with anti-Semitic overtones are widely available, but for the most part are no longer sold at church kiosks. One of the most prominent is the Warsaw weekly Gazeta Polska. Others are Nasz Dziennik and Nasza Polska. In May 2000 the latter ran a story vigorously protesting the findings of Jan Tomasz Gross’ book Sasiedzi (Neighbors), which detailed the July 1941 massacre of some 1,600 Jews in the town of Jedwabne (near Lomza) carried out by local Poles.
The leading and most vitriolic anti-Semitic publications are Szczerbiec (Sword), the monthly of Odrodzenie Narodowe Polski and Internet bulletins (some affiliated with parties, others independent) such as Krucjata (Crusade), Jestem Polakiem (I Am a Pole), Rozpoznaj Zydow (Recognize the Jews) and Zydzi przestancie klamac (Jews Stop Lying). Nearly all anti-Semitic groups and publications have made use of the Internet to spread their message, both within the country and to the large Polish diaspora (Polonia communities).
. Attempts by the Polish authoritiesto extradite certain Polish Jews living abroad to stand trial for crimes dating from the Stalinist era seemed tinged with anti-Semitism. The cases of Helena Brus, a former military prosecutor now living in Oxford (wife of the celebrated economist Prof. Wlodzimierz Brus), and Solomon Morel, former commander of a Polish detention camp in Swietochlowice, who left Katowice for Tel Aviv in 1993, appeared in part to be an endeavor to draw public attention to the role of Jews in the much-hated communist security apparatus in the years immediately after the war. It should be noted that no such extradition requests have been directed at former Soviet republics where some non-Jewish retired security officials now live.
Maria Fieldorf-Czarska, the daughter of General August Fieldorf, for whom Helena Brus allegedly issued an arrest warrant and who was later executed, claimed in a January 1999 interview in the Independent on Sunday: “The sad truth is that our secret services in the 1950s were dominated by Jews. They were disposed to communism; perhaps it is genetic. All the people connected with the arrest and prosecution of my father were Jewish… Nobody says sorry to us, but nowadays we have to say sorry to Jews all the time. Our government apologized for the Jews killed by the Germans; now Israel should apologize to us.”
The small village of Dmosin in central Poland reacted to a proposal in spring 2000 to name an elementary school after the poet Jan Brzechwa with a letter-writing campaign, supported by the local parish priest, protesting the notion of naming a school after a “poet of Jewish origin,” whose original name was Lesman.
ATTITUDES TOWARD THE HOLOCAUST AND THE NAZI ERA
Outright Holocaust denial appeared in Poland for the first time in a work entitled Tematy niebezpeieczne (Dangerous Themes). Publication of the book by a historian, Dr. Dariusz Ratajczyk of the University of Opole in Silesia, received wide media coverage in Poland and abroad and was condemned by all but the anti-Semitic fringe press. Although distortion of the historical record was not new (mainly, “appropriating the memory” of Polish Jews killed in the Holocaust and presenting them as Polish victims, in order to advance a communist nationalist/internationalist or Catholic nationalist political agenda, or suggesting that certain Jews collaborated with the Germans), suggestions that the gas chambers of Auschwitz were entirely fictitious represented a new phenomenon.
Prof. Wieslaw Lukaszewski, director of the Institute of History at the University of Opole, who was instrumental in having Ratajczyk dismissed from his post, declared that he was “deeply embarrassed by the whole story” and went on to apologize to the families of Holocaust victims and also to other historians. Former Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, who was one of the organizers of the wartime Zegota rescue group, suggested that Ratajczyk’s activities would be best addressed by a psychiatrist.
Ratajczyk’s views were supported by the historian Prof. Ryszard Bender of the Catholic University of Lublin. In January 2000 on Radio Maryja, of which he is a board member, Bender described Auschwitz as “not a death camp, but a labor camp. Jews, Gypsies and others were killed by hard labor, not always that hard and not always killed.” The Academic Senate of the Catholic University promised to take disciplinary action against Bender and distanced itself from the professor’s views, which it termed “noxious.” Bender’s remarks were also repudiated by Archbishop Jozef Zycinski of Lublin, and he was criticized, among others, by the Polish Union of Former Political Prisoners of Nazi Prisons and Concentration Camps, which also attacked Radio Maryja for allowing Ratajczyk and Bender to voice their views.
In spite of this incident, it seems unlikely that the type of revisionism found in North America and Western Europe will find fertile ground in Poland, where the perception of Auschwitz as the venue of Polish Christian suffering is so deep. Recent surveys indicate a dramatic improvement in common knowledge of the magnitude of the Holocaust and the number of Jews killed in Poland in relation to the number of Poles.
In June 2000 it was announced that at Jedwabne, in which some 1,600 local Jews were burned alive by local Poles incited by the Germans, a monument recognizing the identity of the perpetrators would be erected. The plaque on the present monument bears an inscription blaming the Gestapo and Nazi soldiers for the atrocity. An official from the prime minister’s office, which pledged to finance a part of the cost of the new monument from the state budget, declared: “The history of Jedwabne has an international context. Jewish communities all over the world remember it, therefore we should deal with it.” The Jewish community and officials from Jedwabne had yet to determine the wording of the new inscription.
The premises of the former concentration camp Auschwitz continued to be a major flash point of tensions between Poland and world Jewry. In July 1999 after several months of pressure by Jewish groups, the three hundred crosses planted by Kazimierz Switon and his ad hoc band of nationalist extremists just beyond the perimeter fence were finally removed. The crosses had become a rallying point for nationalists from across Poland, who viewed them as symbols of their anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitic handbills which stated, “The time has come for us Poles to wage merciless war on the Jewish communist masonry, the greatest enemies of the Polish state,” were often distributed at the site.
Police disarmed an incendiary device that Switon had threatened to detonate in the event that he and his followers would be forcibly evicted from the site and arrested. In January 2000, a court in Oswiecim convicted Switon of inciting hatred against Jews; he was fined and given a six-month suspended prison sentence. Switon accused the court of being in the service of Jewish-communist masonry.
The 8-meter-high papal cross used at a 1979 mass at Auschwitz remains, and the situation has essentially reverted to the status quo ante. Nearly all Polish politicians have supported its presence there and rejected Jewish calls (by Elie Wiesel, among others) for it to be moved to another venue. At the same time a Catholic parish church remains in the building at Birkenau that was used as the headquarters of the SS commandant of the camp. A large cross that adorns that building is clearly visible from deep within the camp, but in a section which foreign visitors rarely visit.
In recent years the Auschwitz Museum has revised the exhibition at the camp to reflect the fact that Jews constituted 90 percent of the victims, and, that unlike other victims -- mostly Poles -- they were slated for death immediately upon arrival. Moreover, the publishing department of the museum has produced a number of impressive scholarly and popular works which underscore the dimof the Jewish tragedy at Auschwitz. However, there have been Jewish protests about the communist-era exhibition in the barrack devoted to Hungarian victims of the Holocaust and the Hungarian Jewish community has taken the matter up with their government which is responsible for the display.
In April 1999 the Polish government enacted legislation establishing a protective zone around the camp and around seven other former concentration/death camps. In these special zones all commercial activity is restricted and special permits are required for holding public gatherings. In May 1999 the bill was signed into law by President Kwasniewski.
The question of the restoration of communal property owned by Jews in Poland prior to World War II, in accordance with legislation passed in 1997, continued to be controversial. In September 1999 the Lomdei Mishnayot synagogue in Oswiecim, the only surviving synagogue of the 12 that existed in the city before the war, was rededicated to house a Jewish visitors center. In June 2000 the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the Jewish Community signed an agreement to establish a fund to receive and utilize restituted communal assets.
Polish Jews living abroad and their descendents have protested new legislation that restricts the right of persons living outside Poland to claim property confiscated by the Nazis or communists. A group of Polish Jews in the United States have filed a class action against the Polish government in American courts. On a state visit to Israel in June 2000 President Kwasniewski declared that Jews who were citizens of Poland prior to 1939 would be included in any eventual privatization arrangements, but did not elaborate.
A popular theme in nationalist anti-Semitic circles is that Jews are attempting to seize control of Polish assets through re-privatization claims. On the Internet site of Odrodzenie Narodowe Polski one activist declared: “I read in the newspaper that in the negotiations [over the return of Jewish communal property in Wroclaw] ‘an equal representation of Jewish representatives and [Polish] government representatives’ will take part. Looking at the ethnic composition of our government such a distinction appears incorrect. Actually what will happen is that the ‘orthodox’ will simply speak with the Christian neophytes. Perhaps to keep the peace a few goyim [sic] may be added.”
A team of Israeli and Polish educators have examined one another’s school textbooks with a view toward eliminating objectionable references. The Polish team, from the Jewish Historical Institute (ZIH), was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. The findings of the Israeli team, composed of two officials from the Ministry of Education, were released at the beginning of 2000, revealing negative imagery on both sides.