Menu JTA Search

Anti-semitism Continues to Mar Presidential Politics in Poland

Disturbing signs of anti-Semitism cropped up throughout Poland in the weeks preceding the country’s first democratic presidential elections ever. And the trend has not waned with the approach of Sunday’s runoff between Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and emigre businessman Stanislaw Tyminski.

On Warsaw streets, vandals have taken to Tyminski’s posters. Green dollar signs obscure his eyes, and crude black letters mark words oftrepeated in the campaign: "Juden raus!" (Jews out!).

Although Tyminski, a dark horse candidate who left Poland 21 years ago to make a fortune in Canada and Peru, is not Jewish, those worried about his growing popularity among Poles believe that is the one charge that could damage his luster in the coming race.

"Perhaps we could use such arguments against him," said Antoni Marianowicz, a writer and survivor of the Warsaw ghetto who fears Tyminski’s success with Polish voters. "Poles love the idea that he is rich, that he made money abroad, but if there is a question that he is Jewish, then his campaign will be over."

It is somewhat ironic that Tyminski, a Catholic who has also dabbled in Peruvian mysticism, is now accused of being secretly Jewish. He is a former president of Canada’s Libertarian Party, which has been known to give a platform to Holocaust revisionists.

Walesa and Tyminski defeated Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki and three others in the Nov. 25 elections, after a campaign marred with mudslinging, not the least of which was anti-Semitism.

Walesa won about 40 percent of the vote, while Tyminski got a surprising 24 percent. Mazowiecki finished third, in front of three others, with 18 percent.

ANTI-SEMITISM HURT MAZOWIECKI

Most attribute Tyminski’s political success to his personal fortune, which is attractive to many in this impoverished country. Others suggest that his victory stems from the widespread charges that Mazowiecki is of Jewish origin.

Mazowiecki, a former adviser to Walesa and Poland’s first non-communist leader since the war, is, in fact, a devout Catholic. Nevertheless, the prime minister was dogged in his campaign by accusations that he and a "Jewish cabal" were running the country.

"There’s no question anti-Semitism hurt us," said Piotr Rachtan, Mazowiecki’s media spokesman. "These suspicions and fears represent a black hole. It is frightening."

Popular expressions of anti-Semitism, as well as obsessive curiosity about the origins of public figures, are a bizarre phenomenon in Poland, where only 10,000 people out of a population of 38 million are Jewish.

Before World War II, Poland was home to the world’s largest Jewish population, numbering 3 million, or about 10 percent of the country. Only a few thousand survived the war, and most emigrated after government-sponsored anti-Semitic purges in 1968. The average age among those who stayed is 70.

Unlike the Soviet Union, where anti-Jewish groups harass a small but visible minority, the discussion of "who is a Jew" in Poland seems far removed from reality. For many Poles, images of Jews evoke shady characters who serve as scapegoats in hard times.

"Walesa is the only man who can lead our country," a Warsaw cab driver who refused to give his name said on the night of the first round of elections. "Mazowiecki is a Jew, and everyone knows that Jews are bad for Poland. All they ever want is money."

Indeed, the whole campaign took on ugly overtones. Last summer, Walesa said often that Jews in politics were hiding their origins, a comment that to many smacked of a "Jewish conspiracy" theory.

WALESA SAYS HE REGRETS REMARKS

Asked by reporters whether Mazowiecki’s supporters were mostly Jewish, Walesa replied: "Jews are great patriots, have done a lot for culture, but when they hide their nationality, they provoke attitudes of anti-Semitism.

"Why aren’t Jews proud of the fact they’re Jewish? I’m proud of the fact that I’m Polish and similarly would have been proud of my origin if I had been Jewish," Walesa said, according to a transcript provided by the Polish Press Agency.

Walesa later told The New York Times that his remarks were intended to squelch anti-Semitism, not inject it into the campaign. "I want the people of Jewish origin to be proud of their origin, and they are never satisfied, they never believe me."

Last week, however, Walesa expressed regret for his comment, saying he had misspoken. At a heated gathering of the divided Solidarity movement’s former leaders — who were meeting to marshal forces behind Walesa for Sunday’s second round — Walesa acknowledged that his remark was made "without foresight."

"I said this indeed. Out of 1,000 answers, one was bad," Walesa said. "But why can’t you see my 999 correct ones?"

Many prominent Jews here do not believe Walesa is an anti-Semite. "I can tell you honestly, after many years of knowing him, that he is not," said Marianowicz, the writer.

But whatever the case, it seems his comments have taken root.

NEXT STORY