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Voices from the basement

WARSAW - In February, a thin layer of snow blanketed the large park that surrounds the compound of the All Saints Church in Warsaw. At the entrance to the church, a small statue of the Pope can be seen through the snow; on the left, on the outer wall, an engraved inscription in bronze commemorates a special prayer service conducted here by the Polish-born Pope John Paul II in 1987, before the collapse of the Communist bloc.

The back part of the church, which is separated by a low fence, faces a small street. From there it's hard to see the small, almost concealed, uninviting sign that is affixed to the back wall and bears the name "Antyk." Nothing in this ordinary facade hints at what hides behind the sign, which directs only those in the know to the bookstore in the church compound. A short staircase leads down to the bookshop in a dark basement, bringing the visitor to the entrance of a small hell.

The first feeling is one of shock. Perhaps the play of light and shadow caused by the sharp transition from the lively Warsaw street, which is so up-to-date and openly looks toward a better, Western future, reinforces the feeling of surprise. On second glance, the visitor discovers that like Alice in Wonderland, she has been led down five steps into another world, a world of hatred and evil. A profound hatred for anything that is not purely Polish: for the European Union, which is seen as a monster that threatens to poison the spiritual wells of Poland, and yes, a profound hatred of Jews.

All these statements shout out from the posters in the entrance and from the names of the hundreds of books dispersed among the levels of the Antyk bookshop. "From Whom Must the Jews Ask Forgiveness" is the name of one of them, which was published under the sponsorship of a publisher with the clever name "Library of Non-politically Correct Books." The answers, by the way, include a demand that the Jews ask forgiveness of the Poles, the Russians, the Afro-Americans, the Gypsies et al. "100 Lies about the Jewish Neighbors in the Jedwabne Affair," screams the title of another book; the central thesis of the professor who wrote the book is that it was the Jewish elites who turned in the poor Jews, and that is the disgrace for which the Jews cannot forgive the Poles, who were witnesses to the betrayal.

"We Can Win the Fight for Poland," shout the red letters on the cover of the book by Roman Giertych, a prominent leader of the Polish-nationalist movement. The book is a collection of programs broadcast on Radio Maryja, a channel based on nationalist fundamentalism, with an anti-Semitic slant characteristic of the most extreme right faction of the Polish church. In the radio scripts, the clerics themselves do not make anti-Semitic statements, they leave that to their faithful listeners, who include about 5 percent of the entire radio audience in Poland, almost the same number of people who identify themselves as anti-Semites in surveys there.

A polite quiet prevailed that afternoon at Antyk, which was placed - by some guiding hand with a cynical sense of humor - next to the famous Jewish theater of Warsaw and the Jewish community center, which is located directly opposite the church. Even the lively conversation between a young man and an old woman was conducted in hushed tones, out of respect for the place. The man, wearing a phosphorescent green overall, was sitting on an interior stairwell, leafing through some thick index and writing down sentences in a notebook spread out on his knees; the woman, who could have been his grandmother, an elegant old lady with deep wrinkles on her face, leaned on a cane alongside him.

During their intermittent conversation the Polish words "Zhid" and "Mason" were repeated often - Jews and Freemasons. A popular joke in Poland says that "the Jews, the Freemasons and the bicycle riders" are to blame for all the problems of the country. Almost anyone who hears it falls into the trap and asks in amazement: "Why the bicycle riders?" And of course that question already contains the answer that naturally assumes that the damage caused by the Jews and the Freemasons is self-evident, and all that's left is to ask about is the part played by the bicycle riders in this plot.

But here, in the hair-raising atmosphere of the shop, the joke lost its comic effect. From the depths of the soul, in this basement of hatred, this text aroused the primeval Jewish anxieties, the primitive fear that courses through your body without any logic. A atavistic fear, that even prevented you from actually approaching them. At one point in the conversation, the two began to talk about the Jews who were in Poland during the Holocaust. "Pathetic rags," said the elegant woman, "they were so pathetic that even their brothers in America were ashamed of them and left them to die - all six million." The young man, a third-generation hater, lifted his eyes from his papers. "Madame," he said, addressing the old woman in an aggressive tone, "Madame is also perpetuating that lie of the six million. There were far fewer, not even half that number."

Afterward they lowered their voices until it was impossible to hear the rest of the conversation, and when it became possible to hear again, they had already begun to talk about the connection between the Jews and Poland's entry into the EU. "I'm very afraid that they'll crawl back here once the borders are wide open," said the lady. And with a small smile the young man replied: "I'll only be too happy to do to them what the Palestinians are doing." And thus they continued their relaxed conversation, the older woman starting to leave each time, but staying a little longer. At the end of the long conversation she said with a sigh: "It's really hard for me to leave, I do love coming here." And the young man put aside his work for a moment, looked at her affectionately, and said: "That's self understood, Madame; here there still remains something of the real Poland."

A matter of image

Is this the real Poland? The answer is a resounding no. It's like a foreign correspondent who comes across a meeting of Kahanists (right-wing extremists who continue the path of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane), selling the book "Baruch Hagever" (in praise of Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 massacred Muslim worshipers in Hebron) and concludes that here he has captured the spirit of the real Israel. But yes, the Antyk bookshop, in the backyard of the church whose front entrance is graced a statue of the Pope who stretched out a hand to the Jews, is also an inseparable part of Poland.

To the credit of this complex country, it should be noted that the legal authorities have been dealing with the matter of Antyk for over a year. The voice of protest was raised by Polish intellectuals and senior priests from the liberal stream of the church, who signed a protest manifesto along with several leaders of the small Jewish community in Poland. (The owners of the Antyk bookshop and sources in the adjacent All Saints Church claim that the most problematic books have already been removed).

Cardinal Glemp, who until recently was the head of the Polish church, refused to intervene in the matter, claiming that he didn't want to undermine freedom of expression. He is also the one who called the 1941 massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne by their Polish neighbors "an unfortunate incident," a term that infuriated Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski, who angrily replied, "That is terminology that suits a description of a traffic accident."

Now the issue has reached the chief prosecutor of Poland, and it is still not over. You could consider even the very existence of the bookshop under the sponsorship of the church an expression of anti-Semitism, but you also have to realize that for months the state institutions have been dealing with the only public expression of anti-Semitism in Poland.

This fact takes on additional significance in light of the increase in anti-Semitism in Western Europe. Nothing currently makes the Poles happier than the talk of anti-Semitism in France. It's not only the account regarding the cultural ownership of composer Frederic Chopin that the Poles have not closed with the French - the matter of image remains a source of conflict as well.

Now they are saying in Poland that the worrisome revelations of anti-Semitism in France are still being discussed delicately, while there is always a more severe attitude toward Poland, based on a double standard. There is nothing that makes the Poles angrier than mention of the "Polish concentration camps," as they are often described, mainly in English. "Not Polish concentration camps, but concentration camps on the land of occupied Poland," they amend, asking that they be treated with historical justice. After all, the Poles see themselves as victims, and it is therefore difficult for them to hear the blame regularly leveled at them.

In this complex situation, even the answer to the question as to whether there is anti-Semitism in Poland is a complicated and surprising one, in reference to the country about which Polish-born former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir used to say, "The Poles imbibe anti-Semitism with their mother's milk" (a statement that infuriates the Polish intelligentsia even today.)

One could answer the question with the words "There is no anti-Semitism in Poland," and be correct; one could say "There is anti-Semitism in Poland," and there would be truth in that, too. Of course there's less anti-Semitism in Poland than in the countries of Western Europe, of course the small Jewish community that has remained there - about 10,000 souls, although some say that the number is much lower - doesn't have any sense of being threatened.

Even the Anti-Defamation League's file on Polish anti-Semitism is surprisingly thin. What is left in Poland is that same popular and strongly rooted anti-Semitism that is nourished by ancient stereotypes and past traditions. Some dismiss the absence of incidents of anti-Semitism in Poland by explaining that there aren't enough Jews left there against whom to be anti-Semitic, and that there are no Muslims in Poland to incite political anti-Semitism. These explanations, even if they do contain a kernel of truth, do not provide a real answer to the opposite phenomenon: the great preoccupation with Jews in a country without Jews.

In search of a lost time

After all, if there are no Jews, why do they need the Jewish cultural centers, the museum of Jewish history that is being built in Warsaw, the Jewish cultural festival that takes place every year, the large number of books dealing with Jews, the restoration of Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter in Krakow that may resemble a Jewish Chinatown, but whose restaurants serve meals with Jewish names, while in the background they play melancholy Jewish tunes such as "The Shtetl of Belz," or at the opposite extreme, songs of Israeli singer Eyal Golan. Most of the patrons of these enterprises and activities are not Jews, and the profit they represent cannot provide the entire answer.

So how does it happen that despite the physical absence of Jews from the soil of Poland, they are present everywhere? The answer probably lies in much deeper layers of the Polish experience. Immediately after being freed from the Nazi occupation, the Poles began to live under what many consider the Soviet occupation. For almost 50 years of this cultural and moral "occupation," the Poles had no opportunity to confront their past and their history. Only now are they embarking on a search for the lost time, and wherever they come to search for themselves they find Jews an inseparable part of their past. So that part of the search for themselves must pass through the Jewish axis, and that is what entrenches the Jewish presence in Poland far beyond its true proportions.

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