Witold Liliental

December 2001

Christmas is around the corner. It would be so much nicer to write only about issues that are pleasant, more in keeping with the festive season. Issues that bring good cheer for the Holidays. Unfortunately, the date in my calendar does not allow me to keep silent about what happened on December 16, 1922.

On that day, the elite gathered at the "Zachęta" gallery in Warsaw for the ceremony of opening of a new art exhibition. The very top of Poland?s Government participated in the event. All of a sudden, right in the midst of a group of people, a shot was fired. When shrieks of the terrified died down and people made room, on the floor lay, lifeless, Gabriel Narutowicz, the first President of the Republic of Poland. He had held his office for less than a week.

How did this tragedy come about? Le us go back in time to December 9 of the same year. The Sejm (Polish Parliament) convened to elect the first President of the nation reborn after World War I, for the constitutional term of seven years. No political party had a clear edge over the other ones. The moderate wing Wyzwolenie (Liberation), in coalition with the Peasant Party led by Wincenty Witos, put forward the candidature of Stanisław Wojciechowski. The right wingers, spearheaded by the national democrats, wanted to nominate Roman Dmowski, a man on the one hand merited in his efforts for the Polish cause during world War I, on the other, a forefront anti-Semite who saw Jews as the greatest threat to Poland and its people. Dmowski, however, did not accept the nomination. Taking that situation into account, the extreme right decided to back Count Maurycy Zamoyski, a wealthy magnate and a fanatical spokesman for the National Democrats. The Left reacted by a demonstrative backing of an equally fanatical Liberal, a Pole bearing the French name of Jan Beaudoin de Courtneay. As could be expected, all representatives of minorities greeted his candidature with ovations.

This, however, was more of a demonstration than a serious nomination because it was obvious that a man of such progressive opinions did not have the slightest odds of being elected. When, in the successive counts and recounts it became clear that Wojciechowski will not garner enough votes to pass, the Wyzwolenie group, close to Marshall Józef Piłsudski, in an attempt to block Zamoyski from being elected, decided to put their weight behind a totally new candidature, not even considered up to that moment. This new man was Gabriel Narutowicz, the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

An engineer by profession, Narutowicz was politically moderate and had the respect of all, as a man of great integrity. Moreover, he was acceptable both to the Center Block as well as to the Left, and to the representatives of minorities. Count Zamoyski, not expecting any new candidature to be put forward, was almost assured of his victory over Wojciechowski. When, however, the new rival appeared, and when after the sixth round of voting all the ballots were counted, Gabriel Narutowicz received 289 votes and Zamoyski only 227.

The chagrined and now furious National Democrats immediately launched a smear campaign against the winner, in which all worst words or tactics were used. Since Gabriel Narutowicz received backing from representatives of minorities, including Jews (which swung the votes in his favor) the National Democratic press engaged in mud slinging at the President-elect. Words such as ?Jewish lackey? and ?traitor? were among those most elegant and gentle of the names called.

Drumming up anti-Jewish hysteria, which, in some circles found fertile ground, the far right now focused on blocking the swearing-in of the new President. On December 11, on its way to the swearing-in ceremony, the Presidential cavalcade was attacked by snowball- and mud-throwing hooligans from the National Democratic party. The authorities did not, however, allow the artificially provoked street to dictate the policy of the State. The ceremony did take its course, albeit in a very somber atmosphere.

The right still would not give in. In its name, representative Stanisław Gł±biński went as far as demanding? abdication by the President and a new election by "exclusively Polish" votes. This demand was not only impertinent but quite naďve. After all, Poland was still a state ruled by law and the majority of representatives in the Sejm were law-abiding.

On December 16, the President, after paying a courtesy visit in the residence of Cardinal Kakowski, the Primate of Poland, arrived at the "Zachęta" gallery for the art show. At a moment when he stopped by one of the paintings, he was murdered. The assassin was immediately caught and taken into custody. He turned out to be one Eligiusz Niewiadomski, a painter, art historian and a fanatical anti-Semite. By his own declaration during the trial, he committed the murder because of ideological motives. He had no personal grudge against Gabriel Narutowicz but could not reconcile himself with the fact that the President was elected with the backing of Jewish votes. Niewiadomski was sentenced to death and executed. The National Democrats tried to elevate him to the status of a national hero and martyr.

And so, hate led to this tragic act in the beginnings of statehood of the newly resurrected Nation. It did not bring Poland any cause for pride, nor did it reap any profit. On the contrary, Poland faced even the threat of a civil war, which was averted only thanks to the reason, and political foresight of the victim?s side. Let us add that workers, enraged by the dastardly deed, as well as many hotheaded supporters of Marshall Jozef Pilsudski already planned to take their revenge on all National Democrats.

Since that somber day, 79 years have elapsed. And Poland is again rebuilding its democracy and life in a stable system, after the war and after years of having to live under a force-imposed regime paying homage to the Kremlin. Similarly as in 1922, there is no single political party with sufficient strength and the Sejm has to operate with certain compromises and coalitions of parties who would be unlikely bedfellows but who cannot govern on their own. It would seem that with the opening of Poland to the west and with cultural exchange with free, democratic and more tolerant communities which have developed in these countries since World War II, racial, ethnic or religious hate has no more right to exist. It would seem that the time has come for more tolerance for greater understanding.

Yet, it is seen with all clarity how unfortunately high a role in everyday political and public life is played by pig-headed obstinacy. If somebody is somebody else?s political rival, he is often publicly branded as Jew, regardless of whether it?s true or not. In this context, the word "Jew" has a clearly negative connotation. In the United States, or Canada, the word does not stir up any emotions. It means simply another person, belonging to an ethnic or a religious community, like everyone else around you.

In Poland, to some circles, a Jewish background is something to be "ashamed of". What can we say about Political culture in Poland if the Deputy Speaker of the Sejm, (deposed after a few days in office) Andrzej Lepper in an interview announced magnanimously that ? "with this whole anti-Semitism, there is a lot of exaggeration because Geremek (a highly respected ex Foreign Minister and currently member of the Sejm " W.L.) owned up that he is a Jew, so if anybody is now unhappy, they should be ashamed themselves for having voted for him?.

One can own up to guilt. Having touched on the subject of shame, let us add that members of the Sejm such as Maciej Giertych are NOT ashamed to openly praise and continue the despicable ideas of their grandfathers ? standard bearers of the national democratic ideology. Labor Union leaders such as Zygmunt Wrzodak, known for their vociferous ant-Semitic rhetoric, are elected to the Sejm and an extreme right political party, closely allied with the Catholic Church is not ashamed to have them in their midst.

Graffiti stating: "Poland for the Poles" can be seen on walls in cities. I could actually agree with this statement, on condition that a Pole is anybody who feels that way and not only he who passes the ethnic and denomination test. The great Polish poet Julian Tuwim (of Jewish background) once stated: "I am a Pole because I feel like it".

A good Pole need not necessarily be a Roman Catholic or with ?pure blood? ethnicity. Many believing and practicing Catholics are wonderful and decent Poles, but there are also by no means less wonderful Poles not of the same denomination. I have met priests who are clever, decent, wonderful people, who can befriend those of other faiths and respect them based on WHAT they are and not WHO they are. When I lived in Montreal, I remember a priest praying during mass for the souls of ?heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto, so that humanity will never forget their ordeal?. Denomination cannot be a determinant of patriotism. However, some members of the Polish parliament use nationalistic and xenophobic rhetoric. What will this hate lead our nation to?

Millions of Poles live in the West today. Nobody is reproached for his or her ethnic heritage and many people attain significant positions in the countries they live in. They buy homes, establish businesses. Somehow, nobody seems to mind that. In these countries they are considered to be the same Americans, Canadians, Australians or any French. They are simply accepted with no questions asked and without prejudice. But some of these same people keep on the mantra that "Poland is being bought out by Jews, Germans and other foreigners". In that case, are we not, by that same token, buying out those countries in which we live? I confess freely that I own a home in Canada. In that case, maybe it is dishonest, conniving and downright dastardly of me?

I must say, however, that those extreme Jewish fanatics who accuse all Poles of anti-Semitism equally irk me, because, honest to goodness, the whole nation does not in any way deserve that epithet. Fanaticism is dangerous regardless of the direction it comes from. We all know deceitful, slanted movies, which portray Poland in the worst of light, often even falsifying historical truth. Poland, like every other country inhabiting this earth, has its share of anti-Semites and other brands of racists. The USA have the KKK but nobody refers to mainstream Americans as racists. Poland has one of the finest records when it comes to rescuing Jews during the Holocaust. No other occupied country had an organization like the Zegota (a clandestine agenda of the Polish Government-in-Exile, devoted to helping Jews in occupied Poland). This, of course, does not mean that there was no rabble, ready to turn over Jews to the Gestapo for a reward or even to murder in the most beastly way. In the scale of the entire nation, however, such behavior was marginal. I would be happy if one day we could achieve restraint and moderation in dealings among people. We must remember that the worst, the most dishonest argument is generalization and stereotyping of whole ethnic and social groups.

In 1922 a catastrophe was narrowly averted at the doorstep of Poland?s statehood revival. Today, we stand at the threshold of the year 2002, in a world again turned wild by the religious fanaticism of terrorists who distort the sense of their religion. And what about those who, in the name of Poland invoke Catholicism and, in the same breath use anti-Semitic rhetoric? Do they not, in the same way, distort the sense and teachings of the Christian faith?

Christmas is a time, which, as was injected into my childhood awareness, goes hand in hand with the words: "and on earth, peace and good will to all men". I wish that this good will manifested itself not only in empty phrases but also in an authentic extending of a hand, in a human way, to other human beings.

To all readers of this Web site, a happy Christmas and a happy Hanukkah and may the next year bring happiness, prosperity and peace.