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Contemporary Discourse on Anti-Semitism in Poland

 

“It will take two more generations for Polish society to rid itself of anti-Semitism,” explains Remigiusz W³ast-Matuszak, over a meaty bowl of soup at a small restaurant north of Warsaw’s new old-town.  He is a 58 year old journalist, publisher, and sometimes politician, who worked for Solidarity Magazine when the documents revealing the Polish hand in killing Jews in Jedwabne during World War II were first uncovered.  He has little confidence in the therapeutic value of public discourse on anti-Semitism because of his distrust in the ability of individuals to filter-out the extremist and prejudice-filled information that they are presented with every day.  

But not all Poles are willing to sit idly on the sidelines waiting for generations of Poles to die off before Polish society undergoes a process of transformation.  Aaron, a Jewish male in his early twenties demands that discourse on anti-Semitism increase in order to ease subsurface tensions that lay unexamined within Polish society today.   The tension that Aaron feels is evidence of his discontent with the Polish narrative as it relates a difficult past to a still difficult present.  Even though the old narrative of mythic Polish non-involvement in WWII has been dashed by the Jedwabne case, a revised, more nuanced and mature narrative that makes sense of the present remains incomplete.  

What is this discourse that Aaron wants, and how is it related to the narrative of Polish society?  The first step toward uncovering possible answers to these questions is to understand their impetus.  Two contemporary literature-based controversies give us one piece of this puzzle.

“Polish Concentration Camps” or Concentration Camps in Poland:

On March 16th, 1998, the Canadian Edition of TIME Newsmagazine published an article that included the phrase “Polish concentration camp.”  The piece was met by protest and condemnation strong enough to elicit a formal apology from TIME’s editor-in-chief.  Underlying the feelings of offense was a deep-seated fear that some readers of the article might misinterpret the phrase to imply that the Polish were responsible for administering the concentration camps.  This historical mistruth was a “great injustice to the Polish people,” wrote Mieczyslaw Szczecinski, the Honorary President of the Polish Combatants’ Association in Canada, in a letter to the editors of TIME Newsmagazine.   

Three years later, in January of 2001, Jan T. Gross published a historical account of the massacre of Jews by their Polish neighbors in a small town of Jedwabne, Poland.  The book, titled Neighbors: the Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, received stern caution from Poles, who warned “It could […] provoke an anti-Polish campaign, […] or a new brand of historical revisionism, in which Poles would be presented together with Germans as jointly responsible for the Holocaust.”   

One unmistakable commonality between both of these cases is that the reaction of significant constituents within Polish society was one of fear that Poles would be cast incorrectly in the eyes of the international community.  What is notable is that neither the phrase in TIME Newsmagazine nor Gross’s book made the claim either explicitly or implicitly that Poles were equally as guilty as the Germans for masterminding and carrying out the Holocaust.  Indeed, if there are two facts universally acknowledged within the accepted cannon of WWII history they are that the preponderance of the death camps were located on Polish soil, and that the German Nazi party was first and foremost responsible for carrying out the systematic extermination of millions of human beings.  

In light of this evidence, what explains the Poles’ fear?  What compels them to define themselves in the eyes of others?  “This endless obsession about ‘image,’” as Polish author Jarosław Anders explains, misconstrues the fundamental dilemma for the Poles that is posed by books like Gross’s.  “What really matters,” he asserts, “is not how others view them, but how they view themselves.”   With this charge, Poles today are faced with the immense challenge of introspection.  

Self-Reflections are Complex:

“Sometimes I tell jokes about Jews, but I don’t think that they are based on anti-Semitism,” explains Jarek Kubiak, a Polish student involved in a Jewish youth organization, who prides himself on his own activism.  He lives in Lodz where he often witnesses anti-Semitic graffiti and hate speech that slanders Jews.  He explains that using the phrase “‘you are a Jew,’ is like calling someone an asshole, but worse.”  When asked about the relationship of such utterances to anti-Semitism he quickly responds “they are not connected,” as if to clarify any possible confusion.  Defining himself as different from individuals that use anti-Semitic rhetoric in public discourse, he goes on to describe how opposing football clubs attempt to brand each other with the term “Jew” to put down the opposing team.  “By calling your opponents ‘Jews’ you are saying that they are stupid and part of the lowest class of society.”  Every year, Jarek and others involved in the youth organization canvas Lodz to first photograph and then cover up anti-Semitic graffiti.  The photos are then displayed publicly at a number of local schools and elsewhere to increase public discourse on the topic of anti-Semitism.  At one such exhibition a man approached Jarek; pointing to one of the photographs the man explained that the graffiti was his work.  During their conversation, Jarek later discovered that the man had never met a Jew.     

“I can’t defend Jews because I don’t want to become a stranger in my own society,” explains Magda, a 53 year old woman who identifies herself as half Jewish and half Polish.   In Magda’s perception, both anti-Semitism and discourse on anti-Semitism are present in contemporary Polish society.  She openly denounces anti-Semitism.  Pessimistically, she doesn’t believe that discourse on anti-Semitism will help bring about the changes that are necessary to rid anti-Semitism from Polish society.  What we should do instead, “is to stop speaking about anti-Semitism, because talking about anti-Semitism instigates more anti-Semitism,” Magda asserts.  During our conversation she identifies three “enemies” of Polish society against which Poles construct their identity: “Baba Yaga, Gypsy, and Jew.”   She explains with certitude that the Polish mentality “cannot be changed.”

Both of the above snapshots provide incomplete pictures of both interviewees’ identities.  Without completing a more in-depth investigation into their backgrounds and livelihoods, what can these short narratives tell us?  At the most basic level, these candid remarks demonstrate that both individuals hold conflicting views within themselves of contemporary discourse on anti-Semitism in Poland.  While Jarek identifies himself in contrast to individuals who use anti-Semitic hate speech, when he uses anti-Semitic aphorisms he is not guilty of propagating anti-Semitism because he is only joking.  Although Magda defines herself as both Jewish and Polish, she considers both identities separate from one another, and aligns herself more strongly with her Polish identity.

One explanation for the complexity of individuals’ identities in the context of discourse on anti-Semitism was offered by Halina Bortnowska of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.  “Individual’s thoughts and actions are never clear and distinct,” Bortnowska contends.  The reason for this is that people are constantly changing their views in accordance with the experiences they have had and are having at that very moment.  In this way, “an individual could be anti-Semitic one day and not the next.”  When asked whether or not it is possible for people to have an unwavering moral stance against anti-Semitism, she reported that it was possible though “very rare.”  While Bortnowska’s acceptance of day-to-day contradictions within individuals’ thoughts and actions allows room for a more nuanced understanding of an individual’s identity, this framework fails to explain the uniqueness of anti-Semitism in the Polish context.

Historical Narratives and Polish Identity:

Dariusz Stola, a professor of sociology at Warsaw’s Collegium Civitas, provides one possible explanation for the particularity of anti-Semitism within the context of contemporary Polish society.  Stola contends that the persistence of anti-Semitism in Poland is, in part, enabled by the strong tradition of historical narratives hidden from the public sphere.  By and large, “these narratives are shared through family storytelling, gossip, and private dialogue.”  The principal origins of this tradition, Stola continues, can be traced back to the years of communist occupation during which individuals were prevented from participating in public discourse.  By reason of necessity, discourse amidst the populace was limited to hidden conversations that existed beyond the reach of political elite.  According to Stola’s analysis, assessments of the ebb and flow of anti-Semitism in Poland completed by other scholars and popularized by the media doesn’t sufficiently account for the role of historical narratives.  But how are discourse on anti-Semitism and historical narratives connected?

“Poles today are constrained by their reverence for older generations,” Stola explains, noting with particular emphasis the respect given to Poles of the World War II generation.  A brief trip to the Powazkowski Cemetery in Warsaw confirms this relationship; once there, one sees numerous young visitors maintaining fresh flower bouquets and lit candles on the tombs of their elders.  “Strong familial ties have resulted in an underlying sentiment that newer generations of Poles must respect the hatred and prejudice harbored by older generations,” Stola contends.  Respect, in this context, is manifested in an unspoken agreement to not talk about anti-Semitism within family discourse.  Maintaining silence at home—the context in which individuals risk the least amount of public condemnation and humiliation for unorthodox views—easily  transforms into silence on a wider scale. 

Evidence of this strong sense of solidarity with past generations felt by many Poles of younger generations is evident in their framing of dialogues on Polish history in the context of the collective ‘we.’  “We should not have allowed the attacks on Jews in Jedwabne to take place,” confided Jarek in our interview.  When asked why he feels responsible for atrocities that he had no part in (indeed, the massacre transpired before he was born), Jarek struggled to find an answer somewhere inside himself.  “Well, it’s hard to explain,” he finally blurted out.  

Discourse on the Past:

Jarek’s difficulty with explaining his strong emotions connected to discourse on the past suggests that perhaps he does not posses all of the appropriate tools to reconcile the different factors that comprise his own identity.  “It was all in the past.  Why stir up unpleasant memories or bother oneself with such details?” questions Anders.   Although Anders’ provocation is set within the context of an academic essay and is clearly intended to be rhetorical, in contemporary Polish society this question engenders considerable contemplation.  Indeed, more than a few of our interviewees put forth such opinions as their own.  “People don't want to speak about anti-Semitism anymore,” explains W³ast-Matuszak, “they want to live their lives in peace.”  Curiously, this assertion seems to define “people” as Poles that are non-Jewish.  In an effort to make clear what he meant, W³ast-Matuszak provided us with an illustration, “If your grandmother had a bastard child, after 30 or 40 years pass, it is better to forget about it than continuing to point him out.”

‘Missing’ Jews: 

What W³ast-Matuszak’s anecdote neglects to address is the relevance of the history of anti-Semitism in Poland to contemporary discourse on anti-Semitism in Polish society.  For those individuals who endorse W³ast-Matuszak’s prescription of collective amnesia, this solution does not carry with it an implication of prejudice.  After all, they contend, anti-Semitism cannot possibly exist within present-day Poland because there are no longer any Jews.  The perception of ‘missing’ Jews is rooted so deeply in contemporary Polish society that there was recently a public debate in which both the main speaker and a panelist independently concluded that there are no longer any Jews in Poland, and they themselves were both Jews, recounts Bortnowska.

In fact, “there are many Jews in Poland,” explains Konstanty Gebert, a journalist for Gazeta Wyborcza and Midrasz.  The number of Jews in Polish society is entirely dependent on what one uses as their measuring stick.  The variance in forms of practice, connection to specific communities, and familial lineage can all be considered components of Jewish identity, contents Gebert.  If one uses all of these qualifications in concert with one another, the number of Jews in Poland could exceed 100,000.  

The low visibility of the Jewish community in Poland is directly connected to the commonly perceived separation between Jewish and Polish culture and society.  “Not too many people express the interconnection between Jewish society and culture and Polish society and culture,” laments Bortnowska.  This disconnect is evident in the discussion with El¿bieta Wo³odkowicz-Morawska, the daughter of distinguished parents who aided Jews during the Holocaust.  “Nowadays,” she asserts, “existence of anti-Semitism in Poland is a highly artificial creation because most anti-Semites have had no experience with Jews.  Literally, they’ve never met one.”  Her qualification of contemporary anti-Semitism as “highly artificial” brings forth another often overlooked truth – that the existence of anti-Semitism does not necessitate the presence of Jews.  

One factor that enables the continuation of such misinterpretations of both Polish and Jewish culture and society is unmet expectations by both groups of the other.  On the one hand, Poles perceive the Jews as responsible for self-identifying as Jews in public discourse, whereas Jews perceive it to be the responsibility of the Poles to create an environment with public discourse that welcomes them.  As Wo³odkowicz-Morawska explains, “Individuals can be discriminated against when their group remains silent. This situation helps to maintain anti-Semitism.”  This interpretation of role of Jews as complicit in the process of discrimination against them could over-emphasize the responsibility of the minority to bridge the gap with the majority.  Alternatively, the ‘coming out’ of Jews to members within their community could help in the fight against false stereotypes.  The consequence of unmet expectations of both groups serves to reinforce the status quo.

Lack of Public Discourse within Public Spheres:

Who has the power to instigate and direct public discourse on anti-Semitism?  Although intellectual elites within a society determine the parameters of public discourse through their use of language, as Stola explains, the tradition of historical narratives has “greatly diminished the power of the elites to control discourse” in Poland.  For this reason, Stola continues, combating anti-Semitism in present day Poland “is an extremely formidable task.”  Moreover, the discourse on anti-Semitism that does exist within spheres of academia “is largely inaccessible to the wider public, and therefore has little effect on the character of the discourse that is ongoing,” explains Agnieszka Rayss, a journalist for Polityka.  

According to the majority of our interviewees, public discourse on anti-Semitism in Poland is most significantly affected by the media.  This is often problematic, cautions W³ast-Matuszak, because media outlets are also businesses that aim to earn money.  A consequence commonly attributed to the monetary interests of media outlets is their disproportionately extensive coverage of news stories that are shocking and sensational in attempt to entice consumers.  In the context of discourse on anti-Semitism in Poland, many Poles view the media as an actor that aggravates Polish-Jewish relations.  As W³ast-Matuszak asserted, “the media turns small incidents [of anti-Semitism] into big problems.”

As a journalist, Rayss paints an alternative picture of the media.  She suggests that it is not necessarily the inability of the media to be objective that makes them ill-suited to engage in and facilitate discourse on anti-Semitism, but rather that such tasks are simply beyond the scope of news-related media.  Rayss explains, “Newspapers are not very interested in talking about anti-Semitism in terms of a wider pattern within contemporary Polish society, but only in writing about concrete acts of anti-Semitism.”  Clear evidence of this distinction can be found in the news coverage on June 27th, 2006 of TVN, a nationwide Polish cable television network, of the case of an openly Jewish man who was beaten outside of his Warsaw apartment.  Although the Jewish man had repeatedly notified the police of an escalating pattern of hate speech and anti-Semitic graffiti directed at him and his family, the police had taken no action, reported the news cast.  Although the report contained details of the specific instances of graffiti – one reading “Jedwabne 2” – there was no reflection on the state of dialogue on anti-Semitism within the community in which the attack took place, nor within the wider context of the city of Warsaw.

Why Should We Talk?

If neither intellectual elite nor media outlets have the capacity to engage in discourse on anti-Semitism, what will stimulate real dialogue?  “People must know the price of lack of dialogue,” asserts Bortnowska, and one imperative step in the process of this realization is the acknowledgment that the interests of Poles are unavoidably bound to the interests of Jews within contemporary Polish society.  The lack of developed public discourse on underlying prejudices is precisely what allows prejudices to persist.  Providing an example of this correlation, Stola explains, that the lack of international discourse concerning genocide in southern Sudan has amounted to its tacit toleration. 

Another step important to the development of public discourse is the recognition that discourse is never static.  In the case of contemporary discourse on anti-Semitism in Poland, the positions of individuals and groups can be volatile.    Constituents that share a common outlook, such as those that tacitly support anti-anti-Semitism and those that are outwardly anti-anti-Semitic, may have entirely different justifications for their positions.  A politician eager to promote a positive image of Poland in the eyes of the international community may support anti-anti-Semitism for practical reasons, whereas a fervent advocate for human rights may promote anti-anti-Semitism with a moral justification.  In this way, one must be constantly mindful and wary of the nuances that the positions of individuals and institutions contain. 

Schizophrenic by Necessity:

The roots of the multiplicity of positions within the contemporary discourse on anti-Semitism in Poland can be found, in part, in the plurality of Polish identities.  Various shades of victim, perpetrator, and bystander together compose the portrait of Polish identity during and after World War II.  An illustration of this complexity, Stola suggests, is the case of the Polish right-wing, a group that discriminated against Jews during the interwar years, and then fought against Nazi occupation during World War  II.  In this way there exists a “singularly Polish paradox: on occupied Polish soil, a person could be an anti-Semite, a hero of the resistance and a savior of the Jews.” 

As a consequence, the ‘question of Polish identity’ as posited by Anders is more pertinent today than ever before: how are Poles to navigate the “vast sea of moral and emotional opacity, of dim and contradictory feelings, of passion, denial, guilt; of actions and inactions whose motives were equally obscure and unnamable?”   Poles today are challenged to embody multiple identities that at times directly contradict one another.  Poles must maintain the cultural heritage that defines who they are, while rejecting certain aspects of their own history.  One form in which this conflict manifests itself is in the contradictions between paying reverence to the personal narratives of older generations while simultaneously maintaining an objective and critical view of the present.  In this way, as Bortnowska suggests, younger generations of Poles are schizophrenic by necessity.

Action and Inaction: 

In the final analysis, although the complexity of the situation that both the Poles and Jews in Poland find themselves in today is confounding, inaction is not an option.  Sitting-by quietly disengaged from a society-wide discourse on contemporary anti-Semitism yields more than symbolic support for the status quo.  Indeed, inaction in this context endorses the persistent ‘uneasy’ Polish-Jewish relations, legitimizing the irrational fear of many Poles to be cast in the shadow of the Holocaust, and promoting the continuance of systematic discrimination against the Jews.

 

References

 

Articles:

Anders, Jarosław. “The Murder of Memory” Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ: 2001.

“Letters,” TIME. 151.16 (20 April 1998) TIME-Warner Corporation. 20 June 2006 <http://www.time.com/time/magazine1998/int/980420/letters.letters.27.html>

Michnik, Adam. “Poles and the Jews: How Deep the Guilt?” New York Times, New York: 2001.

Interviews:

(Here it is important to note that all of the interviews that were conducted in Polish were translated into English by Dariusz Dybka, Andrew Maki, and Yulia Gogol.)

“Aaron.” Interview with Yulia Gogol. HIA. 22 June 2006.

Bortnowska, Halina. Interview with Dariusz Dybka and Andrew Maki. HIA. 23 June 2006.

Gebert, Konstanty. Interview with Dariusz Dybka, Yulia Gogol, and Andrew Maki. HIA. 12 June 2006.

Kubiak, Jarek. Interview with Dariusz Dybka, Yulia Gogol, and Andrew Maki. HIA. 23 June 2006.

“Magda.” Interview with Yulia Gogol. HIA. 25 June 2006.

Rayss, Agnieszka. Interview with Yulia Gogol. HIA. 23 June 2006.

Stola, Dariusz. Interview with Andrew Maki and Yulia Gogol. HIA. 27 June 2006. 

Włast-Matuszak, Remigiusz. Interview with Dariusz Dybka, Yulia Gogol, and Andrew Maki. HIA. 25 June 2006.

Wo³odkowicz-Morawska, El¿ebieta. Interview with Dariusz Dybka. HIA. 25 June 2006.

Works Referenced:

Gross, Jan T., Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ: 2001.

 

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