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Polish anti-Semitism on the wane

BELZEC, Poland

HANGING IN the Galicia Jewish Museum, a Krakow gallery opened last year by British photojournalist Chris Schwarz, is a picture of the monument to the murdered Jews of Wieliczka. The modest stone marker recalls the day during World War II when the SS rounded up a group of Jews in that southern Polish town, ordered them to strip, and shot them. The photograph shows the monument defaced with graffiti -- in red paint, someone has scrawled ''Nazis OK" over the list of the victims' names.

Some months after shooting that picture, Schwartz returned to Wieliczka and saw that the graffiti had been removed. But there was a new desecration: Where the memorial refers to ''Polish Jews," someone had scratched out the word ''Polish."

The Wieliczka monument could be a metaphor for the slow transformation of Polish anti-Semitism. Today, naked Jew-hatred, to say nothing of praise for the Holocaust (half of which occurred on Polish soil), is increasingly viewed as detestable in Polish society. But at the same time, many Poles continue to regard Jews as an alien race.

From President Aleksander Kwasniewski on down, Polish leaders strongly denounce anti-Semitism -- a far cry from the explicitly anti-Jewish stance of the prewar Polish government and the communist regime that ruled from 1945 to 1989. The unknown person who painstakingly removed the ''Nazis OK" graffiti from the Wieliczka memorial is not alone: Many Poles today are deeply involved in efforts to eradicate the hostility to Jews for which their country was long infamous.

Traveling around Poland, I met several of these people, including Andrzej Folwarczny, a former member of Parliament and founder of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations (which organized my trip, along with the American Jewish Committee), and Paula Sawicka, the wife of a government minister and president of Open Republic, an organization created to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in the Polish media and public schools.

But like the vandal who effaced ''Polish" from the Wieliczka marker, some Poles persist in seeing Jews as incompatible with ''real" Poles. Jews have lived in Poland for nearly 1,000 years; Jewish roots run deeper here than almost anywhere else. But there are still Poles for whom ''Jewish" and ''Polish" remain mutually exclusive categories.

I thought of the Wieliczka photograph when I visited the site of the Belzec death camp, where half a million Jews and several thousand Gypsies were murdered in 1942. The director of the new Belzec memorial -- a symbolic mass grave containing the ashes and pulverized bones of hundreds of thousands of the Nazis' victims -- is Robert Kuwalek, an earnest young historian who grew up in nearby Lublin. As he walks around the site, Kuwalek explains that for a long time he resisted studying the Holocaust because he found it ''psychologically too difficult."

Eventually he took a job with the state museum at Maidanek, the site of another Nazi killing center. But he was so unnerved that he managed to write only a single paper in his first year. ''Whenever I had to come to Belzec for research," he says, ''I would get a stomach ache."

Though he was educated in the communist era, when the fate of the Jews under Nazism was largely ignored, Kuwalek was always aware of the Holocaust. As a child, he was told by his grandmother that the worst day of her life was when the Germans liquidated the Jewish ghetto near her home. Years later, she still remembered the gunfire, the screams, the sight of Jewish babies hurled from windows by the SS.

Younger Poles, who learn about the Holocaust in school, are more likely to appreciate the sensitive new memorial. But with many older Poles, he says, ''it's obvious that they think I am Jewish." They can't imagine any reason a Pole -- a ''real" Pole -- would be working here. ''To them," Kuwalek says, ''this place is only for Jews."

The Catholic archbishop of Lublin, Jozef Zycinski, is another Pole deeply committed to Polish-Jewish brotherhood. He has repeatedly led memorial services for Jewish victims of the Holocaust; in one moving ceremony, Zycinski and Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, took soil from the sites of a synagogue and a church destroyed by the Nazis, mixed it together, and planted a Polish tree and an Israeli grapevine in the mingled earth as a symbol of reconciliation.

Zycinski variously describes anti-Semitism as a psychiatric disorder, a cynical political ploy, and -- citing Pope John Paul II -- a sin. But when I ask him how many of his counterparts in the senior Polish clergy share his views, he mentions only three. The others, he says diplomatically, have ''different priorities."

No, the millennium will not come overnight; the Polish-Jewish divide is old and deep, and it will take time to close it completely. But it is closing, no question about it. For Jews raised on the stereotype of Poles as unshakably anti-Semitic, it comes as a shock to discover that in Poland -- of all places! -- anti-Jewish bigotry is on the wane.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is

defaced monument
On a monument to the murdered Jews of Wieliczka, someone has spray-painted ''Nazis OK" over the list of the victims' names. (Chris Schwarz, Galicia Jewish Muesum)
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