Poland, "invisible Jews"?

Interview with Konstanty Gebert

Elisabetta Rosaspina, a journalist of Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, has interviewed Konstanty Gebert, a journalist and a writer, on the theme "Warsaw, the rebirth of the Jews".

WARSAW – Konstanty Gebert, 65, a columnist at “Gazeta Wyborcza”, a former war correspondent in the Balkans, a Polish writer and an activist, still lives in the same flat in Warsaw historic Bagatela neighbourhood, where he organized a secret kindergarten for local Jewish children thirty years ago. Initially attended only by the children of a few friends, subsequently - by word of mouth - rooms lined with books were filled by an increasing number of children, who were determined to retie the threads with their own roots.

Since 1994 Warsaw has had a Jewish school (there are two in all of Poland) for children born after the fall of the Wall; and Gebert could have devoted himself, in his newly found home tranquillity, to studying and writing. But the man’s past as a militant and his temperament could not be tamed easily: he had been one of the members of Flying University, the nineteenth-century underground educational enterprise where Marie Curie studied, which was reactivated in Warsaw in the late Seventies, under communism, to teach history that had been censored by the regime.

Gebert's resume is still long. A few facts: in 1980 he joined the Solidarność union. Nine years later, he was one of the journalists accredited in the Polish Round Table. He has been part of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews for almost 30 years. He was an adviser to the first Polish Head of Government, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, after 1989, and Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in former Yugoslavia. Konstanty Gebert, founder of Warsaw Garden of the Righteous, is therefore a crucial point of reference for those who want to find their way in the maze of Polish politics, just over six months before next general elections.

Jews are no longer invisible in Poland, but their number is still unknown. Why?

“Many documents were destroyed in the last century; and many marriages between Jews and Catholics were kept secret in the past, because they were not well received. Finding out about a Jewish ancestor has therefore become a possibility never to be excluded. And when all is said and done, every Pole has the right to think he/she has some Jewish blood”.

However, the feeling is that also anti-Semitism is growing.

“Some anti-Semitic characters stand at the right of the current ruling party, PiS, Law and Justice, (led by President Jaroslaw Kaczyński). It is not only our Jewish hypersensitivity that perceives it. It is a social reality”.

Precisely in Poland? How can you explain it?

“After the collapse of communism, for twenty years polls reported that anti-Semitism had weakened and sometimes even disappeared from the political scene. Anti-anti-Semitism and the democratic project were conversely becoming stronger. When Poland joined the European Union (in 2004), expectations were very high. Disillusionment stemmed from the awareness that it would take generations to reach Germany’s economic level. The idea then spread that this was a huge injustice. The project that had given so much hope suddenly became a failure. The liberal government dropped civic education, as if it were a legacy of past propaganda. In schools, Polish history stopped with the last war. Extreme right filled that void”.

What were the first signs?

“In the late 1990s, being anti-Semitic came to be acceptable, tolerated. Some time ago, in Poznań, a local administrator refused to commemorate what remains of a Jewish cemetery”.

A priest, Father Henryk Zielinski, caused a scandal for claiming that Jews have “a different notion of truth”.

“I find it unacceptable to say that lie is in the nature of Jews. Yet, the committee in charge of the case replied that there was nothing wrong in Father Zielinski’s words, but that they were rather an invitation to dialogue. Luckily, in Poland it is still forbidden to say that Jews should all be expelled or sent back to Auschwitz”.

What do you think of the new act punishing those who instead link the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka to Poland?

“True. They were not Polish death camps. And there was never collaboration, meaning institutional cooperation, of the Polish government with Hitler's Germany. On the contrary, there were over one million Poles among the victims of Nazism. However, one cannot deny that, on an individual basis, several thousands of Poles participated or reported for different reasons, out of fear or because they sympathized with the Germans who did not want Jews on their territory. It should be also noted, though, that the greatest number of Righteous in the world is Polish. 30% of Yad Vashem decorations were assigned to 6,800 Poles who risked their lives to save Jews. Furthermore, Poland hosted the largest number of Jews in danger”.

However, such act has been amended and no longer provides for three years in prison for those who claim that Poles were liable or jointly liable of Nazi crimes.

“I believe that the aim of said act is not to imprison or to try scholars, journalists and researchers, but rather to highlight historical facts not to be questioned. Its real purpose is to raise awareness in history teachers of provincial high schools on the fact that there are issues that should not be dealt with if they want to continue working as professors. Furthermore, the idea of an ethnically defined Polish people was introduced in legal language”.

But is nationalism still anti-Semitic?

“Polish nationalism was born anti-Semitic. When Jews were 3 million, with different language, traditions and religion, out of a population of 30 million, they were perceived as another foreign nation, after three subsequent dominations: Prussian (Protestant), Russian (Orthodox) and Austrian domination that, being Catholic, was considered to be less oppressive. Jews were the enemy against whom one could resist, whereas in other cases it was harder: there were other states behind them. Nationalists described Jews as an economic power, “the anonymous power”. They said that Jews controlled finance. Today, nationalism is not necessarily anti-Semitic. National democrats condemn anti-Semitism, but they do not do anything against anti-Semites”.


“Because elections will be held next autumn and the ruling party cannot risk losing the support of extreme right if it wants to continue ruling. Therefore it multiplies gestures of tolerance towards those voters. And fascists have felt protected and reassured for the first time: in the name of freedom of expression, their anti-Semitic positions are as valid and legitimate as any other opinions”.

Elisabetta Rosaspina, journalist, former correspondent for Corriere della Sera

Translation from Italian by Valentina Gianoli

30 April 2019

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