Ill Wind Blowing in Poland?

Disturbing comments made just over a decade ago by a prominent member of the right-wing Polish “Law and Justice” political party were revisited this week in the wake of elections that made the party the first in post-communist Poland to win an absolute majority in parliament — 235 of the 460 seats. Making things more disturbing still, the party member, Antoni Macierewicz, was appointed Poland’s new minister of defense.

Macierewicz was asked in 2002 by a caller during a broadcast on Radio Maryja, a notoriously anti-Semitic radio network, what he thought of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious work of fiction published in Russia in 1903 that  purports to be the minutes of a late 19th-century meeting where Jewish leaders discuss their goal of global Jewish hegemony by subverting the morals of Gentiles, controlling the press, and manipulating the world’s economies.

Hitler, ym”s, was an enthusiastic fan of the booklet, even though it was exposed as a forgery by The Times of London in 1921, and made sure it was studied in German classrooms.  On the other side of the political spectrum, the book was also circulated by the Tsarist secret police to promote the fantasy of an international Jewish conspiracy to control the world.

Macierewicz responded on air that he had read the Protocols and found it “interesting.” Although he acknowledged the claim that the pamphlet’s contents are a fictional tale, he told the caller that “experience shows that there are such groups in Jewish circles.”

Macierewicz has a reputation for believing in conspiracy theories. In 2006, he claimed six Polish foreign ministers were Soviet agents, including two Jews and a World War II Polish Underground hero.  And, in 2010, he accused Russia, Germany and elements of the moderate Polish Civic Platform Party of engineering the crash of a Polish plane in Russia, a disaster that investigations attributed to pilot error.

Whether Poland’s new government will prove to be an ill wind remains to be seen.  Comments made years ago by one of its officials certainly needn’t bode a worsening of the country’s relationship with Jews.

After the fall of communism in Poland, Jewish cultural, social, and religious life underwent something of a revival. The Holocaust-era history of the nation, which was previously suppressed by Communist censorship, has been openly and publicly discussed.

Poland has legal provisions to combat anti-Semitism, and has ratified all the major international conventions pertaining to human rights protections and anti-discrimination.

Jewish religious life has been revived with the help of the Ronald Lauder Foundation. There are two Rabbis serving the Polish Jewish community, and there are Jewish schools and camps. A large number of Polish cities are graced with places of Jewish worship.  Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, once Europe’s largest yeshivah, was renovated, dedicated and reopened in 2007.

The Auschwitz State Museum currently houses exhibitions on Nazi crimes with a special section focused on Jewish victims and martyrs. At Treblinka there is a monument built out of many shards of broken stone, as well as a mausoleum dedicated to those who perished there.  In Lodz there is the largest Jewish burial ground in Europe, and there are preserved Jewish historic sites in Góra Kalwaria and Leżajsk, among other towns.

There is a Warsaw Ghetto Memorial and a memorial to the victims of the Kielce pogrom of 1946, where a mob murdered more than 40 Jews who returned to the city after the war.  The latter was funded by the city itself and the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.

In 2000, Auschwitz’s Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot shul was renovated and re-opened.  It was the first communal property in the country to be returned to the Jewish community under a 1997 law allowing for restitution of Jewish communal property.

According to some surveys, the percentage of Poles viewing Jews negatively is declining, and the percentage viewing them with sympathy is rising. As the country’s Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, once told the BBC: “It’s [a] … false and painful stereotype that all Poles are anti-Semitic … There is anti-Semitism in Poland, as unfortunately the rest of Europe; it is more or less at the same level as the rest of Europe. More important is that you have a growing number of Poles who oppose anti-Semitism.”

That said, though, anti-Semitism remains alive and well in much of Europe. Time will tell whether the new government will conduct itself in a way that further erodes ill will toward Jews or, chalilah, the opposite. A good sign of the former would be for Defense Minister Macierewicz to publicly clarify and retract his ugly words of 2002.