Polish minister with spotty ancestry
claims his party is not anti-Semitic
JTA, August 3, 2006
WARSAW, Aug. 3 (JTA) - Handsome, articulate
and full of sympathetic words for the "Jewish nation,"
Polish Education Minister Roman Giertych is asked
to account for years of anti-Semitic statements made
by members of his party, the League of Polish Families.
indirect reply might be interpreted as a desire to
obscure his party's past, or an honest attempt to explain
Polish irritation with Jewish finger-pointing.
have to understand the problem: For 45 years all we
learned in school was the suffering of Polish people,
so if someone talks abut their suffering, then we talk
about how 6 million Poles died during the war, how
we were exiled to Siberia, how we fought against Hitler,"
says Giertych, 35.
Giertych refuses to acknowledge
that "competition in suffering" has little relevance
to the type of Jew-baiting that has emerged from the
league. Some league members have decried the so-called
economic exploitation of Poles by Jews; others blame
the Jews for communism.
When it's pointed out that Giertych's
deputy, Wojciech Wierzejski, wrote that international
Jewry was the enemy of the Polish national movement,
Giertych balks, claiming that Wierzejski was quoting
another writer from the 1930s.
But since Giertych recently
has declared to the Polish press his antipathy for
anti-Semitism, how does he plan to change the minds
of those in his party who hate Jews?
"They don't hate Jews," he tells
JTA. "That's your imagination."
Giertych is the grandson of
an infamous anti-Semitic politician who warned of an
alleged Judeo-Masonic conspiracy and supported kicking
Jews out of universities in the 1930s, a move recently
defended by Giertych's father, a far-right member of
the European Parliament. Giertych himself, a lawyer
with two masters degrees who speaks several languages,
is not known ever to have publicly uttered or written
an anti-Semitic statement.
Yet Giertych, who also is deputy prime minister, stands
accused of leading the most xenophobic, intolerant
and anti-Semitic party in any European government coalition.
Over the years, some hate-filled
barbs have slipped from the mouths of his supporters.
Members of All Polish Youth, a quasi-skinhead group
of which Giertych is honorary chairman, reportedly
have been photographed making the Nazi salute. And
Senator Ryszard Bender, one of the founders of the
League of Polish Families, said in 2000 that "Auschwitz
was a labor camp, not a death camp."
Now Giertych has embarked on
a campaign to show that he and his Catholic right-wing
brethren are setting a new direction.
"Nobody makes anti-Semitic statements,
because if they do they will be kicked out from our
party the next day," he insists.
Since it joined Poland's right-wing
government coalition in April, the league has been
attacked for bigotry by rights groups, the Anti-Defamation
League and even the European Parliament.
The league won just 7.8 percent
of the vote in 2005 national elections, but was needed
to cement a government majority.
Critics since have focused on
the party's open hatred of gays. Wierzejski has called
gays pedophiles and said that if they demonstrate,
"they should be hit with batons."
On the Jewish front, Giertych inadvertently made headlines
earlier this month when the Israeli ambassador to Poland,
David Peleg, said Israel would not work with Giertych
or his ministry on Holocaust education.
The Polish government has been
scrambling to transfer the Israeli-Polish programs,
which involve more than 30,000 Israeli students coming
to Poland each year as well as teacher training in
Israel, to the Prime Minister's Office. Giertych wants
the prestigious Holocaust program back.
"Three days after I became minister,
I wrote the embassy and the education minister in Israel
and said, 'Look, a Holocaust program taught from your
point of view directed by me will have tremendous credibility
in Poland,' " Giertych said. "After all, nobody would
ever accuse me of being a philo-Semite."
His efforts were to no avail.
In July Giertych traveled to
Jedwabne to commemorate a notorious 1941 pogrom in
which up to 1,600 Jews were shoved into a barn and
set on fire. Poles had thought Germans committed this
atrocity until 2000, when Jan Gross' book "Neighbors,"
and works by other Polish historians, showed it was
Polish townspeople who killed the Jews.
However, some Poles - particularly Giertych supporters
- continue to reject this conclusion, and see the Jedwabne
commemoration as part of an anti-Polish conspiracy.
Thus Giertych's visit had a double symbolism, though
he says he doesn't know who really killed the Jews.
"If in Jedwabne Polish neighbors
killed their Jewish neighbors that was a crime - more
than a crime, they were traitors to the Polish nation,"
Giertych says his visit to Jedwabne,
planned after his visit to the Birkenau death camp
to hear Pope Benedict XVI, was a turning point.
"I have always understood the
Shoah, but it is something else to feel, to empathize,
and this grew deeper at Birkenau when I had time to
reflect on the people who lived and died there," he
Asked if anyone in his party
holds anti-Semitic views, he answers no. But it's hard
to elude certain incidents.
First there was the case of
Piotr Farfal, the 28-year-old deputy director of Polish
Television and a league member, who wrote several anti-Jewish
diatribes for a neo-Nazi magazine 10 years ago, including
the statement, "We do not accept cowards, collaborators
Recently, it surfaced that a
24-year-old party member wrote when he was 18 that
Jewish authors should be excluded from lessons on Polish
Those with behind-the-scenes
access describe Giertych's party in a way that might
not match his aspirations. Wojciech Szacki, who covers
the league for the country's largest newspaper, Gazeta
Wyborcza, said there was an "anti-Semitic climate"
at the party's congress before national elections last
Politicians at the congress mocked Szacki with chants
of "koszerna," or kosher, and "Jude Zeitung," or Jewish
newspaper, a reference to the Jewish roots of the paper's
editor and its liberal outlook.
"But Giertych is really trying to change his party.
I would never call him an anti-Semite," Szacki said.
"He feels responsibility now that the party is in power,
and the members know this."
For those who worry most about discrimination, Giertych's
self-proclaimed transformation is hardly convincing.
His efforts to enforce "patriotic education" in Polish
schools has led to protests.
"You have to see this in the context of his ideology,
which excludes minorities from a patriotic version
of history," said Rafal Pankowski of Never Again, a
Polish anti-racism group.
Israel, meanwhile, is mulling the new incarnation of
"So he says now he understands the Shoah," says Yaakov
Finkelstein, cultural attache of the Israeli Embassy
in Warsaw. "Why did it take him until he was 35? And
what will he do so that it doesn't take his daughters
until they are 35 to understand?"
Giertych, for his part, says he already has changed
the league's image of Jews.
"For 15 years of my life I tried to change the understanding
of people," he says, "so why this boycott of the ambassador?
It's sad, stupid."
But he's irked when it's suggested that he should go
to synagogue to prove his bona fides.
"What for? Why should I?" he asks, his mouth tightening.
Told that this would be the ultimate conciliatory gesture,
he frowns and looks dismayed.
"I am not the pope," he retorts.