Poland and Anti-Semitism

I don’t want to come right out and say Poland is still anti-Semitic because I don’t think that is the case entirely, but in some aspects I do believe that it is still present at a very basic level.

I wrote a few posts back about the lack of Jews in Poland today (some estimates put the number at around 2,000 total). Because there are so few Jews, I think the idea of anti-Semitism isn’t something that is commonly thought about. Obviously all Poles know about the atrocities committed against the Jews during WWII, but I think most people today believe Poland has come a long way since that time and something like the Holocaust could never happen again in Poland. I don’t think a Holocaust would happen again, just because our world is much more aware of religious, ethnic and cultural differences now. However, I think it’s possible still for Jews to feel isolated and unwelcome in Poland should the population ever begin to increase.

There are a few reasons that lead me to think this is the case. For one, Poland tends to unknowingly poke fun at Jews in everyday life. There is still the extreme stereotype of Jews as this with big noses and lots of money hoarding. In fact, all over the country you can buy little figurines called “Lucky Jews” that depict a short, fat man with curly sideburns and a big nose holding a grosz (a Polish coin similar to our cents). There are also other figurines of these Jews holding a wine glass or candlesticks. At almost all the outdoor street vendors selling their art you can buy a portrait of either an old, Jewish man counting coins or a traditionally dressed Jewish man or woman lighting candles. The coin counting portrait, we were told, signifies good fortune. The candle-lighting portrait signifies good health. People think that by hanging these paintings in their house, good fortune or good health will enter their home.

Obviously, neither of these thoughts are negative. Jews bringing someone good health or fortune is, in fact, quite a positive view of the Jewish people. It’s more the way that the Jewish people are depicted in this paintings that just wouldn’t quite be okay in the United States. The complete stereotype and it’s presence everywhere was something I was definitely not used to or expecting.

Another, slightly more negative, thing I noticed came as we went driving from Krakow to Auschwitz. It’s about a one hour drive through majority countryside and farmlands. There are still bus stops on these main roads and as we were driving by, I noticed that a bunch of them had yellow Star-of-David’s (or Jewish stars) spray painted onto the sides of the bus stop with a X crossing them out. It was extremely off putting to me as this was the first outright sign of anti-Semitism I saw in Poland. Especially being so close to the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau I couldn’t really believe my eyes. I don’t know if those marks were meant to be serious or if they were just a carefree act of vandalism or meant to be a joke, understood by the people who lived in these towns. In the United States something like that would be taken as an extreme insult and there would be severe punishments for those involved. However, I don’t think the case would be quite the same in Poland.

This memory of the bus stops was brought up again as my class watched the Polish film “Poklosie.” This film was entirely in Polish with English subtitles. The premise was this: A middle aged Polish man comes back to his hometown in Poland after living for 20 years in America. He returns to find his brother completely changed from the boy he used to know and in a great deal of trouble with the rest of the town. There are no Jews living presently in this town, but the brother collects Jewish gravestones that were destroyed or knocked down during the war and has recreated a sort of graveyard to remember these people. In a search for what happened to the Jews in this small town, many secrets are revealed including the fact that all the main families in the town live on land that was previously owned by the Jews who lived in this town. As the brothers look into the past of their own farm, they discover that their father was one of the main perpetrators in the deaths of the Jewish population of the town. The Jews had all been forced into the father’s barn and burned alive while the whole town watched on in silence. This fact destroys the brothers and their relationship with the other residents. The younger brother ends up being crucified by members of the town who would have preferred the secrets of the town remain a secret. The older brother returns to America, but does return to his hometown in Poland one last time to find the Jewish graveyard his brother recreated being visited by a group of traveling Jewish people who are incredibly grateful for the preservation of memory in this country town.

This film was created in the early 2000s as is meant to represent the battling viewpoints of many small towns in Poland that are grappling with their pasts. I don’t know for certain if this movie was based in a specific instance, but I would imagine similar circumstances appear all over the countryside.

It’s easy to pretend like the past never happened, but it is important to realize that it did and figure out a way to deal with it without ostracizing the people you live with.

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