I've been to Poland. I went on a study trip in 2004 to explore the cultural roots of modern Judaism and to experience what it means to live in the absence of Jews in a land where they had once flourished. We travelled with someone whose family had come from Poland which personalised many of the issues we studied and did'nt allow us to forget the pain that many British Jews still carry within them.
At the Centre for Jewish Culture in Krakow we heard of the pain and suffering of the Polish people, of a country coming to terms with its own history, with issues of identity, of a once thriving Jewish life, of the reality of anti-semitism, of the horrors of the ghetto and Holocaust. We saw for ourselves monuments of a former life : the mikvah, the ritual slaughter house, community centres as well as abandoned synagogues and desecrated cemetries. We heard then that traditional understanding of Jews as Christ – killers still persisted, that people still believed in the ritual murder of Christian children, of traditions such as that of a puppet of Judas being burnt or thrown down from a tower on Good Friday as a symbol of expelling evil. And sometimes real Jews were beaten during this ritual.
We were introduced to research from the 1990s which showed that many Poles overestimated the number of Jews living in Poland, underestimated the suffering of the Jews and overestimated the number of the Righteous Gentiles who helped the Jews. Because the Jews were still discussed in the media people believed that they were important and influential and there was a fear that the Jews could become dominant in society. And this recent research shows the situation has not changed. In fact there has been an increase (from 15 percent in 2009 to 23 percent in 2013) of more traditional forms of anti-Semitism, such as blaming Jews for the murder of Jesus and the belief that Christieran blood is used in Jewish rituals.
A dominant force in Polish society is an evangelical radio station Radio Maryja which, I remember was broadcast everywhere. Rafal Pankowski, who teaches political science at the Collegium Civitas, a private college in Warsaw, suggests it's the single most important voice in the Roman Catholic church. “Radio Maryja openly agitates against the allegedly corrupting influence of western Europe and the subversive role of Jews and Freemasons. Pankowski added, “The majority of the Polish bishops today are supporting Radio Maryja.”
All this is worrying for a Church that's done so much to repair the anti-semitism of the past, that recognises Judaism and Christianity as belonging to the same family and having the same roots, that encourages mutual study of our common scriptures, that sees anti-semitism as a sin and evil to be rejected. We also have a Pope whose friendship with Rabbi Skorka is an example of what relations between people of different faiths should be and could be if we got to know one another as human beings and not just followers of a faith we consider alien.
There are initiatives to reverse this situation such as the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations and the Centre for Jewish Culture but it won't be easy. Such overt anti-semitism has an effect far beyond Poland. It affects the security of Jews elsewhere. It can make them defensive and hesitant about engaging in dialogue. It helps me remember that when we do engage in dialogue we bring with us different histories and memories, uncertainties and insecurities, fears and concerns, most of which are unspoken and maybe even unacknowledged. It takes a lot of talking, love, friendship and time to break down these fears but what hope is there without it?