For novice tour guide and translator Swarek Yerka, a day spent guiding Miriam, a young American Jewish woman searching for her family’s roots, turned into a personal confrontation with anti-Semitism.
At a time when Polish officials are openly denouncing anti-Semitism, many Poles still harbor anti-Jewish sentiments.
On an official level, the country has done much to combat anti-Semitism, according to Polish journalist Stanislaw Lopuszanski.
“Children learn about the role Poland placed in the Holocaust. They view films and take school trips to the concentration camps. Every year there is a tribute to the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. We’ve come a long way in educating our young people,” he said.
Today there are relatively few overt acts of anti-Semitism in Poland. The small Jewish community, which numbers less than 15,000, is free to worship in the country’s seven synagogues. Last year, to promote greater cross-cultural understanding, President Lech Walesa set up the Council for Polish-Jewish Relations.
Furthermore, the Polish Episcopate has established a Commission for Dialogue with Judaism.
Yet despite these measures, anti-Semitism appears to be alive and well in Poland, at least among the older generation.
Such was clearly the case in the tiny village of Radzilow, in the northeastern province of Lomza. The village was once home to hundreds of Jews and Gentiles who lived side by side.
With its cobblestone streets and picturesque farmhouses, it appears to have changed little during the last century. As Swarek, the tour guide, and Miriam quickly learned, the villagers’ attitudes toward Jews haven’t changed much either.
Though at first friendly and open, a gray-haired farmer turned reticent upon hearing that the woman with the camera was a Jew whose family had lived in Radzilow before the war. “No, I’ve never heard of that family,” he said, despite Miriam’s proof to the contrary.
“When the Jews were taken away, some of my neighbors stole things from their homes, but I never took a thing.” He then asked Swarek, “Are you a Jew?”
The next woman they encountered, also elderly, noted that “we went to school with the Jews, lived with the Jews. But my mother used to ask, what kind of a Pole doesn’t wear a cross around his neck?”
And then she asked Swarek, “You’re Jewish, aren’t you?” When asked where the synagogue and Jewish cemetery were located, another woman said they had been destroyed by the Communists after the war.
“The Communist Party leader took the gravestones and built a house with them,” she remarked.
When Miriam asked Swarek to approach another group of villagers, he became hesitant. “They’re all anti-Semites. I don’t think you’ll want to hear what they have to say. They all seem afraid, as if they think you’ll claim their property, take back what they stole.”
When Miriam pressed on, Swarek finally approached the group. No, they said, no one by that name had ever lived here.
And is it true that in Israel, they have a place with the names of the Poles who were good to the Jews, and a place for those who were not? they asked.
At the town center, the pair inquired whether any Jews remained in the area. Yes, they were told, a Jewish Holocaust survivor had married the man who had hidden her during the war.
In a small, crumbling farmhouse next to a stream, Hanna lives with her husband Stanislaw, who was named a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem two years ago. Hannah, who is nearly blind, welcomed in the visitors, obviously pleased to have “out-of-town company.”
Her entire family, she said, was murdered by the Nazis. Stanislaw saved her life and the lives of other Jews by hiding them in the forest and giving them food. As she wrote her Hebrew name, and that of her mother, in flawless Hebrew, Miriam noticed the pictures of Jesus on the wall.
At 77, Hannah remembers the war as though it had happened yesterday. “I stayed in Poland because my husband is here,” she said. “If I were younger, I would move to Israel, where I have some cousins.”
She took out a letter with an Israeli stamp and postmark: Holon, Israel.
On the trip back to Warsaw, the young tour guide confessed: “I hated when those villagers asked me whether I was Jewish. In Australia, we Poles were made to feel like outsiders, even though I had an Australian passport.
“But some people are good and others aren’t. That man saved a Jewish woman and risked his life. I think, for the first time, I understand anti-Semitism. I’m ashamed of my own people,” the young Pole said.