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There are just too few of us

A conversation with Konstanty Gebert, Polish journalist and Jewish activist. Interviewer: Maxim Rust

MAXIM RUST: You have been helping to build Jewish life in Poland for decades now. If you were to assess what were the main changes that have taken place in this regard since the collapse of communism in 1989, what would you say they were? What were the achievements and what were the failures?

KONSTANTY GEBERT: Actually, the biggest change that has taken place is that that we now do have Jewish life in Poland. It erupted suddenly right after communism fell in 1989, after the long decline of the few officially sanctioned organisations which existed under communism. Since the early phase of the transformation, new Jewish organisations, initiatives and clubs began to emerge. Naturally, along with them also came disputes and quarrels.

March 4, 2019 - Konstanty Gebert Maxim Rust - InterviewsIssue 2 2019Magazine

Photo courtesy of Konstanty Gebert

Essentially, it turned out that some of the things we did not believe could happen before 1989 were now becoming reality. For me the turning point came in the early 1990s when Jewish parents in Warsaw started to demand a Jewish school. I was shocked. There was a Jewish preschool, but it didn’t lead to any certification. Conversely, if a child attended a Jewish school, he or she would receive a certificate of Jewish education, which might later become a liability. To be honest until then I did not realise that so many parents were aware of their identity and engaged. These parents were Poles of Jewish origin. They wanted their children to have something they could not have: the option of a Jewish identity. They wanted their children to have a choice, even if one day they decided not to participate in Jewish life. When the school was established, it was a real breakthrough.  But the biggest achievement was that Jewish life had emerged at all.

What we have failed at, since you asked, is demographics. We are simply very few in terms of numbers. When you count all the members of all the Jewish organisations in Poland, you get around 8,000. The number of people who identify as Jews but do not belong to Jewish organisations is around the same. There are also those who do not self-identify as Jews or do not even know they are Jewish. However, there are too few Jews overall who are actively engaged in Jewish life for the community to self-replicate smoothly. Thus, when you look at its members, you will see that Jewish life in Poland has been built by the same people and this is not because others are being suppressed, but because there are so few of us.

You mentioned self-identification, or the lack thereof. What is the self-identification of the group as a whole and how has it changed over the years?

A lot has changed in this regard. In the 1990s when people started to discover their Jewish roots for some it was almost an earthquake and their whole life turned upside down. I remember the story of one man from near a small Polish town called Grójec. The father of this man, on his death bed, called for his son and told him that of all his children he loved him the most. However, he also told him that he would not inherit his father’s land because he was “not of our blood”: a Jewish orphan saved from the ghetto and raised by his adoptive parents – a crucial fact he had never been told till then. After learning this, the 50-something- year-old, who spent his whole life as a villager, a Catholic, a patriot, slightly antisemitic, came to the synagogue and asked: “What do I do now?” At that time, it was clear that with this new knowledge of himself, his life would never be the same. Today, things are different. When somebody learns about his or her Jewish roots it usually is only an interesting biographical fact. And it does not mean that they need to do something for the community. A lot of Poles with Jewish origin are deeply set in their Polishness. Maybe in small towns or villages (let alone a place like Jedwabne) things are different. But in large Polish cities this kind of information is no longer something that turns people’s life upside down.

Since we are now in 2019, I have to ask about hate speech. I realise that hate speech has always been present with regards to the Jewish community in Poland, but how has it changed since 1989 and how has it influenced the Jewish life here?

When you are Jewish, your freedom of choosing your identity is limited, as you always know that, sooner or later, there will be antisemites who will find you, “unmask” you and mark you. This is a marker which, regardless of the situation, is a life burden. But the nature of antisemitism has significantly changed over the years. In communist Poland, antisemitism was supressed, but it still existed. At that time, it could not exist in the public sphere without the authorities’ permission. In the early 1990s antisemitism reached the streets – there you could find antisemitic literature, antisemitic groups and parties with slogans. After 1989 many of my non-Jewish friends said they could no longer recognise their own country. However, freedom is here for everyone – even if you want to express the most disturbing views. The freedom in the first years of the transformation was a test for the nation. Under communism I was engaged with the underground press, so I do not call for censorship or the banning of publications today. If I have to choose, I prefer to be offended than for freedom of speech to be restrained. Of course there is a line, but I think I am able to move it further than many of my friends.

What has changed since 1989 and what has been visible in recent years is that antisemitism has ceased to be perceived as heinous. It has become a view, like others. Maybe it is a view that should not necessarily be praised, people will say, but in a free country someone can be antisemitic, just as much as he or she can be leftish or right-wing. Therefore, there are no limits, as we can best see online. There are many web sites where you can find people calling for violence and the elimination of Jews. Naturally, I understand this is probably a small group only, but I am also deeply astonished that their views are getting more approval and an increasing number of “likes”. There is a difference between spitting out this hate and its placid approval. It became clear in 2009 during the Gaza conflict. There was a demonstration in front of the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw where radical right-wingers and a group of young Jews stood against each other. The right-wingers were shouting: “We will do to you what Hitler did to the Jews.” The young Jews were terrified by such verbal aggression – as opposed to the generation of their parents, they had never encountered it before in their lives. Interestingly, the right-wingers were accompanied by a group of Palestinians who, when they realised what was happening, left immediately. During the whole demonstration there was not much said about Gaza, but the message was clear – Jews have to be killed because they are disgusting. Hate speech, which was considered heinous before, has recently become more present in Polish public media; this is especially true since the law on the Institute of National Remembrance was passed last year.

Before we discuss the law in greater detail let me ask you about the thesis that you presented in your recent articles where you argued that antisemitism is belittled by the Polish authorities and public media. What do you mean by that?

Let me put it this way. Since 2015, on the one hand, we have had a government which – verbally – is clear and categorical in its condemnation of antisemitism. During the anniversary of the murder of Jews in the Białystok ghetto, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the ruling party Law and Justice, said that anti-Zionism was a form of antisemitism. These words were later said also by other European politicians, including the French President Emmanuel Macron, but it was Kaczyński who said them first. It is very important that such statements are made publically. However, we also have the case of the infamous appeal in an online discussion: “Adolf come back and finish your job”. In this regard, the police started an investigation to later say that it was “impossible to determine who Adolf was and what kind of job this appeal was referring to”. Textually! There is also the case of the ONR march in Białystok, where participants were shouting: “In the spring, Zionists will hang from trees instead of leaves”. This was investigated by the court and dismissed based on the argument that the demonstrators did not directly call for aggression, but were expressing an opinion; had they said “should hang”, apparently it would have been different. This means that the government declares it condemns antisemitism but does nothing to identify and punish its propagators.

The next problem came with the passing of the law on the Institute of National Remembrance. Quite illustrative here are the words of the priest Henryk Zieliński, the editor of a Catholic weekly, who said on public television that there are two attitudes towards the truth: one which is “ours”, i.e. probably Christian and Aryan where words correspond to facts; and one which is that of “the Jew” – mind the singular form here which is to mark a non-personified being – where words correspond to “something the Jew holds dear”. The existence of these two kinds of truth indicates that dialogue is impossible. In other words, what Father Henryk Zieliński said was that lying is a constitutive characteristic of the Jews. The Union of Jewish Religious Communities filed an official complaint against this statement to the Radio and TV Committee, but the body found it “groundless”. In addition, it said that the priest was actually calling for dialogue. In this way, antisemitism is tolerated not only as an acceptable viewpoint, but also as one that is being justified. Logically, one could imagine public TV inviting, say, me to discuss the issue: “Father Zieliński believes that Jews lie by nature, and you disagree – explain”.

What you are saying does not sound very optimistic… But going back to our balance sheet of the last 30 years, what events, in your view, have influenced Jewish life in Poland the most?

The most important thing is what did not happen in the first 20 years. In other words, Jewish life in Poland had reassuringly become rather banal. In the early 1990s, almost anything Jewish made it to front pages of the newspapers – be it a book or a debate. Hundreds of people were coming to Jewish events. Gradually this first wave of interest faded and Jewish events became something common. I was dreaming about such a situation, imagining that when it comes to Jewish life I will one day die in a boring Central European country. I thought that we had finally come to the point when nothing spectacular will happen here anymore. Everything indicated that antisemitism was on the decline, slowly but systematically. We could even make a projection and mark the day when there would be no antisemitic demonstrations in Poland. And then, sometime in the early 2010s, the trend reversed. The gauge started to rise and antisemitic hate speech started to appear more online.

As I said before, for me in the first 20 years the most important thing was the growing banality of Jewish life in Poland. I considered it to be something extremely positive. Things here are still different than in Western Europe. Over there you know you are in front of a synagogue when you can see a police patrol and armoured vehicles. In Poland, security in the Warsaw synagogue was, for a long time, the responsibility of an elderly gentleman who, if he did not forget, would ask you to show him your bag. Security is now treated more seriously also here, but you still cannot compare it to Western Europe. I wear a kippah on my head and it is rare that I hear someone say something unpleasant. I have learnt not to react to them, for I know someone else, a passer-by, will react in my name. I feel safe on a street in Warsaw, the way I do not feel like in Paris.

You are talking about trends and processes, but not specific events…

The opening of the POLIN Museum, the Jedwabne debate, the active engagement of the Catholic Church in the Polish-Jewish dialogue in the early 1990s – all of that was very important. However, I think that the life of a community has to be looked at from the everyday perspective – what takes place on the corner of our street. Of course, these breakthrough moments have an impact. But our neighbours are more important than the breakthrough moments. And I have to say that I do not know a single Jewish family in Poland which has not experienced antisemitism in everyday interactions at some point, though there is no discrimination against us in institutional terms.

Let us return to the earlier mentioned law on the Institute of National Remembrance that was passed in 2018. Did it have any consequences on Jewish life in Poland?

This law had a huge impact because for, the first time, antisemitic discourse became acceptable in public, including on public television. In addition, there was an increase in hate directed at Jewish organisations, usually by mail and phone calls. After the law came into force, it also had a freezing effect on the activities of people interested in analysing Polish-Jewish relations. At that time I wrote an article saying that in some cases numerous representatives of the Polish nation were co-responsible of Nazi crimes. With this statement, I broke the law. I even reported this breach to the prosecutor’s office myself. And what? Nothing happened. This suggests that, despite the alarm the law generated, it was not directed against researchers, academics or journalists. It was more aimed against teachers outside large cities and local journalists – so they know what is good for them and what they should not focus on. For instance, when a history teacher from a small town or a village who taught about crimes against Jews committed locally during the Second World War does not get his or her contract renewed – in Warsaw nobody will care about that, and they will have problems finding another job in their local area. It is here where the real fight over people’s minds is taking place; not on the pages of national dailies or academic lectures.

And what is the current situation of the research of Polish-Jewish relations?

When it comes to research, the breakthrough happened much earlier. When academic inquiry into Polish-Jewish modern history started, back in the 1980s, it was actually possible to guess by someone’s last name what he or she will write about. Right now there is a consensus among the academic community with regards to what took place between the Poles and the Jews in the 1940s, and this is the most important thing. The consensus is independent of the researchers’ last names and whether they live in Poland, the US or Israel. This is because there is an agreement about facts, even though there are still disputes regarding the interpretation of these facts.

What about the attitude of the Jews towards the Poles? Has it changed in recent years?

We do not have comparative data on this. We have data on the attitudes of Poles towards Jews. However an anecdote comes to my mind here. I remember the time of the discovery of the Jedwabne massacre, journalists from abroad were calling and asking me what was so unexpected and sensational about the fact that Poles had killed Jews in the Second World War? To them this was a known and documented fact, and this attitude fed into a negative stereotype of Poles, which was very difficult for us to break and verify. But the frankness and depth of the debate over Jedwabne went beyond what had been the European norm and made breaking of the negative stereotype possible. At the time, polls showed that 84 per cent of the population in Poland was aware of the Jedwabne debate! Such a high level of awareness is quite unusual, even on a European scale: there is much less awareness of those issues in Ukraine, for instance, but also even France. Eventually, the image of Poland changed, into one of a country willing and able to engage with the crimes of its past; it even became an example to other countries. And this new positive image got almost rooted… Sadly, after the passing of the law on the Institute of National Remembrance this trust was deservedly lost, and it will be very hard to regain it.

It is difficult to make a positive summary of our conversation. In the end, I would like to ask you about your perspective on the future of Jewish life in Poland?

When it comes to Jewish life in Poland, it seems that, for the first time since 1989, matters are not in our hands. If we manage to save democracy in Poland, then Jewish life will continue to develop as it has over the last 30 years. If we fail, we will all have bigger problems to deal with. But even in the first, optimistic scenario, we will continue to have the demographic problem I mentioned earlier. I had once believed that we would be able to convince some of the Jews from the former Soviet Union who were moving to Germany to come to Poland instead, especially because the majority who lived there had been Polish Jews originally. I imagined that as Poland was becoming safer and wealthier, it could become an attractive destination for them. It would be enough if around 15,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union came to Poland for us to have the guarantee that organised Jewish life will survive here. However, I am less and less certain that Poland is still perceived as such an attractive destination. If somebody escapes from a dangerous location, he or she will not necessarily want to take another risk. Instead, they will probably opt for places that guarantee them more security and a normal life. Hence, the most probable perspective is that Jewish life in Poland will continue to exist but remain on the edge of survival. And this is not because somebody is hurting us here, but because there are just too few of us.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Konstanty Gebert is a Polish journalist and Jewish activist. He is a long-time columnist for Gazeta Wyborcza writing under the pen name Dawid Warszawski. He is also an associate fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Maxim Rust is a contributing editor with New Eastern Europe.

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