Poland Shatters a Fragile Peace With Its Jews

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(Bloomberg) -- Polish writer Mikolaj Grynberg grew up in Warsaw listening to his family’s harrowing stories of loved ones who perished in the Holocaust. He then traveled the world to find fellow children of survivors to give them a voice in his books and photographs.

Now his fellow Poles are forcing open old wounds he thought were healing in the country of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Auschwitz.

Three months ago, on the eve of the 73rd anniversary of the Nazi death camp’s liberation, Poland’s parliament backed legislation that criminalizes any suggestion the nation was responsible for the genocide. It prompted an international outcry led by Israel and the U.S. that it stifled free speech. Since then, it’s led to growing fears among the small community of Jews left in Poland that they are under threat.

“I felt like my nation is attacking my nation,” Grynberg, 52, said in an interview earlier this month in the Warsaw district where he lives and where his family hid after escaping from the ghetto. “In the name of the state and with the acceptance of the state the anti-Semitic speech is spreading. This wave swells quickly and takes a very long time to fall.”

Nationalist leaders across eastern Europe have found success at the ballot box by stoking fears of immigrants and Jewish dominance. Just this month, Hungarians returned Prime Minister Viktor Orban to power for a third consecutive term after an election campaign peppered with anti-Semitic slurs and billboards against the Budapest-born billionaire George Soros.

Poland has embraced that them-and-us narrative. On the evening before the president signed the Holocaust law into the statute book in February, supporters outside his palace in Warsaw urged him not to kowtow to Jews.

QuicktakePoland’s Populist Turn

It’s raised concern among some prominent Poles. Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity union that helped topple communism, called on the governing Law & Justice party to outlaw the far-right group that organized a march in Warsaw calling for a pure, white Poland and recently held a political gathering at the Gdansk shipyard where he signed the historic 1980 accords.

“Are you blind or just pretending you can’t see it?” Walesa said on Twitter.

Poland's government said the law was needed to stop the country being misrepresented in history. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the reaction exposed the rising tide of anti-Polish sentiment in the world. The government tried to patch up the rift with bilateral talks and a new holiday to mark friendship with Jews.

Read More: Poland’s Prime Minister Is Defiant

It’s done little to assuage the fears of many Jews. Inquiries about emigration to Israel jumped in February and March, said Agnieszka Ziatek at the Jewish Agency for Israel, which helps Jews from around the world move to the country.

“Single people have usually made up the majority of applicants,” Ziatek said. “Now there are more families with children.”

Andrzej Krakowski, an emigre filmmaker whose television series “We Are New York” won two Emmy Awards in 2010, said his planned visit to Poland was the first that raised questions from his friends in the U.S. whether it was safe to go.

“Two years ago, Polish politicians turned the refugees from Africa into enemies, now it’s the Jews’ turn,” he said. “Even though they’re not here anymore, they exist in the subconscious. This is a constant search for an enemy. I’m not surprised some want to leave.”

Only 380,000 of Poland’s 3 million Jews, Europe’s largest pre-war Jewish community, survived the Holocaust. While thousands of Poles saved Jews during World War II, some handed their Jewish neighbors to the Nazis or outright murdered them.

Read More: Lessons of Auschwitz Get Blurred in Poland

Anti-Semitic moods persisted during communism and escalated in 1968 when some 13,000 Polish Jews including doctors, civil servants and artists, were fired from their jobs. Most left the country as political refugees. Krakowski, the filmaker, was among them.

Once communism was ousted, Poland sought to reconcile with its past and rebuild democracy. But its Jewish community now amounts to fewer than 10,000 people.

Grynberg isn’t ready to leave Poland. He believes all hope is not lost, showing a text message on his phone from a person he hasn’t heard from for years: “Please remember you have friends in this country.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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