Black Hole in Polish Soul

Paul Cézanne: La Douleur (Sorrow) (1868 – 1869) // Public domain

Joanna Łopat talks with Daria, 40 year-old Jewish women from Warsaw.

Joanna Łopat (J.Ł): When we arranged this interview, you said you would like to remain anonymous, because you are afraid that someone will paint swastikas on your door. Your request frightened me as it proofs that in Poland a person of Jewish descent can be afraid. What are you afraid of?

Daria (D): I am a Jewish activist and I believe that the Polish state is incapable of providing a sense of security to people like me. Of course, I am not saying that painting a swastika on the door is the only thing I am in danger of. That is not an extreme situation, but it is the first step towards it. For in Poland, there is public consent to anti-Semitism. People who have committed anti-Semitic crimes are not convicted. Anti-Semites go unpunished.

J.Ł: How do you define anti-Semitism?

D: Anti-Semitism, in my view, is a dangerous prejudice deeply rooted in history. With reference to that history, I would distinguish three types of anti-Semitism, following Professor Bilewicz: traditional anti-Semitism, which attributes ritual murder to Jews; contemporary conspiracy anti-Semitism, which promotes the idea that Jews control the world; secondary anti-Semitism, which manifests itself through statements such as “the religion of the Holocaust.’

There are numerous varieties of these types of anti-Semitism or prejudice and hatred toward Jews. However, I believe that it is worth speaking with one common voice on this issue. That is why the definition created by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) is so important.

This definition aids law enforcement and the courts in addressing anti-Semitism as both a crime and hate speech. It is a necessary step because anti-Semitism poses a threat not only to the Jewish community but also to public security in general, especially since it is now part of political discourse.

J.Ł: I came across a study which concluded that “anti-Semitism is not a serious problem in Poland today” because while there are many anti-Semitic demonstrations (burning a Jewish effigy, etc.), “no political party openly proclaims anti-Semitic slogans.” And this, among other things, because Polish anti-Semitism, is anti-Semitism without a Jew.

D: Tolerating various anti-Semitic behaviours is as big a problem as anti-Semitism itself. I, personally, cannot imagine a situation in which in any civilized country or in the main square in a city a person would go out with a Jewish effigy and burn it. And that the police would not react. That such things happen with the silent acquiescence of the authorities. And ultimately without any legal consequences.

This is very difficult. Moreover, it is a serious problem in Poland today. All the more so because there are Jews in Poland. In the 2011 Census, 7,000 people claimed Jewish descent.

J.Ł: But 85% of Poles say they do not know a person of Jewish descent.

D: In Poland, a lot of people think that a Jew, as a rule, must look different and be recognizable. However, it is not the case. Look at me. I do not stand out in any way, as do 95 percent of the Jewish community in Poland. In addition, the identities are diverse. There are people who know about their identity and are active in social circles, and there are those who know and acknowledge their Jewish identity, but do not go beyond the circle of close acquaintances. There are also those who do not admit to their origin.

In recent years, this applies to me too – when I do not have to, I do not admit who I am.

J.Ł: Why?

D: Because it will not do me any good and because I do not want to get into unnecessary discussions. I do not want disputes over the restitution of inherited property. This makes no sense, especially since the most avid use false information. Besides, in Poland, conversations about Jews are always very emotional. Someone said that Jews are “a black hole in the Polish soul.” I would add that they are a dybbuk, which returns in different varieties and with different intensity.

J.Ł: What part do politicians play in these dybbuk ‘comebacks’?

D: They are the ones who set the standards. Unfortunately, most of them do not speak up when it comes to anti-Semitism. They are not united in building a strategy in the fight against prejudice. On top of that, they often portray Jews as those who do not want dialogue and act to the detriment of Poland.

Lately, Israeli tours have been a problem. The fact that their participants have their own security guards is presented as evidence of a lack of trust in Poles. There has been criticism that Jews from Israel are talking about the history of Jews in Poland. Such arguments stir up old prejudices and move from political debate to interpersonal relations.

J.Ł: My impression is that there are no outright anti-Semitic statements, but it is well known that the ruling party supports far-right groups that are anti-Semitic and build their position on anti-Semitic hatred.

D: I disagree with you when it comes to politicians and the lack of anti-Semitic statements. Such statements appear. Far-right politicians are very active on social media. They do not have to speak from the parliamentary rostrum, as they publish their anti-Semitic statements on Twitter and YouTube, for example.

MP Grzegorz Barun supports a publishing house that is notorious for its anti-Semitic publications and publishes his books there himself. That publishing house was under investigation by the public prosecutor’s office for selling gadgets with the inscription “We don’t want Jews.”[1] It was Braun, after all, who spoke of a “Jewish trust arrangement” in reference to the alleged control of Polish politics.

Recall Hitler’s birthday party organised in a forest in Silesia[2]. It turned out that the leaders of the group that organised the event were affiliated with then (and current) MP Robert Winnicki.

And the deputy minister of digitisation is the former head of the far-right All-Polish Youth[3].

But it is not just about far-right politicians. I remember the shocking statement of Professor Zybertowicz, an advisor to President Duda, who stated several years ago that “Israel is fighting to maintain its monopoly on the subject of the Holocaust,” used the phrase “Holocaust religion” at the time. These are the words of a man who works closely with the president. Do you think the person uttering them is willing to build good Polish-Jewish relations?

And yes – our government supports and finances far-right organisations, such as the March of Independence Association and its leader Robert Bąkiewicz, who on the 80th anniversary of the Jedwabne Jewish pogrom demanded the exhumation of the victims and placed flowers on their monument in tribute to the Poles, who, according to him, were wrongly accused of murdering Jews.[4]

J.Ł: Since you mentioned Jedwabne, I have to ask you about the role of education in building that aversion to Jews. All the more so as scandals continue to break over the education minister’s ideas and subsequent textbooks in which history is distorted. In schools and in public debate in general, there is less and less room for Jedwabne and more for the Righteous. Is history being rewritten? Without the Jews?

D: The narrative that prevails in textbooks and in Polish schools is focused on the experiences of Poles and their suffering. Often the victims are mentioned by name, because such stories “with a face” are more powerful. Jews, on the other hand, are some kind of crowd without identity. This makes their history alien. It is marginalised and trivialised.

For years, that Polish discourse has focused on the Righteous. And, of course, they are important, because the message that they carry is that you should help those in need. But this is not the way to talk about the Holocaust. This is a way to bypass what is important. This is talking about the Holocaust without victims. It is rewriting history.

We are living in a really bad time. People affiliated with the extreme right are taking over power at various levels – police, government, NGOs. This is a creeping evil. These disturbing changes are occurring slowly but effectively.

J.Ł: What does this mean for the Jewish community in Poland?

D: This creeping anti-Semitism tires us out, but does not prevent us from going to synagogue. Social and religious life is there and growing. No one disputes that. That anti-Semitism is a hater’s bias, but not one due to which Jews are beaten in the streets. Hopefully, this will not change.

The interview was published first in: Milosz Hodun (ed.) (2023). Democracy against Minorities. Warsaw: Projekt: Polska.

[1]             Still on sale by the publishing house is a T-shirt with the inscription ‘We don’t want Jews, homosexuals, taxes, the European Union’.

[2]             On 13 May 2017, Polish neo-Nazis celebrated Adolf Hitler’s birthday. The structures of the association that organised the ‘event’ were infiltrated by journalists. The video they recorded shows people dressed in SS uniforms against a backdrop of burning swastikas.

[3]    All-Polish Youth – Polish nationalist, Eurosceptic and far-right youth organisation

[4]                 On 10 July 1941, several hundred Jewish residents of Jedwabne were burned alive in a barn. The murder was German-inspired, but its direct executors were Poles from Jedwabne and surrounding villages.

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Joanna Lopat