TORONTO — Antisemitism in contemporary Poland is synonymous with illiberal sentiments, says Adam Michnik, one of Poland’s foremost intellectuals.
“Antisemitism is a code name for anti-democratic and anti-liberal attitudes,” charged Michnik, the editor of Against Antisemitism, 1936-2009, a new three-volume work published in Polish.
In a recent lecture sponsored by The Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada at the University of Toronto’s Wolfond Centre, he said he edited the book to shatter two lingering stereotypes.
Speaking in Polish through two interpreters, he disputed the notion that Poles “imbibe antisemitism with their mother’s milk,” a phrase coined by Yitzhak Shamir, the late Polish-born prime minister of Israel.
Michnik, a Jew who has referred to himself as a Pole of Jewish origin, also took issue with the claim that antisemitism in Poland was and is a figment of the Jewish imagination.
“I try to show that there was tremendous resistance in Poland to antisemitism, but that it existed,” explained Michnik, the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s largest daily newspaper and a former member of the Solidarity trade union federation, which worked for worker’s rights and social change during the tail end of the Communist era.
Michnik, who turned 66 on Oct. 17, was introduced by Piotr Wrobel, a specialist in Polish history at the University of Toronto, who described him as “a historical figure.”
Born into a family of Communists, Michnik was a political dissident who spent more than six years in prison for demanding reforms and challenging Communist dogma.
He participated in the Round Table Talks in 1989, playing a key role in the historic process that culminated in free elections, the defeat of Communism and the emergence of western-style democracy in Poland.
After these events, the Solidarity leader Lech Walesa asked him to create a national daily for the movement. Eventually, Gazeta Wyborcza (Election Newspaper) became Poland’s leading mass-circulation newspaper.
Michnik, in a brief survey of pre-World War II antisemitism, said right-wing Polish nationalists were pro-Zionist, because they wanted Jews to live in Palestine rather than in Poland.
He suggested that Poles and Jews represented two distinct “nations” and disagreed on a wide range of issues.
Aggressive antisemitism, he noted, was directed against assimilated rather than traditional Polish Jews.
To the Roman Catholic church, only a Catholic could be a real Pole, he added.
Further differences between Poles and Jews emerged during the postwar period, according to Michnik.
Jews generally supported the entry of the Soviet Red Army into Poland after the Holocaust, which decimated about 90 per cent of Polish Jewry. The vast majority of Polish Catholics, however, perceived the Soviet presence as a form of captivity and subjugation, and the Soviet-backed communist government as an alien concept that was forced on them.
Blaming the 1946 pogrom in Kielce on Communist security forces, he said, “The Communists were playing the antisemitic card.” They were also finishing the work of the Nazis, who occupied Poland from 1939 to 1945.
The Roman Catholic Church, steeped in antisemitism, refused to explicitly condemn the Kielce pogrom, advising Jews not to get involved in Polish politics.
Since the advent of democracy in Poland, he said, Polish governments have rejected antisemitism.
While antisemitism in modern Poland exists, it’s no longer in vogue to be antisemitic.
And in what seemed like a grand summing up, Michnik declared, “Polish culture is not an antisemitic culture.”