Welcome back to The Thermometer Interview, a series of conversations testing the temperature of Europe.
On November 11—Poland’s National Independence Day—60,000 ultra-nationalists marched through Warsaw, bearing Christian iconography, carrying banners that read, “White Europe of brotherly nations” and chanting “pure Poland, white Poland!” and “refugees get out!” The extremist rally was a manifestation of Poland’s drift toward far-right populism under the watch of the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party and its chairman, Jarosław Kaczyński. Since it gained power in 2015, PiS has sought to increase government influence over the country’s media, judiciary, civil service and education system. The party views Donald Trump as a natural ally and welcomed his speech in Warsaw in July.
How the changing atmosphere in Poland is affecting the country’s Jewish community is the subject of this month’s Thermometer Interview with Anna Chipczyńska, president of the Jewish Community of Warsaw since April 2014. Chipczyńska was the subject of international media attention in August, when she co-signed a letter to Kaczyński, expressing concern on behalf of Polish Jews “regarding the rise of anti-Semitic attitudes in recent months, accompanied by aggressive hate speech and violent behavior that are directed towards our community.” The letter continued, “We are appalled with the recent events and fearful for our security as the situation in our country is becoming more dangerous.”
The political situation has also exposed divisions among Polish Jews, which Chipczyńska discussed with Moment. Also in August, two Chabad rabbis, along with Artur Hofman, head of the secular Jewish Social and Cultural Society, and Jonny Daniels of the Holocaust remembrance charity From the Depths met with Kaczyński as “representatives of Poland’s Jewish community” without the consent of official institutions. Daniels, a British-born Israeli public relations man who has a business relationship with the Polish government via their state-owned airline LOT, has been criticised by Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich as “a supporter of the ultra-right wing.” Daniels has been accused of promoting PiS’s narrative that augments the role of Poles who helped Jews during the Second World War, promoting a nationalistic narrative of Polish heroism and suffering.
What has changed for Polish Jews since PiS came to power in 2015?
In August, we issued a letter to PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński that voiced our concern about what’s going on in Poland. Following the letter, a few major things changed, and we’ve established a very close security relationship. There is police protection 24/7. I am very often asked if the government is responsive to our needs and I’d like to emphasize we have close links to the government and cooperate with them.
This security attention doesn’t address the latest Independence Day march on November 11, when people were holding up racist, anti-Semitic and totalitarian slogans and screaming discriminatory statements. It showed there is a problem with anti-Semitism in Poland, and if it goes unpunished, then it’s a threat to our security as well as our position of being a minority in the society.
How has your work changed? Is your time taken up, more and more, with dealing with issues related to anti-Semitism?
We’ve started to deal more extensively with monitoring and reporting anti-Semitism that does not take place in public but is directed against us: phone calls, letters, offensive and vulgar slurs, anti-Semitic graffiti. It’s taking place on a weekly and daily basis. There is no week, no day, without getting an offensive email.
What is the reason for the uptick in anti-Semitism?
There is a permission to use discriminatory language. I would never call this government anti-Semitic, and it is really an exaggeration to do so; however, there are members of parliament and other public figures who in the past have made openly anti-Semitic statements, and there is a lack of punishment for people who commit these kinds of [hate] crimes. It allows for an atmosphere that makes it possible for people to commit [hate] crimes.
How has the Jewish community itself been divided?
The Union of Jewish Communities in Poland has always been the legitimate representative of Polish Jews regarding a number of issues—religious, financial (including restitution), taking care of Jewish heritage—and this was never questioned until around four months ago, when the individualization of Jewish politics in the country was brought to light. Individual persons have been trying to represent the Jewish community who do not have the plenipotentiary right to do so. We issued a letter, along with other Jewish organizations, making it clear that talking on behalf of the entire Polish Jewish community without the legitimate right to do so was something we couldn’t tolerate. It was a threat to our standing.
You’re referring to the August meeting between the Polish government and four individuals, including two representatives of Chabad and Jonny Daniels of From The Depths. Why do you think they took that meeting?
They are the best persons to ask about that. I was not consulted before they went to the meeting without me. Jonny Daniels is not a member of the Jewish community, and his activities are those of a person from the outside—an individual who’s running his PR business and probably has some individual interests. Chabad runs their own activities—we know each other as people, the rabbis keep in touch, we see each other—but there is not an organizational link. It’s a matter of much malice and speculation.
Do you think they were being opportunistic?
It was opportunism, yes.
Daniels is involved in promoting the narrative of Poles helping Jews during the Holocaust. The Polish government promotes a nationalistic view of Polish history that emphasizes Polish suffering during the Second World War above Jewish suffering. Have you noticed a change in terms of the way Poland is talking about the Holocaust?
We (the Jewish community) haven’t experienced major change, but in the past two years, Poland has focused a lot on Polish heroes and not enough on the victims of the Holocaust. Polish history has to a great extent been put up as a competitive story to the Jewish perspective. There needs to be balance and nuance when it comes to Polish-Jewish relations. It’s very important to talk about heroism—those who rescued others rescued the world in many ways—but it needs to be put into the proper proportions: with those who murdered, who were silent. It’s not true that the whole nation rescued the Jews, and the numbers speak for themselves.
Do you think the changing atmosphere in Poland, and what you call the individualization of advocacy, threatens the so-called Jewish revival?
I don’t call it a Jewish revival or renaissance—I call it the Jewish existence. What is being threatened is not the Jewish revival but the Jewish existence. Advocacy is being done by individuals without understanding the consequences, and we are the ones who are exposed to the anti-Jewish consequences, threats, criticism and slurs.
We need to be taken as a serious partner. We need to be recognized, and there is no reason not to recognize us. Jews in Poland are a fact. We are needed here. We live in Poland and are Polish citizens. If Polish Jews decided to leave Poland one day, who will open the doors of the synagogue for us? Who will open the doors of the cemetery to us? Who will help us visit the hometowns of our ancestors? Jewish people are not going to leave Poland unless someone forces us to, and that’s not what everybody wants—I hope.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.