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A Haunted Journey

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The Virgin Mary Is Polish

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

Its object having disappeared, the resentment remains. You can read it scribbled on the walls. Next to the cemetery, on a monument to Jewish and Polish victims, one sees the weirdly bilingual phrase Juif Raus ("Jews Get Out"). Elsewhere, an insult for a soccer team someone dislikes: Legia=Zydy (best rendered as "Knicks=Kikes"). You can find it, less crudely stated, in the press of the extreme right. Seeking an anti-Semite ready to talk, I visited the weekly Mysl Polska, which in one of its stories had described the removal of the crosses outside Auschwitz before the Pope's visit as "a shame imposed on the Polish nation, on God's people." When we met, the editor did not come up to expectations. He spoke of foreign Jewish pressure in most diplomatic tones.

There are more subtle symptoms, like the reluctance of the Catholic hierarchy to disown Father Henryk Jankowski, a Gdansk priest, after he proclaimed that "the Jewish minority should not be accepted in our government," and the fact, mentioned by many, that anti-Semitic remarks do not make you the odd man out in polite society. There is also the more worrisome success of Radio Maryja, with an audience of 3-4 million, which allows its talk-show participants to preach that Poland is being endangered by a Jewish-inspired international plot.

Xenophobia, although never justified, may have its reason. Historically, to the Polish peasants the Jew was the representative of money in the countryside and, quite often, the servant of the exploiting landlord. In the towns, Jewish dominance of trade could be, and was, utilized as a bait to mobilize the Polish middle class. But what reason can one find for passionate attacks on a remnant representing less than a tenth of 1 percent of the population?

Let us dismiss at once the argument most often heard: that anti-Semitism survived because of the large number of Jews in the Communist leadership. It is not at all surprising that oppressed Jews, seeking equality, were attracted by a universalist doctrine stressing class as opposed to race or nation and that their proportion in the CP was higher than in the general population. Since the leadership after the war was brought back from Moscow, it reflected this prewar proportion. But one should not confuse cause and pretext. I recall, while touring the United States in 1982 for Solidarity, speaking at a meeting in Amherst, Massachusetts. Some Jewish students there argued, Why bother about Poles, who are all anti-Semites? One of a group of Polish farmers protested, No, we simply hate reds, and he rolled off the names Berman, Minc and other Jews in the leadership. With the mike at my disposal, it was easy to answer: You may hate reds or capitalists, but in the latter case, if you always mention the Rothschilds and never the Rockefellers, there is a sneaking suspicion that you are anti-Semitic.

Before the war, a key source of anti-Semitism was a reactionary Catholic Church dominating a backward, predominantly rural country. I remember discovering from my friends in the countryside that Jesus was a Pole, because you were either Jewish or Polish, and Christ clearly could not be a Jew. I now hear, from a progressive priest, a more up-to-date version: The Poles have resigned themselves to the idea that Jesus was a Jew, but not the Virgin Mary. What role does the church play now?

I arrived in Warsaw on the day of the Pope's departure, just in time to see the celebration of his cult: a huge cross dominating Warsaw's main square (now renamed after Marshal Joseph Pilsudski), with banners everywhere. The one next to my hotel claimed, "Without Jesus you can't understand either this nation or this town." The church is stronger than I thought, though the hierarchy is perturbed by modern cultural trends threatening its hold, particularly on the young. On the Jewish question, I am assured, things have somewhat improved since the declaration by John Paul II that "anti-Semitism, like all forms of racism, is a sin against God and humankind." The tolerant wing of the hierarchy has gained some ground, though, judging by its conduct in the unending confrontation over the Auschwitz crosses and in the Jankowski case, there are still plenty of sinners within the Polish Church from the lowest clergy to the cardinal at the very top.

According to sociological studies and polls, the church's traditional anti-Semitism, based on the teaching that "the Jews murdered Christ," is declining and survives mainly in rural areas and among the old and uneducated. In the cities the prevailing prejudice is against Jews as masters of finance, plotting to dominate the world. The Jew is a scapegoat--in the famous words of August Bebel, anti-Semitism is the "socialism of fools." The industrial workers, who rightly feel that as members of Solidarity they were the prime movers in the country's political transformation, have discovered that they are the main victims of the transition to capitalism. The peasants fear that Poland's entry into the European Union, with its more efficient farming methods, will mean their elimination. Since the blame for such bitter disappointments cannot be put on "our own people," it is attributed to outsiders, and the Jew is still the symbol of the alien, the foreign exploiter. During my brief stay in Poland, 20,000 striking nurses paralyzed Warsaw, and fired workers from Radom fought a bloody battle with the police in the capital. These samples of discontent were a counterpoint to the fashionable stories about a splendid, painless transition.

In fact, the target is an imaginary figure. According to Adam Michnik (a leader of Solidarity in the eighties, now editor of the daily Gazeta Wyborcza), the classic anti-Semite argued that if you are a Jew, you must be a villain. The new anti-Semite says: Because you are a villain, you must be a Jew. Thus the scope for invention is unlimited. Indeed, if you took at their face value the slimy leaflets pretending to "reveal" the alleged real Jewish names of people pretending to be "true Poles," you would conclude that anybody who mattered in Poland--President Aleksander Kwasniewski, Lech Walesa, even the Pope--was a Jew. It's no wonder that when they are asked by pollsters to estimate the number of Jews in Poland, over a fifth of all Poles say more than half a million, and quite a few say 5 million.

Many more explanations of the survival of anti-Semitism have been offered. One is that since there was no collaboration with the Germans in Poland, the anti-Semites were not as discredited as in Western Europe, and soon after the war it became patriotic to resist "Jewish Communism." Poles complain that, singling out the Shoah, Jews have played down other victims, among them 3 million Poles. Poland used to be known as "the Christ of nations," and you hear the refrain about the difficulty of having two martyred nations, two chosen people. Clearly, more than half a century after the war, the Poles will finally have to face the fact that, whatever their own sufferings, a deeper tragedy was enacted under their eyes.

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