An official of the World Jewish Congress this week used an award ceremony, where he received a medal from the Polish government, to criticize Polish President Lech Walesa for failing to condemn his priest for making anti-Semitic statements.
“The international community expects swift reactions to such outbursts of anti- Semitism,” Kalman Sultanik, WJC vice president, said in his acceptance speech at the presidential palace Monday in Warsaw.
Sultanik, a Holocaust survivor who was born in Poland and now lives in New York, was honored for his contribution to the “normalization of Polish-Jewish relations” and to the remembrance of the Holocaust in Poland, among other things.
“Silence in such instances is perceived as acquiescence, and brings back memories of the world’s silence during the Second World War,” said Sultanik, who is also chairman of the World Zionist Organization, Department in North America.
Sultanik was referring to Walesa’s initial silence after his priest, Father Henryk Jankowski, blamed the Jews for starting World War II and equated the Jewish Star of David with the Nazi swastika and the Communist hammer and sickle.
Jankowski, who made the remarks during a June sermon in Gdansk in Walesa’s presence, further fueled the controversy by later saying, “Like all other people, Jews happen to do unbecoming things in public life just as they happen to do very noble things indeed.
“I am talking chiefly about banking and finance circles,” he said.
After a week of silence, public pressure both at home and abroad forced Walesa to issue a statement saying “anti-Semitism [is] despicable” and that he would not tolerate it.
In his statement, Walesa reiterated his respect for Jews and distanced himself from his former Solidarity union ally. But he fell short of satisfying his critics by not condemning Jankowski directly.
In a meeting late last month in San Francisco with leaders of the American Jewish Committee, Walesa reportedly said he should not be expected to react to every anti-Semitic statement in Poland.
He also said a personal statement was unnecessary because Polish Catholic bishops had already condemned it.
Indeed, Jankowski’s superiors in the Catholic Church reprimanded him for his remarks, and Jankowski has since apologized for his words.
The archbishop of Gdansk, Taduesz Goclowski, also apparently warned Jankowski that any new anti-Semitic outburst would prompt disciplinary action by the church. Goclowski’s words drew praise from the Anti-Defamation League and others.
But for Sultanik, the issue had shifted to Walesa’s unwillingness to directly condemn his priest’s words.
Sultanik, who has said he was under intense pressure from Jewish leaders not to accept the Polish award because of the controversy, decided to use the occasion to directly confront Walesa. Before his departure, he also expressed hope that Walesa would use the award ceremony as an occasion to condemn Jankowski’s remarks.
However, that was not to be.
Walesa ended up not showing up to present the Commander’s Cross of the Order of the Rebirth of Poland of Sultanik as had been planned. An aide who presented the medal in Walesa’s place said the president was on vacation.
But Sultanik is not giving up. He delivered a similar message on the need to speak up in a speech Tuesday to members of the Budget and Finance Committee of the Auschwitz Museum Council, which includes dignitaries from both the Polish and U.S. government.
“I still hope that Walesa will condemn Jankowski for his remarks,” Sultanik said in a telephone interview from his hotel in Warsaw.