Joel Brinkley

Poland is a nation still poisoned by anti-Semitism

Updated: 2013-04-27T22:41:01Z

By JOEL BRINKLEY

Tribune Media Services

— Simcha Rotem stood at a podium between two black menorahs, from which rose towering gas flames. He was old and stooped, with wisps of white hair.

Behind him a stone frieze showed armed guerillas, their faces locked in determined grimaces. Before him TV cameras recorded his every word as Rotem declared: “We knew we had no chance. Should we start the uprising? Those are the doubts I live with every day.”

Rotem was a featured speaker at a ceremony April 19 recognizing the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943. That’s when thousands of Jews, realizing they were about to be hauled away to the Treblinka death camp, stood up to the Germans with pistols and rifles and fought back. Within a week the Nazis had slaughtered nearly all of them.

Rotem, now 88 years old, managed to escape through the sewers. Now, he’s the last surviving uprising commander.

Unlike previous years, Poland put on an extravaganza for this year’s anniversary because it was also the grand opening of a new museum intended to celebrate the 1,000-year history of Judaism here, part of an effort, sponsored in part by wealthy Polish-American Jews, to help stage a rebirth of Judaism in this state.

Today, this is a nation riven with anti-Semitism. The reasons are varied, but one bitter fact helps explain. Germany built its death camps in Poland, Auschwitz, Treblinka and others. And to this day, many people partly blame Poland for the Holocaust.

Poland is now a thriving, vibrant democracy that, like Germany, managed to escape most of the devastating economic repercussions of the European debt crisis. But it’s still struggling, not so successfully, to cope with its dark past.

Before World War II, 10 percent of Poland’s population was Jewish, more than 3 million people. Now fewer than 10,000 Poles openly identify themselves as members of the faith.

Severyn Ashkenazy was 6 years old when his family fled the Nazis. He eventually wound up in Los Angeles, and as an adult made a fortune in commercial real estate. Now he identifies himself as chairman of “Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland.”

Tad Taube, who lives in Northern California, also barely escaped Poland before the Nazis occupied the state. He donated $16 million for the new museum — determined to promote Poland’s Jewish history as a means to foster its revival.

Taube and Ashkenazy are among the most prominent Americans involved in this endeavor, but others also participate. Here in Poland, Andrzej Folwarczny runs an organization that works toward the same goal, spurred by several distressing personal observations, including an ugly moment during Poland’s first national elections after the communist era.

That’s when right-wingers, as Folwarczny put it, tried to defame a candidate for prime minister by accusing him of being Jewish.

Folwarczny is Catholic, like 90 percent of Poles. But he was stunned when he visited Israel for the first time with some other Europeans. Israelis greeted a “German with some warmth while they treated me with some distance,” he said. “They think Poles are responsible for the Holocaust.”

Last week, leading up to the 70th anniversary celebration, a university in Warsaw surveyed 1,250 high school students and found that 44 percent would be upset to find that a neighbor was Jewish.

Folwarczny’s group does most of its work in small towns that once were largely Jewish, showing evidence of the town’s past to young residents who’d had “not a clue,” as one said.

Ashkenazy blames the Catholic Church. Radio Maria, its Polish station, “spews anti-Semitism,” he said, echoing a claim made by the Council of Europe and other organizations. Folwarczny agreed and concluded: “Our goal is to change attitudes, but we’re still on the way. There’s so much to do.”

Joel Brinkley is the Hearst professional in residence at Stanford University and a former New York Times correspondent.

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