A Polish man and an Israeli-American woman walk into a bar in Warsaw.
That’s not the start of a joke that plays off silly stereotypes — of either Polish “stupidity” or of the many we could muster about Jews.
In fact, it’s not a joke at all. I really walked into a Warsaw bar recently and met a Polish man. Over draft beer, we quickly got into a discussion of Polish and Jewish stereotypes, especially those that loudly came to the fore in the wake of what has been dubbed the “Polish law.”
I had taken the train to Warsaw from Berlin for a long weekend to survey attitudes and moods among Polish Jews two months after the “Polish law” made it a crime to ascribe Polish responsibility for the Holocaust, shattering Jewish-Israel-Poland relations. Now, in a bar called Beirut, I had the chance for a face-to-face — rather than a social media — conversation, this one over a much-needed social lubricant.
I’m technically half-Polish, I told him. My paternal grandparents hail from Lodz. I visited the Lodz cemetery last year, and I wondered if I could see where they lived. He offered that I might be able to claim their property, as an heir.
“I never even thought about that,” I said.
But when it came to the now infamous “Polish law,” he expressed concern that communal Jewish consternation stemmed from a desire to collect reparations from Poland, unjustly, because Poles also were victims of Germany. He also wondered if Jews could truly be considered Poles.
“Never has the image of Poland in the world been so negative than it has been in the last two months.” — Rabbi Michael Schudrich
But mixed with comments that would likely trigger a tit-for-tat among the trolls, came sympathetic, conciliatory comments about Israel: admiration for its survival, pride in the “Mossad” T-shirt he owned; and encouragement for me to claim my Polish inheritance — individually. His grandmother had fond memories of Jews, who should try today to empathize with Poland, especially since Poland is a friend of Israel given its U.N. voting records.
“We should talk,” he concluded.
But since the controversy, hardly anyone talked. They shouted, smeared and traded plenty of stereotypes. Jewish organizations and Israeli leaders accused Poland of whitewashing history, eager to remind Poles of cases of complicity in Jewish genocide. The Ruderman Family Foundation was shamed into removing a provocative video uttering “Polish Holocaust” and calling on an American boycott of Poland. Then came the typical tropes: “Jews control the media”; “Jews control finance.” If the “Act on the Institute of National Remembrance,” as it is officially named, hadn’t opened so many wounds and demons, it could have been a joke … about Polish stupidity.
“Currently the reaction of this law has achieved the exact opposite of the goal. Never has the image of Poland in the world been so negative than it has been in the last two months,” said Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland who hails from New York.
We met during pre-Passover bustle at his office on the campus of the Nozyk Synagogue. The grand synagogue survived Germany’s flattening of Warsaw because it had been converted into a Nazi barn.
He opposes the law, especially on technical grounds (“Is the truth now to be decided by local judges?”), but he understands its intention to defend Poland’s good name. “It’s important for countries to face evil things they did in the past, but we have to understand it’s not a comfortable subject for the Poles.”
The death camps were indeed not “Polish” and Poland’s government operated in exile in London.
“If we expect and demand the Poles not to say anti-Semitic things,” Schudrich said, “then it also means we’re demanding of ourselves not to say lies about the Poles.”
But shouting on both sides, with the help of media sensationalism, has exacerbated the rift.
“There are two aspects to the law,” Schudrich said. “One aspect is the law itself and the other aspect is the acrimonious yelling at each other that has taken place in reaction to the law. The two events took place so close to each other that it’s hard to differentiate what the community here is reacting to.”
Since late January, anti-Semitic slurs that once were considered taboo have found full expression, mostly in social media, by average Poles and — most worrisome — by members of the political brass, at a time when the Polish-Jewish community, an estimated 20,000, felt like it was coming into its own.
In an energetic Warsaw, Holocaust memorials, including markers for the former ghetto wall, are visible on almost every other city block. Among the tasty, not to mention cheap, eateries brimming with tourists, you’ll find “Tel Aviv,” “Florentin,” “Shuk,” and “Berek” — all owned by Polish locals, testifying to the coolness of modern Israel here. The Polish law was far from the public’s mind. The talk of the town and the subject of mass protest rallies was a strict anti-abortion bill — another whim, some say — of the ruling Catholic right-wing coalition.
Klaudia Klimek works as a parliamentary assistant for the opposition party and blogs about Polish-Jewish life. We met at a café near the Polish parliament; outside was yet another protest, this one against reductions in pensions for security personnel of the communist era.
Klimek’s story is typical. She discovered her Jewish roots after the fall of communism, when Jewish parents came out of psychological and spiritual Jewish hiding. Jewish life in Poland tends to be liberal: It must be inclusive to Jews of patrilineal dissent and of Christian or secular upbringing.
“The opposition, which is in the minority, cannot vote it over,” Klimek said of the “Polish law.” “That’s why all these stupid bills are passed.”
The law now sits in a constitutional tribunal because the constitutionality of its wording is in doubt. Klimek estimates that only about a third of the population supports it. Poland is experiencing a national resurgence, decades after the Nazi and then Soviet occupations decimated its sovereignty.
“It wasn’t about the Jews or Israel,” Klimek said. “They’re playing more with one card: national patriotism. Kind of like (President Donald) Trump. ‘America first.’ ”
Although it’s technically illegal to say “Polish death camp,” she feels completely free to criticize the government.
“I also notice that Israel and the Israeli government, because they may have elections soon, are using this card to get support in Israel. Our government in Poland is very similar to the government in Israel.”
But the political posturing has trickled down to the people. A male Jewish friend of hers in Krakow suddenly faced anti-Semitic remarks from a friend who didn’t know he was Jewish, telling him that Jews belong in Israel, not Poland.
In Israel, a crew of Polish flight attendants was forbidden to deplane for fear of harassment, much to the disappointment of one attendant who loves duty-free halvah.
Polish Jewish organizations have raised the alarm, saying in a joint statement: “We believe this law to be poorly constructed and detrimental to open discussion of history. If Poland’s government believes that even sporadic mentions of ‘Polish Death Camps’ must be criminalized, certainly the rising intolerance and anti-Semitic hatred in our country should be subject to similarly serious measures.”
Jonny Daniels, founder of From the Depths, an organization dedicated to preserving Jewish heritage in Europe, said there’s no cause for panic. He fearlessly walks the streets of Poland wearing a kippah.
You’ll find words online, but no “sticks and stones” or knives and guns that make Jewish life in other European countries far more precarious. Poland has not accepted Muslim refugees and its Muslim community is nil.
“This has been a factor in securing the identity of minorities and especially the Jewish community, which tends to be first victims of Islamic immigrants,” Daniels said. “It’s not the politically correct thing to say, but it has added to the security of Jews in Poland.”
Next I met with Poles not over beer, but shakshuka. Every Sunday, the Warsaw Jewish Community Center, a project of the Joint Distribution Committee, holds a “Boker Tov” Israeli brunch in its stylish lobby.
Here, the sight of many families and hipsters alike makes Stefan Tompson, a Polish patriot and activist, happy, despite having endured what he calls abuse on social media after his viral video explaining the intention behind the law and reaching out to Jews in friendship.
Tompson was joined by local Israel supporters Jan Wójcik and Grzegorz Lindenberg, co-founders of the European Issues Institute, a think tank on international security. They all agree the law’s construction and execution was stupid, especially in the name of free speech, but they understood its spirit.
“For me it’s very sad, because in the last few years, Israel and Poland had better relations,” Wójcik said. “After several years, Poles were really getting closer to Israel, and now everything broke out.”
Lindenberg, a sociologist and journalist of Jewish descent, admitted to deep-seated anti-Semitic attitudes, believing that some 50 percent of Poles buy into stereotypes of Jews dominating the world, especially finance.
Jews, unlike Israelis, Lindenberg said, “are like historical, mystical figures in Poland.” In the wake of the law, however, the distinction between Israelis and Jews has been blurred.
As for the theory about Jews not being Poles, he wondered if Catholic-Polish villagers would consider them Poles, too. Wójcik is a Buddhist. Tompson’s mother is British-born.
“The idea of Jews reclaiming their property resonates so loudly in Poland because a lot of people are afraid that some Jewish owner is going to knock on their door and say this was an apartment that belonged to my family in the 1930s,” Lindenberg said.
Klimek, who joined us for brunch, said this fear is not unjustified or even anti-Semitic. There have been several cases of dishonest or exploitative attempts at property reclamation.
As for the fallout from the law, damage has been done but it’s nonthreatening.
“There’s a grudge but I don’t think it will translate into physical violence,” Tompson said. “The rebirth of Polish nationalism is real, but there’s not a neo-Nazi party. … It wouldn’t translate into physical acts of violence and repercussions against Jews on a big scale.”
Rather than boycott travel to Poland, they encourage the opposite. “If you want to change this, we need more common, cultural, touristic exchange,” Wójcik said. “If a lot of Poles, for instance, go to Israel and like it. I would also like Jews to come to Poland for sightseeing” — and for more than just visits to German death camps in Poland.
“Jews using Poland as a sort of historical playground, in a sense where they don’t interact with locals, has irritated some,” Tompson said.
Schudrich said the upcoming March of the Living and anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising would be tests for the resilience of the relationship. He was encouraged, given that 160 nongovernmental organizations signed a petition condemning the law and its anti-Semitic residue, and the Catholic Church came out against rising anti-Semitism.
He appealed to Jews worldwide. “Now’s not the time to leave us,” Schudrich said.
Orit Arfa is a journalist and author based in Berlin. www.oritarfa.net