Warsaw — A middle-aged, non-Jewish Polish man, driving a Jewish visitor from the States on a shopping errand one recent morning turned abruptly to his guest and asked, “What do you think of the Polish people?”
In case the question wasn’t clear, the Pole clarified: “Do you think all of us are anti-Semites?”
It was a fair question. For many Jews who live outside of Poland, history stopped in 1945, when the facts of the Holocaust, much of which took place on Polish soil, came to light. To many Jews, most Poles are anti-Semitic.
The Polish man did not wait for an answer. He answered his own question: “Only 2 percent of Poles are crazy,” in other words, anti-Semitic, he said.
Anti-Semitism and other forms of racism are increasingly in the spotlight here these days. A swastika scrawled on an electrical transformer in northern Poland last year sparked an ongoing national debate about anti-Semitism and racism in Polish society.
But it wasn’t the Nazi symbol itself that led to the latest round of national introspection — it was the prosecutor’s reaction.
After the swastika was discovered last April in Bialystok, an industrial city 108 miles north of Warsaw near the Belarus border, Dawid Roszkowski declared that the infamous cross hooks symbol of the Third Reich wasn’t necessarily evil or anti-Semitic. It was, he said, “an auspicious symbol in Indian culture.” Roszkowski said he would not investigate or prosecute the vandalism as a hate crime.
While a form of the swastika does have an honored place in parts of Indian culture as an omen of good fortune, few people in Poland, which suffered heavy losses at the hands of the occupying Nazi army in World War II, accepted the prosecutor’s dismissive explanation.
The apparent moral tone-deaf attitude was not limited to Bialystok.
Warsaw’s general prosecutor last year stopped proceedings against a person who had spray painted “Jews out” on a memorial to Mordechai Anielewicz, leader of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, on the grounds that the graffiti was an offense against a monument, and Polish law does not consider offenses against a monument to be a crime. And the prosecutor’s office in Poznan said it would not bring charges against soccer fans who had yelled “You belong in Auschwitz” and “Into the ovens” at a visiting team from Lodz with putative Jewish roots because the fans’ screams were directed at the their team’s opponents, not at Jews.
These incidents — the Bialystok prosecutor’s remarks were seen as the most egregious — triggered a widespread debate about the status of anti-Semitism, and about wider acceptance of minorities in post-communist Poland.
According to “The ADL Global 100: An Index of Anti-Semitism,” released this week, 45 percent of Poland’s adult population holds anti-Semitic views, the highest figure in Eastern Europe; the Czech Republic is lowest at 13 percent. The West Bank and Gaza ranked highest overall: 93 percent: Laos was lowest: .2 percent. Greece ranked the highest in Western Europe at 69 percent and the United States came in at 9 percent.
A member of the European Union for a decade, Poland, like other former communist countries where anti-Semitism was sanctioned, if not expressly encouraged by many levels of government, is working to achieve a balance between free speech and protection of minority group interests.
“Of course, anti-Semitism still exists on a level that’s unacceptable,” Rafal Pankowski, a sociologist and leader of the Nigdy Wiecej (Never Again) anti-racism monitoring organization, told The Jewish Week. “There is more public attention and awareness.”
“The concern is not so much about the swastikas as such, but the shameful reaction of the state,” said Konstanty Gebert, a prominent journalist here and longtime Jewish activist. “The swastikas indicate a growing climate of right-wing extremism” — extremism that does not engender sufficient opposition in Polish society. “The state reacts in spots and bursts. The church is silent. The basic lesson is that the goalposts have been shifted, and what was unacceptable extremism 10 years ago has become tolerable behavior.
“Welcome to Europe,” Gebert says, adding, “It’s not specifically”— or only — “Poland.”
When most Poles see anti-Semitic or racist graffiti, observers say, they simply walk by.
Poland, a prominent example of a former-communist society finding its place in contemporary Europe, appears to be accepting some of the norms — such as tolerance for largely left-wing and Muslim-inspired anti-Semitism — that have characterized much of Western Europe in recent decades, Gebert says.
Other examples throughout the country: vandalism of a mosque, attacks on members of the Lithuanian minority, harassment of Chechen families and of a mixed-race couple.
According to a study conducted by the Warsaw-based Center for Prejudice Research, there were more than 600 reported cases of xenophobic or racist acts in 2011-12, the latest period for which such figures are available, a 40 percent increase over the previous two-year period. In addition, 63 percent of people participating in the survey said they believe in a Jewish conspiracy — 90 percent of them have never met a Jew.
But Bialystok is the most visible case of what some people fear is becoming the new face of Poland.
Once a racially mixed city, it now is a homogeneous, ethnic-Polish area. Before World War II, it reportedly had the highest percentage of Jewish residents of any major city in Europe (about 70 percent); now the city of 300,000 has a high unemployment rate, an active neo-Nazi movement and just a few dozen Jews.
In the last decade, the city has drawn notice for threats against a teacher of Holocaust studies, anti-Semitic vandalism at a city cemetery, a protest “March of Unity” conducted by the governing Civic Platform party, the sentencing of four young men to one-year prison terms for painting Nazi symbols and slogans on a Jewish site, and, a few months ago, the desecration of Jewish tombstones.
Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich called the statement by the Bialystok prosecutor “an example of anti-Semitism combined with stupidity. Poles who employ a Nazi symbol — or downplay its ties to the wartime German occupation, which cost 3 million Jewish and 3 million non-Jewish lives in the country — “are ignorant of their own suffering,” Rabbi Schudrich said.
“The notion that the Swastika is [primarily] an Asian symbol of happiness is ridiculous, as all in this city know that the Nazis eradicated the Jewish presence,” said Rebecca Kobrin, assistant professor of American Jewish history at Columbia University and author of “Jewish Bialystok and Its Diaspora” (Indiana University Press, 2010). “It would be like placing a Confederate flag on the slave quarters at a plantation museum, and calling that a symbol of happiness.”
Following a firestorm of criticism by several Polish political leaders, the Polish media and anti-racism non-governmental organizations, Roszkowski subsequently retracted his statement and said he would treat the vandalism as a hate crime.
But his initial remark led to an ongoing national discussion about the place of anti-Semitism and discrimination against other minority groups in the largely Catholic country, and the establishment of several anti-racism educational and public relations campaigns.
Katka Reszke, author of “Return of The Jew: Identity Narratives of the Third Post-Holocaust Generation of Jews in Poland” (Academic Studies Press, 2013), notes that anti-Semitic sentiment is largely expressed outside of the country’s bigger cities.
“I’m not sure that we would say that Jews in smaller communities are more vulnerable,” she said. “I think it’s that the anti-Semites feel more at ease expressing their views in smaller cities — there seems to be less police intervention and less of a threat that what they do will be condemned by their peers.”
But Reszke sees some good news. “Polish anti-Semitism is a rhetorical one rather than a violent one. It manifests itself in words rather than in physical abuse.”
And, she adds, “although anti-Semitic graffiti can be found in many cities in Poland … there is a significant segment of society determined to fight anti-Semitism and do to much memory work towards reconciliation of Polish-Jewish relations.”
A survey last year found that 44 percent of Warsaw teens said they would rather not have Jewish neighbors, and more than 60 percent said they would not want a Jewish spouse.
Such findings rekindle accusations of a growing anti-Semitism here, possibly kindled by the parliament’s debate of bill that would ban ritual slaughter of animals according to Jewish and Islamic law.
Soccer has become a leading venue of public expressions of anti-Semitic slogans, because some teams, like one from Lodz represent cities that before World War II had large Jewish populations, although few Jews live there now.
The public debate has led to several initiatives including a “Let’s Kick Racism” soccer-themed exhibition in the halls of parliament, new anti-racism programs under the auspices of Otwarta Rzeczpospolita (Open Republic) and new sensitivity training sessions ordered by Poland’s attorney general, and the appointment of a specially trained prosecutor in each regional prosecutors’ office to deal with racist crimes.
Bialystok is the center of much of the activity, including a “Paint Over Evil” campaign, coordinated by a Bialystok theater, encouraging citizens to remove anti-Semitic and racist graffiti; more security at the city’s Jewish sites; the allotment of Bialystok’s City Council of $33,000 for a tolerance campaign; the establishment of an anti-racism campaign in high schools by the mayor’s office; and the announcement that the city’s popular Jagiellonia soccer team that it will take action against fans who yell racist slogans at games.
In the aftermath of last year’s swastikas Poland, officials are treating Bialystok “as a training ground for anti-racism,” said Interior Minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz.
It is too early to determine whether the flurry of programs will have any long-term effects, observers say, but Natalia Sineaeva-Pankowska, a staff member at the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews here, says it’s clear that the public debates have contributed it an increase in visitors to her institution.
And Rabbi Schudrich, who has worked with Poland’s main Jewish cultural organization to combat anti-Semitism and racism, says the ongoing debate is causing a growing number of Poles to face the country’s past — and its sometimes troubling present.
“Debate has been very good,” and the country is “facing a problem openly and straight on,” the rabbi says. “It is inspiring to see the people of Poland reacting against that which is wrong. The curse of silence has been broken.”