Polish Jews stunned, scared by eruption of anti-Semitism

Recent public expressions of Jewish hatred amid tensions with Israel, world Jewry over Holocaust law have Jews reconsidering their future in the country

Illustrative photo of Jewish people praying in a synagogue in Warsaw, Poland, on February 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)
Illustrative photo of Jewish people praying in a synagogue in Warsaw, Poland, on February 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Matylda Jonas-Kowalik has spent most of her 22 years secure in the belief that she would never know the discrimination, persecution, or violence that killed or traumatized generations of Polish Jews before her. She once thought the biggest problem that young Jewish Poles like herself faced was finding a Jewish boyfriend or girlfriend in a country dominated by Catholics.

But an eruption of anti-Semitic comments in public debates amid a diplomatic dispute with Israel over a new Holocaust speech law has caused to her to rethink that certainty. Now she and others fear the hostile rhetoric could eventually trigger anti-Semitic violence, and she finds herself thinking constantly about whether she should leave Poland.

“This is my home. I have never lived anywhere else and wanted this to keep being my home,” said Jonas-Kowalik, a Jewish studies major at Warsaw University. “But this makes me very anxious. I don’t know what to expect.”

Poland’s Jewish community is the surviving remnant of a vibrant and diverse Polish- and Yiddish-speaking community that numbered 3.3 million on the eve of the Holocaust. Only 10 percent survived the German genocide, while postwar violence and persecution in the first decades of communist rule forced out many of the survivors.

A monument found desecrated with anti-Semitic graffiti at a Jewish cemetery in Wysokie Mazowieckie, Poland (photo credit: AP/Jedrzej Wojnar)
A monument at a Jewish cemetery in Wysokie Mazowieckie, Poland is found desecrated with anti-Semitic graffiti, March 2012 (Jedrzej Wojnar/AP)

Since communism’s collapse in 1989, Jewish life has been re-emerging, with young people feeling safe enough in Poland’s democracy to embrace a heritage their parents and grandparents had largely repressed.

Yet anxieties have been creeping in amid a global rise in xenophobia that was also felt in Poland.

A conservative party, Law and Justice, won power in Poland, vowing to restore national greatness while also stressing an anti-Muslim, anti-migrant message. Jews — whose presence in Poland goes back centuries — were increasingly the targets of verbal hate on social media.

Matters escalated a few weeks ago when Israeli officials sharply criticized new Polish legislation that criminalizes blaming Poland as a nation for crimes committed by Nazi Germany. They accused Poland of seeking to use the law to whitewash the role of the Poles who helped Germans kill Jews during the war.

Poland’s most powerful politician Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the ruling party, speaks to denounce anti-Semitism and praise Israel at a ceremony honoring Poles who protected Jews during the Holocaust, in Warsaw, Poland, September 18, 2017.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Polish authorities deny that. They say they just want to protect Poland from being depicted as a collaborator of the Nazis when the country was Adolf Hitler’s first victim and resisted the Nazis through nearly six years of war and occupation.

Amid Israeli criticism, a prominent Polish right-wing commentator used an offensive slur to refer to Jews. Rather than being punished, he was welcomed on TV programs, including a state television talk show, where he and the host made anti-Jewish comments, including jokes about Jews and gas chambers.

The negative comments just kept on coming. A Catholic priest said on state TV that it was hard to like Jews, and his words were then quoted by the ruling party spokeswoman. An adviser to the president said he thought Israel’s negative reaction to the law stemmed from a “feeling of shame at the passivity of the Jews during the Holocaust.”

Commentators have also suggested that opposition to the Holocaust law was a cover for Jews wanting money from Poland, a reference to reparations that international Jewish organizations seek for prewar Jewish property seized by the communists.

In this July 10, 2016, file photo, Poland’s chief rabbi Michael Schudrich prays during commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of a massacre of Jews in Jedwabne, Poland. (AP/Michal Kosc)

Anna Chipczynska, the head of Warsaw’s Jewish community, said members feel psychologically shaken or even depressed, and that the hostile rhetoric has triggered hateful phone calls and emails and other harassment.

In recent events, two men tried to urinate in front of Warsaw’s historic Nozyk Synagogue, and then shouted obscenities when security guards intervened. One Jewish community member found a Star of David hanging from gallows spray-painted outside a window of his apartment. A woman found the word “Zyd” — Polish for “Jew” — written in the snow outside her home.

An inscription reading, ‘They were Flammable’ and a Nazi swastika are seen in Jedwabne, Poland, September 1, 2011, on the monument dedicated to Jews from the town of Jedwabne burned to death by their Polish neighbors in 1941. (AP/Michal Kosc/File)

Agnieszka Ziatek of the Jewish Agency for Israel said she has seen a spike in the number of Polish Jews inquiring about immigrating to Israel.

The current wave of discrimination comes just weeks before the 50th anniversary of an anti-Semitic campaign orchestrated by Poland’s communist regime in March 1968. That campaign began with rhetoric eerily similar to the things being said today, and ended up with 20,000 Jews forced to relinquish their possessions and their Polish citizenship and flee the country.

Many liberal Poles are also shaken by the developments, which come amid what human rights officials see as a larger erosion of democratic standards. More than 8,000 people have signed a letter of solidarity to “our Jewish friends,” decrying what they call “a wave of hatred and disgusting language.”

Hanna, a 33-year-old Jewish woman from Warsaw, says she has finally understood the deep fears of her mother, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who witnessed the 1968 persecution. She said her mother has always said Jews in Poland had to be mentally prepared to flee at little notice with just a suitcase.

“I always thought she was crazy,” said Hanna, who asked that her last name not be used because she, too, is now afraid. “Now I see that maybe my mom isn’t crazy. Maybe this is the circle of life and history is repeating.”

People take part in a demonstration against a controversial new Polish bill regarding the Holocaust and the definition of Nazi death camps, on February 5, 2018 outside the presidential palace in Warsaw. (AFP Photo/Janek Skarzynski)

Jonas-Kowalik said she is thinking about continuing her studies in Sweden, but that even thinking about leaving is deeply painful. While some family members left Poland after the war and in the 1960s for the United States and Sweden, her immediate family chose to stay.

“If our grandparents and parents didn’t leave after World War II, and didn’t leave in 1968, it meant they overcame a lot of difficulties to stay,” she said. “The question is if we are able to do the same, if we are ready for such a hard future.”

Mikolaj Grynberg, a writer and photographer, said while young Polish Jews feel shocked and “lost,” he, at 52, has long been aware of Poland’s anti-Semitic undercurrent. While on book tours, Grynberg said people would sometimes ask him, “Why did you choose to write in our language?” as if he weren’t as Polish as they.

As the descendant of Warsaw Ghetto survivors, he has faced years of hateful emails and online messages, and says he has been prepared psychologically for a return of bad times.

“Each time you have an anti-Semitic wave, there are Jewish people who leave,” Grynberg said. “It’s not just a whim: It’s about their fear. Jewish people know what can come after.”

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