Still Marching to the Old Tunes of Anti-Semitism

Polish Independence Day
Demonstrators burn flares and wave Polish flags during the annual march to commemorate Poland’s National Independence Day, in Warsaw, Poland, on Saturday, Nov. 11. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)


A Polish journalist interviews several experts and locals for Hamodia, in the aftermath of the horrifying Independence Day March.



The scene on Shabbos afternoon, November 11, in the center of Warsaw, Poland, cast many back to one of the darkest times in the history of mankind and, in particular, of the Jewish nation. The annual march in the capital city to mark Polish Independence Day had partially turned into a demonstration of xenophobia and hatred of Jews. Among the 60,000 marchers, some of whom covered their faces or held torches aloft, signs appeared, bearing slogans such as “White Europe!” or “Poland is clean with pure blood” or “Out with the Jews.” One of the participants in the march stated, in an interview to Polish media, “I came here to get the Jews out of the government.”

Since the rise of the current Polish government headed by the nationalistic Law and Justice party, many in Poland claim that nationalism, anti-Semitism and racism have once again reared their heads. Public opinion studies conducted over the last few months show that many residents do not want to see any foreigners among them, especially Jews or Muslims, and that nationalism and xenophobia have increased significantly among all strata of society. The fact that authorities in Poland, including local prosecutors, have chosen to often take a lenient stance against displays of anti-Semitism and racism led to the outburst of hatred apparent at the Independence Day march.

Persona Non-Grata

Polish historian Jan Grabowski, 55, has paid a dear price for his studies on the anti-Semitism of some Poles throughout the generations. Grabowski, the son of a Holocaust survivor, is a graduate of the history track at the University of Warsaw. In 1988, he decided to immigrate to Canada, where he earned his doctorate at the University of Montreal and joined the academic faculty at the University of Ottawa. Throughout his years of work, Grabowski has published articles and books that pointed an accusing finger at many Poles who, he claims, took part in pogroms against their Jewish neighbors during World War II.

Polish Independence Day
Polish historian Jan Grabowski

His publications turned Grabowski into a persona-non-grata in his native land. He sustained threats to his life, and was even boycotted by the Polish community in Canada after they claimed that he besmirched the names of Poland and Poles. But Grabowski was undeterred and continued to wave the truth in the face of the Polish people.

“The current government needs the support of the radical right. The authorities are courting them and encouraging them,” he said in an interview with Hamodia. The march in Warsaw on Polish Independence Day was, in his opinion, just a venting of the nationalistic sentiments that have built up among many Poles over a long time. “The nationalistic feelings have been festering for many years. The previous governments are not guilt-free in this issue. For too long, they have tried to ride this ‘nationalist tiger’ and allowed the curricula and textbooks to reflect the nationalist jingoism. The current right-wing government has released forces that are very hard to train or contain,” Grabowski said.

There are those who compare the situation in Poland today to the voices heard in Germany in the 1930s, with slogans such as “White Europe” or “Out with the Jews.” Do you think the situation can deteriorate further, or following international criticism of the right-wing march in Warsaw, will the Polish government take steps to change things?

“The comparison between Poland and Germany of those times is very radical, of course. Even so, this is the time to be very concerned, before the situation deteriorates further. I have no way to predict the future, but I would be very surprised to see any significant activity aside from empty declarations. The Polish authorities serve their local population, their faithful base, which is nationalistic and xenophobic, and they don’t really care about what the world is saying,” Grabowski responds.

‘A Symbol of Happiness and Prosperity’?!

In recent years, there have been a number of anti-Semitic and racist incidents that were treated flippantly by the authorities in Poland. For example, in 2013, the prosecutor in the city of Bialystok decided not to open an investigation after swastikas appeared on a wall in the city. According to the prosecutor, “A swastika is not necessarily related to Nazism. In many countries in Asia it is a symbol of happiness and prosperity.” In another case, the prosecutor of Posnan decided that there was no reason to open an investigation after fans of the Lech Posnan team made anti-Semitic calls, including “Jews to the gas” and “Your home is in Auschwitz” directed at fans of the Lodz team. The reason? “The calls were directed toward the fans of a rival team, and not directly at Jews,” the prosecutor said. Add to that the fact that Poland’s education minister, Anna Zelabska, claimed in a media interview in Poland last year that there is no proof of the involvement of Poles in the massacres of Jews in Jedwabne and Kielce during and shortly after World War II, and that “people who carried out the pogrom were anti-Semites, but not exactly Poles.” The minister’s words drew ire from Jewish organizations and were widely condemned.

The most prominent recent example of the legal system’s lenient approach happened one year ago. Pyotr Ribeck, a Polish building contractor, ignited an effigy of a chareidi Jew during a demonstration in Wroclaw against the admission of immigrants to Poland. Ribeck was arrested and, in the indictment, the prosecution wanted to sentence him to just 10 months of community service. Judge Mark Gorney decided to be strict with Ribeck and sentenced him to 10 months in prison, after convicting him of incitement to hatred of foreigners. But then the local prosecutor’s office in Wroclaw surprised everyone by appealing the severity of the punishment, and insisted that it be reduced to 10 months of community service, as the original indictment recommended. “The punishment is too harsh. The offense was committed, but it is not considered a ‘crime’ under Polish law,” the appeal said.

Increasing Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia

Michal Bilewicz, a researcher at the Center for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw, was not surprised by the display of hatred on Independence Day. Studies he has conducted with his colleagues at the Center in recent years have indicated a significant rise in anti-Semitism and xenophobia among Polish citizens.

“The nationalism and xenophobia in Poland have mounted in recent years and we see this clearly in our statistics. There is a steadily growing number of Poles expressing negative sentiments toward Jews, Muslims and others. In the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s, nationalism and xenophobia was not such a significant cause for worry. There are also many more displays of hatred toward Jews, Muslims, Ukrainians and others on the internet,” Bilewicz tells Hamodia.

Like Grabowski, Bilewicz also blames the Polish government for turning a blind eye toward mounting nationalism and expression of hatred, and claims that the heads of the government are not interested in clashing with their voter base.

“In most cases, the government turns a blind eye. The previous government established a special committee that was supposed to prevent racism while using resources such as education, police reports and the like. It was also supposed to coordinate between government ministries on the subject. The current government disbanded the committee. We can clearly see that the current government is ignoring the problem, and they cannot tackle it directly because the ideology of the ‘Law and Justice’ party is in tune with the radical right-wing. If they clash with this right-wing, they are actually clashing with their voters,” Mr. Bilewicz explains.

Despite the grim picture Mr. Bilewicz paints, following the coverage and international criticism of the Independence Day march, the president of Poland, Andrzej Duda, hastened to condemn the expressions of hatred and to declare that next year, the authorities will not allow the march to be held if it will turn into a radical right-wing event. “There is no place for anti-Semitism and sick nationalism in Poland,” President Duda said.

But he is the only one who explicitly condemned the march. Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak actually called the march “a beautiful scene” while the TVP national Polish media network, which is under government control, chose to call the event a “beautiful march of Polish patriotism.”

Coincidentally or not, just a few days after the shameful march, Polish Culture Minister Pyotr Galinsky, convened a press conference in which he declared his intention to establish a museum documenting the history of the Warsaw Ghetto. The museum is to be housed in the former children’s hospital located near the wall that surrounded the ghetto.

According to Mr. Bilewicz, international criticism of the hate march will not cause the government of Poland to take action against the participants or to prevent such marches in the future. In his opinion, the entity that might change the situation is, surprisingly enough, the Israeli government.

“I don’t think criticism in the world will change the policies of the Polish government. They have tried to fight back against criticism from liberal media such as The New York Times or The Washington Post, but it seems that they are trying to maintain good ties with the government of Israel that is under Likud rule. Therefore, the pressure of the Israeli foreign ministry and Jewish organizations in the United States have had a much clearer influence on the government and president of Poland. It was a clear and good condemnation of racism by the president of Poland,” Mr. Bilewicz explained.

An IDF Vet in Poland

So how do the Jews of Poland feel during this time? Many of them claim they do not feel the rising anti-Semitism around them and feel safe on the streets of Poland.

Pinchas Etzioni has been living in Lodz, Poland, for 11 years and manages a kosher restaurant and catering business. It is impossible to mistake his Jewish appearance, including a shtreimel on Shabbos and kapote, when he walks in the streets. On Polish Independence Day, which fell on Shabbos, Etzioni was in Warsaw. Although he was easily identified as a Jew, he says he didn’t hear any offensive remarks from passersby en route to the march.

“I was in Warsaw that day and there was no problem. In principle, everyone respects me wherever I go in Poland. My neighbors open doors for me on Shabbos when they know I cannot do it. To this day, I have never encountered a problem, except perhaps a comment from a drunken person in the street. But these are minor things. I have to tell you that when I was walking on Oxford Street in London, someone once yelled at me ‘PLO!’ but in Poland, I personally have never encountered anti-Semitism to this day,” Mr. Etzioni tells Hamodia.

Still, in light of the scenes at the Independence Day march and rising Polish nationalism, is there no anxiety about walking in the streets where you can be identified as a Jew? Is there no consideration to return to Israel?

“I think the situation here is much safer than the security situation in Israel. I think they are making a much bigger story of it than the real situation is. Meanwhile, everything is very calm around me and I see no reason for it to change in the future,” Mr. Etzioni asserts.

While Mr. Etzioni is not afraid of anti-Semitism, he does have harsh criticism for the Polish government on another front. “I believe that once again they are raising the subject of kosher slaughter, and that parliament members are again proposing legislation to make shechitah more difficult. The Polish government doesn’t understand that the ones who will rise up against this decision are the Polish farmers, who will be negatively affected. The Jews make up a mere 10 percent of the kosher food consumers in Poland, and the Muslim population is the primary consumer. It will cause a lot of anger among them,” Etzioni says.

A Mounting Global Trend?

Jonathan Orenstein, the director of the Jewish community center in Cracow and one of the figures most associated with Jewish life in Poland, thinks the rising nationalism in the country is part of a mounting global trend.

“I think that what we are seeing in Poland is part of a larger trend taking place around the world. People are afraid — of technology that makes them superfluous, of foreigners that are stealing their jobs — and this fear is manifested by the fact that people differentiate between themselves and the ‘others’ with clear boundaries,” Orenstein claims. Still, he is optimistic that things will improve quickly. “I’m by nature an optimist. As a Jew, I have to be. There are good people in the Polish government, and my hope is that they will work to guarantee that Poland continues to march in the path it began in 1989, on a journey toward an open, tolerant and pluralistic Polish society.”

Do you really think the Polish government is making efforts to mitigate the trend of nationalism, or that it prefers to turn a blind eye?

“I think the Polish government can do more. I don’t think they are anti-Semitic or racist, but I think they need to clearly and explicitly condemn any lack of tolerance. The fact that certain entities on the radical right feel stronger now is not necessarily the fault of the Polish government, but it does obligate them to take a stance and make it clear that there is no place in Poland for xenophobia, for anti-Semitism or racism. In private conversation with government members, they always vigorously object to the actions of the radical right-wing. It has to happen in public as well.”

As someone directing the Jewish community center in Cracow, have you augmented security in any way in order to ensure the welfare of community members and visitors to the building?

“We constantly conduct assessments with our security personnel to ensure that our growing Jewish community, as well as the more than 100,000 visitors a year that come to the Jewish community center, feel safe. Cracow is undoubtedly one of the safest cities for a Jew in Europe today and I don’t think that will change.”

‘You Never Know What Can Happen’

Guy Sadaka, 45, a divorced father of one son, is an Israeli who has been living in Warsaw for 15 years, and has a tour guide company in Warsaw and Cracow. He tells Hamodia that he feels safe in Poland, and over the years he has lived in the country, he has encountered anti-Semitic remarks only a few times.

“The first anti-Semitic incident happened 15 years ago, a month after I arrived in Poland. I spoke to someone during a private party in Posnan, and it was a pleasant conversation, but suddenly, he saluted with a Nazi salute. I thought it was a joke, so I didn’t pay it much attention and left. The last half a year, while guiding Israeli tourists in Warsaw, I occasionally hear cries of ‘Viva Palestine! Out with the Jews!’

“I have Jewish roots, my grandfather was murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto, and I promised myself I would never display fear in front of them,” Mr. Sadaka says.

The picture that you paint is not optimistic. Have you ever considered leaving Poland and moving elsewhere?

“The only reason I still live in Poland is my son. He is 9. If not for him, I would have gone back to Israel already. As someone who came from a Zionistic home — even my grandfather, who was murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto, was the leader of the Zionist movement in his area and my grandmother refused to immigrate to any country except Eretz Yisrael — I want to say that we have nowhere else to live but Israel. That is our home, our friends, and our family, and only there are we completely safe. Even if the standards of living are better for us in Poland than in Israel, it all shrinks when compared to our Eretz Yisrael. Even if the people in Poland are nice to me, I will always feel like a stranger here. The people envy us and think that our pockets are lined with gold.”

Mr. Sadaka has criticism for tourists coming from Israel, who, he believes, arouse antagonism among the locals, which quickly leads to prejudice and hatred of Jews. “Jews who come to Poland with Jewish symbols need to respect the local population. They should not scream and think because they are tourists coming with money, they can buy everything and they have everything coming to them. I don’t think Jews need to be afraid or defensive as long as they do not bear open Jewish signs on them, but I would advise Orthodox Jews not to walk around alone. You never know what can happen,” Mr. Sadaka says.

Younger Poles: Glimmers of Hope?

The majority opinion is that Polish anti-Semitism is entrenched primarily among the older generation, which grew up with stories of the “rich Jew that controlled the world.” Public opinion surveys in recent years have proven that many older Poles are still sure that the Jews control all the powerful positions in the world and in Poland, especially the media and banks.

The younger generation in Poland, by contrast, is more tolerant and displays curiosity toward Jews and the Jewish culture that has disappeared. That is why, in recent years, the University of Poland has opened academic tracks for the study of Judaism. Courses include Hebrew, Yiddish, Jewish history and tradition, and most of the students are not even Jews. A large number of them are Polish Catholics, who also vigorously oppose anti-Semitism and racism, and feel ashamed after the disgraceful scenes from Warsaw on Independence Day. After the march, many of them posted on social media: “You don’t represent me.”

Teresa Fazan, 22, a student from Warsaw, took to the streets on Independence Day to take part in an anti-fascist march that took place opposite the radical right-wing. She stood with hundreds of other demonstrators, including anti-fascist activists who wanted to protest the anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia that participants of the march expressed.

“This march is the symbol of nationalism and xenophobia that is deeply ingrained in parts of the Polish society. The increasing intensity of these trends, which we see today, is, in my opinion, connected to the lack of political and economic stability that some of Poland’s citizens feel. These sentiments are directed toward others, who, of course, are not to blame. The march was maybe open, but the problem is still less overt. Racism appears daily and it is remarkable that the government doesn’t make the effort to condemn illegal activities that stem from racism and xenophobia. It is worrying and dangerous. It gets me angry that this march was identified with Polish Independence Day, a day that is supposed to be a celebration for citizens who consider themselves patriots but are not infected with the nationalistic and racist approach,” Ms. Fazan says.

She relates that in her immediate environment, especially among students, she encounters far more tolerant opinions toward foreigners in Poland. Many of her friends are active in organizations that help minorities in the country.

“I know that we represent only a small percentage of the population,” she admits. “I am more and more afraid of the young Poles who have nationalistic opinions, and that the situation will get worse. The nationalists and the Law and Order ruling party are not afraid of international criticism. They present it as an attack on Poland, and it is profitable for them politically not to condemn nationalism and racism. This is how they are building their image as a pro-nationalistic and conservative party. I think it is very bad for Poland and for the immigrants who live here, and I’m afraid that the coexistence of nationalists and immigrants in Poland is going to be very dangerous,” Ms. Fazan warns.

What kind of reactions did you encounter during the anti-fascist demonstration in Warsaw on Independence Day, as far as passersby? Were there expressions of support or hatred?

“Our demonstration was peaceful and quiet but very powerful. We were joined by members of various organizations and people from outside Warsaw who came especially for it. The objective was to protest the nationalist, racist, xenophobic march, but also to try and build a community of people who are actively representing the other side — the liberal, open side that is friendly to immigrants.”

Facing Trial for Slander

The mounting nationalism and racism in Poland has also led to an increase in the battles between the radical right-wing and anti-fascist activists trying to maintain Poland’s good name. Some of them have found themselves recently paying heavy personal prices for their work.

Anna Tatar, one of the heads of the “Never Again” organization that fights anti-Semitism and racism in Poland, condemned the organizers of the Eagle’s Nest music festival that is associated with nationalism on a Polish web portal. “Such events that disseminate fascistic and racist ideas must not take place in Poland,” she stated. Ms. Tatar will soon find herself in court after the festival organizers sued her for slander.

Other activists of the organization, established in 1996 by a group of Poles that were disgusted with anti-Semitism and racism spreading in Polish society, have found themselves in recent months facing arrests and indictments for trying to prevent hate marches by the right-wing. Every few months, the Never Again people publicize their “brown book” with documentation of hate crimes against foreigners. Ms. Tatar relates that in the past two years, the number of hate crimes being documented has reached a record high.

“The problem of violence that stems from xenophobia is not new in Poland, but it has been neglected for many years by the authorities. We have warned for many years that if the institutions do not treat these right-wing groups and hate crimes seriously, they will move from being marginal to the center of public life. Now we are seeing that happen,” Ms. Tatar accuses. She relates that since the Independence Day march, members of the organization have received countless requests to be interviewed by media outlets around the world. Their goal is to publicly expose the racism and anti-Semitism in Poland so that pressure will be applied on the local authorities to take action against it.

“Through cooperation with the media, we can react quickly and exert pressure on official institutions, or to try and alter negative public opinion against foreigners,” Ms. Tatar points out.

As someone who has fought anti-Semitism and racism for many years, and who will have to soon stand trial for her activities, what more do you think can be done to change the situation?

“I think that in Poland we need more public voices of authorities ready to condemn the violence and xenophobia. It can be the first step to dealing with the problem, but instead, many politicians have said that the racist flags that were carried on Independence Day in Warsaw were ‘just incidental’ or ‘marginal’ and that ‘most of the participants were Polish patriots.’ That is very distressing. I think that the authorities in Poland do not react and are not interested in seeing the problem of the growing number of hate crimes in Poland. It’s very hard for me to be optimistic,” Ms. Tatar concludes.


Polish Independence Day
Dr. Michael Berenbaum (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)


Dr. Michael Berenbaum discusses the anti-Semitism displayed at Poland’s March Celebrating Independence


Tens of thousands attended a march November 11 in Warsaw to celebrate the anniversary of Poland’s independence. While the event drew participants from diverse groups, international coverage focused on cries of “Jews out!” and “Remove Jewry from power!” chanted by members of the strong representation of ultranationalist elements.

Hamodia spoke to Holocaust historian Dr. Michael Berenbaum about what this phenomenon reveals.

“It’s profoundly incredible that Poland once had 3.3 million Jews and now has a tiny remnant of that and they’re still chanting to get rid of the Jews,” he said. “It seems that these groups have some kind of a cultural lag. If they would have been chanting these slogans two generations ago, it would be somewhat comprehensible. If I wasn’t so angry about it, I would say that it’s fascinating, because now it seems that they’re afraid, not of Jews who are in their country now, but ones who are absent. The Nazi murders and Communist purges already got rid of Poland’s actual Jews, but now they seem to be chanting against the ghosts of those Jews.”

For centuries, Poland, a predominantly Catholic country, was home to a more diverse population comprising, in part, large communities of Jews as well as Lithuanians, who were mainly members of the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, since redrawn borders made Lithuania a part of the Soviet Union and — since the fall of the USSR — an independent country, the latter group has largely left Poland. Post-Holocaust, when Communist rule induced those Jews who escaped annihilation to emigrate, Poland was left with a homogeneous Polish and Catholic population. If so, why would its nationalist elements focus on achieving a goal that had been accomplished decades ago?

In an attempt to understand how a population that has been largely absent for decades could still have significance to extremist groups, Dr. Berenbaum pointed to the connection, some historical and some imagined, between world Jewry and what is termed “globalism,” the ideological foe of strongly nationalistic groups. As a people able to find friendly and trustworthy brethren all over the world, Jews have played a vital role in international trade for millennia. This was not only a means Jews themselves used to make a livelihood, but one that was exploited by monarchs and other political leaders who used them as mercantile emissaries. As such, the image of the Jew, he explained, has been picked, particularly by groups with strong strains of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and the like, as the face of globalization, the movement they see as posing a direct threat to their dreams of a culturally pure homeland.

Poland has largely benefited from its role as part of the European and world market. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, its economy has been one of the most prosperous in Europe.

“Poland had been a net recipient of the EU; it gets around 10 percent of its resources, which you can see everywhere; roads, airports, and the like have been built with this money, but they have not joined the euro or had any of the issues that Western Europe is going through with influxes of Muslim populations,” Dr. Berenbaum notes.

“There’s really no economic interpretation for the anti-globalism,” continued Dr. Berenbaum. “They’ve benefited financially, but it has been at a cultural price. A part of being in the EU is shedding your national identity and exchanging it for a more general European one. For a lot of Poles, not only ultranationalists, that creates a complicated problem.”

Dr. Berenbaum pointed to a conversation he had with a Polish Holocaust historian who lamented that he lived in a home in Lublin that has been in his family for 300 years, yet as all of his children moved abroad for better opportunities, he was bothered by the idea that the property would be sold to a stranger, severing his family’s connection to Poland forever.

“This was someone who had been a winner of globalism, who got education and careers for him and his children through it, but he feels that he paid a serious price for it,” he said. “What these extreme right-wing groups are doing, though, is a primitive cultural response to that phenomenon, one that always harks back to the anti-Semitism that is endemic to how they see or imagine political reality. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole; their hatred for Jews will go away in one place, but it always finds a way to pop up somewhere else. But here it’s not even against real Jews, but the fantasy of Jews, their ghosts,” Dr. Berenbaum avers.

While the chants and extreme imagery present at the march were condemned by two government officials, Dr. Berenbaum still feels that leaders who have been widely accused of attempting to whitewash the role of Polish collaboration with Nazi forces during the Holocaust bear significant responsibility for distorting the nation’s historic memory.

“Since the 1980s, Poland understood that in order to make itself acceptable to the West, it was not enough to embrace its history and rebuild its identity, but it had to ‘make right’ the wrongs of the past. Now they have a government harassing scholars who write or talk about collaboration and treating them as enemies of the state,” he said.

On the diplomatic side, Dr. Berenbaum said that the responses of some Jewish organizations to extremist tendencies both in Poland and other nations has become complicated, both by fears of the threats posed by immigrant Muslim populations as well as a tendency to prioritize support for the State of Israel over the needs of local Jewish populations.

“It’s a reminder that those telling us not to be afraid — that the far right is just there to deal with Muslims and that it will not affect Jews — are kidding themselves, just like those who say the same about the anti-Israel rhetoric of the far-left. We Jews are always best off without extremists on either end,” he said. “There is a trap that is easy to fall into, to say that as long as a government is good to Israel, we are willing to overlook what they might be doing to their local Jewish community. It’s a reminder that the interests of Israel and local Jewish populations, not to mention historic memory, do not always coincide. … This all only hammers home our responsibility to defend the interests of Jews, no matter where they are, as well as loyalty to historic honesty, and to do what we can to leverage good relations with the West as dependent on living up to those standards,” concludes Dr. Berenbaum.