Polish churchmen grapple with hints of anti-Semitic revival
Warsaw — In the basement of St. Joseph Church, parishioners operate a curious bookstore. Hundreds of prewar volumes of extreme-right and anti-Semitic literature are on display.
They boast such titles as ``I am Polish [in 36 lessons]'' and ``Christian Nationalism.''
Inside, one can read about how Jews control the United States Federal Reserve Bank and are planning to take over the world. With evident pride, the young bookseller calls the volumes ``good nationalist literature.''
An old demon, extreme-right antisemitism, is reappearing in Poland. It is causing passionate debate in leading newspapers and attracting young Poles who are frustrated with daily life in their destitute country - a country in which newly married couples must wait an average of 20 years for their own apartment.
In many ways, the menace remains marginal. St. Joseph Church represents only one small parish in Warsaw with an estimated 250 to 300 activists, and other members of Poland's Roman Catholic Church are working hard for reconciliation with Jews.
On his most recent pilgrimage to his homeland, Pope John Paul II visited Majdanek concentration camp and met with Jewish community leaders. Following his example, another church in the same Solec neighborhood as St. Joseph sells literature sympathetic to Judaism.
A tense history
All the same, the revival of an extreme right wing within the church is alarming to many here. Before the war, Poland represented the center of world Jewry, with more than 3 million Jewish citizens. The Nazi Holocaust slaughtered most of them, leaving only a few thousand Jews living today in Poland.
``Polish-Jewish relations always were a problem in Poland, and they remain a unresolved problem,'' explains Jerzy Turowicz, editor of Tygodnik Powszechny, a respected Catholic newspaper. ``People's attitudes didn't change.''
Mr. Turowicz offers first-hand evidence. In January, his Tygodnik Powszechny published a piece by Jan Blonski, a well-known literary critic, agonizing over whether Poles had done enough to help Jews during World War II. The reaction was immediate and overwhelming. Turowicz received hundreds of outraged letters, some which he published, others which he found ``too emotional and too violent.''
Turowicz and other liberal Catholic leaders see deep-rooted causes behind the new extremism. They say that, ever since the declaration of martial law in 1982 and the banning of the independent trade union Solidarity, rational political discourse has been in short supply. Few see ways of breaking the political deadlock or ending the economic penury that ravages the country.
``What hope do the young here have?'' asks Krzysztof Sliwinski, a leading liberal Catholic writer. ``No wonder some look for a scapegoat.''
While this trend develops, communist authorities are taking no evident action. In theory, this is a communist country where the right-wing literature sold in the St. Joseph church is illegal.
``The secret police must know about the books at St. Joseph,'' says Bogdun Luft, an editor of the liberal Catholic journal Wiez, ``and yet they do nothing.''
In Mr. Luft's view, church and police extremists have forged an implicit unspoken alliance. The two extremists share much in common.
Both are anti-Western and nationalistic. Both are anti-German and pro-Soviet, believing that only with Soviet aid can Poland assure her treasured independence. And both do not shy from employing anti-Semitism.
For Polish communists, anti-Semitism constitutes a potent weapon. In 1956, the ``nationalist'' wing of the Communist Party used anti-Semitism to oust its ``Stalinist'' wing, many of whom were Jewish.
The 1967 Arab-Israeli war fed another debate within the party about the Jewish ``question.'' Most recently, the authorities insinuated that Solidarity, several of whose leading advisers are Jewish, was controlled by foreign elements.
Church has been passive
Faced with this, the church hierarchy has proved passive.
Because he sees the church as the guardian of the nation's cultural and intellectual values, Primate Jozef Glemp seems to sympathize with at least some of the nationalist re-vindications. He wrote prefaces for some of the volumes on sale at St. Joseph, though not for the overtly anti-Semitic ones.
This attitude may now be changing.
After an article appeared in the French press charging that the St. Joseph bookshop was selling ``The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,'' an infamous anti-Semitic tract, along with postcards of French right-wing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, the offending works were removed.
The bookshop remains open, but liberal Catholic observers hope that the Pope's strong actions will soon force its closure.
``By meeting Polish Jews, the Pope made a strong symbolic statement,'' says Mr. Sliwinski. ``Let's hope the hierarchy hears it.''