WARSAW – Michal Bilewicz, a social scientist who monitors anti-Semitism in Poland, apologizes and picks up the phone that’s ringing. No sooner has he recognized the voice on the other end than he cuts the conversation short.
“It’s him again – this right-wing hater who constantly calls and shouts at me for doing what he calls anti-Polish research,” he reports back to his visitor. “This time, he wanted to know why I only care about Jews and don’t do any studies on the persecution of Christians in Poland.”
Bilewicz, 37, is director of the Center for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw. He doesn’t know whether to be happy or sad that his work is attracting so much attention these days.
Last month, this soft-spoken psychology professor found himself thrust into the national limelight when members of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party demanded that the government stop funding his research. Angry about a recent talk he had delivered at the Jewish museum in Warsaw – where Bilewicz warned against a dangerous rise in anti-Semitism – they described his work as “detached from reality, unscientific and biased.” Worse still, they termed it “anti-Polish.”
“When things like this are said by a right-wing crazy, like that guy on the phone, I don’t see it as a real problem,” Bilewicz says. “But when you start hearing things like this from elected officials, it’s a lot more frightening.”
Opponents of the government tend to blame the campaign against Bilewicz on the toxic environment created by the so-called “Holocaust law,” which makes it illegal to accuse the Polish nation or people of complicity in Nazi war crimes. The law, which was passed in parliament in January, is viewed by its detractors as a government attempt to pander to anti-Semitic right-wing voters who do not like the attention paid to the victimization of Jews during the Holocaust and the bad light it throws on their country. The law is still pending review by the Constitutional Court.
In addition to worrying about continued funding for his research (the provost of the University of Warsaw has, meanwhile, issued a strong statement in his defense), Bilewicz also wonders whether he will even be allowed to share his own family story in the future.
“During World War II, my grandmother escaped the ghetto in Lvov and fled to Warsaw, where she lived on the ‘Aryan side’ of the city with false papers,” he relays. “She always told us she was more afraid of the Poles than the Germans, because the Germans wouldn’t recognize her as Jewish but the Poles would. This is something I may not be able to discuss after this censorship law is implemented.”
‘Good guys’ find their voice
Bilewicz’s concerns may be premature. Recent developments suggest the law will likely be modified, if not completely rolled back – not only because of the international uproar it generated, but because it may simply not be enforceable. Indeed, Poland’s attorney general recently suggested that certain aspects of the law are unconstitutional.
“The major problem is who gets to decide what is true and what is not true about what happened,” notes Michael Schudrich, the New York-born chief rabbi of Poland. “It opens a huge Pandora’s box.”
Right after the law received the parliamentary green light, anti-Semitic incidents in Poland rose to levels unprecedented since communist times. It was not the old-fashioned sort of anti-Semitism, with Jews being beaten in the streets. Instead, it was hurtful, and often outrageous, statements by prominent politicians and journalists (suggesting, for example, that Jews were complicit in the Holocaust) and an explosion of hate speech on social media. No doubt some of the vitriol was prompted by anti-Polish remarks from the other side.
“The social taboo that had existed since 1989 about saying anti-Semitic things was suddenly lifted,” observes Schudrich. “It seemed you could suddenly say whatever you wanted. There is no question in my mind that the law was key to this.”
However, Schudrich says he has detected a change for the better in recent weeks. “In March, the good guys, so to speak, found their voice,” he says, citing a petition signed by dozens of NGOs in Poland condemning the law; a strong statement by the Catholic Church denouncing anti-Semitism; a goodwill visit by President Andrzej Duda to the Krakow Jewish Community Center; and, perhaps most importantly, the public apology issued by the government for the expulsion of Polish Jews by the communist regime in 1968.
“Back in February I’d be asked by people – Jews who’d been living here their entire life – whether it was time to pack up and leave,” Schudrich recounts. “I hear this question a lot less now.”
The chief rabbi’s reading of the situation is supported by Bilewicz’s research. “Our studies show there was a huge increase in anti-Semitic content on the internet, starting in January, but now it’s coming down,” he reports.
Jonathan Ornstein, director of the JCC in Krakow, describes his mood these days as “between concerned and worried.” Still, he is more upbeat than a month ago.
“My feeling is that Poland understands this law wasn’t in its interest, that it wasn’t well thought out, and that it was a big mistake,” he says.
Ornstein, who is also New York-born, says there is good reason to believe the law will be “walked back.”
A day or two after the law was passed, Warsaw JCC Director Agata Rakowiecka called a special meeting of members, sensing that many were on edge.
“We had a full house – people you don’t usually see here regularly,” she recounts. “They clearly needed a safe space where they could share their thoughts and fears about what was going on. Some were even drawing comparison to the atmosphere in 1968 when the Jews were expelled.”
She doesn’t believe such comparisons are valid, though. “The big difference is that in 1968, there was a feeling of loneliness, a feeling that people were turning their backs on us and that there was no space for Jews in Poland,” she says. “Today, even though there are politicians and TV commentators saying things about Jews that were unheard of before, the Jews no longer feel marginalized – because there are people and organizations speaking out against what’s going on.”
Which isn’t to say the crisis has blown over. That’s why the JCC just decided to launch a brand new program: a support group for parents.
“We’re going to hold regular meetings with a psychologist for parents who need assistance in talking to their kids about anti-Semitism, discrimination and the Holocaust,” explains Rakowiecka. “There wasn’t really a need for this beforehand, but these are topics that come up in the news all the time now.”
A friend recently confided in Rakowiecka that she is afraid to send her daughter to Jewish school in Warsaw because of the current atmosphere. “She’ll probably do it,” says the JCC director, “but this sort of question mark didn’t exist in the past.”
Idealizing World War II history
While much attention in recent months has focused on the emerging Jewish community of Poland and how it will fare, Bilewicz says he has bigger concerns.
“The organized Jewish community is tiny, barely a few thousand people,” he says. “I’m much more worried about the non-Jewish Poles – and there are many – who have started to take an interest in the Jewish history of their country in the 29 years since the downfall of communism. Some of them are actively engaged in commemoration projects. I fear that, especially in the small towns, people like this will face a backlash from the local authorities.”
It is not simply paranoia. Just recently, Bilewicz reveals, a teacher in a relatively small metropolis confided that he had been reprimanded by the local board of education for trying to influence his students during Jewish history lessons.
“He told me his students were forced to fill out a questionnaire asking whether they thought he was teaching them properly, if he tolerated other political views, and if he was rude to students who didn’t agree with him,” recounts Bilewicz. “This is the sort of thing I fear – that someone like that might get fired or punished. At the University of Warsaw I have the provost standing behind me. But who does a teacher like that have to back him up?”
Shoshana Ronen, an Israeli-born professor of Jewish studies and Hebrew literature at the University of Warsaw, has been living in Poland for over 25 years. She has never felt this anxious before.
“I read things on the internet that I would never have believed before,” she says. “The narrative goes like this – and pardon my bluntness: That the Jews did the Holocaust to themselves and the Poles were the victims.”
She finds little comfort in the fact that academic research and artistic work are to be exempt from restrictions imposed in the new Holocaust law. “Those who are already involved in research aren’t going to have a problem,” she says. “I’m more concerned about young researchers starting out, especially those in history. If they’re interested in World War II, they will think darned well before going in that direction. We already see what’s happening with government grants: less and less money is going to Jewish subjects.”
Personally, Ronen says, she doesn’t feel any less safe in Poland these days and continues to speak Hebrew freely. Some of her students, though, have reported not feeling comfortable reading Hebrew texts in public. “They’ve told me that on the tram or the bus, they sometimes get unpleasant looks when they’re caught reading Hebrew.”
Studies conducted by Bilewicz’s Center for Research on Prejudice show that anti-Semitism in Poland was already on the rise before the controversial Holocaust law came up for a vote.
Bilewicz says the turning point was 2015 – the year the new right-wing government took power.
The shift is most pronounced in the indicator he calls “social distancing,” which measures how averse Poles are to the thought of having a Jewish relative, neighbor or co-worker. “That figure has gone up from 30 to 40 percent in the past decade, to 50 percent since 2015,” he says.
Another change, he adds, is the growing tendency among Poles to idealize their countrymen’s actions during World War II.
Bilewicz’s latest study shows that the average Pole believes 49 percent of the Polish people rescued Jews during the Holocaust. (While no exact figures exist, it is widely assumed that the percentage of rescuers was significantly lower considering that, of the 3.3 million Jews who lived in Poland on the eve of World War II, only 10 percent survived.)
Not a ‘perfect’ law
The Subcarpathian Province, with some 2 million inhabitants, is a well-known bastion of Poland’s ruling right-wing party. Wladysaw Ortyl, the marshal of this southeastern region bordering Ukraine, is himself a member. When he first learned of the legislative initiative aimed at controlling the Holocaust discourse, he says he welcomed it. “Its main goal, as I understood, was to end the use of the expression ‘Polish death camps,’ so I received it positively,” he says. “We didn’t feel comfortable or think it was nice when President [Barack] Obama once used this term.” (Contrary to popular belief, the law makes no specific reference to the term “Polish death camps.”)
Today, Ortyl is more circumspect. “It has other aspects that I agree should be discussed in more detail,” he concedes. “It’s for sure not perfect.”
Like many in his party, Ortyl did not anticipate the intensity of the backlash against the legislation in Israel and the Jewish world at large.
He also has special reason to be concerned: Last month, the first direct flights between Tel Aviv and Rzeszów, the capital of his province, were launched. Ortyl had hoped they would bring many Israeli tourists to the region, which has a rich Jewish history.
“The timing was not ideal,” he acknowledges. But thankfully, he says – and despite his initial concerns – flights are booked solid for the months ahead.
In July 1946, over a year after the Nazis were defeated, 42 Jews were murdered in a pogrom in the Polish town of Kielce. Bogdan Bialek, a Catholic psychologist and longtime resident, has dedicated years to convincing his fellow townspeople that they need to acknowledge this dark stain on their past and draw the appropriate lessons. His personal crusade is the subject of the new documentary film “Bogdan’s Journey,” which recently opened in Israel.
Surprisingly, Bialek is not that troubled by the new Holocaust law, widely seen by its detractors as an attempt to whitewash history. But that’s only because he doesn’t think it stands a chance of being enforced. “It’s a very bad law, which will be a dead law, because nobody really know what it’s about,” he says.
What concern him are the emotions it has unleashed. “What this law has done is set free things that were suppressed for many years, including anti-Semitism – even though this was probably not the intention of the lawmakers,” he says.
Poland’s chief rabbi shares this assessment. “The law is a big mess,” Schudrich says.
Although tensions have eased in recent weeks, Schudrich believes it is still too early to know how events will play out.
“I’m not sure if we’re at the end of this, the middle or the beginning,” he admits. “I want to hope we’re at the end. But we’ll probably only know in a year from now.”