columns

Jan 29, 2019

Confronting Anti-Semitism in Poland Today: A Memoir

On an educational trip to Poland to learn about the Holocaust, the author came face-to-face with modern hatred of Jews.

Confronting Anti-Semitism in Poland

During the winter of 2017, I travelled to Poland with a Jewish student group to learn about the Holocaust. Little did I know that the trip would bring me face-to-face not only with historical anti-Semitism, but also its modern incarnation.

We were walking through Krakow’s Jewish quarter at night when a group of Polish men encircled us. It became clear that the men knew we were Jewish, as they made Nazi salutes in our direction.

Instinctively, I looked behind me in a panic and realized I could not find the friend I had been talking with minutes before about our difficult day at Auschwitz. Suddenly, another student from the trip shouted “Run!,” waving his hands to encourage us to pick up our pace. We were already exhausted from jetlag, freezing cold temperatures, and the emotionally draining day, but we ran.

As I continued to look for my friend, someone told me that he had been punched after the men noticed he was wearing a kippah, a Jewish head covering. That’s when the disbelief set in. In less than 24 hours in Krakow, this marked the fourth anti-Semitic attack on a member of my group.

I later learned that a woman on the trip was encircled and shoved by a group of Polish men. I was horrified that no one in our conspicuous group was able to avoid the anti-Semitism.

I am fearful that anti-Semitism is spreading in Poland. While I am well aware that anti-Semitism was alive and well in Poland even prior to the Holocaust, I worry that Poland’s current governing party, the conservative, nationalist-leaning, Law and Justice Party (PiS), may be enabling and emboldening anti-Semites and other bigots among the far right.

After the PiS gained control of the Polish government in 2015, the already-poor treatment of minorities in Poland worsened. In the Social Progress Imperative’s ranking of different countries’ overall toleration of immigrants, Poland dropped from 138th place out of 156 countries in 2014 to 159th place out of 160 countries in 2017. Similarly, according to data from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, in 2016 there were 874 reported hate crimes in Poland, a jump from 266 in 2012 and 778 in 2014.

Although I had experienced hatred for being Jewish before visiting Poland, never in my life had I felt like the “Other.” I certainly never expected to see anti-Semitism as a form of commerce in Poland.

The next day we went on a walking tour of the same part of Krakow. During the tour, we stopped at a historic Jewish market when we noticed some booths selling souvenirs. Shortly after stopping, we realized the merchants were selling swastikas. We dispersed to different booths to see if the merchandise was sold at the other tables, shocked that the merchants were openly selling swastikas in the historic Jewish quarter of the city, of all places.

I furiously approached one booth near me, ran by an elderly Polish man. I was curious to see for myself if he also sold the merchandise and how he would react if I told him I was Jewish.

Much to my dismay, the booth featured a wide variety of anti-Semitic products, including “Jewish good luck charms.” These trinkets are small wooden signs you can hang on a wall of a house, which feature a Jewish money lender sporting a stereotypically large nose and holding a bag of money which is decorated with the Jewish “Star of David.”

The descriptions on wooden signs, written in Polish, explain that if you “hang a Jew” in your house, you’ll always have money. Thus, the wooden sign is seen as a form of good luck to guarantee wealth and prosperity for a household.

The man also had a variety of small figurines, depicting Jewish money lenders with big noses holding sacks of money. Towards the left, the man had a huge collection of pins with swastikas on them.

I was hoping for a rational discussion with the booth owner. I expressed my disappointment in this blatant hatred towards Jewish people. I explained my disbelief to the man about why swastika pins were being sold in the first place. The man responded to me stressing the importance of preserving Polish World War II history. I objected that I was Jewish and that this was extremely offensive. He shooed me away while he tried to sell a swastika to a rabbi on the trip.

Ironically, my ancestors were Jews from Krakow. Did they also experience this level of anti-Semitism prior to being killed by Nazis? I wondered.

I was surprised that there is still a wave of anti-Semitic sentiment in Poland in the 21st century.

Naively, I assumed that these anti-Semitic incidents were isolated incidents in Krakow. I did not expect the hostility to follow us in other parts of Poland.

We traveled to Lodz on Christmas Eve to learn more about the once-vibrant Jewish population in the city. We arrived at the Jewish ghetto, prepared for another harrowing narrative from the past—this time about Jews being transported to the Chelmo extermination camp. Upon arrival, my eyes were drawn to graffiti on a shed. “What’s that?” I asked one of our Polish security guards. He explained to me that the vandalized shed previously belonged to a Jewish Polish football team. The name of the team was now covered in red spray-painted Jewish Stars of David containing drawings of circumcised male genitalia. The sight of the defaced shed stood in sharp contrast to that of the quiet Polish streets filled with Christian Poles headed to church.

That was my last glimpse of Poland. I never felt so thankful that a few of my Polish ancestors immigrated to the United States before the Holocaust.

Prior to World War II, Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe. According to data gathered by the United States Holocaust Museum, an estimated 3 million Jews lived in Poland in 1933, which made up 9.5% of Poland’s total population. Data from Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, uncovered that the Jewish population plummeted to 380,000 following the end of World War II. Most of Poland’s Jewish population were murdered by Nazis during the Holocaust. Since then, the number of Jews in Poland has dwindled further. The Institute for Jewish Policy Research found that by 2016 only 3,200, or .008% of the Polish population, remained.

The Holocaust in Poland is treated like the country’s ugly secret. Whether it be by fancy housing developments 20 feet away from the window of a gas chamber in Majdanek with Christmas advertisements across the street, or an upscale housing development in Tarnow which encloses a mass grave site of children murdered by Nazis, Poland desperately tries to hide its past. The creation of various upscale tourist attractions at Auschwitz only reinforces the tendency for Poland to not only hide the past, but to also downplay what occurred there during World War II.

However, Poland does not refrain from commercializing Holocaust sites if they can make a profit off it. For example, at Auschwitz, you can eat at a fancy cafe at the entrance to the concentration camp, buy a souvenir at their extensive gift shops, or stay at an upscale hotel near the gas chamber.

Even a year later, the memories at Auschwitz still haunt me, and are bound to for the rest of my life. I am fine with that, considering the alternative. I fear that younger generations are not being adequately informed about the Holocaust. A 2018 study by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany surveyed 1,350 American adults and found that millennials are less informed about the Holocaust than American adults in general. For example, whereas 40 percent of those surveyed did not know what the German concentration camp Auschwitz was, which is alarming enough, 66 percent of millennials did not know as well.

But if young Americans lack knowledge, young Poles are at an even greater risk of ignorance, since the PiS suppresses the right to speak out about Auschwitz and other death camps. The PiS also passed stricter laws limiting speech that refers to concentration camps in Poland as “Polish death camps,” thereby minimizing Poland’s role in the Holocaust. While I acknowledge that these are Nazi German death camps in Poland, the law states that a person can face up to three years in prison if they question Poland’s complicity with the Nazis. The bill was passed January 26th 2018, the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day. The law sparked justified criticism that Poland was attempting to whitewash its controversial history. Following backlash from Holocaust survivors, the United States, and Israel, the law was amended in June to eliminate the prison sentence element. This was a step in the right direction, but Poland continues to bury its past whenever the opportunity arises.

A year on from my trip to Poland, I fear that the PiS is still not proactive enough in fostering a more inclusive place for Jews in Polish society. In fact, it seems to be doing the opposite; white nationalist sentiments are continuing to grow in Poland. In November 2018, when Poland honored the 100th anniversary of its independence, the celebratory march of over 200,000 participants included several far-right white nationalistic groups from Poland and around Europe as well as prominent PiS politicians like President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. While a nation and its leaders naturally have a right to celebrate their country’s independence, the extreme, exclusionary nationalist sentiment surrounding this celebration is cause for concern. Other world leaders were absent from the celebrations for just that reason, according to The Wall Street Journal.

President Donald Trump lauded Poland’s fierce sense of nationalism during a speech in Warsaw in 2017. During the speech, he praised Poland for not accepting refugees, garnering cheers from many Poles in the crowd. At the time, I did not think much about it. After my experiences in Poland, it’s clear to me that instead of giving the PiS a pass, the Trump administration should instead express concern about how their practices are making Poland an inhospitable place for Jewish people once again.

Eight hours later, our plane from Warsaw arrived at the JFK airport. We all cheered, breathed a sigh of relief, and a few of us even sang the National Anthem. To say we were thankful to leave Poland after our unnerving trip would be an understatement. As I said goodbye to the other travelers, I promised them that I would speak up and notify the Polish Embassy in Washington about our experience—hopefully to get reassurance from the embassy that they would ensure that visiting Jewish students would not have such an experience again.

Encouraged by my friend and coworkers, I sent a detailed report, verifying with others on the trip that the information was accurate. I was a journalist at the time, after all, I did not want to spread “fake news.” 

I heard back from the embassy a day later. The spokeswoman said that they were sorry for my experience and to remember that many Polish people were also victims of the Holocaust—a truth I have always emphasized. Interestingly, she said that Nazi memorabilia is banned in Poland—seeming skeptical of my report and implying that she wanted more proof.

The spokeswoman from the embassy also notified me that we should have immediately notified police following the Krakow attacks.

I explained to her that while we notified our trip’s security immediately, they told us that there was no point filing a police report. Similar events had happened before, they explained, and the Polish police do not take such matters seriously—reports of anti-Semitic attacks are, essentially, disregarded.

I also sent more detailed documentation about what we experienced. I reached out to many people on the trip, compiling photos, writing out the events even more clearly, and recording the exact locations of the incidents on a map as the embassy spokeswoman had asked. I hoped the embassy would reply with a confirmation they had received the information and a list of any additional questions I needed to answer before they would accept the allegations as valid.

I never heard from the embassy regarding my allegations again.

I am still hopeful for the future. I hope that the more people continue to speak out about Poland’s current wave of nationalism, skepticism of minorities, and anti-Semitism, the more that will be done about those problems.

Poland exhibits remarkable resilience, having survived invasions from both Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. Persevering through wars, Nazi brutality, and communist control led the country to develop a strong sense of nationalism that fostered an identity separate from their invaders and occupiers. On the back of that nationalist sentiment, Poland developed into a functioning sovereign nation following the fall of communism, an achievement that should be celebrated.

That same nationalism, however, has an ugly side. My experience in Poland shows how frightening being a minority can be when a government embraces a nationalism based on ethnic homogeneity. The PiS’s policies in turn propagated a stronger nationalistic sentiment from its citizens.

There were also many brave Poles who also risked their lives during World War II to save Jews. I have tremendous gratitude for the Righteous Among the Nation. Many Poles were also the victims of the Holocaust, and people should recognize and honor their memories as well.

Unfortunately, when the PiS came to power, the progress of Polish and Jewish relations came to a grinding halt and has even regressed. While my experience as a Jewish traveler in Poland does not and cannot support any sweeping conclusions about Poland and its people in general, it does show that there are still significant issues with anti-Semitism in Poland. The PiS should reverse course and encourage more inclusive values, including religious tolerance, to make Poland a better place for Jewish people and other minorities to live. If it doesn’t, the people of Poland should vote it out.