OSWIECIM, Poland (May. 29)
Eleven years ago, at ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, misunderstandings between Poles and Jews ran so deep that even a rabbi’s desire to say the Mourner’s Kaddish reportedly disturbed some Polish politicians. In fact, there were so many debates over the tenor of the event that two separate ceremonies were held: one for Jews, the other arranged by the Polish government.
Fast forward to Sunday’s visit by Pope Benedict XVI. Not only was Kaddish recited, but a whole new Catholic sensitivity to Jews was on display — even as Poland struggles to battle xenophobia and anti-Semitism, sometimes from Catholic sources.
But the pope’s visit was a source of unity.
When meeting former inmate Henrik Mandelbaum, who was forced to burn the bodies of his fellow Jews in the Birkenau crematoria, the normally reserved Benedict kissed him on both cheeks; the latter blushed with gratitude.
Poland’s chief rabbi, U.S.-born Michael Schudrich, not only said Kaddish in the presence of the pope and the country’s top elected leaders, but also recalled those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the gas chambers.
The pope prayed with clasped hands as Simcha Keller, director of the Jewish community of Lodz, sang El Maleh Rachamim, a solemn prayer said to honor close relatives who have died.
He also asked some difficult questions: “In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can be only a dread silence,” he said, “a silence which itself is a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent?”
Forced in his native Germany to join the Hitler Youth as a teen, Benedict said: “The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth.”
Schudrich and others at the ceremony praised the pope for what they said was an honest and moving expression of love for all people, including Jews.
But Schudrich noted that the pope “stopped short of decrying anti-Semitism, and although his visit was a wonderful gesture to us all, not mentioning anti-Semitism was a glaring omission.”
The chief rabbi’s sentiments were echoed by a number of Jewish observers, including Auschwitz survivor Kalman Sultanik and Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international affairs for the American Jewish Committee.
The pope’s visit came at a time when Polish-Jewish relations are soaring. The country has the largest number of and best-attended Jewish festivals in Europe, countless Catholic-Jewish initiatives and massive government financial support for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, expected to open in Warsaw in 2009.
However, the specter of anti-Semitism has not been erased in the country that was home to one of the world’s largest Jewish communities before World War II.
Less than one month ago, an extreme-right Catholic party whose politicians have a long history of anti-Jewish and anti-gay positions joined the coalition government at the request of Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz.
The League of Polish Families is presided over by Roman Giertych, the country’s new minister of education. Giertych is formerly head of the All-Polish Youth, whose members have been photographed giving the Nazi salute, according to media reports. The league has its roots in the National Democratic movement, which advocated violence against Jews in the 1930s and was led by Giertych’s grandfather.
In dozens of interviews, Jews and non-Jews said they worry that Giertych’s rise had empowered the small segment of Polish society that is intolerant and xenophobic.
Several high-profile acts of anti-Semitism leading up to the pope’s visit upset Poland’s Jewish community, estimated at up to 10,000 in a country of 38 million.
Schudrich was, for the first time in his 15 years in the country, assaulted Saturday coming out of synagogue, when a man hit him in the face and attacked him with pepper spray, shouting “Poland is for Poles.”
The previous Shabbat, some young men shouted anti-Semitic slogans at the rabbi and other worshippers.
Schudrich connected the ascension of Giertych and the league, which garnered 8 percent of the vote in the 2005 parliamentary elections, with these events and other recent incidents, including anti-Jewish threats sent by text message to Jewish student leaders and the stabbing of an anti-fascist by skinheads in Warsaw.
“There is a price to letting in extreme rightists into the government. It empowers xenophobic, homophobic and anti-Semitic members of society,” Schudrich said.
Marcinkiewicz is a strong ally of Jewish causes, but he needed the league so that his conservative Law and Justice Party could have a majority in the Parliament.
“For their political stability they have opened up the floodgates of hatred,” Schudrich said.
Marcinkiewicz’s adviser on Jewish affairs, Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska, disputes this characterization.
“There is zero tolerance by the prime minister for anti-Semitism,” she said.
She quoted what Marcinkiewicz told Israel’s ambassador to Poland, David Peleg, during a May 19 meeting: “Bringing representatives of the All-Polish Youth into the government could give the impression that the Polish government will tolerate racism and xenophobia. This is not only false, but it will be absolutely condemned.”
But the problem didn’t really suddenly arrive when Giertych became a minister.
There are still questions about the influence of Radio Maryja, a Catholic radio station that has periodically spewed anti-Semitic rhetoric over the last decade. The main media supporter of the government, Radio Maryja was chastised by the Polish Conference of Bishops in April after a station commentator lambasted Jews and their “Holocaust business.”
Then there’s the shop underneath the church across from Warsaw’s main synagogue selling literature that questions Jewish patriotism, and although anti-Semitic graffiti declined exponentially since the mid-1990s, an Israeli Embassy employee pointed out a central Warsaw tram scribbling that said “Gays are Jews” not far from a Star of David in a noose.
To counter this negative image, government officials emphasize Poland’s support of interfaith initiatives, as well as Jewish institutions and gatherings.
But there’s no escaping Giertych, who is abhorred by most Poles and Jews alike.
During the pope’s visit, he said on the radio that he planned to require high-school students to pass a “religious exam,” which means a Catholic knowledge test, in order to graduate.
When Giertych came to see the pope at Auschwitz-Birkenau, he seemed puzzled when asked by JTA about his anti-Semitic image. “I am a lawyer and have many Jewish friends, I drink beer with them,” he said.
Asked if he had a message for those worried about the anti-Semitic nature of his party, he said, “That’s why I am here today,” adding, “I am a friend of the Jewish nation.”
Meanwhile, many Polish Jews told JTA they are sick of Americans painting their country as the epicenter of anti-Semitism when the reality was they had never had any anti-Jewish experiences.
“Jews and Poles suffered together like a family then, and they live together like a family now,” Mandelbaum said after the ceremony.