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Polish Nationalists Protest Holocaust Restitution


This week, Polish leaders canceled a visit by Israeli officials. Poland is in a growing debate about anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and restitution of Jewish property. Last weekend, Polish nationalists marched in Warsaw carrying signs that described Jews who want to reclaim stolen property as, quote, "Holocaust hyenas." This has become a campaign issue ahead of European Parliament elections. Konstanty Gebert is a Polish journalist and Jewish activist in Warsaw, and he is the child of a Holocaust survivor. Welcome to the program.


SHAPIRO: Poland is governed by a conservative party called Law and Justice. Tell us about the steps they have taken to address the role Poles played in the Holocaust.

GEBERT: Well, the ruling party has taken numerous steps to prevent the issue being debated and addressed. Last year, they tried to pass a law penalizing allegations that Poles could have been co-responsible for some of the German crimes. Eventually, that penal character of that law was abolished, but the message sent by the government was very clear. Anybody who alleges that we did something wrong should be prosecuted for it. And they certainly believe, and they have repeatedly said it, that nobody has any claim on Poland for losses, damages, property seized by the Germans. Anybody who has any claims should address them to Berlin.

SHAPIRO: As daily expressions of anti-Semitism in public grow in Poland, what is daily life like for Polish Jews?

GEBERT: Daily life hasn't changed much. We are, unfortunately, a very small community. So any anti-Semite who'd really, really want to physically harm a Jew would have to do a great deal of looking up and tracking. It's simply not cost effective. But anti-Semitism has become an acceptable form of public discourse. It's present in public media. It's present on the right-wing news sites. It's present in statements by politicians and public figures. It doesn't necessarily draw the support of many people, but it's absolutely considered a permissible if not necessarily acceptable form of speech.

SHAPIRO: Before the Holocaust, Poland was home to more than 3 million Jews, and most of them were killed. Of those who survived, many left Poland. So when Polish people express anti-Semitic views today, are they reacting to real-life experiences or just their imagined version of what Jewish people are like?

GEBERT: They're reacting to myths. They are acting out their fears, and they're participating in the debate about the future. Let me explain. This is not really about the Jews. It's about the Poland. Jews function here as a litmus test. We have become a target for all those who would like to keep Poland authoritarian, ethnically pure, devoutly Catholic, opposed to perversions. And what passes as perversions is anybody's guess. So the conflict is not between Poles and Jews. It's an internal conflict inside Polish society about the kind of Poland that they want to have. And on that, the jury's still out.

SHAPIRO: Polish journalist Konstanty Gebert speaking with us from Warsaw. Thank you very much.

GEBERT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.