Scholar’s work says Polish culture not antisemitic
October 29, 2012 | Rachel Levy Sarfin - CorrespondentcloseAuthor: Rachel Levy Sarfin - Correspondent
Name: Rachel Levy Sarfin
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TOROONTO – The Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation (PJHF) of Canada has brought noted Polish journalist and former dissident Adam Michnik to Canada to speak several times.
At Michnik’s most recent appearance at the Wolfond Centre at the University of Toronto, Peter Jassem, the chair of PJHF’s Toronto chapter, explained that Michnik publishes so many “amazing books and articles” each year that the editor of Poland’s most respected newspaper always has something to talk about.
Michnik’s latest work is a three-volume set published in Polish, Przeciw antysemityzmowi 1936 – 2009 (Against anti-Semitism 1936 – 2009). The collection reveals the response of Polish society to antisemitism from the end of the interwar years until contemporary times.
During his lecture, Michnik recounted the inspiration for the collection.
Many years ago, he met the head of Sydney, Australia’s Jewish community on a trip to Austria. The head of the community complained, “Poles suck anti-Semitism from their mothers’ milk.”
Michnik took offense at the comment and asked the man whether he was familiar with notable Poles who had opposed antisemitism.
At that point, he came up with the idea to compile Polish intellectuals’ responses to antisemitism. Michnik joked that the result “won’t make much money,” although he believes the collection will eradicate certain stereotypes about Poles.
Two of the most dominant stereotypes about Poles are that “Poles are predominantly antisemites,” Michnik said, and “there was never antisemitism in Poland – it was a product of the Jews.”
Michnik explained that there were indeed Poles who spoke out against antisemitism. Moreover, antisemitism was not a figment of the Jewish imagination, because otherwise those who spoke out against it would have had no cause to comment. Michnik went on to provide the historical context for his latest work.
As nationalism rose in the early part of the 20th century, so too did antisemitism, he said. Nationalist Poles saw even assimilated Jews as “breaking the code of Polishness.”
The Catholic Church in Poland encouraged this type of thinking by creating a stereotype of its own: real Polish citizens are Catholic.
After 1943, there were almost no Jews in Poland. The antisemitism that existed after that point became a code for anti-liberal and anti-communist attitudes, Michnik explained.
The Jews who returned to Poland after World War II “were the only ones who believed in the socialist project,” Michnik added, and they “wanted to be the same as anyone else.”
However, Poles saw the Soviet takeover of their country as “captivity.” The Jews who supported communism became enemies. At first, Jews did not experience antisemitism under communist rule in Poland. However, by 1968, Soviet authorities began using antisemitic rhetoric and vilifying Jews. The fact that many Jews in Poland were loyal communists did not matter in the slightest.
Despite the intense antisemitic rhetoric in Poland, voices still rose in protest against it.
With this collection, Michnik hopes he is able to prove that “Polish culture is not antisemitic.”
Now that the collection has been published, Michnik also aims to share his work with the English-speaking world. A one-volume English translation is in the works. When that comes out, expect Michnik to return to Toronto with new insights to share.
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