I used to come to Poland on a yearly basis, and I most remember my first time, when I was still a virgin Polish tourist. I was totally taken by the country, land of my forefathers, its people and its manners. Physically and mentally, the Polish people seemed to me very much like the people I knew best, the Ashkenazi Jews from the United States and Israel. They shared a similar sense of the comic, and always complained that nobody liked them.
No big surprise, you may say, since Jews have been living in Poland for about a millennium.
The first city I visited was Lodz, which was home to hundreds of thousands of Jews, when Jews still lived in Poland.
What struck me instantly was the Star of David graffiti all over. They must love Jews here, I said to myself. On Friday evening, when religious Jews welcome the Sabbath, I went to the synagogue, to be with the beloved people of Lodz.
I will never forget that evening.
When services ended, I approached one of the worshipers, an old Jew with a long beard, and I shared with him how impressed I was with the love I had seen pouring out of the streets of Lodz for the Jews. He stared at me, as one would stare at the most irritating idiot there ever lived, and he grabbed my left arm. “Love?” he asked. “When the war was over, very few of us survived. I was one of them. We took a train to the home we left during the war. In the middle of nowhere, as the train was moving, Poles got up and started shooting us, at every Jew they saw on the train. I jumped out and they were still shooting at me. But I survived. What the Germans had not finished, the Poles wanted to finish. Nobody here loves us.”
It would take me a couple more days to realize that the Stars of David weren’t signs of love but of hate.
Lodz, which houses one of Europe’s biggest Jewish cemeteries, has two football clubs that were founded more than a century ago. One of them belonged to a Jew and the other was managed by a Jew.
Polish Jews, almost all of them, are long gone but the clubs remain.
One club is called Widzew, whose fans are in the habit of spray-painting the name of their beloved team on every wall they encounter.
Naturally, not everyone likes Widzew. Many fans support LKS, the competing football club. And when an LKS fan sees the name Widzew, he paints two letters on it, a “Z” and a “Y” on the “W” and “I,” to make Widzew read Zydzew. Zyd, in Polish, means Jew.
After this is done, he scrawls the name of his club on the wall – LKS.
The Widzew fan who discovers in horror the disgrace done to the proud name of his club immediately paints a Star of David around the letter “K” of LKS.
Each of them, in short, is saying the same thing: You are a Jew! At times, Lodz graffiti makers like to paint images. A common one, for example, is a Jew or a Star of David hanging from the gallows.
This celebration of antisemitism on the streets of Poland eventually got to me, and I left without coming back.
Late last year, the country shot up to the top of the news when the country twice clashed with the European Union. The first confrontation was quite serious: The European Commission announced that it had decided to initiate “Article 7” disciplinary measures against Poland, which ultimately could trigger the suspension of its voting rights.
In a press notice released by the EC it stated that “over a period of two years, the Polish authorities have adopted more than 13 laws affecting the entire structure of the justice system in Poland,” and that, “despite repeated efforts, for almost two years, to engage the Polish authorities in a constructive dialogue... the Commission has today concluded that there is a clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law in Poland.”
The second clash was with the majority of the EU, and it was about Jerusalem.
Shortly after US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution to annul his declaration, and Poland, unlike most EU countries, abstained. Even Germany, a country that usually does not vote in favor of resolutions critical of Israel, voted for the resolution. Not so Poland.
The EU, an entity I have been following for some time now, has for the past few years shown signs of increasing antisemitism.
Naturally, after a hiatus of 10 years, I decide to visit this EU pariah nation, Poland, again.
The political landscape, I read in the media, has changed.
The conservative Law and Justice Party, known by its Polish initials PiS, a party founded by its leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, forms Poland’s present-day government, which is headed by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. The former government, led by then-prime minister Donald Tusk and his liberal-minded Civic Platform Party, was the EC’s darling, with Tusk soon landing the job of the president of the European Council. But lo and behold, nowadays Tusk is one of Poland’s staunchest critics.
Off to Poland And so, in early 2018 I fly to Poland. Of course, out of curiosity I first head to Lodz. The mayor of the city these days is from the Civic Platform Party, and I hope that the place now looks very different than it used to.
It is late morning on Saturday when the “active members of the Jewish community in Lodz” – which is how they introduce themselves to me – sit at the synagogue to celebrate Shabbat.
All in all, the number of Jews at the service is 13. Officially, there are about one hundred Jews in Lodz, only nobody knows where they are.
Of the 13 here, some were born Jewish, some converted, some are “wannabe” Jews, and then there are those who think they are Jews.
The old Jew with the long beard is no more; he’s gone. There’s nobody here to grab my arm. Just 13 Jews, or wannabe Jews, and they grab nobody’s arm.
At prayer’s end, the 13 sit down to eat cake. I join them and eat three slices. It’s a sad and sweet moment: a dying community around a sweet cake.
Then I leave.
Outside it’s cold. Freezing. But I love Lodz, even on its freezing days. There’s something to this place, a city not yet tainted by foreigners, like Krakow or Warsaw. Lodz is real. It is pure Poland.
Once upon a time, long before I was conceived, it was a major textile manufacturing center, and factory owners – quite a number of them Jewish – erected the most extravagant of mansions and palaces in the city. Hundreds of thousands of people looking for solid employment settled here, but with time, for one historical reason or another, the textile engines went silent, many of the people left and the city collapsed into poverty, depression and lifelessness. The once-extravagant palaces and mansions, a celebration to the eye, turned into giant eyesores, the abodes of ghosts.
I walk the streets of Lodz, and the Stars of David stare at me.
Nothing has changed – 13 Jews, 700,000 Christians, and endless Stars of David.
The liberals run this city.
I almost forgot; I need food. Earlier in the day the lady at my hotel’s front desk suggested I visit a restaurant that caters to Jewish tourists. I go there now, and a waitress leads me to my table.
The music playing in the background is Israeli, in Hebrew. I order gefilte fish, cholent and kugel. What can I say? This is Jewish food made by non-Jews. Taste-wise, it reminds me of the Eucharist.
I order a whisky; it’s good. Before long, the bill arrives, and as a token of appreciation for visiting their establishment, I get a Zydki, “little Jew.” This is a figurine, portraying a religious Jew, and he carries a grosz, a penny. They have all kinds of Zydkis in their collection, the waitress tells me. And each Zydki carries a grosz. From time immemorial, don’t you know, every Jew carries money.
Should I cry, or laugh? I’m not sure, but on the next day this Zydki, yours truly, decides to join forces with Jesus, another Zydki.
I go to Lodz’s biggest church, the Lodz Cathedral.
What a place. Huge, powerful, beautiful, glorious, majestic.
It’s 12:30 p.m. The pews fill up, one seat after another.
Here are the old, here are the young, women and men, all ready to connect with my Zydki and his mom. Monsignor Ireneusz Kulesza leads the service. He is a man full of charm, great presence, and he knows the job inside and out. The service moves without a glitch, everything runs smoothly; no Article 7 will be initiated here.
At the service’s end, I approach the monsignor, since I’m intrigued by him, and he invites me to his private residence for a cup of coffee and a cake.
Life’s good! He has a modest but warm home. The one thing that’s missing here is a loving spouse, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. He pours me Italian coffee and serves up Polish apple cake.
Much better, let me tell you, than the cake at the synagogue.
For me, a witness to 13 last souls in a service, I wonder how many people pray at the cathedral.
There are 800 seats, the monsignor answers, and there are eight services on Sunday. Some services are more popular than others, and on average 4,500 people attend each Sunday in total, including quite a number of students from a nearby university.
Religion is down across Europe, but obviously it’s doing well here. What’s the secret? “For 123 years Poland didn’t exist politically; the country was occupied by Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary. The one thing that united Polish people throughout our history is the Polish language, which was used by the church. Similarly, during the Communist period, you could hear the truth only in church.”How do you like the present government?
The present government, he tells me, while encouraging me to take one more slice of his apple cake, is made up of Catholics and is “more truthful to the people.”Some people say, so I heard, that the government is antisemitic. What do you think?
“Never!” Was the previous government antisemitic? “There is no antisemitism in Poland.” None in Poland and none in the whole Catholic world as well. “There’s no antisemitism or anti-Islamism in Catholic doctrine.”
This priest, you might conclude, is a big supporter of having Middle Eastern refugees settle in this land. Well, think again. His Holiness is for accepting Syrian Christians, but not Syrian Muslims.
“When I see what the Muslims are doing to Christians over there, I don’t want them here.”
Not that he hates Muslims, by the way. He is very much against the current American president who has declared Jerusalem Israel’s capital.
As I finish the second slice of the cake I try to grasp his logic.
He takes the Muslim side when it clashes with that of the Jewish side, on the issue of Jerusalem, but he won’t have Muslims here.
Monsignor Kulesza offers me another slice, my third, and I show him photos that I have taken in the last couple of days on the streets in Lodz, depicting the antisemitic graffiti. Would he please repeat his claim that there’s no antisemitism here? I keep on munching on the cake and by the time I’m done with it, the priest has converted. Jerusalem, he now says, belongs to the Jews, tak
, and he would talk to his flock in one week’s time against the graffiti. Could I send him the photos? he asks. He suggests I take one more slice, but I had enough. It’s time to go out and meet some people.
I drive around until I reach a neighborhood with numerous ugly structures of massive cement. I drive close to one such structure.
“Is that a factory?” I ask myself. Probably not, since I am in the middle of town. Maybe it’s a stable. But where are the horses? Let’s see.
I get out of the car. Standing right in front of it I see a few small Stars of David, which means that this is probably not a horse stable. People must be living here. I wait for a while until a man approaches. He is carrying a plastic bag with a little food inside.
Rafal is his name; not David. He’s 26 and has a girlfriend – but she doesn’t live here. Here’s mama. He lives with mama. Rafal has a job as well, not just a girlfriend. He works for Dell as a technician, or so he says. He lets me in to see his home. The furnishings are minimal and of the lowest quality. The apartment is practically a hole in a cement structure. It could serve as a set for an American horror movie, but this is not a set. It’s a home. With no toilet. The toilet, Rafal tells me, is outside.Where’s your bathroom, Rafal?
He points to a sink, the only sink here.
Do you take a shower sometimes?
He points to the faucet, above the sink.And…?
Well, he pours water from the faucet on his body. There’s also a pipe here, stuck in the middle of the hole.What’s this?
How much is the pleasure of living here?
“200 zlotys a month, plus 1,000 for heat per year.”
In the stairway, and at the entrance to his flat, there’s a number of Stars of David.What’s that symbol?
“A Jew symbol.”
Are you a Jew?
So why do you have it?
Rafal wouldn’t respond, except to mention that there used to be a Jewish ghetto in the city.Who is better, Rafal, the party of Tusk or the party of Kaczynski?
I leave the hole, cross the street, and look for his toilet. It’s a little cement structure, and the door swings open. It’s dark inside.
There’s more than one toilet here. There’s a line of toilets, and each has a door made of cheap, dirty wood, and they’re all locked. It’s cold in here. Oh, baby, it’s cold. Cold and dark.
How many Polish people live like this? I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve rarely seen such poverty before. The days pass and one week is soon over. Will Monsignor Kulesza keep his word and talk to his flock about Lodz’s halls of David’s Stars? On the appointed day, Sunday, I go to Lodz’s cathedral. Monsignor Kulesza leads the mass. He does it as well today as he did last week. Then he preaches to his flock, hundreds of Lodz Catholics.
He tells them that I sent him a few photos.
“Please display them,” he orders an unseen helper.
The stars are then projected on the screen of this huge church. The parishioners cannot ignore them; they face their ugliest creation. Right here.
“We know that soccer clubs in Lodz offend each other and they often throw words like ‘Jew’ at each other.”
“Let us show more pictures,” he tells the unseen employee.
A series of photos, some with the word Jude, appear on the screen.
“Look how ugly it makes our Lodz,” he tells his flock.
The parishioners stare at the screen, their faces frozen. Image after ugly image shows up on the screen, as he continues to talk.
“These are offensive and painful to Jews. I want to remind you that Judaism is at the root of our religion. Perhaps we should dedicate a special day to painting over the vulgar graffiti; removing it from the walls and from the pillars. Wouldn’t the world become more wonderful? Wouldn’t Lodz? Wouldn’t Poland?”
On to Warsaw I leave Lodz, my beloved Polish city, and drive on to Warsaw, Poland’s capital.
Joseph Ziemian’s The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square
is one of the most touching books I’ve ever read about the Holocaust, and lo and behold, Three Crosses Square is right across the street from me. What a strange, and yet warm, welcome.
Then I notice the graffiti on the wall right by me, a Star of David hanging from the gallows, a graphic wish that Jews should die.
In Warsaw, there is not that much antisemitic graffiti, but here they sell Zydkis with big noses for good luck, as I soon find out. If you own a Zydki, I’m told, you’ll do well in business.
I go to Karma, a café on Plac Zbawiciela and a place for “cool” people. Here urbanite youth, each with a mate or an Apple computer, are either kissing or tapping away on their keypads.
Bartek, older than most around, is a former banker. He doesn’t live in a home without a toilet. Bartek, in fact, is doing so well that he doesn’t have to work at all. He is Catholic and supports PiS. He believes that social programs, such as the one known as “500+,” are extremely important. It’s the first time, he says, that a Polish government cares for the people.
At a table next to him sits Maciej, a tall man with a goatee. Maciej prefers the Civic Platform Party. Why? “This is what I read in the paper.” He’s probably reading Gazeta Wyborcza
, Poland’s leading liberal paper.
Being Polish, Maciej tells me, means nothing. For all he cares, he wouldn’t mind having been born German or French.
What’s important, he says, is to walk the streets of Warsaw with a beautiful girl by your side.
I leave Karma and go to meet other people in this big city of Warsaw. Joanna, a former Catholic married to a Jew, is totally against PiS, and she is quite critical of Polish society in general.
Antisemitism in Poland, she tells me, is 60% outside of Warsaw and 30% in it. Not that she can cite a source for these statistics anywhere, but this is her impression.
Paul, a young father, tells me, “Journalists tell the people that PiS is bad, but the people say to them: ‘Come live with us, outside of Warsaw, and you’ll see that PiS is good.’” Despite the fact that the PiS is an extremely conservative party, Paul explains to me, it doesn’t shy away from pursuing social ideas and programs, such as 500+. Through this program, every child per family, starting with the second child, receives 500 zlotys a month from the government. Some hard-working people, especially from larger families, do not earn this kind of money from their jobs.
Piotr Buras, director of the Warsaw branch of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a liberal think tank partly funded by American billionaire George Soros, tells me that the PiS gives people the sense that it cares for them, as well as a sense of togetherness and community. The liberals, he says, are generally quite weak at that, and don’t offer this kind of feelings.
I’ve never met any PiS person. Perhaps it’s time. The next day I go to visit Jaroslaw Sellin. Sellin’s official title is secretary of state for the ministry of culture and national heritage.
He welcomes me at his spacious and gorgeous office with a cup of coffee and a glass of soda. No cakes here.
Why is the EC against Poland?
He tells me he would like to know as well. The accusations against the changes his party is making to the Polish judicial system are baseless, he asserts. The changes made by PiS put the Polish legal system on equal footing with the rest of the EU members – and better. In Germany, judges can be members of political parties, he says, but in Poland they cannot. Isn’t Poland superior to Germany?
What are the changes?
In the old system, he replies, judges were selecting judges to the high courts of the country. His party is changing that, instituting instead that the parliament will also join in the process of nominating judges – just “like in many countries in Europe.”Why, then, are the EU folks against you?
“Because they are liberals.”
Are you saying that if the present government were composed of liberals, these same changes would have been accepted?
“I think so.”
But the PiS people are not liberals. For example, abortion is legal only in three instances. “When the mother’s life is in danger; when pregnancy is a result of rape or incest; when it’s determined that the fetus carries an inherited disease, such as Down syndrome, which is 95% of the cases.”
What will you do if the EU says: “If you insist on keeping your judicial changes, we will withdraw all financial support from Poland!”
“This is not the best way to talk to Polish people.”I read somewhere, just a few days ago, that the Israeli government released a poll saying that antisemitism in Poland is on the way up and that 18% of Poles want the Jews still living in Poland to leave the country. Are you familiar with this?
“I don’t know where such numbers come from. Antisemitism in Poland is absolutely marginal.”Is Jerusalem the capital of Israel, yes or no?
I sip my coffee, then my soda, and wonder: This PiS official isn’t as bad as I expected. Am I missing something here? The diplomatic crisis deepens Back at my Warsaw hotel, I take time to relax. At the bar I order pierogis, a Polish delicacy that I’ve always liked, and I read the news. It’s from The Washington Post:
“JERUSALEM – A diplomatic crisis between Israel and Poland appeared to be deepening on Sunday as Poland’s deputy chief of mission, Piotr Kozlowski, was summoned to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem over a law approved by the Polish parliament making it a criminal offence to mention Polish complicity in crimes committed during the Holocaust.”
What’s going on here? Israeli politicians, across the spectrum, harshly condemned this law, demanding that Poland abort it at once – which is understandable, at least to this Zydki.
I chat with some Poles and shockingly they tell me that the Israeli reaction proves yet again that Poland cannot rely on Jews, as it could not during the time when the Zydokomuna were active in Poland. I have no clue what they are talking about, so they explain: Zydokomuna was a Soviet Secret Police made up primarily of Jews. It murdered over 200,000 Poles between the years 1945 and 1956. [ Editor's note: Zydokomuna is the concept Socialist Poland was propped up by Jews, also by the secret police branch Urząd Bezpieczeństwa, which, according to this concept, was staffed by Jews.
Stars of David in Lodz, Zydokomuna in Warsaw, Zydkis all over, picking up fights with everybody... What the heck is going on in Poland? I arrange to meet Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who’ll soon be back from a tour abroad. At the appointed time, I show up at his office. We have some serious issues to cover.
What does it mean, being “Polish”? “Hospitality, openness, goodwill toward people. These are qualities that I would call ‘typically Polish.’ And creativity.
And too much individualism,” he elaborates.I have noticed something, but I don’t know if it’s true: Poles feel that they have not been “dignified” enough by the rest of the world. Is this true?
“A very interesting observation. I think I would subscribe to it. In Germany they say, ‘It’s the Berlin Wall that started the changes [the fall of the Iron Curtain and the USSR].’ The Germans did nothing to make these changes happen. But they say that it’s the Berlin Wall, rather than Solidarity, Ronald Reagan and John Paul II. We feel cheated.”
Oh, virgin mother of the baby Jew, here we go again: history, history, history.
I don’t want to spend all my time on history. I want to talk about the here and now. “Article 7,” Jerusalem, the “Holocaust law.”
We start with Article 7.
In Berlin, he tells me, only 11% of the judges who served during the GDR stayed on the bench after German unification and in the rest of the former GDR, “I think, 30-33% of prosecutors and judges stayed on.” Not so in Poland. “In Poland, nothing like that happened. All the judges during the ’80s who have actually sentenced my brothers in arms – because I was quite active as a fighter, a freedom fighter for democracy – formed part of the judiciary during the ’90s. Many of them, not all, behaved in a way that’s completely inappropriate.”
Those “inappropriate” judges have nominated other judges who, in turn, are nominating yet other judges, a process that creates a corrupt legal system, he argues, and this is what his government wants to undo.
If everything is that simple, the EC threat is senseless.
Do the Europeans have nothing better to do than just pick on Poland for no reason?
“No,” he says. The real problem is that Poland didn’t explain itself well, but once Poland will do so, everything will turn up roses.
But you have been talking to each other for two years! That’s more time than you give me.
“The discussion was sometimes ‘hiding behind walls,’” he says, using an expression I’m not familiar with. Adding, yet again, that if the Poles had only explained themselves better, the changes the government is making to the legal system, “I’m almost sure they would be praised by our counterparts, like the EC.”Adam Michnik, the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, do you know him?
“Not too well.”
He said to me, about these same changes: “They,” meaning your government, “have the power to dismiss any judge they want and appoint others in their places.”Is that correct?
“You see, this is exactly how lies spread all over Europe. This is not correct. Michnik wants to mislead you.”
But you are blaming yourself for not being able to explain your position in the past two years.
“Yes.”How come you were unable to explain this?
“Well, I blame myself, as you said. We should have communicated more. It’s probably also because there were some harsh words tossed around. I won’t name anybody here.
When I compare the situation in Poland, which has low corruption, and a blooming and flourishing democracy to, for instance, my friends from Bulgaria, Romania or the Czech Republic – countries full of corruption – or Hungary, our friends, I laugh and cry.”Why don’t Europeans see it, if it’s so clear?
“It’s a good question.”What do you think?
“Insufficient, weak explanation on our part; misinterpretation.”Everybody is able to explain themselves, even the Czechs. Not so the Poles?
“Nobody is doing such deep reforms as we are doing.”
If the EC acts on Article 7, taking your voting rights, what will you do?
“It will be a very sad moment for Europe.”
I understand. But will you then give in to the Europeans?
“No. We will stick by the changes because we believe they are necessary.”
There is a glass of soda next to me, and between sips I read to him the passage from The Washington Post
and then tell him about the old Jew I met in Lodz.
If a person tells such a story, I ask him, will he be taken to court and imprisoned? “No. Not only will that person not be taken to court, but such research should be done, should be promoted, because we have to sufficiently research historical truth.”
So The Washington Post is wrong?
The law passed by the Polish legislature is about those who blame the Polish state, and the Polish nation in totality, for the murder of Jews. “It’s not about denying that some people were doing things like what you have mentioned.
Of course not.”
This is another example, he tells me, of the Polish government failing to explain itself. The world furor directed at Poland is not about what the Polish government under his leadership is doing, but about the lack of explanation the government is offering.
This is the time to bring up Lodz and its graffiti, since this is not a story about the lack of explaining, but about a lack of doing.
It’s 2018. The streets of Lodz, and to a lesser degree other cities and villages in Poland, display horrific antisemitic graffiti, containing words like Zydzigaz and endless Stars of David used inappropriately.Why is the Polish government not doing anything to erase them, or impose penalties on those who create them?
“We have to do more to eliminate them completely.”Why don’t you?
“We will do it. These [graffiti makers] will have to be penalized.”When I come next year to Lodz, will the walls be clean?
“Yes, I hope. I’ll make efforts to do so.”Promise?
I’ll come next year! But before the next year arrives, I have more questions.
Is Jerusalem the capital of Israel, yes or no?
“Well, we have abstained from voting at the UN. We were under pressure from our Western European partners, who think completely different about this. They think that Jerusalem, since 1967, is occupied.”What do you think?
“What I think personally I can’t say publicly.”What does it mean that the EU had exerted pressure on you? What kind of pressure? What did they say to you?
“Mr. Prime Minister, if you vote “Yes,” if you vote for Jerusalem being the capital of Israel, we will do this and that against you.”What is the “this” and the “that”?
“I’ll leave it to your imagination…”If God came to you before you were born, and said to you: “Mateusz, I’m going to send you to earth, drop your soul down there. Where would you like to be? Which country?” What would you have said?
“I’d like to be dropped in Poland.”Why Poland? Imagine: You’re a baby, and you are talking with God. Why would you say “Poland”?
“We [Poles] can play a very positive role in the future development of Europe. Notwithstanding what some people think of us in Brussels, we are very pro-European, and we can be the missing link between the East and the West.”
Mr. Prime Minister, you are just a baby, a little baby in heaven! You don’t know about links between East and West. God says to you: “Look at the people down there,” and he shows you all the people, and you have to choose.
“Definitely I’d have liked to be a football player, winning the World Cup.”You’ve totally missed your profession!
I bid the prime minister goodbye, and as I leave him, the image of the old Jew from Lodz follows me. Go back to your resting place good, old Jew, for Poland is not as bad as you thought. Rest in peace and worry no more; I’ll keep a watchful eye on this country for you, I promise.