The expression “useful idiot” is often attributed to Vladimir Lenin. Though it is unclear who really coined it, that appellation — however harsh — seems tailor-made to describe a number of rabbis and Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum who took part in a grotesque charade organized by Poland’s notorious radio priest Tadeusz Rydzyk.
The event, billed as a tribute to the heroism of Poles murdered for attempting to rescue Jews during the Holocaust, was held at the end of November, at Father Rydzyk’s “Chapel of Remembrance” in the medieval city of Toruń on the River Vistula. Among the participants was former Yesh Atid MK Rabbi Dov Lipman, who penned “From Poland….with love,” a rapturous paean to his Polish hosts in The Times of Israel.
Now, Rabbi Lipman is a good and well-intentioned man. That is why it is especially disheartening to see that he and several other equally gullible Israelis, were lured into lending their names to a truly loathsome ruse, falling hook, line and sinker into waters in which they cannot even tread, let alone swim. Certainly, the spectacle of the smiling, soft-spoken rabbi interviewed on a media platform best known for spewing anti-Semitic invective was especially troubling.
Longtime monitors of anti-Semitism in Poland have been tracking Father Rydzyk ever since the Redemptorist priest spawned Radio Maryja in 1991 and the lucrative media empire that evolved around it. They have been kept busy with a veritable smorgasbord of anti-Semitic tropes. Among the most common is the notion that Jews are the implacable enemies of Poland and are responsible for foisting Communism on the hapless Poles. Consumers of Radio Maryja, Trwam TV and the daily Nasz Dziennik are treated to accusations hurled at Jews that echo the infamous writings of the fourth century Christian theologian John Chrysostom, and others lifted from the Protocols of Zion.
More modern anti-Semitic sources, many of local provenance, are also cited. A recurring theme (at least until recently) was that Poland’s government was controlled by Jews. In fact, shortly before the tragic death of Lech Kaczyński in an airplane crash, Father Rydzyk called the president a “swindler” who had buckled under pressure from the “international Jewish lobby.” Naturally, anyone who dares question Rydzyk’s canonical version of Polish history and points to blots on Poland’s escutcheon receives a special measure of scorn. At the core of that narrative are the fast diminishing number of Righteous who are cynically trotted out on every occasion to deflect any suggestion of anti-Semitism in Poland, but above all to reinforce the notion that Polish society had behaved in truly exemplary fashion during the Holocaust.
According to sociologist Rafal Pankowski of Warsaw’s Collegium Civitas, probably the most well-known authority on the radical right in contemporary Poland, “Radio Maryja has been the single most powerful disseminator of anti-Semitic discourse for the last 25 years.” In one unexceptional broadcast, Father Rydzyk openly degraded Judaism: “I call it ai vai shalom. It is clearly a religion of trade. It is trade and not religion.”
For the past year, however, Rydzyk — without ever publicly repudiating his scurrilous rants against Jews — seems to have embarked on a charm offensive. He has reached out to Israelis, offering them an opportunity to buy into his heartwarming, homespun Holocaust narrative in which Poles are cast as selfless saviors of their Jewish neighbors. He has never acknowledged his sins and no mea culpa,or mea maxima culpa, has been heard from his lips, nor any other words of contrition for poisoning the minds of millions.
Father Rydzyk is aided in his efforts by Jonny Daniels, an Israeli PR man with an insatiable appetite for self-aggrandizement, who seems to have sold his birthright for a bowl of Polish porridge. Without the effective services of this smooth-talking huckster with a yarmulke perched on his head, it is doubtful that the anti-Semitic priest could have gulled anyone into thinking that he had really changed his spots – at least those who knew what his fur looked like in the first place.
Before giving their imprimatur to this fraud, it would have been easy enough for Rabbi Lipman and the other Israeli invitees to have done a bit of homework. No more than 5-10 minutes on the internet — less than many people spend researching where they should go for dinner — and they would have immediately understood just who they were dealing with. A simple Google search would also have revealed the pernicious views of Father Rydzyk’s shadowy Jewish front man.
“Poland,” the shameless spieler declared in a recent press interview that he proudly posted on Facebook, “has an unfavorable image thanks to the left wing Jewish media. which makes money off it.” Until he appeared on the scene, or so he claims, nobody had paid any attention to the Polish rescuers – apparently not Yad Vashem, not the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in New York, and not the Basel-based Medical Fund for the Righteous of the Anne Frank Fonds – only him and his own “foundation.”
Restitution? Why “the Jews have already received oodles of money,” says Rydzyk’s Jewish apologist, and besides, “anyone who comes to Poland with the right documents receives compensation [for their property].” Poland, he declared “must stand up, be candid and say, ‘Back off!’”
What is especially surprising is that neither Rabbi Lipman nor any of the other Israelis thought to even confer with the leaders of the Jewish community in Poland, including its well-known chief rabbi. Asked his opinion of Rydzyk’s front man, Rabbi Michael Schudrich compared him to “those engaged in the world’s oldest profession.” Had they only bothered to ask, Jews on the ground would have told the Israelis what was going on and cautioned them to steer clear of this swamp. Instead, local Jews now feel that Israeli officials have run roughshod over them and their concerns and they are not amused. Of course, it is they who have to live with the consequences.
“I believe it is a moral and political mistake to enter into such unholy alliances with Father Rydzyk’,” says Dr. Pankowski, a non-Jew who heads an organization devoted to combating racism and anti-Semitism called “Never Again,” and is the author of a scholarly book on the radical right in Poland. “It amounts to legitimizing Radio Maryja and its xenophobic ideology, which continues to promote radically anti-Semitic views and continues to feature such veteran Jew-baiters as Stanisław Michalkiewicz as one of its favorite commentators.”
To be sure, the deeds of Polish rescuers (and those of other nationalities) do deserve recognition and research. However, this cannot be done instrumentally, in a way that clouds the context of their heroism — and certainly not by a man known for his rabid anti-Semitism, no matter how many “chapels of remembrance” he erects. Those who subscribe to Father Rydzyk’s narrative detract from the valor of Poles who risked their lives, and in so doing they distort the historical record. In fact, the unvarnished truth portrays their acts of heroism as even more profound, because much of Polish society was utterly indifferent and many Poles — according to innumerable eyewitnesses — were not unhappy to see the Żydki (kikes) finally eliminated from the Polish landscape. The disappearance of the Jews was widely seen as a beneficial byproduct of an otherwise miserable occupation. For some Poles, the death sentence pronounced on Jews was a golden opportunity for personal enrichment – a local El Dorado. That is why those who took the risk to rescue Jews were often more afraid of local Poles than they were of the Germans who were the chief architects and executors of the Final Solution.
Poles fought the Germans ferociously and paid a terrible price in blood and property during the war. But their struggle had nothing to do with Germans’ genocidal designs against the Jews. And Polish Jews who did survive thanks to the actions of some Poles did so despite the actions of other Poles, far more numerous. It sometimes took a chain of Polish rescuers to save the life of a single Jew and the actions of a single Pole could lead to the death of a dozen Jews in hiding. As the unflinching local scholars associated with the Polish Center for Holocaust Research have revealed in their voluminous and groundbreaking writings, most Poles caught harboring Jews were denounced by other Poles, sometimes by neighbors or even their own kith and kin. In Gniewczyna Tryniecka, Jedwabne, Radziłów and other localities today best known for the horrific acts of violence that took place there, locals were not merely complicit in the despoliation, violation and death of Jews, but were actually the prime perpetrators.
Nearly two years ago I was invited to deliver a lecture at Kibbutz Lohamei HaGetaot on Polish rescuers to coincide with the opening of the Ulma Family Museum in the village of Markowa. While I was not unacquainted with the subject, I found myself grappling with how to best present the story, and especially the appropriate “point of departure.” A few days before I was to speak, by sheer happenstance, I bumped into my friend Jakub Weksler (Romuald Waszkinel), who, as an infant in Święciany (near Wilno/Vilnius), had been turned over by his Jewish parents to a Polish couple. Those righteous people saved his life. Romuald grew up to become a Roman Catholic priest and a professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin (KUL). Late in life, he returned to the Jewish fold and settled in Israel.
I invited him for lunch and described my predicament. “Larry,” he said, “you have to describe to people the anti-Semitism that permeated Polish society and the widespread demonization of the Jew. Only then, could the heroism of those who did what they did, really be correctly understood and fully appreciated.”
What was the context of those dramatic events? Permit me to cite the Polish underground state’s daring young emissary, Jan Karski – who went on to become a legendary professor at Georgetown University (where I was privileged to be one of his students and later his teaching assistant) and is today rightly seen as a national hero in his native land. In the winter of 1940, before mass killing was initiated, he delivered his first report to the government-in-exile. He described the Polish attitude toward Jews as “ruthless, often without pity. A large part avails itself of the prerogatives that they have in the new situation… to some extent this brings the Poles closer to the Germans.” Antisemitism, he wrote, “is something akin to a narrow bridge upon which the Germans and a… large part of Polish society is finding agreement.”
It is not widely known, but local authorities were often left intact in German-occupied Poland, and many officials, and the notorious Blue Police, exploited their power in ways that proved fatal to the Jews in their midst.
Happily, Polish-Israeli relations are excellent and there is still unrealized potential in many fields. But bilateral ties will not be further enhanced by Israelis endorsing Father Rydzyk’s flagrant falsifications of history or by sweeping away painful chapters of our common past. The memory of the victims of the Shoah and the truly extraordinary rescuers who sought to aid them is not a commodity that can be bought and sold for political gain.
Significantly, Teresa Zawadzka, the daughter of Jan and Antonina Żabiński, the couple whose heroism is immortalized in the new film The Zookeeper’s Wife, courageously decried the blatant manipulation of her parents’ legacy and attempts to play down the existence of anti-Semitism. She was so upset by this phenomenon that she actually boycotted a ceremony ostensibly organized by Rydzyk’s Jewish PR man to honor her parents.
Unfortunately, by his latest actions, the gentle rabbi from Beit Shemesh, who takes pains to remind us that he is a grandchild of an Auschwitz survivor, has given Poland’s modern-day Father Coughlin a rabbinical hechsher. In so doing, he has made his own unwitting contribution to kashering the cause of historical obfuscation.
Dr. Laurence Weinbaum is the founding chief editor of The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. He is the co-author, together with Prof. Dariusz Libionka, of a book on the Jewish Military Union (ŻZW) in the Warsaw Ghetto Bohaterowie, Hochsztaplerzy, Opisywacze – Wokol Żydowskiego Związku Wojskowego
In May 2008, President Lech Kaczyński decorated Dr. Weinbaum with the Złoty Krzyż Zasługi [Gold Cross of Merit] for his ongoing contributions in fostering Polish–Jewish dialogue.
Editor’s Note: See Dov Lipman’s response: Why I met a Polish priest with an anti-Semitic past.