PRAGUE, July 17 (JTA) — They are despised by many. They face discrimination and stereotyping, and feel overwhelmed by the prejudice against them. They want to be seen as individuals, not as a group, and they want the media to stop slandering them. No, not Jews, not Israelis. Think Poles, some of whom feel under siege for group allegations of anti-Semitism. Joanna Owsiana, is a Jewish studies major at Jagiellonian University in Krakow who in May participated in the March of Remembrance and Hope, which brings young people together of all faiths in Poland to promote tolerance. Her counterparts from the United States and Europe were open-minded, but she said a Polish-born Holocaust survivor living in Israel declared “she hated Poles and labeled them all as anti-Semites. “I told her I was not responsible for what Poland did 60 years ago. My grandfather’s family hid Jews from the Nazis, but she didn’t want to hear about that,” Owsiana said. Much has been made since the fall of communism of the persistence of Polish anti-Semitism, and many Poles feel that try as they might, they cannot throw off this label. They argue that the real Poland is represented by young women like Owsiana, and not by marginal hate groups that one could find anywhere. Working against them is evidence that anti-Semitism is a persistent problem in Poland. The Polish anti-racism organization Never Again estimated that Poland has hundreds of anti-Semitic Web sites and is home to an increasing number of neo-Nazi groups. According to a 2005 Anti-Defamation League survey of 12 European countries, Poland ranked between first and third place among nations with negative stereotypes about Jews. Less known are current intensive efforts by the Polish government to combat anti-Semitism with police training, school programs and public statements in support of Polish Jewry. Little media attention is paid to the hundreds of grass-roots efforts by Polish Catholics to promote Jewish-Polish dialogue and the perseveration of Jewish heritage. There are also reportedly more students studying Jewish history and the Holocaust at a university level than anywhere else in Europe. Instead the press has focused on Education Minister Roman Giertych, the honorary chairman of the xenophobic All Polish Youth, known for its hatred of Jews and other so-called foreign elements. Making sense of the two extremes in Poland is difficult for Jews and non-Jews alike, as was evident at the recent weeklong Jewish cultural festival in Krakow, a homage by Poles to their former Jewish neighbors whose culture was nearly extinguished by the Nazis and the Communists. Jan, a 30-something Israeli visitor, said, “I feel confused. It’s like they shot us in head and now they want to dance to our music.” He was referring to Poles who collaborated with the Nazis, the 1946 pogrom in the city of Kielce and a government-sponsored anti-Semitic wave in 1968. There were about 14,000 people, mostly Poles, at the festival’s final jam session, where some of the world’s best klezmer bands performed. Many Poles attend because it’s a free music event. But out of the dozen partyers interviewed by JTA, all said they were there because they wanted to learn more about Jews. Agnieszka, a 27-year-old from the city of Czestochowa, was typical. “I wanted to visit the festival because I am interested in Jewish culture. It’s my first time and I am really excited,” she said. Asked if she had ever met a Jew she replied, “Not really, but I suspect that some roots of my family belong to Jewish culture. I would like it to be so.” But what about those Poles outside of the touristy Kazmierz district where the festival is held? In the working-class neighborhood of Podgorze, a group of teenagers who looked liked like poster boys for a skinhead magazine responded amicably to questions about the festival. “Jews are ordinary people,” said one tattooed teen. “We have no problems with Jews,” noted his shirtless friend. A third shaven-headed young man said that there certainly were anti-Semites in Poland, but added, “Everyone complains that Poland is the worst country. It’s not fair.” Amid another group of young men, grumpy and hot in the unrelenting Krakow heat, Kamil Kacmarczyk, 19, told JTA, “Jewish people are smart and witty. I love the nation of the Jews. It’s not popular to say this, but their extermination was also partly Polish fault.” Further down the main shopping street was Halena Ilinska, 70, who revealed the deep ambivalence of her financially downtrodden generation. “I love the idea of the Jewish festival, I like the songs,” she said. But reflecting on Jews, she said, “Politically I don’t like them. They have money and can do things with it. We are in a poor country and we are made to feel inferior.” Her displeasure was nothing compared to the man who could be dubbed the Jew-hater of Krakow. Sitting on a bench in Podgorze’s main square, the 79-year-old conspiracy theorist was smartly dressed. He refused to give his name but was willing to be photographed, while letting go a stream of invective: “Jews are so rich, we are so poor. They take our money. Seventy-five percent of the Communists were Jews. And now, a lot of the government is Jewish. They don’t have Jewish names, but the president, he is really Jewish.” Regarding the Holocaust he said, “Maybe Hitler killed too many of them, but the Jews should have been taught to live like decent people.” His tirade was made only a few minute’s walk from the ghetto and Plaszow forced labor camp memorialized in “Schindler’s List.” Back at the festival, Monika, 19, was shaking her booty to the Mick Jagger of klezmer, David Krakauer. She planned to take festival’s tour of the former Nazi Jewish ghetto “so I could learn what happened to all the Jews who used to live here.” Six decades is a long time for Jews to have to wait for Monika, and not the park bench lunatic, to be the dominant force in Polish-Jewish relations. But as positive images of Jewish contributions are now more central to Polish education and culture, from the Krakow festival to myriad government-sponsored programs unearthing Jewish history, there is hope that a new generation of Poles will be known for their tolerance instead of their anti-Semitism.
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Dinah Spritzer is JTA's correspondent in Prague. She has been covering the former Eastern European bloc since 1990 and currently serves as the news editor of The Prague Post. The former Europe editor for Travel Weekly, she also contributes to several other publications, including The Independent on Sunday, Conde Nast Traveler and several guidebooks on the Czech Republic.