Even as problems of hate persist,
Poles say anti-Semitism label unfair
By Dinah Spritzer
PRAGUE, July 17 (JTA) - They
are despised by many. They face discrimination and
stereotyping, and feel overwhelmed by the prejudice
against them. They want to be seen as individuals,
not as a group, and they want the media to stop slandering
not Jews, not Israelis. Think Poles, some of whom feel
under siege for group allegations of anti-Semitism.
Joanna Owsiana, is a Jewish
studies major at Jagiellonian University in Krakow
who in May participated in the March of Remembrance
and Hope, which brings young people together of all
faiths in Poland to promote tolerance. Her counterparts
from the United States and Europe were open-minded,
but she said a Polish-born Holocaust survivor living
in Israel declared "she hated Poles and labeled them
all as anti-Semites.
"I told her I was not responsible
for what Poland did 60 years ago. My grandfather's
family hid Jews from the Nazis, but she didn't want
to hear about that," Owsiana said.
Much has been made since the
fall of communism of the persistence of Polish anti-Semitism,
and many Poles feel that try as they might, they cannot
throw off this label. They argue that the real Poland
is represented by young women like Owsiana, and not
by marginal hate groups that one could find anywhere.
Working against them is evidence
that anti-Semitism is a persistent problem in Poland.
The Polish anti-racism organization Never Again estimated
that Poland has hundreds of anti-Semitic Web sites
and is home to an increasing number of neo-Nazi groups.
According to a 2005 Anti-Defamation
League survey of 12 European countries, Poland ranked
between first and third place among nations with negative
stereotypes about Jews.
Less known are current intensive
efforts by the Polish government to combat anti-Semitism
with police training, school programs and public statements
in support of Polish Jewry.
Little media attention is paid
to the hundreds of grass-roots efforts by Polish Catholics
to promote Jewish-Polish dialogue and the perseveration
of Jewish heritage. There are also reportedly more
students studying Jewish history and the Holocaust
at a university level than anywhere else in Europe.
Instead the press has focused
on Education Minister Roman Giertych, the honorary
chairman of the xenophobic All Polish Youth, known
for its hatred of Jews and other so-called foreign
Making sense of the two extremes
in Poland is difficult for Jews and non-Jews alike,
as was evident at the recent weeklong Jewish cultural
festival in Krakow, a homage by Poles to their former
Jewish neighbors whose culture was nearly extinguished
by the Nazis and the Communists.
Jan, a 30-something Israeli
visitor, said, "I feel confused. It's like they shot
us in head and now they want to dance to our music."
He was referring to Poles who
collaborated with the Nazis, the 1946 pogrom in the
city of Kielce and a government-sponsored anti-Semitic
wave in 1968.
There were about 14,000 people, mostly Poles, at the
festival's final jam session, where some of the world's
best klezmer bands performed.
Many Poles attend because it's
a free music event. But out of the dozen partyers interviewed
by JTA, all said they were there because they wanted
to learn more about Jews.
Agnieszka, a 27-year-old from the city of Czestochowa,
was typical. "I wanted to visit the festival because
I am interested in Jewish culture. It's my first time
and I am really excited," she said.
Asked if she had ever met a
Jew she replied, "Not really, but I suspect that some
roots of my family belong to Jewish culture. I would
like it to be so."
But what about those Poles outside of the touristy
Kazmierz district where the festival is held?
In the working-class neighborhood
of Podgorze, a group of teenagers who looked liked
like poster boys for a skinhead magazine responded
amicably to questions about the festival. "Jews are
ordinary people," said one tattooed teen. "We have
no problems with Jews," noted his shirtless friend.
A third shaven-headed young
man said that there certainly were anti-Semites in
Poland, but added, "Everyone complains that Poland
is the worst country. It's not fair."
Amid another group of young
men, grumpy and hot in the unrelenting Krakow heat,
Kamil Kacmarczyk, 19, told JTA, "Jewish people are
smart and witty. I love the nation of the Jews. It's
not popular to say this, but their extermination was
also partly Polish fault."
Further down the main shopping
street was Halena Ilinska, 70, who revealed the deep
ambivalence of her financially downtrodden generation.
"I love the idea of the Jewish festival, I like the
songs," she said. But reflecting on Jews, she said,
"Politically I don't like them. They have money and
can do things with it. We are in a poor country and
we are made to feel inferior."
Her displeasure was nothing
compared to the man who could be dubbed the Jew-hater
of Krakow. Sitting on a bench in Podgorze's main square,
the 79-year-old conspiracy theorist was smartly dressed.
He refused to give his name
but was willing to be photographed, while letting go
a stream of invective: "Jews are so rich, we are so
poor. They take our money. Seventy-five percent of
the Communists were Jews. And now, a lot of the government
is Jewish. They don't have Jewish names, but the president,
he is really Jewish."
Regarding the Holocaust he said,
"Maybe Hitler killed too many of them, but the Jews
should have been taught to live like decent people."
His tirade was made only a few
minute's walk from the ghetto and Plaszow forced labor
camp memorialized in "Schindler's List."
Back at the festival, Monika,
19, was shaking her booty to the Mick Jagger of klezmer,
David Krakauer. She planned to take festival's tour
of the former Nazi Jewish ghetto "so I could learn
what happened to all the Jews who used to live here."
Six decades is a long time for
Jews to have to wait for Monika, and not the park bench
lunatic, to be the dominant force in Polish-Jewish
But as positive images of Jewish
contributions are now more central to Polish education
and culture, from the Krakow festival to myriad government-sponsored
programs unearthing Jewish history, there is hope that
a new generation of Poles will be known for their tolerance
instead of their anti-Semitism.