I hope to challenge stereotypes about Poland, but equally I want to avoid ‘sugar coating’ the image of a country that has controversies like any other.
It’s worth saying upfront that I don’t believe that l Poland is any more dangerous for people of different races or religions than any other country I know. We have visitors from all over the world and I know personally black, hispanic, Asian and Arab people of different religions who have lived peacefully here for years. I also don’t suggest that all Polish people think the same and instead I touch upon some of the local and national themes that I have observed in the past months.
Unsurprisingly given the complex and dark history, it’s a very touchy topic in Poland still to this day. I won’t attempt to cover the whole topic, which is the topic of countless books and PhDs. It’s safe to say though that furious arguments still rage on, including with Israel and other over the Polish government’s 2018 ‘Holocaust Law’. This criminalises any public suggestion – even abroad – that Poles collaborated with Nazis in the killing of Jews in Poland. Over the Easter weekend a local town took part in a common tradition of burning an effigy of Judas, causing international condemnation when pictures emerged of a ‘stereotypical, Orthodox Jew’, with crooked nose and sidelocks: https://jewishnews.timesofisrael.com/polish-town-burns-judas-effigy-resembling-orthodox-jew/
An isolated event perhaps, but still shocking.
I will cover the story of my town in a future post, but for around 400 years around half of the population here was Jewish – among the highest proportion in Poland. Until 1939 the local Jewish community here was very strong, with synagogues, sports and arts groups, a kosher slaughterhouse and library. Many people I know here are interested in – and quite positive about – the local Jewish heritage. Recently over a hundred local residents gathered for a guided tour of the town’s large and beautiful Jewish cemetery. This was led by a passionate, local volunteer who has taught himself to read Hebrew to help explain the many stories dotted throughout this place of rest. Some locals also say openly that they think a significant number of families here are likely to have at least some Jewish heritage, although in their words “noone here lives openly Jewish anymore”, an idea I also found surprising and unfamiliar.
Even though I realised immediately that it was probably from a tiny minority group up to no good, I was also shocked and outraged to see what appeared to be anti-semitic graffiti all over town. ‘Anty Jude’ and crossed out Stars of David did not require much translation, or so I thought. With Auschwitz concentration camp just 12 miles from here over a few rolling green hills – where an estimated 90% of the local Jewish population perished – I was particularly horrified. Though it did not change all of my feelings on the issue, it was later explained to me that the graffiti comes from local football rivalry. The images I had seen reportedly attack one of the major Krakow teams that coined the nickname ‘Jude Gang’ (‘Jew Gang’ in German) due to the large number of Jewish players before 1939.
Even a Jewish organisation I asked about it said that they see this solely as a football hooligan issue, rather than as an attack on Jewish identity or culture itself. These organisations tell me that they can maintain an open-door policy without security and that they have not been the victim of direct attacks in recent years. They did agree however that the graffiti (and the failure to remove it) sends a damaging message to both local residents and international visitors, not least to the many Jewish visitors each year who come to pray on special occasions.
I also notice some subtler attitudes that seem different from the typical approaches in other countries I know, such as the UK and France. Even open-minded and tolerant people seem to view Jewish people, culture and traditions as something external to all things ‘Polish’, even if not in a judgemental or malicious way. “Oh, no, that wasn’t a Polish tradition/dish, it was Jewish” is a regular reflection. When reading a text about a famous Polish-Jewish American, my students immediately understood this to mean ‘half Polish – half Jewish,’ as though the two identities were mutually exclusive. Although many admit that they view things in this way I have heard conflicting reasons and explanations, from finger-pointing to stories that Jewish communities tended to isolate themselves, to opinions that this is a relatively new, learnt behaviour connected to nationalist politics. Many Jewish people in Poland fought in the Polish army (e.g. an estimated 130,000 at the start of the Second World War) and many historical accounts show of significant social integration of Jews in Poland before the atrocities began.
In summary, this is a highly complex issue that leaves many Poles themselves conflicted and divided. Like many places unfortunately, there seems to be an element of anti-semitism (by definition – a prejudice towards Jewish people). However I also know many people who are seeking to change that in Poland, including our local cultural communities that organise events to improve understanding of the Jewish heritage of the local area. I still think personally that local authorities should take more responsibility and cover the graffiti up and many people I know here agree with me…