PRAGUE (Dec. 25)
In the end it wasn’t the years of lawsuits and pressure from Catholic and Jewish groups that caused the demise of Poland’s best-known haven of anti-Semitic literature, but a newly appointed parish priest who decided enough was enough. The Antyk bookstore, which quietly closed in October, had become a symbol of some of the last remaining vestiges of Jewish-Catholic tension.
It had been opened in the basement of All Saints Church, directly across from Warsaw’s Nozyk synagogue in 1997.
“The bookstore should have been closed a long time ago because it did not represent contemporary Catholicism,” the Rev. Henry Malecki, 55, told JTA. “The Church does not function according to prejudices and hatred.”
Malecki rejoined the parish last June, having served there as vicar 20 years ago, and told the bookstore that he would not renew its lease.
“He has shown how the moral stance of a single person can make a difference to many,” said Piotr Kadlcik, chairman of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland.
Antyk’s closing gave Polish Jews another reason to celebrate as the New Year approached, joining the rebirth of their community and continued support from the president and prime minister.
Many had long wondered how a bookstore in a church basement could be allowed to sell literature claiming that Jews controlled the world, collaborated with the Nazis and are the enemies of Polish national interests.
In the post-Communist era, the Church has been accused of showing insensitivity to Jewish issues or in some individual cases even promoting anti-Semitism, despite then-Pope John Paul II’s deep embrace of the Jewish people.
Antyk was opened by an extreme right politician, Marcin Dybowski.
Stanislaw Krajewski, co-chairman of Poland’s Council of Christians and Jews, said the closing of the bookstore was important “because it was such a shame and a problem, and for years and years we were all told nothing could be done about it. So it has special meaning when a single person changes that.”
After several protests, the store claimed it had toned down its offerings, but a year ago JTA found 15 books in stock that criticized Jews or reinforced negative stereotypes. The so-called patriotic bookstore, frequented by fringe Catholic nationalists, made an odd partner to the statue of Pope John Paul II in front of the church.
Zuzanna Radzik was 19 years old when she brought the bookstore into the limelight.
“When I first visited the store in 2001 with a Jewish friend, I found that it was not only awfully anti-Semitic but also anti-Church, criticizing certain reforms that have been made,” said Radzik, now studying at a Catholic university in Warsaw. “The messages from its literature, posters and discussions was decidedly anti-Christian.”
Radzik sought out the intervention of the priest at All Saints, but says she was rebuffed. He said he would not play the censor, according to Radzik, and was grateful to have the rent money from the store.
“What was clear to me was that he lacked good will,” Radzik said.
So Radzik circulated a letter against the bookstore with 200 signatures of prominent Catholics and sent it to the archbishop’s office in Warsaw.
“When I asked for a meeting with the bishop after handing in the letter, I was told by his secretary that they didn’t care about my project and had more important things to do,” she recalled. “I cried when finding out how the Church works.”
The soft-spoken Radzik continued to hound various bishops and even the primate’s office, which refused to respond even after the story was reported in a mass circulation daily newspaper, Rzeczpospolita.
Radzik then wrote an article about the bookstore in 2003 in Catholic cultural weekly, Tygodnik Powszechny.
Antyk held a press conference condemning Radzik, and Church officials continued to ignore her, but she raised public awareness of the issue. The major television networks covered her story.
“It was a painful but at the same time life-changing experience,” she said. “I found out that I want to study theology and how important it is to work on Christian-Jewish dialogue. Ironically enough, the bookstore case became for me a turning point.”
Radzik, who recently returned from a fellowship studying Christian-Jewish relations at the University of Notre Dame, said she feels no sense of victory now that Antyk is closed.
“The truth is that we didn’t succeed,” she said. “It was not lay people protesting or the media, but one good parish priest who changed everything.”
Malecki as the vicar at All Saints in the 1980s had been a maverick, taking young people to visit the Jewish community’s headquarters.
He did not want to discuss his predecessor as priest, but indicated that the Church needed funding for renovation and Antyk had paid a relatively high rent.
Malecki hopes to renew contacts with the Jewish community, something Kadlcik wants as well.
“We definitely want to meet him and encourage him,” Kadlcik said.
The community was in the midst of a lawsuit against the store that had been stalled in court.
Officially, Krajewski said, relations between Jews and the Catholic Church in Poland are good but not close. He said some Church leaders are ready to be more open to Jewish sensitivities, “but they are a minority it seems. It’s certainly a slow process.”