The issue of anti-Semitism in Poland--long a troubling and almost inexplicable problem in a country that now has only a tiny Jewish population--is being addressed with new directness by an intellectual and political leadership determined to tackle the issue head-on for what some contend is the first time in the nation's history.
A major force behind the drive has been President Lech Walesa, obviously stung by charges that he did too little to discourage anti-Semitic voices on the fringes of his own campaign for the presidency.
Since his inauguration in December, Walesa has appointed a presidential council on Polish-Jewish relations, made up of widely respected intellectuals from the Jewish community, the Roman Catholic Church and educational and political circles.
Formally, the council was established to set "guidelines for the president's work in the sphere of Polish-Jewish relations," but at least some of its members see the body as the state's first genuine commitment to combat anti-Semitism in Poland.
Observers say Walesa, and other political figures associated with his Solidarity movement, were embarrassed at portraits of Poland that emerged in the foreign media during the presidential campaign as a country steeped in anti-Semitism--a portrait made doubly distasteful by the memory of the Holocaust, which wiped out 3 million Polish Jews in Nazi death camps.
Walesa added to the problem significantly, commenting to one obviously anti-Semitic question at a political rally that he is a "100% pure Pole."
"It was a stupid thing to say," he commented later. "It was a mistake."
Shortly after his election, Walesa vowed to "put an end to anti-Semitism" in Poland during his presidency. During the Gulf War, Walesa pointedly announced that Poland was a "friend and ally" of Israel and that if Iraqi Scud missile attacks on Israel continued, Poland would come to Israel's aid.
Subsequently, the Israeli government invited Walesa on an official visit. Now in the planning stages, the visit will probably take place in late May, his aides say. Sources close to the president say Walesa is contemplating a "grand gesture" during the visit, but they would not be specific.
"Walesa is a very determined man," said presidential aide Arkadiusz Rybitski, "and when he said he was going to put an end to anti-Semitism in Poland, he meant it. He made that clear to the council on Polish-Jewish relations."
Stanislaw Krajewski, a member of the new council, is one of the young leaders of the small Jewish community in Poland and the Polish representative to the American Jewish Congress. Just after the presidential campaign, he wrote a scathing "open letter" to Walesa pointing out "with much sadness . . . your contribution to the legitimization of anti-Semitism in Poland."
"It is true there is something new going on now," Krajewski said, "because anti-Semitism is being discussed more openly than before. The typically defensive attitude that has reigned here for years has not gone away, but it is diminishing somewhat. The fact that the president has made this a priority means he recognizes the issue. There is a chance now to do something because the highest authority in the state is behind it."
The council held its first meeting only three weeks earlier, Krajewski noted, and some of the discussion centered on proposals for changes in the public school curriculum to include Jewish history and culture in Poland.
One likely focus of change is the teaching of religion. Father Waldemar Chrostowski, a Catholic member of the council, acknowledged that the approach to teaching religion by some Catholic priests was "wrong," and that not enough has been done by priests to discourage anti-Semitism.
"The attitude of clergymen," he said, "is a result of long anti-Jewish heritage present in Christian theology. This theology was only too often shaped in confrontation with Judaism."
Poles concerned about these issues are dismayed--and puzzled--by recent incidents involving vandalism and anti-Semitic graffiti at Jewish monuments. A group of 15 prominent artists and intellectual figures, including author Tadeusz Konwicki and filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, recently wrote a letter to a Warsaw newspaper condemning the spate of vandalism at the memorials to the Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis.
"It is the first time in the history of these monuments," the letter said, "that the (graffiti) appear so often." The letter went on to criticize the city authorities for being slow to clean the monuments. "Is it really impossible to act more firmly and effectively to put a stop to that practice, which brings us all shame? Is it impossible to find and punish those guilty in accordance with the law?"
The authorities, along with those concerned and embarrassed by these expressions of anti-Semitism, are not sure how to account for them.
With no more than 6,000 to 8,000 Jews left in the country, few of them in positions of political power, the messages in the crude graffiti seem particularly irrational. Some people, such as presidential aide Rybitski, suspect that it represents the "dark side" of a newly free political system. He also suggests that it is the work of teen-age vandals who simply want to shock and outrage the public. He says the establishment of a special squad of city workers assigned to clean up the graffiti would only inspire a sort of guerrilla combat with the vandals.
In Krajewski's view, there are habits of mind or speech in Poland that seem buried so deeply that they are virtually unconscious.
He noted that in a recent hotly contested soccer match in Poland, the fans of one side began chanting "Jews! Jews!" at the other side--an expression of sports partisanship that would have been mind-boggling in almost any other country.
"It was the use of the term Jew as a synonym for evil or evil-doer," Krajewski said. "On one hand, it is an epithet that functions in a way that has no meaning. But it also suggests that Jews or Jewishness is connected to an evil part of life--that Jews are to be excluded, so it does express the idea that Jews don't have rights."
Still, Krajewski said, as a Jew he does not feel threatened or unsafe in Poland although he knows that some Jews left the country during the presidential elections last November and December. "I don't feel," he said, "that I do not have a place here, and I don't feel that anti-Semitism is a growing movement. Poland was a place where Jewish culture once flourished, and this is something Poland can be proud of."
At his initial meeting with the new council, Krajewski said, Walesa asked the council members how to go about putting an end to anti-Semitism in Poland. "I don't have any good short answers to that," Krajewski said. "The thing is to achieve a situation where the leaders, or the formers of public opinion, are against anti-Semitism. If this is made clear, there is much we can realistically hope for."