Poland’s Bishops Issue Statement Condemning Country’s Anti-semitism

In an unprecedented move, Poland’s Roman Catholic bishops today issued a document condemning anti-Semitism in this country, and acknowledging that some Poles had helped Nazis kill Jews during World War II. But Jewish leaders criticized the bishops, saying they were too late.

“We express our sincere regret over all case of anti-Semitism which were committed at any time or by anyone on Polish soil,” the bishops said, in a four-page statement that is to be read during Catholic mass here on Jan. 20.

“All cases of anti-Semitism are against the spirit of the Gospel … and are contrary to the Christian vision of human dignity,” the bishops declared.

The declaration follows a statement made by world Catholic leaders in Prague last week, which accepted blame for the recent recurrence of anti-Semitism in Europe and called on fellow Catholics to aggressively combat it.

“From the Polish perspective this is a major breakthrough,” said Konstanty Gebert, a political columnist in Warsaw who is Jewish. “It formally confirms that anti-Semitism exists here, that it is reprehensible and that it is a Catholic duty to combat it.” More than 90 percent of Poles identify themselves as Catholics.

“But as a Jew I find serious flaws in this,” Gebert said. “It has simply come too late.”

Pawel Wildstein, head of the coordinating commission of Jewish organizations in Poland, said: “We kept asking that the bishops make a such a statement earlier, but in vain.”

‘MAJOR, MAJOR BREAKTHROUGH’

In New York, Rabbi A. James Rudin, national director for interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee, emphasized the importance of the Bishops’ statement.

“It is a pastoral letter, not just a statement,” he said, “It is approved by every bishop of the Catholic Church in Poland, including Cardinal Glemp, and is a major, major breakthrough.”

Rudin, who just returned to New York from meetings with high-ranking church officials in Poland and with newly elected president Lech Walesa, said that the pastoral letter will be read in all of Poland’s more than 6,000 churches on Jan. 20 “without comment, and with the full authority of the Polish bishops.”

Seymour Reich, chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, said that the Bishops’ statement “confirms that the Prague declaration has meaning and that the countries of Eastern Europe are implementing it on their own.”

In early September, Catholic leaders issued a statement, after meeting with Jewish leaders in Prague, that anti-Semitism is a sin against God.

Since Eastern Europe’s first non-Communist government took office 16 months ago, anti-Semitism has emerged in Poland in many ways.

While anti-Jewish graffiti has become a common sight on city streets this year, the phenomenon was perhaps most striking during Poland’s first popular presidential campaign that ended with a landslide victory for Lech Walesa on Dec. 9.

Voters complained that Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a devout Catholic, was of Jewish origin. Campaign aides have blamed his humiliating defeat in the first round of voting Nov. 25 partly on anti-Semitic accusations.

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, was critical of the timing of the statement, saying “All figures of conscience were remiss in not standing up to an election campaign so tainted by anti-Semitism.”

Walesa, who is to be inaugurated Saturday, called repeatedly on Jews last summer to identify themselves. He later said that his comments were meant to rid the campaign of anti-Semitism, not inspire it. He then apologized for the comment, saying that he had misspoken.

Last week, Walesa told Rudin that under his tenure, Poland would enter a new phase free of anti-Semitism.

ISSUED IN TIMELY FASHION

“We’re pleased that the statement has finally been issued, but it would have been more helpful had it been issued in a more timely fashion, when it might have impacted anti-Semitism in the campaign,” said Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.

“We hope that they will follow up this statement with the kinds of educational programs on the local parish level that they have promised to do.”

Before World War II, Poland was the center of world Judaism, with a population of more than 3 million Jews. Only 300,000 remained after the war. Thousands more emigrated during government-sponsored anti-Semitic purges in 1968. Some 10,000 live here today.

In the document, the bishops explained at length that Jews should not be blamed collectively for the death of Jesus Christ.

“If there was only one Christian who could help but did not extend his hand to a Jew in danger or contributed to his death then it makes us ask our sister and brother Jews for forgiveness.” the statement said.

In an unusual admission that there were Poles who assisted Nazis during World War II, the bishops said such people would “forever gnaw at our conscience.”

The bishops also said: “We are aware that many of our compatriots still keep in mind the memory of injustices perpetrated by post-war Communist governments in which people of Jewish origin also participated.

LINKED TO COMMUNIST REGIME

“We must recognize, however, that the source of inspiration for their activity was apparently neither in their origin nor in their religion but in Communist ideology from which the Jews themselves had also experienced many injustices.”

Many of the first Communist leaders Joseph Stalin appointed here, especially those who headed the Interior Ministry, were Jewish.

“This little word ‘apparently’ I find extremely insulting,” Gebert said. “It shows questionable judgment.”

The bishops added, however, that it was unfair to single out Poland as an anti-Semitic nation.

“We feel it is unjust and deeply unfair to speak of so-called Polish anti-Semitism as an especially virulent form of anti-Semitism,” they said.

(JTA staff writer Debra Nussbaum Cohen in New York contributed to this report.)

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