End of Year Conversation [Interview with Aleksander Gleichgewicht]

It makes no difference to me if they burn the effigy of a Jew, or attack a gay person, or beat someone up for looking like a Muslim (even though they turn out to be Hindu or Cuban). It doesn’t really matter who gets hurt. What matters is that someone does get hurt,” says Aleksander Gleichgewicht, the chairman of the Jewish Community in Wrocław and former Solidarity activist.


Michał Bojanowski: What’s your opinion on the last change of government in Poland?

Aleksander Gleichgewicht: In our – Jewish – perspective, the main change is the shift in attitudes towards multiculturalism and tolerance in Poland.


Can you be more specific?

Our current government approves the actions of and ideas spread by the far-right Radical Camp (ONR). This organization has recently evolved from a marginal group of politically frustrated people into a mainstream nationalist institution imposing its own understanding of history on the social discourse. Let’s hope to God it doesn’t become the core of the new paramilitary units so beloved by our Minister of Defense. This political consent, even support, can be clearly heard in the public media.

It’s starting to feel like we’re back in the 1930’s or 1968. You can almost smell nationalism in the air. Jews should be especially aware of what is happening now. I’m not going to lie: our small and very battered community has been struggling to recover for a long time. And now once again we’re facing questions we thought had been resolved long ago; fundamental questions about the purpose of our existence here and of our status in this society.


Perhaps the awakening came too late?

I must admit that I’ve been ignoring the warnings from the people who could see it coming for a long time. They noticed it back in the nineties, and they warned us about these chauvinist tendencies. Back then it seemed quite insignificant to us, but now those tendencies are more and more prevalent, mainly thanks to the thugs from ONR. I kept telling myself that perhaps Poland is starting to look worse to those simply because they see it from an “upper class Warsaw” perspective. I told myself that there was no need to overreact. I understood that certain things in our society will always remain unexplained and ambiguous. But the 1990’s were the beginning of a new era in Poland, and we had a lot of hope in our newfound freedom. New books were written, we were no longer afraid to be honest and we had the courage to ask inconvenient questions. We spoke about our difficult history and we discussed our national trespasses since the time of the war. Jan Tomasz Gross was one of the key figures who opened up the debate to painful issues instead of allowing the nation to „shit in its own nest,” as we say in Polish.

I was naive, an optimistic dreamer. I didn’t give the scoundrels enough credit. I was a patriot who idealized his country, and didn’t suspect that nationalism and anti-Semitism were in fact so deeply rooted in Polish culture. I had no idea that the need to lie about history was so strong, to lie just in order to make our nation look better. By idealizing our own nation, we reduce it to a tribe that defines itself through its enemy, through some bad neighbor, someone different from us. It’s all escalating very rapidly and it has fallen on very fertile ground, in which various old and new “isms” can flourish. The time will come when the government, uncontrollably and unpredictably, will unearth our worst attitudes and tendencies. It’s never easy to shut Pandora’s box once it has been opened. Similarly (although on a different scale), nobody could ever stop anti-Semitism either before, during or after the war, once it got started.


The effigy of a Jew was recently burned in Wrocław.

It was a local event that suddenly became of European importance, quite ironically, as the effigy was burned during an anti-Islamist demonstration. And yet it was a Jew that was burned. It means that, once again, Jews are being used as a symbol of the threatening stranger. The word “Jew” and the symbols of our culture, such as the star of David, are still considered offensive by a lot of Poles. For example, in September there was an exhibition on the Solidarity Trade Union held in Wrocław. Someone painted a star of David on some politicians’ foreheads. A few years ago, it was just hooligans or some marginal lumpenproletariat that could be held responsible for such incidents. Now it’s becoming more prevalent. There is more and more symbolic aggression and narratives in which Jews and other minority groups – homosexuals, refugees and others – are not welcome. Let’s hope it remains symbolic, but I don’t have to remind anyone that there is a very thin line between symbols and physical violence.


Do you think representatives of Jewish organizations should be more outspoken in  light of the current political situation?

Most of all, I feel disappointed that there is no discussion within Jewish circles about our responsibility for ourselves, for Poland and for Europe. More and more people are singling us out because of our ancestry and it may be that soon they will no longer want us here – again. Our voice should not remain small and weak, it should be heard internationally. Some of our community members have concerns rooted in their personal experience and they believe we should remain quiet. I am very involved in various legal activities against our current government, I’m not going to pretend otherwise. I can feel the weight of our Jewish history on my shoulders. I consider it our duty to stand with those who remind us of our fundamental human values, to stand with people whose families lived through the horrific experience of the Holocaust. It is our duty to speak for all those who are discriminated and persecuted for any reason at all.


This brings us to the problem of the refugee crisis that has shaken Europe this year.

Even if it doesn’t concern us directly, our Jewish experience demands that we react. Our attitude towards the refugees is the measure of our humanity. I cannot help but feel that Poland has thoroughly failed this test on humanity and openness. And not just Poland but this entire part of Europe that was so grievously afflicted in the past, and regained freedom and democracy at such a great cost. And now it has lost all its empathy and fled from freedom and democracy towards national egoism and xenophobia. One would think that after so much work we would have managed to regain a modicum of Western normalcy. Or maybe we are regaining some sort of  Eastern European normalcy now?


What’s going on?

We are witnessing a new shift in the politics of memory, through historical revisionism. We are experiencing the beginning of some absurd inner war, starting from our new president and the new management of the Institute for National Remembrance (IPN), all the way to  new education programs that will probably affect even preschools. The government wants to decide about the repertoire of the Polski Theatre in Wrocław. It wants to decide which newspapers can remain and which must be closed. They want to influence the shape of every aspect of Polish culture. Everywhere you look, everything and everyone is being turned into pawns in the national political game. The government is simply undoing the past few decades.


Perhaps that is what our society needs.

The government is telling us that we are supposed to be proud of those episodes in our history that, until recently, were regarded as our worst moments. Those parts that led to a catastrophic loss of our instinct for self-preservation as a result of which Poland fell under Russian control. These suicidal tendencies are appearing again. I perceive them as national-bolshevik tendencies. At the same time, we can see that society is being divided into two teams, two tribes even. This devastating division is splitting families and friends (now former friends). There is less and less real dialogue. Our social and personal links are breaking under the weight of intense emotions and murky ideas. We will need decades to heal the wounds.


This revisionism includes – quite surprisingly – the Jedwabne and Kielce pogroms.

A lot of people in Poland and in the world thought this topic had already been thoroughly discussed and analyzed once and for all. We know exactly what happened in both places. Historians have researched it extensively, and their findings were confirmed by a long and exhaustive investigation carried out by the Institute of National Remembrance. Moreover, we’re now coming across many similar stories that took place near Białystok and numerous other regions of Poland. These stories make the “old” wartime blackmailers look almost timid. We were proud that we could talk about this difficult past openly in our country. We were proud that the Polish prosecutors and historians were revealing facts. We were proud it was history, and not courts, that was making judgments. And now it turns out all this work can simply be erased, and history can be easily distorted once again. It should be noted that nobody wanted to hold Poles collectively responsible. We just wanted to get all the skeletons out of the closet and bury them with respect for the sake of our own nation’s mental health. Many European countries have avoided discussions about how despicably their people behaved during the war, just to mention Austria or France, and our neighbors Lithuania, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia. One cannot achieve maturity and stability without dealing with trauma. Lies will never liberate us from trauma. Only the truth can do that: the truth and the reconciliation that follows. And we Poles, we just want to be very proud of Chopin and Mickiewicz, and ignore all the dark moments of our history. It’s always other people who are the bad guys.


Maybe we’re just overrating the achievements of our regained freedom?

I also used to think it was just the beginning of the process. I thought our nation would keep growing and developing. I thought this process was unstoppable. However, it turned out to be very easy to not only stop but even to reverse. Law and Justice (PiS) had been in power before, albeit only for two years, but still, something started to fester from that point on.


But then, after that, the Civic Platform (PO) party held power for eight years and yet did not succeed in restoring the status quo ante-PiS. Perhaps nobody really cared that much.

Just because PO returned to power didn’t mean we would inevitably return to that process. Our economic growth did not bring any concurrent changes in social awareness. Hot water running in our taps was not enough to bring change. Envy, exclusion and frustration finally found their cynical administrators who are now trying to divide our society into “better” and “worse” class citizens. It is ever easier to do that now as we are experiencing the societal confusion that seems to be a by-product of globalization.

We gave up on our social education, we rested on our laurels and allowed a false narrative to take over undisturbed. It was a false narrative that tells the story of saintly Poles, of “cursed soldiers” who fought for our freedom (just our freedom, not yours). The story of perpetual victims, unappreciated by this cynical, materialistic world.


That’s why I wouldn’t consider PiS wholly responsible for our current situation. The reason seems to lie in the lack of a well thought out civic education (not controlled by any political party).

That’s the key. Our current situation is rooted in many different factors. There used to be a strong Christian Democrat movement in Poland consolidated around the intellectually influential, progressive Catholic movement connected with the weekly “Tygodnik Powszechny” published in Kraków. This Catholic magazine had been doing a great job for decades. It was instrumental in reconciling Poles, Jews and Germans. The whole wing of “open” Catholicism is drying out in the Catholic Church in Poland. It used to be linked to the Clubs of Catholic Intelligence and to pastoral circles, especially those associated with the Dominican Order. Nowadays, Church authorities are openly hostile towards this brand of Catholicism. And it’s a great shame, because it used to be a very important educational factor in Polish society.

We didn’t need much encouragement to return to our old nationalistic narrative. It erased all the self-critical thought that we managed to develop over the course of a few hundred years, not just the last decades. Once again, we admire troublemakers and litigants who are keen to manifest their superiority and who despise minorities. It has its roots in the stereotypical idea of Polish nobility on one hand, and our national-radical past on the other. This attitude does not leave much space for anyone else, including Jews. Once again, Poland is welcoming the return of this ignorant, complacent nationalism with delight. Let’s just hope we don’t end up in Putin’s arms.


The second world war, decades of communism, our hard-won freedom, followed by the chaotic development of the free market: it’s easy to get lost in all of that.

Our modern history didn’t leave much space for independent movements, for sovereign political and social processes. The war, and then communism and dramatic social and political changes did not give us time to digest our history. We didn’t have time for the type of reflection that would bring about change. All our prejudices were taken out of the freezer, where they had been left to hibernate for a century. They started to thaw, but never fully disappeared. That’s why I am so appreciative of the social openness we had here after having regained our independence in 1989. And I’m so sad to see it go back to the absurd, nationalist narrative that sounds like it’s taken straight from the 1930’s. It is threatening, but also quite ridiculous sometimes because we should finally swap that Jew stereotype for something else, for goodness sake! How long can we feed on this old corpse? Modern Polish Jews should no longer have to serve as easy targets for racists and xenophobes. We are Poles who are striving to rebuild their Jewish identity, not the other way around. Thank God for the monstrous refugee, that frightening Arab with horrific teeth. He is dirty, covered with parasites, and perfectly capable of raping twenty innocent golden-haired Polish maidens in an hour.


Maybe we are just creating this vision of new-wave anti-Semitism out of nothing? Maybe we are just drawing conclusions from nothing but a couple of senseless incidents?

A year ago I would have agreed, but not today. According to recent studies, 30% of Poles would not want to have a Jewish neighbor. No problem with Czechs, or even Germans. Jews have landed on the very bottom of the list, next to Arabs and Roma. There are no more Jews around, but they live on in our cultural stereotypes, in our language and in our prejudices. It’s like some kind of phantom pain, still lingering, even though the Jews are long gone.


The issue of refugees goes far beyond the government and its policies. It’s a much deeper phenomenon.

Indeed. Think of the very people who used to embody openness and revolution, the former icons of anarchistic thinking. Those leaders of various organizations fighting for peace and freedom, those human rights activists from the times of communism. Suddenly, all those people are talking about refugees. And they are spouting so much nonsense that they sound like extreme nationalists. They keep finding simple, primitive explanations for very complex conflicts, forgetting the ideas of their own glorious youth.

I often say that March 1968 was not just an anti-Semitic campaign carried out by the government in order to banish thousands of Jews from Poland. It was an attempt at deep-seated social change. It was meant to bring about a cultural revolution that would give a specific group of people the chance to move up as long as they stayed close to the new elite (or rather mafia). Things look quite similar nowadays: the new government is getting rid of the old elites, it’s removing people from the media and culture, it is trying to crush NGOs. We had just one beautiful, peaceful revolution in our history and that was the Solidarity movement. And now we’re getting another pathetic revolution that is heading right into a dictatorship. At the rate things are going, someone will more likely than not need to revive the good old Jew again.


Translation: Aga Zano

Proofreading: Barbara Pendzich

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