Handsome, articulate and full of sympathetic words for the “Jewish nation,” Polish Education Minister Roman Giertych is asked to account for years of anti-Semitic statements made by members of his party, the League of Polish Families. His indirect reply might be interpreted as a desire to obscure his party’s past, or an honest attempt to explain Polish irritation with Jewish finger-pointing.
“You have to understand the problem: For 45 years all we learned in school was the suffering of Polish people, so if someone talks abut their suffering, then we talk about how 6 million Poles died during the war, how we were exiled to Siberia, how we fought against Hitler,” says Giertych, 35.
Giertych refuses to acknowledge that “competition in suffering” has little relevance to the type of Jew-baiting that has emerged from the league. Some league members have decried the so-called economic exploitation of Poles by Jews; others blame the Jews for communism.
When it’s pointed out that Giertych’s deputy, Wojciech Wierzejski, wrote that international Jewry was the enemy of the Polish national movement, Giertych balks, claiming that Wierzejski was quoting another writer from the 1930s.
But since Giertych recently has declared to the Polish press his antipathy for anti-Semitism, how does he plan to change the minds of those in his party who hate Jews?
“They don’t hate Jews,” he tells JTA. “That’s your imagination.”
Giertych is the grandson of an infamous anti-Semitic politician who warned of an alleged Judeo-Masonic conspiracy and supported kicking Jews out of universities in the 1930s, a move recently defended by Giertych’s father, a far-right member of the European Parliament. Giertych himself, a lawyer with two masters degrees who speaks several languages, is not known ever to have publicly uttered or written an anti-Semitic statement.
Yet Giertych, who also is deputy prime minister, stands accused of leading the most xenophobic, intolerant and anti-Semitic party in any European government coalition.
Over the years, some hate-filled barbs have slipped from the mouths of his supporters. Members of All Polish Youth, a quasi-skinhead group of which Giertych is honorary chairman, reportedly have been photographed making the Nazi salute. And Senator Ryszard Bender, one of the founders of the League of Polish Families, said in 2000 that “Auschwitz was a labor camp, not a death camp.”
Now Giertych has embarked on a campaign to show that he and his Catholic right-wing brethren are setting a new direction.
“Nobody makes anti-Semitic statements, because if they do they will be kicked out from our party the next day,” he insists.
Since it joined Poland’s right-wing government coalition in April, the league has been attacked for bigotry by rights groups, the Anti-Defamation League and even the European Parliament.
The league won just 7.8 percent of the vote in 2005 national elections, but was needed to cement a government majority.
Critics since have focused on the party’s open hatred of gays. Wierzejski has called gays pedophiles and said that if they demonstrate, “they should be hit with batons.”
On the Jewish front, Giertych inadvertently made headlines earlier this month when the Israeli ambassador to Poland, David Peleg, said Israel would not work with Giertych or his ministry on Holocaust education.
The Polish government has been scrambling to transfer the Israeli-Polish programs, which involve more than 30,000 Israeli students coming to Poland each year as well as teacher training in Israel, to the Prime Minister’s Office. Giertych wants the prestigious Holocaust program back.
“Three days after I became minister, I wrote the embassy and the education minister in Israel and said, ‘Look, a Holocaust program taught from your point of view directed by me will have tremendous credibility in Poland,’ ” Giertych said. “After all, nobody would ever accuse me of being a philo-Semite.”
His efforts were to no avail.
In July Giertych traveled to Jedwabne to commemorate a notorious 1941 pogrom in which up to 1,600 Jews were shoved into a barn and set on fire. Poles had thought Germans committed this atrocity until 2000, when Jan Gross’ book “Neighbors,” and works by other Polish historians, showed it was Polish townspeople who killed the Jews.
However, some Poles — particularly Giertych supporters — continue to reject this conclusion, and see the Jedwabne commemoration as part of an anti-Polish conspiracy. Thus Giertych’s visit had a double symbolism, though he says he doesn’t know who really killed the Jews.
“If in Jedwabne Polish neighbors killed their Jewish neighbors that was a crime — more than a crime, they were traitors to the Polish nation,” he says.
Giertych says his visit to Jedwabne, planned after his visit to the Birkenau death camp to hear Pope Benedict XVI, was a turning point.
“I have always understood the Shoah, but it is something else to feel, to empathize, and this grew deeper at Birkenau when I had time to reflect on the people who lived and died there,” he said.
Asked if anyone in his party holds anti-Semitic views, he answers no. But it’s hard to elude certain incidents.
First there was the case of Piotr Farfal, the 28-year-old deputy director of Polish Television and a league member, who wrote several anti-Jewish diatribes for a neo-Nazi magazine 10 years ago, including the statement, “We do not accept cowards, collaborators or Jews.”
Recently, it surfaced that a 24-year-old party member wrote when he was 18 that Jewish authors should be excluded from lessons on Polish literature.
Those with behind-the-scenes access describe Giertych’s party in a way that might not match his aspirations. Wojciech Szacki, who covers the league for the country’s largest newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, said there was an “anti-Semitic climate” at the party’s congress before national elections last year.
Politicians at the congress mocked Szacki with chants of “koszerna,” or kosher, and “Jude Zeitung,” or Jewish newspaper, a reference to the Jewish roots of the paper’s editor and its liberal outlook.
“But Giertych is really trying to change his party. I would never call him an anti-Semite,” Szacki said. “He feels responsibility now that the party is in power, and the members know this.”
For those who worry most about discrimination, Giertych’s self-proclaimed transformation is hardly convincing. His efforts to enforce “patriotic education” in Polish schools has led to protests.
“You have to see this in the context of his ideology, which excludes minorities from a patriotic version of history,” said Rafal Pankowski of Never Again, a Polish anti-racism group.
Israel, meanwhile, is mulling the new incarnation of Giertych.
“So he says now he understands the Shoah,” says Yaakov Finkelstein, cultural attache of the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw. “Why did it take him until he was 35? And what will he do so that it doesn’t take his daughters until they are 35 to understand?”
Giertych, for his part, says he already has changed the league’s image of Jews.
“For 15 years of my life I tried to change the understanding of people,” he says, “so why this boycott of the ambassador? It’s sad, stupid.”
But he’s irked when it’s suggested that he should go to synagogue to prove his bona fides.
“What for? Why should I?” he asks, his mouth tightening.
Told that this would be the ultimate conciliatory gesture, he frowns and looks dismayed.
“I am not the pope,” he retorts.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.