In Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, a throng of visitors of many nationalities look round a set of beautiful 16th and 17th century synagogues that miraculously survived Nazi occupation. Some have begun to function again as synagogues servicing a revived community – others have been turned into museums, exhibition sites, and bookshops. A lively, outward-looking Jewish Community Centre, opened in 2009, runs a range of activities that appeal to secular and religious Jews, and curious non-Jews, and welcomes visitors warmly without fear. Restaurants serving traditional Jewish food are thriving and some have klezmer musicians regularly performing. The paranoid, heavy-handed security industry, typified by threatening, walkie-talkie-bearing Israelis in sunglasses, at the doors of Jewish institutions in Western Europe, is completely absent in a country in which neo-Nazi movements are supposedly thriving. Interesting.
A couple of streets away is Plac Nowy – a small market area shared by pigeons and customers in the day and younger people in the evenings buying their beers and zapiekanki (pizza-style long breads). The stalls offer a mixture of food, clothes, souvenirs and cheap jewellery, including Stars of David. Also present are weather-beaten, middle-aged and older stall-holders, selling antiques and memorabilia. Old Jewish items, such as menorahs (candlesticks for Chanukah) surface here. You can’t help wondering about their provenance, or how comfortable those menorahs feel standing a couple of feet away from Nazi medals and paraphernalia. There are other items bearing Stars of David – facsimile armbands of the type Jews were forced to wear by Nazis in the wartime ghettoes. Who makes those? Who on earth would want to buy one? The odd bit of antisemitic graffiti adorns Krakow’s walls, typically a Star of David with a diagonal line through it – indicating the intention to eliminate a Jewish presence. And yet Jews in Krakow go about their everyday lives, some in full ultra-orthodox garb, looking relaxed, comfortable, and at home.
In Warsaw, where in contrast to Krakow, there was massive destruction of the city during the war, there are few synagogues but many memorials associated with the Nazi ghettoisation, oppression and deportation of the Jews, a task that some Poles enthusiastically assisted with, while others stood by, and some resisted and helped the Jews. The memorials are not hidden away. You encounter them in everyday places. Some were put there by the Soviet-controlled authorities in power until 1989, others have been erected more recently. Both sets indicate Poland’s willingness to face its past. You perhaps see more antisemitic graffiti in Warsaw, and yet there is no special security around memorial sites and no signs that they have been attacked.
My partner and I have just returned to Britain this week from a summer trip, more than half of which was spent in Warsaw and Krakow. We spoke to Jewish and non-Jewish Poles, among them Polish Christians whose academic studies have led them to learn Yiddish and delve into the history of the Bund, (the Jewish socialist workers’ movement), and also Poles brought up as Catholics who are delighted to have relatively recently discovered some Jewish heritage.
Given these experiences, and the impressions we were formulating, I was struck by two news reports we came back to, which both relate to the far right and antisemitism in Poland today. One, in the latest issue of the anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight, focuses especially on the NOP – Narodioewe Odrodzenbie Polski (National Rebirth of Poland) – which it describes as “one of the largest and most violent Nazi groups in Poland.” The implication that they are part of a flourishing wider neo-Nazi scene in Poland is clear.
The article focuses mainly on the small number of NOP activists who have been coming to Britain under EU freedom of movement – a right they no doubt oppose ideologically while taking full advantage of it. But Searchlight also describes the movement in the opposite direction – fascist activists from Britain First (a splinter of the fast imploding British National Party) – heading to Warsaw to find their counterparts and especially to seek out very right-wing, antisemitic Catholic church figures to invite to stir up trouble in Britain. That they can find such people testifies to a politically unhealthy climate in Poland. The individuals we spoke to on our visit were certainly alarmed at the tendencies within the mainstream right, who hold power, to provide a more favourable climate for those pushing far-right ideologies. But there are also countervailing tendencies. These are found not just in antifa activism – which also came up in our conversations, and whose graffiti work was also prominent. It was also in the clear evidence of a reviving Jewish life in both cities we visited. Jewish communities are now firmly established in 15 Polish cities.
The second report was from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) who were describing an apparent rift within the reviving Jewish communities about whether or not antisemitsm is growing, and whether the government is doing enough about it. The JTA quoted Anna Chipczynska, President of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland describing far-right circles acting with impunity, an increase in racist rhetoric online, antisemitic remarks by lawmakers and even Cabinet ministers, as well as expressions of revisionism by historians. One of her examples was Bogdan Rzonca, a prominent politician in the Law and Justice Party who recently tweeted: “I wonder why there are so many Jews among those performing abortions, despite the Holocaust.” Chipczynska accused certain leading Jewish individuals such as Artur Hofman, the President of the TSKZ, Poland’s largest Jewish cultural organisation, and representatives of the ultra-religious Chabad movement, of cosying up to Poland’s very right-wing government rather than being openly critical of it when they needed to be. Last week, the JTA reported that the European Jewish Congress expressed “grave concern over the dramatic rise in antisemitism in Poland.”
This dispute cuts across other battles waged among Jewish tendencies internationally. Chabad for example, is very pro-Zionist, and Zionists are usually determined to prove how bad things are in terms of antisemitism, in order to bolster support for Israel and encourage emigration there, but Chabad also wants to expand its influence and grow within Poland, and here its local empire-building overrides its Zionist imperatives.
We found more nuanced thoughts on these issues through individuals we talked to
, such as Andrzej, a young man who didn’t know of his family’s Jewish identity until he was around 10 years old. He now works on a long-term reconstruction project and exhibition at Warsaw’s devastated Brodno Cemetery on the poorer east of the city. He identified how the very socially conservative, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee right-wing policies of the governing party open up more space to those even further right while simultaneously blurring the space between them. But he was cautious about accepting that there was an upsurge in antisemitism.
He felt the far right were concentrating their sights more on attacking gays and Muslims, and even the antisemitic graffiti was more directed at one set of football fans by another rather than being directed at Jews per se. Though it is surely a worry that “Jew” is used as an insult between non-Jews. That needs to be tackled, and the case for solidarity between the targets of the far right – gays, Muslims, refugees, Jews – surely makes sense. As one of Warsaw’s heroes – Marek Edelman, the Jewish socialist who was the last surviving commander of the Warsaw Ghetto – said: “To be a Jew is always to be with the oppressed, never with the oppressors.”
Like other people we met, Andrzej expressed an optimism about the renewal of Jewish identity and life in Poland, which was advancing more quickly and deeply than the antisemitic tendencies. Let’s hope he is right, and let’s hope that in the not too distant future, Poland’s rightward drift can be reversed.