Euro 2012: Poland's Jews Watch and Wait

Poland's Jews balance fear with hope: they are enhancing communal security in the face of all-too familiar anti-Semitic abuse by Polish football fans, whilst hoping Euro 2012 could be an opportunity to show a newly-vibrant Jewish life in their country.

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On my first trip to Krakow, more than a year ago, I was shocked to find crude anti-Semitic graffiti in a side-street adjacent to the river Wisla. “Anty-Jude” was scrawled in blue spray paint above an incomplete circle, inside which appeared to be a crossed-out Star of David. This was hardly the last graffiti of this kind I would see: just a few days ago I saw swastikas daubed on the train on my way back home. Living in Poland has not only exposed me to anti-Semitic graffiti, but has desensitized the shock-value that the graffiti artists may have intended.

My newfound friends here ascribe anti-Semitic acts to provincial and uneducated “hooligans”, or wiuch. Once when drunken men were cursing loudly on the tram, I asked a friend jokingly in Polish if they were “wiuchniki.” Which I learned, to the amusement of my friend and of everybody within earshot, was a made-up word of my own creation - but was understood, nonetheless.

From my experience, anti-Semitism is hardly more rampant here than elsewhere: not only have I never experienced so much philo-Semitism in my life, I have heard more anti-Semitic comments in other countries in Eastern Europe and even in the United States. But not once here in Poland.

But now is a defining moment for the question of which Poland – that of largely pro-Jewish Polish sentiment or the anti-Semitic, racist culture of hooliganism – will gain the upper hand. The choice of Poland and Ukraine as hosts for the Euro 2012 football championships have triggered fears that the charged atmosphere of the matches as well as the influx of tourists would lead to a surge of racism and anti-Semitism. Some commentators, including the Economist have gone so far as to contend that racist outbursts could even overshadow the whole event, causing some football fans to reconsider following their favorite teams to Poland and Ukraine out of concerns for their safety. But what about the Jewish communities in Poland, the Jews who are already here?

Most Jewish communities do not foresee potential anti-Semitic antagonism as a result of Euro 2012. Rather, Jewish leaders such as Jonathan Ornstein, who has been in Poland for eleven years, sees the increase in tourists as a positive opportunity for visitors to learn more about Jewish history in Poland. He is optimistic about contemporary Jewish life in Poland. Those who are more cynical, he says, are "living in the past.”

Ornstein suggests that the graffitied crossed-out Star of David is not anti-Jewish per se, but rather part of a strange duel between different Polish teams. Ornstein calls it a “bizarre kind of anti-Semitism that can exist without contact with Jews. One team calls itself ‘the Jews’ and the other the ‘anti-Jews.’ I don't think the fans of either team feels anything about real Jews one way or the other. There were two Israeli players playing on the "anti-Semitic" team in Krakow this year and they were loved by the fans and experienced no anti-Semitism. They were JCC members and came to Shabbat dinners and loved living in Krakow.”

Ornstein's view seems to be a minority one. Krzysztof Izdebski, a member of the Board of the Jewish Community of Warsaw, views these crossed-out Jewish stars as “strictly anti-Semitic.” He said it has “nothing to do with the Israeli players of the opponent team” because only in the last three years have Israeli players been present in Polish football. Instead, he says, the labeling the opponent team as “Jews” (Zyd) has been around for decades.

Katowice's rabbi Yehoshua Ellis told me that in Lodz, "this graffiti has always referred to a local football club. Even though they are not aimed at Jews, the graffiti is anti-Semitic. Look at the banner that was displayed about a year ago at a match in Rzeszow / [the banner showed a Jewish man in a concentration camp uniform on whose face a 'No Entry' sign had been superimposed, with the slogan "Death to those with curved noses"]. I don't think there were any Jews on either team, but still the banner was extremely anti-Semitic.”

While the Warsaw Jewish community also sees the tournament as an opportunity to show visitors a vibrant, live Jewish community, Izdebski noted that the community would be taking measures to increase its security and would be encouraging caution towards the local football fans, who have never yet physically attacked the Jewish community. This increased security is mostly a result of the geographical proximity between the 'Fan Zone' – an area in the center of town where thousands of people will gather to watch the game together – and the Jewish community buildings.

This same proximity is a cause of concern for the Jewish community of Poznan, whose synagogue and community headquarters are located in the city centre, near a Fan Zone. The Poznan community has only come back to life in the last 13 years, since its destruction in the Holocaust. Community president Alicja Bromberger Kobus says that the local media has been supportive in condemning anti-Semitic vandalism, and that Jewish-Polish relations are steadily improving: 20,000 people came to celebrate Israel's Independence Day this year.

Nonetheless Kobus strikes a note of caution, if not piety: "We will be watching what happens, but I believe God will help us." For me, this comment expresses clearly the uneasy anticipation felt by Poland's Jews before Euro 2012: a public test of their country's commitment to a Polish culture free of the taint of anti-Semitism.

Maia Lazar is a freelance writer based in Krakow currently pursuing an M.A at the Jagiellonian University in Central and East European Studies.