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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

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Poles, Jews and anti-Semitism

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Rabbi Dow Marmur

On Jan. 27, the day when many countries marked International Holocaust Memorial Day, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz published the results of a recent survey, conducted by the reputable Centre for Public Opinion Research (CBOS) in Poland, about anti-Semitism in that country.

While almost half of the members of the Knesset and many Israeli public figures joined a delegation of Holocaust survivors on their pilgrimage to Auschwitz in Poland to mark the 69th anniversary of its liberation and participated in a memorial ceremony there, Poles and Jews were reminded that, despite efforts by the Polish government to foster a positive attitude toward Jews and Judaism, many Poles continue to harbour hatred of Jews with potentially lethal consequences for all.

The data are frightening: 23 per cent of the representative sample of 1,000 respondents said Jews would kill Christian children for ritual purposes. Only one per cent less affirmed that today’s Jews are responsible for the killing of Jesus.

By all accounts, the Catholic Church in Poland has done much to shape this mindset. Thus, for example, a day before the Holocaust commemorations, the president of the small Jewish community in Poznan complained that a 17th-century fresco depicting the infamous blood libel adorns a wall in the local cathedral. When journalists had challenged the church leaders to offer at least an explanation to visitors, the clergy placed a note on a different floor with the ridiculous excuse that there was no room near the actual picture.  

But it’s by no means only religion that fuels the hatred. According to the CBOS survey, two out of five Poles believe that Jews rule the world, and roughly the same number maintain that it’s the Jews who slander Poles by calling them anti-Semites. The glaring inconsistency between the two opinions didn’t prevent about two-thirds of all Poles also to subscribe to various conspiracy theories involving Jews. 

Ironically, while valiant efforts are being made to rebuild Jewish life in Poland, which has, in turn, alerted many Poles with Jewish forbears to come forward and even seek formal affiliation with the Jewish community, there’s evidence of a mood that again may make life almost untenable for the relatively few Jews who live there now.

Most Poles insist that what happened to the Jews in their country during the Holocaust was entirely the work of German Nazis, with negligible collaboration by locals. When responsible and reputable scholars of Polish history bring incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, they’re often met with hostility and worse.

Hatred of Jews, though it exists everywhere in the country, seems to be most prevalent in rural areas, where people would have never encountered a Jew. Citizens in the capital Warsaw and other urban centres are likely to be more open-minded.

In the course of my own travels in Poland, I’ve been impressed by the interest in, and knowledge of, Judaism among intellectuals and secular public figures. It’s reflected in the many serious books published in the country, often written by local scholars.

Similarly, the Polish parliament has taken due notice of the CBOS report and is determined to continue its efforts to eradicate, or at least reduce, the disease of anti-Semitism. The government of Poland is encouraging Jews to live and work in the country. It also seeks to foster good relations with the State of Israel.

Tragically, Poland isn’t the only European state infested with the hatred of Jews. The small Jewish communities in eastern and central Europe, as well as in Scandinavia and France, are being exposed to frequent anti-Semitic incidents. The remnant of the original and indigenous Europeans – as Jews have often been described because of their wholesome contribution to the cultural and economic life of the continent – may be forced to leave forever.

Poles living abroad, including Canada, can be no less prone to hating Jews, who in turn tend to reciprocate by voicing strong and equally unwarranted condemnations of all Poles.

It’s with this in mind that in 1988, a few of us founded the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada. Our dual aim was to alert Jews to almost 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland, much of it in relatively peaceful coexistence and, second, to promote understanding and co-operation between Polish and Jewish Canadians for the good of this country. A quarter of a century later, the need seems to be no less urgent.

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