A huge Independence Day march organized by far-right, racist forces in Poland came off peacefully Saturday for the first time in years.
And this has Jews in Poland more worried than ever.
“They’re learning to hide who they are,” said Michael Schudrich, Poland’s American-born chief rabbi. “Don’t ask me if it’s better or worse that they’re nonviolent.”
The disciplined nature of the march enabled the organizers to draw an estimated 60,000 participants — the biggest attendance ever to their annual procession. The source of the Jewish leaders’ worries included parade banners espousing white supremacy, chants denouncing Muslim immigrants, symbols of fascist parties brandished openly, calls for Christian triumphalism, slogans shouted that blacks can’t be Poles and several denunciations of Jews.
Organized by a committee of far right-wing groups, its sponsors included one faction, known by its Polish acronym, ONR, with radical fascist roots going back to the 1930s, and deeply influenced by Nazism; another, known as All-Polish Youth, has its own fascist history. Both were known before and during World War II for their violence against Jews, including massacres in the case of ONR.
According to Sergiusz Kowalski, president of Poland’s chapter of B’nai Brith, it was “unclear” whether everyone who came to the march supported the ideology espoused by the radical sponsors. “But they all marched under banners and slogans saying taboo things,” he said, “like you came across in Charlottesville.”
The difference was that this coming together of far-right forces was many times bigger — and took place in the center of Poland’s capital and largest city. The gathering of white nationalists, racists and anti-Semites that took place last August in Charlottesville, Virginia, numbered in the hundreds or low thousands.
“It’s as if the Ku Klux Klan were marching in the tens of thousands through Washington, D.C.,” explained Kowalski, who was at the scene, where he took part in a small anti-fascist counter-protest of some 4,000 people.
“This march was really impressive,” he said. “It was colorful, with numerous banners and fireworks; something you can’t pretend you don’t see.
“But they do pretend,” he said in reference to Poland’s right-wing nationalist government under the Law and Justice party.
Poland, unlike America, has laws outlawing hate speech and the public use of fascist or communist symbols, and some leaders of Poland’s small Jewish community were angry that the Law and Justice party government granted the parade organizers legal permission for their event. Police, they noted, also did nothing to confront the banners and sloganeering promoting racism.
Meanwhile, Poland’s state television network, TVP, which is under the Law and Justice party’s control, described the event as a “great march of patriots” that drew mostly mainstream Poles, even as a demonstrator interviewed by TVP said he was on the march to “remove Jewry from power.”
Poland’s interior minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, said of the march: “It was a beautiful sight…. We are proud that so many Poles have decided to take part in a celebration connected to the Independence Day holiday.”
As criticism of the march mounted from abroad — including from Israel’s foreign ministry — Poland’s foreign ministry strongly condemned racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia generally in a statement issued Monday. But the statement described the Saturday Independence Day march as “a great celebration of Poles, differing in their views but united around the common values of freedom and loyalty to an independent homeland.”
“People are horrified,” said Jonathan Ornstein, who is the executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, Poland’s second-largest city. “They feel the government is allowing this. And the police, who are supposed to protect people against the fascists, are now empowering them.”
As a result, groups like ONR feel “emboldened,” he said. “It’s like in the United States, where similar groups are now a lot more visible and don’t feel as restrained [because] the government hasn’t taken a strong stand against them.”
On Tuesday, Poland’s president, who is a Law and Justice member but represents the state rather than the government, bluntly condemned expressions of racism specifically at the march. Such expressions, he said, represented a “sick nationalism.”
Poland, which was home to 3 million Jews before the Holocaust, today is estimated to have anywhere from 25,000 to 100,000 Jews by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provides services in the country. Only 7,353 people openly declared their nationality as “Jewish” in the 2011 census. Despite their miniscule presence in a country of 38 million people, a study released earlier this year documented a sharp rise in anti-Semitic attitudes among Poles.
According to multiple press reports, and confirmed by Kowalski, the messages on banners in the parade reflected this problem and the broader problem of racism in Poland. They included slogans such as “Pure blood, clear mind” and “Europe will be white or uninhabited.” Some participants marched under the falanga, a fascist symbol used by ONR in the years before the Nazis’ 1939 invasion of Poland. Others carried the Celtic Cross, a white supremacist symbol. Some participants marched under the slogan “We want God!” — words from an old Polish religious song that President Trump quoted during his visit to Warsaw in July. There were also anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim slogans and chants.
The march drew not just Poles, but also right-wing extremists from across Europe as it featured banners that praised a “White Europe of brotherly nations.”
“The borders they say they want to maintain in opposition to the European Union are disappearing for them,” Ornstein observed.
On Tuesday, Jonny Daniels, a public relations executive and Holocaust remembrance activist in Poland (and a British-born Israeli national), announced that he had formally requested Polish prosecutors to take action against individuals at the march who could be identified as engaging in “discrimination and acts of racism.”
In his announcement, Daniels, who has often been accused by other members of the Jewish community of taking pro-government stances, seemed to characterize displays of racism at the parade as isolated incidents limited to a small group.
“Sadly,” his statement said, amid some 60,000 marchers, “a group of reportedly uninvited participants took this as an opportunity to intimidate and show intolerance, in turn breaking the Polish law.”
Daniels urged the use of video from the event to find and prosecute those involved.
Some Jewish leaders were dubious about Daniels’s intentions. But beyond that, the government has shrunk from imposing serious penalties against hate speech in recent cases. When Piotr Rybak, an ONR activist in the city of Wroclaw, was convicted of burning the effigy of a Hasidic Jew during a 2015 anti-immigrant protest, a district court sentenced him to 10 months in prison. Government prosecutors joined the defense in appealing that sentence as too severe; they asked that he be spared prison and given 10 months of community service.
“Part of the problem is that these people vote for them,” Schudrich said, referring to the Law and Justice party. Some party members have told him privately that the parade was “a scandal,” the rabbi said, “but will someone be brave enough to say this publicly? Their challenge will be to make an unequivocal statement.”
Larry Cohler-Esses is the Forward’s senior investigative writer. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter, @CohlerEsses
Larry Cohler-Esses was the Forward’s assistant managing editor and news editor. He joined the staff in December 2008. Previously, he served as Editor-at-Large for the Jewish Week, an investigative reporter for the New York Daily News, and as a staff writer for the Jewish Week as well as the Washington Jewish Week. Larry has written extensively on the Arab-Jewish relations both in the United States and the Middle East. His articles have won awards from the Society for Professional Journalists, the Religious Newswriters Association, the New York Press Association and the Rockower Awards for Jewish Journalism, among others.