Not Your Grandma's Poland Anymore

Letter From Warsaw

New Faces: Anna Grodzka, Poland’s first transsexual lawmaker, takes oath of office in Sejm, or Parliament. She is symbolic of more tolerant nation after 20 years of democracy.
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New Faces: Anna Grodzka, Poland’s first transsexual lawmaker, takes oath of office in Sejm, or Parliament. She is symbolic of more tolerant nation after 20 years of democracy.

By Donald Snyder

Published December 04, 2011, issue of December 09, 2011.
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When Poland’s new Sejm, or Parliament, was seated recently, the nationally televised event showed something never before seen in this conservative nation: a transsexual woman and an openly gay man being solemnly sworn in along with other parliamentarians.

The seminal event was a consequence of the emergence of Palikot, a new, explicitly anti-clerical, libertarian-oriented party that garnered 10% of the national vote in Poland’s election last October. Both new parliamentarians were members of the emergent party, which, among other things, seeks to terminate tax exemptions for priests, public funding for religion classes in state schools and state subsidies of churches. Palikot, which won 40 parliamentary seats in the 460-seat body, also advocates same-sex civil unions, a universal low flat tax and the legalization of cannabis use.

Only So Much Tolerance: Even in the new Poland, there is anti-Semitism. Soccer fans unfurl ‘Jihad’ banner during match with Israeli squad.
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Only So Much Tolerance: Even in the new Poland, there is anti-Semitism. Soccer fans unfurl ‘Jihad’ banner during match with Israeli squad.

Palikot is not part of the centrist ruling coalition that came out of the October elections. But its breakthrough into parliament is seen as a marker for wider changes sweeping Poland these days. On many fronts, longstanding challenges to the country’s traditional understanding of itself appear to be coming to a head. The historic primacy of Poland’s Roman Catholic Church is being shaken as never before. Controversial issues, once avoided, are now out in the open. Even the country’s stance toward its own history, including its relationship to the Holocaust, is cracking under the pressure of contemporary challenges.

“Poland is a much more mature society after 22 years of democracy, allowing people to talk about issues that weren’t discussed before,” said Barbara Engelking-Boni, director of the Center for Holocaust Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.

It remains to be seen just what this will mean for Poland’s relationship with its remaining Jewish community of some 15,000 and with Jews worldwide, who recall Poland as both the centuries-long home of Europe’s largest Jewish community and as European Jewry’s Holocaust graveyard. But in an interview with the Forward shortly after the election, Rafal Pankowski, a sociologist and expert on the radical right in Poland said, “What is very positive in Poland is that there is a growing number of people who are willing to challenge anti-Semitism.”

Recent studies lend support to Pankowski’s view. But Konstantin Gebert, an author and a columnist for Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s largest daily newspaper, warned that even as social changes have enabled the rise of a party such as Palikot, “the church has become more and more reactionary.” According to Gebert, Palikot’s gains may not be good for the nation’s Jews.

“Public expression of anti-Semitism will increase because anti-Semites see Palikot as part and parcel of the ultimately Jewish-driven offensive against the Catholic Church,” said Gebert. “There is this concept quite popular on the right wing, that there has been for ages a Jewish plot against Poland because Poland is the bastion of Catholicism.”

In 1989, then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who was raised in Poland and whose family perished there in the Holocaust, voiced a rude stereotype held by many Ashkenazi Jews of his generation. “Poles,” he said, “suck in anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk.”

But today, despite resistance of the sort Gebert notes, developments are rebuking this view. Among other things, Poland is engaged in a candid examination of its past. New histories call into question the established self-image whereby Poles have always viewed themselves as either heroes or victims during World War II. Now, say some historians, they must also see themselves as murderers. This evolution in self-understanding has been catalyzed by Jan Gross, a Polish-American historian based at Princeton University, whose books “Neighbors” and “Fear” have forced Poles to re-evaluate their recent history.

Among other things, Gross has documented pogroms in the cities of Jadwabne, where Poles murdered 1,600 Jews on July 10, 1941, and in Kielce, where more than 40 Jews were murdered in 1946 —after World War II was over.

Books by Polish historians such as Engelking-Boni have forced painful self-examination. Her history, “The Murder of Jews by Poles in the Polish Countryside,” claims that Poles killed thousands of Jews in rural areas, many of whom were seeking to hide from the Germans.


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