Throughout its long and troubled history, Poland has been the victim of repeated Austrian, German, Russian, Prussian, Tartar and even Swedish aggression. But now that the culpability of Polish villagers in the Jedwabne pogrom has been established, many Poles seem unwilling to admit that they could be anything other than victims, despite the events of almost sixty years ago.
Most interesting, perhaps, has been the Polish Catholic Church's reaction to the "discovery" that it was Polish citizens, not the German SS, that massacred 1600 Polish Jews in a small northeastern village during World War II. Far from the sympathetic or compassionate response one might expect from the Catholic hierarchy, the Church's response has been indifferent at best.
The Polish Church's position
On 5 March, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, the Polish Primate, stated on Warsaw's Catholic radio station that "death by immolation of (some of) the Jewish population, pushed into a barn by Poles, is incontestable." However, the Archbishop went on to say that he was opposed to the Polish nation accepting responsibility for the massacre.
In yet another public relations disaster, Cardinal Glemp said he would not attend the 60th anniversary ceremony this July. "I don't want politicians to tell the Church how it should express its sorrow for crimes committed by some group of its believers. Nor should they propose an ideology to be expressed by the Church," the Cardinal said. That was the extent of the Church's expression of sympathy in regard to the Jedwabne pogrom. In a country that is 90 percent Catholic, Church leaders don't even bother to put a spin on their position.
Ironically, Polish politicians, who would seem to have a great deal more to lose in the way of voter support, particularly among rural populations, have been more sympathetic. Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, on 5 March, said that the massacre's 60th anniversary should be an occasion to ask "forgiveness" from the Jewish victims. Though a cynic might point out that this statement may have more to do with Poland's ongoing bid to join the European Economic Union than actual contrition, it was nonetheless a striking contrast's to the Cardinal's seemingly cold remarks.
Relations between the local Church and Polish Jews reached a low point in 1935, when Cardinal Hlond, the Prelate of Poland, called for a boycott of Jewish businesses, saying, "There will be a Jewish problem as long as Jews remain (in Poland)."
Cardinal Hlond's prophesy could not have been more right. Though few Jews remain in Poland today, relations between Poles and Jews continue to deteriorate, spurred in part by the property restitution legislation currently in Parliament.
What the clergy is saying
Although the current Church hierarchy cannot be accused of preaching anti-Semitism, many of its individual priests can be. Anti-Semitic statements by Polish clergy are a regular occurrence, according to The Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism at Tel Aviv University.
A few examples:
- In October 1997, former Solidarity activist Father Henryk Jankowski denounced the expected appointment of Bronisław Geremek to the post of foreign minister because Geremek's Jewish heritage. Jankowski stated that there was no place for Jews in the Polish government. The priest has also denounced the Polish government's apology for the 1946 Kielce pogrom. "Apologizing to Jews is an insult to the Polish nation," he said in a 28 July 1996 sermon. Though Jankowski's remarks drew sharp criticism from some Church leaders, his punishment (a one-year ban from preaching) amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist.
- Perhaps the most influential source of anti-Semitic propaganda in Poland today is the popular Torun-based radio station Radio Maryja, which has a Catholic priest as its station director. During the 1997-98 Auschwitz crucifixion flap, the station attacked Jewish groups for their "Jewish interference." More recently, in a May 1999 broadcast, station director Father Tadeusz Rydzyk described his vision of a homogeneous Poland: "Poland is a great nation, a nation with a single language, a single culture, a single religion, the minorities are sparse. This is unity and it is very dangerous to those who wish to divide us, those who are liars and murderers..." In January 2000, the station presented a talk show devoted to the theme "What is the Auschwitz Lie?" in which Holocaust denier Dariusz Ratajczyk claimed Jewish prisoners died of overwork and illness.
- Village leaders of Dmosin, supported by the local parish priest, began a letter-writing campaign in spring 2000 to defeat a proposal to name an elementary school after poet Jan Brzechwa, protesting the naming of a school after a "poet of Jewish origin," whose original name was Lesman.
- Until quite recently, anti-Semitic publications were sold openly at church kiosks and can still be found at some rural churches.
The culture of Anti-Semitism
This brings us back to the Jedwabne pogrom. In May 2000, one such nominally Catholic publication, Nasza Polska, ran a story vigorously protesting the findings of Jan Tomasz Gross' book, Neighbors, which describes the massacre. With the English-language publication of the book, Nasza Polska has continued its attacks on Gross's findings.
Poles inevitably blame the culture of Polish anti-Semitism on the ignorance of poorly educated and overly superstitious peasants. For instance, the Warsaw Voice quoted an old woman leaving one of Father Jankowski's masses: "'What the priest says is the real truth; this church is our Poland. We are ruled by Jews, so we have to fight them. And here is our weapon,' she said, pointing to her rosary."
Meanwhile, many Poles, including those well-educated, continue to insist that Jews caused the Second World War, believing most Jews were Communist sympathizers who (paradoxically) grew rich by taking advantage of poor, hard-working peasants. But if Poland's rural populations were superstitious and ignorant, who was to blame for this?
There is no question that the quality of education in Poland was poor, particularly in the rural eastern lands. Often the most educated and respected person in a rural area was the village priest. According to Gross, instead of preaching tolerance toward the local Jewish population, priests "evoked in their sermons an image of Jews as God-killers, particularly at Easter, making the season a perennial occasion for anti-Semitic violence."
Moreover, Gross writes that days before the Jedwabne massacre, a likely pogrom was averted after the spiritual leader of the Jewish community visited the Jedwabne priest. This suggests that the priest did in fact have the power of life and death over the local Jewish population. So powerful was the priest's authority, Gross writes, that bishops and priests "in Poland often had to be appeased with gifts from the Jews. They were prepared to pay for protection, and for centuries the kehiles, the Jewish communal authorities, had maintained special funds designated for this purpose."
While the days of bribing bishops are over, two questions remain: Why would a vocal minority of clergy feel a need to spread anti-Semitic propaganda in a country where Jews make up less than one percent of the population? And why are such men tolerated by Church leaders?
These questions get at the very heart of the centuries-old relationship between Poles and Jews, and they may never be answered satisfactorily. Fortunately, however, one can detect a few small signs that attitudes are beginning to change.
Following the lead of Pope John Paul II's millennium apology, the Polish Church has recently taken dramatic steps to promote goodwill and cooperation between the Church and Jewish Groups. A few examples of this include the "Day of Judaism" held in Warsaw in January 1998 and an August 2000 Bishops' letter that asked forgiveness for the Church's past toleration of anti-Semitism. In the letter, the Bishops admitted that along with noble efforts to save Jews during the war, Poles also exhibited indifference or enmity.
It has taken the Church decades to make these small steps. It remains to been seen, however, whether the Church will pick up the pace in the coming years to effect real change.
Christopher Orlet, 23 April 2001
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Stephen Roth Institute of Tel Aviv University