A Polish Minister With an anti-Semitic Past

WARSAW - Roman Giertych, deputy prime minister and education minister in the Polish government, asked permission to remove his jacket.It was 33 degrees Celsius and there was no air-conditioning in his office. "This weather reminds me of Israel," he said, wiping the sweat off his forehead.

Actually, he has never visited: "It's still a dream for me. I've only been as far as Cyprus, but that's pretty close."

Since his ministerial appointment two months ago, Giertych has been preoccupied with defending his good name, after being associated with anti-Semitic and homophobic remarks. The Polish government, struggling to form a broad coalition since its election in autumn 2005, recently added Giertych's party, the League of Polish Families (LPF), which won 7 percent of the vote.

About two weeks ago, while Krakow was hosting the International Jewish Festival, Giertych's name was in the headlines again. A few dozen Jews and Poles had gathered in a synagogue in Kazimierz, Krakow's Jewish quarter, waiting for Israel's ambassador, David Peleg. The ambassador came and spoke. Then a man in the audience asked his opinion of the education minister. "It is difficult for me to understand how matters of education can be managed by a minister who represents an anti-Semitic party," said Peleg, adding, "I will not meet with that man and have nothing to say to him."

Giertych's party was formed in April 2001 from several conservative right-wing parties. One of its foundations is the ultra-nationalist All-Polish Youth, founded in 1922, whose founding fathers included Giertych's uncle. In the 1930s the organization advocated the expulsion of Communists and Jews from the universities. Giertych's grandfather, Jedrzej, was one of the leaders of the Popular Democratic Party, a nationalist group with anti-Semitic overtones that was active in Poland between the two world wars. In 1989 Giertych reestablished that movement and led his party until taking up his current post.

His father, Prof. Maciej Giertych, a member of the European Parliament, recently sparked a storm during its session marking 70 years since the Spanish Civil War; he called Francesco Franco one of the most brilliant leaders of the 20th century.

In another incident, Ryszard Bender, a senator from Giertych's party said that Auschwitz was not a death camp, but rather a labor camp, and everyone there - Jews, Gypsies and others - had to work hard but at least had something to eat.

Today Giertych's party no longer speaks openly against the Jews. Homosexuals, however, are another matter. Giertych's first act as education minister was to fire Miroslav Selatitsky, president of the Polish teachers union, because he had approved the distribution in schools of a booklet published by the European Union, dealing, among other things, with civil rights in the gay-lesbian community.

"I like the Jewish people and I don't understand why they don't like me."

Giertych traveled to Jedwabne for a ceremony marking 65 years since the murder of its Jews.

"He came at the last minute, in an unplanned fashion, stood off to the side and left immediately following the ceremony," said Peleg.

Shortly thereafter, Giertych announced he was severing ties with his party's anti-Semitic past. "Now is not the first time I have said this," he said. "I have spoken about it many times and I do not see anything new about it. What was new was my trip to Jedwabne."

Will it harm your popularity among your constituents?

"I'll manage."

How did you party view the trip to Jedwabne?

"It will be very difficult. In the next few years I will have to explain it to a great many people. I am being criticized for that move, but I wanted to make a point and be perfectly clear."

Some say you went following the uproar over the Israeli ambassador's remarks.

"I want to extend my hand to Israel. That's why I went. I spoke with one of my good friends, a Polish Jew, consulted with him before the ambassador said what he said. It was one of my most difficult recent decisions."

Why?

"It is important to understand that the Poles suffered terribly during World War II. Every Polish family lost someone. [The Nazis] destroyed our country, demolished towns, killed millions, and from a Polish point of view, World Ward II was first and foremost against our people. In certain Polish circles there is an attitude of competition with the Jews over suffering during the war."

Perhaps in every Polish family someone did suffer, but whole Jewish families were wiped out.

"That's true. It is a paradox, because one expects a person who suffered to be empathetic to the suffering of others. For me the turning point was at the events held in honor of Pope Benedict XVI when he visited Birkenau not long ago. That was my first visit there. I visited Auschwitz as a youth."

But there is a long history of anti-Semitism in your close circles.

"We have a certain political tradition from before the war. I think that from a historical perspective and from a personal perspective, that anti-Semitism then was exploited for political purposes, because anti-Semitic positions were popular and connected first and foremost with economic competition. That was the reality. I think it was a mistake, because a situation must not be cynically exploited for hate-based goals. Today I oppose that part of the tradition."

Former Polish foreign minister Prof. Vladislav Bartoszevski, who is an honorary citizen of Israel, for saving Jews in the Holocaust, saidthat Giertych "came from an ideological fascist family, so no matter what he and his party do, they will always be suspect. That party harms Poland more than it harms the Jews."