Polish Leader Has Extremist Allies

The new president of Poland was elected with the backing of anti-Semitic supporters. But not all Polish Jewish officials believe that Lech Kaczynski, who will take office in December, should be criticized for his extremist bedfellows.

Kaczynski, the former mayor of Warsaw, was elected last month, narrowly defeating outgoing President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who is popular with Jews inside and outside Poland.

The Catholic-oriented Law and Justice Party of the incoming president governs Poland in coalition with two extremist parties, Self-Defense and the League of Polish Families (LPF), “whose members have frequently expressed anti-Semitic sentiments,” according to Tel Aviv University’s Stephen Roth Institute, which monitors national attitudes toward Jews all over the world.

When he became mayor of Warsaw in 2002, Kaczynski accepted the demand of the LPF to build a monument to anti-Jewish figure Roman Dmowski in the city center, according to the Stephen Roth Institute. Dmowski was the chief ideologue of the nationalist anti-Semitic movement Endecja in the 1920s and 1930s. In addition, the LPF is closely connected to Radio Maryja, a station that openly espouses anti-Semitism and is popular among conservative Catholics who have rejected Pope John Paul II’s message of love and reconciliation toward the Jewish people.

Andrzej Lepper, the leader of Self-Defense, has repeatedly made enthusiastic references to Goebbels’ “propaganda skills” and Hitler’s “economic policy,” according to the Stephen Roth Institute.

But some Jewish officials in Poland say they have no reason to believe Kaczynski will be unfair toward the Jewish community, which numbers an estimated 8,000.

“President Kaczynski in all of his dealings has been forthcoming, fair and respective of the needs of local Jews and their role in Poland,” said Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, who has lived in the country for more than a decade. “Any rumors about him being anti-Semitic are unfair. I think he will actually be a very strong ally against anti-Semitism.”

The rabbi interacted with Kaczynski when the latter was the minister of justice, responsible for investigating what happened in Jedwabne, where hundreds of Jews were massacred in 1941 by fellow Polish townspeople.

The case was hushed up until a book published in 2000 put the blame squarely on the residents, not on the Nazis.

As the minister in charge of the case, Kaczynski had the unenviable job of organizing the exhumation of victims’ bodies, which is against Jewish law. He eventually reached an agreement with Jewish leaders by which the dead were not disturbed.

“I met with him several times and he was a man of his word, even though he had far more reason to placate the rightists than to stick to Jewish law,” Schudrich said.

Kaczynski has vowed to continue strong political and commercial cooperation with Israel.

Kataryna Ober, a member of the Polish Union of Jewish Students, is bothered more by what she believes to be the incoming president’s homophobia.

“He is against gays,” the 19-year-old Ober said. “Gays are different. So why not gypsies and Jews as well? I think we should all be afraid of him.”

Kaczynski, then the mayor of Warsaw, prevented a gay rights group from marching last year, but then allowed a “march of the normal” — made up of anti-gay and anti-lesbian groups — to proceed.

The Polish Union of Jewish Students formally protested the mayor’s action.

Stanislaw Krajewski, co-chairman for the Council of Christians and Jews, took a wait-and-see attitude.

“I hope this man, the president, will keep up the work of the last president,” he said.

Outgoing President Kwasniewski was held in high esteem by Jews because of his warmth toward Israel and because of his willingness to admit that Poles had their share of guilt when it came to wartime atrocities against Jews.