Poland's Right Stokes Fires of Anti-Semitism

But power of slurs in campaigns slips

IN a show of patriotism before the presidential election Sunday, Poles celebrated their independence day here this weekend carrying banners of support for President Lech Walesa and "God, Honor, and Fatherland." But amid the celebration, a contingent of skinheads tainted the event with anti-Semitism.

The group of about 100 skinheads carried banners referring to several politicians as Jews (including Alexander Kwasniewski, Mr. Walesa's opponent in the election), and called for their "cleansing from government."

Anti-Semitism has declined since 1989, when the return of free speech to post-Communist Poland brought a surge of racism to the surface. But hatred of Jews is reappearing in this election season as the far right tries to stigmatize candidates who threaten their position.

"In the minds of some Polish voters, when somebody calls Kwasniewski a Jew, he is calling him a thief or somebody who can't be trusted," said Kazimierz Bujak, professor of political sociology at Krakow's Jagiellonian University.

The anti-Semitic attacks in the campaign have been mainly directed at Mr. Kwasniewski and his post-Communist colleagues in the Alliance of the Democratic Left (SLD), which controls parliament. Right-wingers and right-leaning newspapers have claimed to have researched candidates' origins. Kwasniewski, put on the defensive, said his family has had the same name for generations and is from eastern Poland.

"Anti-Semitism has always been a part of Poland's national tradition," said Konstanty Gebert, a Polish Jew and an expert on Polish-Jewish affairs, at a talk on anti-Semitism in Poland. "It surfaced in 1989, and there were anti-Semitic slurs in the presidential election in 1990 and the parliamentary elections of 1991 and 1993."

Five years ago, presidential candidate and then-Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki was given a Jewish label that still follows him even today. Meanwhile, incumbent President Walesa claimed to voters in his first election campaign in 1990 to be a "real Polish man" - which was understood to mean a non-Jew - and boosted his ratings.

"This anti-Semitism only works with uneducated people like peasants and manual laborers. These are the people most affected by a market economy," said Professor Bujak. "They are looking for a leader, who is a combination of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski [Poland's authoritarian leader in the 1920s and '30s] and [Pope] John Paul II, to lead them out of their woes."

Although Poles and Jews lived together for centuries, anti-Semitism was "the fashion in Poland and Europe from the 19th century until World War II," said Mr. Gerbert. The Nazi onslaught, which saw millions of Jews murdered in the Holocaust and millions of Poles killed by Nazi oppressors, brought both peoples to see themselves as victims.

According to Gebert, this furthered a competition between both nationalities that was started by religion: Jews see themselves as God's chosen people, while Roman Catholic Poles view themselves similarly as a special bulwark of Latin Christianity on Europe's eastern frontier.

After the war, Poles blamed Jews for bringing communism because many thought that Jews before the war made up the Communist Party in Poland. But there were several pogroms during communism, the last in 1968.

But as Poland reenters modern Europe, more education about racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia may change Polish attitudes.

"We see this type of anti-Semitism in the campaign works with older people. It doesn't work with younger people. As time goes by, in three or four elections, these anti-Semitic attitudes and slurs will be nonexistent," said Bujak.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.