Anti-Semitism and the Polish Church

 

Due to our common roots, a Christian cannot be anti-Semitic!”

                                                                                                         - Pope Francis

Pope Francis to members of the International Jewish Committee, 24 June 2013

 

 

Critical questions to ponder and an honest response from someone high in the Church hierarchy would be most welcomed.

Did the Church in Poland have the ability to exert either a positive or a negative influence on the situation of the Jews in Poland in the immediate period after liberation? Specifically, was the Catholic clergy in Poland in a position to suppress anti-Jewish violence that was occurring throughout Poland at that time? Could the Kielce pogrom have been averted, simply by a pastoral letter issued by Cardinal Hlond, as requested in the weeks prior to the pogrom? How were Jews perceived by the Catholic hierarchy and the Catholic press? Were these perceptions that predate the Holocaust? What was the response of the Church to the requests of Jewish leaders?

For a comprehensive understanding on this subject and an examination of the official stance of the Polish Catholic Church, its attitudes and the actions carried out by the Church hierarchy, please see The Polish Catholic Church and the Jewish Question in Poland, 1944-1948 by Natalia Aleksiun, PhD,

and

Facing History and Ourselves, The Jews of Poland, Legacies (under Reading 1)

 About six months prior to the Kielce pogrom, during a Chanukah celebration at the local Jewish community center in Kielce, a grenade had been thrown into the building. Subsequently, the local Jewish leadership approached the Bishop of Kielce, Czesaw Kaczmarek, requesting that he address the local population to refrain from attacking the Jews. The Bishop replied that “as long as the Jews concentrated upon their private business Poland was interested in them, but at the point when Jews began to interfere in Polish politics and public life they insulted the Poles’ national sensibilities.” Therefore, claimed the Bishop, it was not surprising that the local population had acted violently.

 

About two months prior to before the pogrom in Kielce, the Chief Rabbi of the Polish Army, Dr. David Kahane and Professor Michael Zilberberg, General Secretary of the Jewish Communities in Poland, tried to arrange a meeting with Hlond in May 1946. They had submitted a memorandum on the constant circulation of accusations of ritual murder and the consequent danger of mass pogroms. This was a most serious situation at that time (on the eve of Passover 1946, notices warning parents to watch their children, as more children were claimed to be “disappearing.” One such notice told of a rabbi who had been caught in a synagogue wearing a bloodstained white cloak, with a girl who had been stabbed to death hanging beside him). They asked the cardinal to issue a pastoral letter to all churches, urging them to intervene on behalf of the Jews.

Cardinal Hlond responded by returning the memorandum and refusing to meet with them.

Clearly, not all Polish clergy shared the official attitude, but those who spoke out against the violence were the exception rather than the rule. According to the Catholic weekly Niedziela, “There is no Antisemitism in Poland” (December 1945).

 One month before the pogrom in Kielce- Joseph Tenenbaum, the president of the World Federation of Polish Jews and Professor Olgierd Gorka, the head of the Jewish Department in Poland’s Foreign Office and a leader of the newly formed League to Combat Racism, arranged a meeting with Cardinal August Hlond, the head of Poland’s Catholic Church . They met on June 3, 1946.

In response to Tenenbaum’s plea for some kind of  response to the many anti-Semitic incidences, Cardinal Hlond replied “Jewish Communists are running this country. Why does world Jewry allow them to take over the government and oppress the Christian people?”

Tenenbaum responded “Your Eminence, Jews, like other people belong to different classes and different parties. There are Communists among them. But Jews have as much a right to be Communists as they have to be capitalists. The pitiful remnants of Nazi destruction have necessarily but little interest in anything except the mere preservation of their lives and to rehabilitate themselves after the terrible Nazi ordeal. They have little interest in any of the political ‘isms’ that agitate Polish public opinion, and, certainly, they are not in the least responsible for the acts of the few individual Communists of Jewish extraction, who are in the Government.”

Nevertheless, the Cardinal insisted “These Jewish Communists in the Government are at the root of all evil.” Furthermore, the Cardinal denied the existence of anti-Jewish violence in Poland since the end of the war, and insisted that the crimes were political rather than racial.

Tenenbaum and Gorka wanted the Cardinal to issue a statement condemning the murders. The Cardinal refused, insisting that the killers “do not murder Jews as Jews. They just retaliate for the murder of the Christian population by the Jewish Communist- run Polish Government.”

In response, Cardinal Hlond was presented with an invoice for burial expenses from Krakow, listing names and ages of the victims. Tenenbaum once again pressed the matter of a pastoral letter. “such murders are possible only in an anti-Semitic atmosphere. It could not happen on so large a scale, if the populace were not infected with so much poisonous propaganda, and to eliminate the poison from the population is clearly the duty of the Church.”

This lack of concern and action is a clear indication that the Church of Poland abdicated any moral authority they might still have had at this time.

On July 4 a crowd of Poles, aroused by rumors of Jews abducting Christian children for ritual purposes, attacked the building of the Jewish Committee in Kielce.

On July 11, 1946, Cardinal Hlond held a press conference-

Cardinal Hlond did not condemn the pogrom or urge Poles to stop murdering Jews. Rather, he pointed out that the Jews were all communists or supporters of communism and that the pogrom was their own fault. This statement reflected the general attitude towards Jews by the Polish Church hierarchy. At the same time they had the temerity to deny that there were anti-Jewish sentiments in Poland and that Catholics had nothing to do with the pogrom.

It is so difficult to imagine such blatant and outrageous lies coming form the Polish Church so soon after the crimes they all witnessed and refused to intercede when they had the power to do so. Although the Church condemned physical violence, they absolved the murderous impulse from so many Poles by blaming Jews for anti-Jewish incidents. By doing so, they provided impetus to the myth of the Jew as the evil  perpetrators of ritual murder.

Was this rise in anti-Semitism in the Polish Church due to the "paganistic" Nazi influence? Anti-Semitism existed in the Polish Catholic Church in the 1930’s and it infected all levels of the church—laity, clergy, religious, and hierarchy—and was publicly expressed in the 1936 pastoral letter issued by Cardinal August Hlond, the Polish Primate:

"It is a fact that Jews oppose the Catholic Church, are steeped in free‑thinking, and represent the avant‑garde of the atheist movement, the Bolshevik movement, and subversive action. The Jews have a disastrous effect on morality and their publishing‑houses dispense pornography. It is true that Jews commit fraud, usury, and are involved in trade in human beings".

For further information, read The Polish Church and the Holocaust. In his research of the Polish Church, Gerald Darring points to the comprehensive research of Ronald Modras, who has documented violence instigated by the Catholic Church in Poland during the 1930s (pre-Nazi occupation) while the Catholic hierarchy looked the other way.

This paper also brings attention to the image of the Jew in the Polish Catholic press, pre-occupation. Anna Landau-Czajka did an extensive study of the Polish Catholic press during that period. Her research reveals the sentiments of the Polish Church “the Jews were presented to the reader as the slayers of Christ, a tool in the hand of Satan, a people cursed by God who had been in conflict with the Catholic Church and its faithful from the dawn of Christianity.” Furthermore, “Such a people were not deserving of sympathy, whatever their fate”.

Did such inflammatory remarks have an influence? When one considers that the Catholic press accounted for over a quarter of all the publications in Poland at that time, it would be fair to conclude that it exerted considerable influence.

In the years following the pogrom (an estimated 1,500 Jews were murdered between the end of the war and the summer of 1947), the Polish Church waged serious effort in rewriting the “heroic” efforts of the Church and the victimhood of the Polish people under German occupation. The Catholic press had the temerity to claim that the Church served as a moral beacon to the nation and assisted the Jews during the Nazi occupation. Despite nearly 6,000 noted "Righteous Among Nations", nothing could be further from the truth.

Read A Moral Reckoning by Daniel Goldhagen to learn how the Church abdicated from what little they possessed of any moral authority.