There is a palpable feeling of antisemitism in Poland right now, according to one of its chief rabbis.
Yehoshua Ellis, the chief rabbi of Katowice, has been living in Poland since 2010 as an emissary of Shavei Israel. He moved to Warsaw three years ago, where he also serves as the head of the rabbinic mission for Jewish cemeteries in Poland and as rabbinical assistant to the Warsaw’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich.
He said that since tensions began rising between Israel and Poland last Friday, the Polish community has felt like grass being trampled.
“There is a famous quote that when two elephants fight, the grass suffers,” Ellis told The Jerusalem Post. “The Jews of Poland are the grass in this fight.”
Ellis explained that many Poles blur the line between Israel and the Jews. “The line between Israelis and Jews is not that great, if it exists at all, and we are seeing more antisemitic statements since Friday, which could lead to actions.”
Last Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted in Israeli media as saying “Poles co-operated with the Germans” during the Holocaust. Though he later issued a clarification that he was not referring to the Polish nation or all Polish people, Poland determined on Sunday that Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki would not attend this week’s Visegrad Group meeting of leaders from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. The meeting is taking place in Israel. On Monday, the Polish delegation pulled out entirely.
Ellis said while the mainstream Polish media has reported on the situation in what he considers a professional manner, the talkbacks and comments on the articles are strikingly “bombastic” and “extreme.”
“In general, anytime there is an article about anything Jewish, you get very nasty comments about Jews,” Ellis said. “But all the more so when you have an article about Israelis, Jewish-Israelis, defaming Poland.”
The situation has further caused internal tension within the Polish Jewish community, because Polish Jews, he explained, “have multiple and competing identities.”
He told how one woman, who had recently reconnected to her Jewish past, contacted him Friday and asked, “What am I supposed to tell my children? Where do we fall on this line?”
“This may be a fight between Israel and Poland, but it is viewed as a fight between the Jewish world and the non-Jewish Polish world here – and this creates a cleavage with many people’s Jewish identities,” Ellis said, noting the situation is even more striking because Poland tends to have one of the lowest rates of antisemitic incidents.
“I cannot remember an act of antisemitic physical violence that has happened here in a long time,” Ellis said. “I really love Warsaw. It is a very special city. Though there are not really many Jews, it is a very Jewish city.”
No one really knows how many Jews live in Poland. Statistics vary between as few as 5,000 to as many as 50,000.
“No one knows how to count the Jews of Poland,” Ellis explained.
That is because there are many people who are Jewish according to Jewish law but don’t know they are Jewish; their parents could have given them away during the Holocaust or hid their identity for safety reasons. There are people who identify as Jewish but whose Jewish roots are, as Ellis describes them, “murky or weak.” There are people who identify as Jews but for sure are not Jewish, and there are several converts.
“It is a strange mishmash,” Ellis said with a laugh.
The Warsaw community is very active. Each evening, according to Ellis, there are some two or three different Jewish activities available organized by Hillel, Chabad, the Jewish Museum, B’nai B’rith, Maccabi, or the JCC.
Following newly appointed Foreign Minister Israel Katz’s statement that “Poles imbibe antisemitism from their mother’s milk,” Ellis said local rabbis have been “trying to put out fires.”
Schudrich released a letter today in which he slammed Katz, and said his statement “offends us Polish Jews who are a part of that society.”
Ellis reminded that this is not the first time that Israel-Poland relations have erupted. In early 2018, Poland passed a law that stated, “Whoever claims that the Polish Nation is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich… shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years.” This law led to increased tensions between the two countries.
“The relationship between Poles and Jews is immensely complex,” said Ellis, noting that he sees the core Jewish value to be truth, while the Polish people focus on the values of God, honor and fatherland – statements printed on their military flags and official paraphernalia.
“The two nations have very different core values and we are bound to have conflicts,” he said. “We just want this to end soon.”
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