Some 63 percent of the Polish respondents in a recent study conducted by the Center of Research on Prejudice at Warsaw University believe the old canard that there is a Jewish conspiracy to control international banking and the media. The cruel joke about this finding is that 90 percent of these Poles say they’ve never even met a Jew but still harbor this hatred. Poland’s archly conservative Catholic Church is a major culprit and continues to perpetuate the traditional forms of anti-Semitism that have been going on for centuries. Eighty percent blame the Jews for the murder of Jesus and espouse to the belief in the blood libel – that Christian blood is used in Jewish rituals. If one thought that this stuff went out with the Dark Ages, it hasn’t in Poland. According to Professor Joannas Tokarska-Bakir, a cultural anthropologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences, who has been investigating the persistence of blood libel beliefs in eastern Poland, “The Church continues to play a key role in fomenting the classic anti-Semitism.” But anti-Semitism is so rampant that it is equally common among those not religious, as well.
It has also been pointed out that the area of southeastern Poland is the most anti-Semitic region of the country. Coincidently, that was where the largest Jewish communities existed before the war, in cities like Lodz and Lublin, and where the ruins of many synagogues still stand, though virtually no Jews live there today. This is especially heartbreaking to me personally, since my father grew up in Lodz and spent his formative years there. My paternal grandfather is buried in Lodz’s Jewish cemetery, and my paternal grandmother was interred in the Lodz ghetto and then gassed in Treblinka. On a more positive note, Lodz is where my parents met and married after the War. It became widely known that the survivors who had no place to go came to Lodz as a central haven to begin life anew.
Michal Bilewicz, director of the Center for Research and Prejudice, noted that “It’s worse there (southeastern) than in the western parts of Poland.” Hundreds of cemeteries in this region have been desecrated, and he tried to explain the high level of anti-Semitism in this part of Poland as a kind of unique form of anti-Semitism that is devoid of Jewish presence. “We know that it is based on a very deep anti-Semitism that is so embedded in people’s minds that they don’t consider it problematic.” Before the Holocaust, there were 3.2 million Jews living in Poland; now there are 10,000 – less than 0.1% of the Polish population of 38.2 million.
Polish President Andrzej Duda just signed a law that had been passed by both houses of parliament limiting rhetoric about the country’s involvement in the Holocaust. The law would levy three years in prison to anyone who blames the Polish state or nation for crimes that were perpetrated exclusively by Nazi Germany during World War II. The edict is aimed, according to its backers, “to protect Poland’s reputation and ensure historians recognize that Poles as well as Jews perished under the Nazis.”
The law was swiftly condemned by a wide range of Holocaust commemoration entities, survivors, and historians. The United States asked Poland to rethink the legislation. Israel countered with a bill that criminalizes denying or minimizing the role of Nazi collaborators.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to the law by saying, “One cannot change history and the Holocaust cannot be denied.” Naftali Bennett, the Israeli education minister who was disinvited to come to Poland, stated, “The blood of Polish Jews cries from the ground, and no law will silence it.”
The Poles want to portray themselves as victims. After the transition from Communism to democracy, the Polish government launched a “historical policy.” It emphasizes Polish victimhood, a people suffering at the hands of external forces, and minimizes Polish complicity or crimes during and after the war. The government is trying to whitewash the role Poles played in one of history’s bloodiest chapters. Efraim Zuroff, a noted historian and Nazi hunter, said, “Everybody knows that many, many thousands of Poles killed, and they betrayed their neighbors to the Germans, causing them to be murdered. The Polish state was not complicit in the Holocaust, but many Poles were. The country was a hotbed of anti-Semitism before the Holocaust, too. It’s foolish to ignore it.” It is also true that numerous residents profited from taking the property and possessions of murdered Jews and never bothered to return them to the few who came back.
Israel, the United States, and Holocaust scholars warn that the Polish law could suppress an honest accounting by Poles especially survivors of their countrymen’s role in the Holocaust.
There were, of course, Poles who risked their lives defending and hiding Jews. Yad Vashem formally recognizes 6,700 Polish “Righteous Among the Nations” because they were involved with saving Jews during the Holocaust – more than from any other country in Europe.
The Poles are very uppity and have taken great umbrage about the calling of the six concentration camps located on Polish soil as Polish death camps and not Nazi death camps. Some of these camps are the most infamous, including Auschwitz, Treblinka, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Majdanek.
Since the law has been introduced, the atmosphere in Poland seems to have gotten worse. Young Poles are now accustomed to anti-Semitic statements on the Internet and Polish television. A prominent television commentator referred to Jews as “kikes” in a tweet that was later removed. The director of a state-run television station said on the air that Nazi death camps should actually be called Jewish because who managed the crematoria there?”
The law against speaking about the Holocaust
is just the tip of the anti-Semitic iceberg
“We feel that suddenly the world in which we are living is collapsing in all possible ways,” says Anna Chipczynska, the President of the Jewish Community of Warsaw. “We have got into a very dangerous and vicious circle and it is becoming every day more difficult to get out of it.”
According to the study’s findings, Poles are increasingly unwilling to accept Jews as co-workers, neighbors, or a member of their family. To add to the toxic environment is Islamophobia. “The more people are anti-Muslim, the more they’re anti-Semitic,” said Bilewicz.
Calling the kettle black, Andrzej Zybertowicz, an advisor to President Duda, accused the Jews of impropriety during the war. This warped individual analyzed that Jews want to cast blame on the Poles because of a “feeling of shame at the passivity of the Jews during the Holocaust. The Holocaust was a monstrous humiliation that they did not fight, did not resist.” He went on to say that there were “Jews who collaborated with the enemy, who sold out and murdered fellow Jews. Some people explain that the brutal crackdown on Palestinians or Hezbollah is also a form of getting on their shame.” This garbage comes from the educated intelligentsia. One can only imagine what the “prost” (common) Pollacken think.
Jonathan Ornstein, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, said that one of the side effects of the dispute has been that it obscures the “miracle” of the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland. “What is happening here is real and strong and will survive.” This is wishful thinking and delusion. Polish Jewry is positioning its hope and aspirations on the recent opening of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which showcases the Jewish contributions to Polish life during the more than 1,000 years that Jews have lived in the country. Another bright spot they think is the Radzik’s School of Dialogue, which seeks to recover Poland’s Jewish past. It deploys educators throughout Poland to make students aware of the places in their town where Jews once lived and worked and where there were synagogues and about Judaism. The opening of the Jewish Community Center in Warsaw last October was another step toward the revival of Jewish life in Poland. But this is all a brachah l’vatalah (waste of time). If they want to consider buildings for their historical perspective, the crematoria at Auschwitz is a better example.
The law against speaking about the Holocaust is just the tip of the anti-Semitic iceberg. The Polish parliament is preparing to vote on a bill that proposes to limit the export of kosher meat. A European Jewish lobby group explained: “Polish kosher meat is a major source of meat for retailers across the European Union and beyond. These restrictions on exporting kosher meat from Poland would affect a very large part of the Jewish communities in Europe.” The bill will also prohibit slaughtering animals when they are “in the unnatural state” – a stipulation which is thought to mean when they are standing up. This makes it very difficult to perform kosher slaughter due to some kashrus laws that forbid application of pressure on the knife to protect the animal from unnecessary pain. Rabbi Menachem Margolin, Chairman of the European Jewish Association, states that “these restrictions on kosher slaughter are in complete contradiction to the principle of freedom of religion of the European Union. The situation in Poland is unacceptable.”
The rabbi is correct. Nothing is acceptable for Jews in Poland and nothing ever will be. Instead of trying to undo the hateful treatment of Jews or pretend that it doesn’t exist even though it has been going on for centuries, the best thing for Polish Jewry to do is to make aliyah. There is no Queen Esther to save them now and there are too many Hamans to remove to solve the problem. My advice to them is to get out and get out quickly. Anti-Semitism is on the rise and it would be most unfortunate if one more drop of Jewish blood is spilled in that G-d-forsaken place.
Cynthia Zalisky is the Executive Director of the Queens Jewish Community. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org