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Polish Education Minister Roman Giertych, an ultra-nationalist who heads a far-right, anti-Semitic political party, said Wednesday that his decision to attend a Holocaust memorial was "one of the most difficult decisions" of his life.
Giertych's highly unusual participation at the memorial for hundreds of Jews killed by their Polish neighbors during World War II came just three days after the Israeli ambassador to Poland publicly announced that he was shunning the minister due to his party's anti-Semitic ideology.
That visit, to the Polish town of Jedwabne, was widely seen as Giertych's effort to prove that he himself was not an anti-Semite.
"My decision to go to Jedwabne was one of the most difficult decisions of my life," Giertych told The Jerusalem Post in an interview in his Warsaw office.
"It is very difficult for my electorate to understand such a visit," he added, noting that his "gesture" to the State of Israel - a gesture that, he said, carried a personal political risk - had already been criticized in certain circles.
"It was necessary to finish this discussion about Polish anti-Semitism, which we have to cut off," he said, explaining his reasons for participating in the ceremony.
"We have to cut off this path, this obsession, and to crate a new future," he added.
In the interview, the populist education minister, whose grandfather was a notorious anti-Semite and whose party's youth wing has been known to make Nazi salutes and chant Nazi slogans, disassociated himself from his party's anti-Semitic past and roots.
"I did not always agree with my grandfather," he offered, suggesting that holding him responsible for his party's roots was the equivalent of holding the Conservative Party in Britain responsible for what happened under Cromwell. Giertych's grandfather was a staunch advocate of anti-Jewish boycotts.
"I am not going to hide that in my closest circle, a lot of stupid statements have been said," he responded when asked about past comments made by a party colleague, who denied that Auschwitz was an extermination camp and who claimed that Jews there had more bread than the Poles.
Giertych, who also serves as deputy prime minister and who was appointed to the education ministry in February as part of the government's coalition with two fringe parties, suggested that some Poles had a psychological complex that made it difficult for them to empathize with Jewish victims of the Holocaust due to their own suffering during World War II.
"It is difficult to demonstrate sympathy and compassion when you yourself suffered a lot," he said.
He added, "There is a certain psychological difficulty that we face that will have to be overcome."
Giertych asserted that it was impolite and non-diplomatic of Ambassador David Peleg to announce that he would boycott him, adding that the ambassador was interfering in Polish internal affairs.
Peleg said last week that it was "incomprehensible" that issues like Israeli-Polish youth exchanges - considered a cornerstone of future relations between the two countries - and Holocaust issues be directed by the head of an anti-Semitic party.
The discord over the move follows a decade of burgeoning Israeli-Polish relations, with governmental relations between the two countries now considered to be among the best in Europe.
The Polish government is expect to announce shortly the establishment of a special department dealing with the issue that will work out of the Prime Minister's Office in an effort to resolve Israeli criticism as well as further broaden youth exchanges between the two countries.
The appointment of the 35-year-old extremist-party leader, whose party won only 8 percent of the vote in last year's election, to such a prestigious government position has caused dismay among Israeli and Jewish officials. Giertych's party is rooted in a nationalist movement from between the two world wars, which succeeded in both segregating and limiting the number of Jews at Polish universities.
The Polish government's decision to make a union with two of Poland's small populist parties, including Giertych's "League of Polish Families," instead of joining forces with a competing center-right party has been criticized in both Poland and Europe, where the focus of criticism has been on the minister's anti-homosexual views.
"The appointment of Giertych is first and foremost detrimental for the country," said Professor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former Polish foreign minister who is an honorary Israeli citizen and has been recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
The 84-year-old Bartoszewski, who is considered to be Poland's senior intellectual and is a staunch advocate of Israel, said he turned down an offer by the Polish government to serve a third term as foreign minister so as not to sit in a government with Giertych.
"It is bad for the country that a right-wing party with a fascist-like approach is charged with the subject of education," he concluded.
But he suggested that the damage would be limited since the government's tenure would be short-lived.
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