WARSAW (JTA)--For novice tour guide and translator Swarek
Yerka, a day spent guiding Miriam, a young American Jewish woman searching for her
family's roots, turned into a personal confrontation with anti-Semitism.
At a time when Polish officials are openly denouncing
anti-Semitism, many Poles still harbor anti-Jewish sentiments.
On an official level, the country has done much to combat
anti-Semitism, according to Polish journalist Stanislaw Lopuszanski.
"Children learn about the role Poland placed in the
Holocaust. They view films and take school trips to the concentration camps. Every year
there is a tribute to the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. We've come a long way in
educating our young people," he said.
Today there are relatively few overt acts of anti-Semitism
in Poland. The small Jewish community, which numbers less than 15,000, is free to worship
in the country's seven synagogues. Last year, to promote greater cross-cultural
understanding, President Lech Walesa set up the Council for Polish-Jewish Relations.
Furthermore, the Polish Episcopate has established a
Commission for Dialogue with Judaism.
Yet despite these measures, anti-Semitism appears to be
alive and well in Poland, at least among the older generation.
Such was clearly the case in the tiny village of
in the northeastern province of Lomza. The village was once home to hundreds of Jews and
Gentiles who lived side by side.
With its cobblestone streets and picturesque farmhouses, it
appears to have changed little during the last century. As Swarek, the tour guide, and
Miriam quickly learned, the villagers' attitudes toward Jews haven't changed much either.
Though at first friendly and open, a gray-haired farmer
turned reticent upon hearing that the woman with the camera was a Jew whose family had
lived in Radzilow before the war. "No, I've never heard of that family," he
said, despite Miriam's proof to the contrary.
"When the Jews were taken away, some of my neighbors
stole things from their homes, but I never took a thing." He then asked
"Are you a Jew?"
The next woman they encountered, also elderly, noted that
"we went to school with the Jews, lived with the Jews. But my mother used to ask,
what kind of a Pole doesn't wear a cross around his neck?"
And then she asked Swarek, "You're Jewish, aren't
you?" When asked where the synagogue and Jewish cemetery were located, another woman
said they had been destroyed by the Communists after the war.
"The Communist Party leader took the gravestones and
built a house with them," she remarked.
When Miriam asked Swarek to approach another group of
villagers, he became hesitant. "They're all anti-Semites. I don't think you'll want
to hear what they have to say. They all seem afraid, as if they think you'll claim their
property, take back what they stole."
When Miriam pressed on, Swarek finally approached the
group. No, they said, no one by that name had ever lived here.
And is it true that in Israel, they have a place with the
names of the Poles who were good to the Jews, and a place for those who were not? they
At the town center, the pair inquired whether any Jews
remained in the area. Yes, they were told, a Jewish Holocaust survivor had married the man
who had hidden her during the war.
In a small, crumbling farmhouse next to a stream, Hanna
lives with her husband Stanislaw, who was named a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem two
years ago. Hannah, who is nearly blind, welcomed in the visitors, obviously pleased to
have "out-of-town company."
Her entire family, she said, was murdered by the Nazis.
Stanislaw saved her life and the lives of other Jews by hiding them in the forest and
giving them food. As she wrote her Hebrew name, and that of her mother, in flawless
Hebrew, Miriam noticed the pictures of Jesus on the wall.
At 77, Hannah remembers the war as though it had happened
yesterday. "I stayed in Poland because my husband is here," she said. "If I
were younger, I would move to Israel, where I have some cousins."
She took out a letter with an Israeli stamp and postmark:
On the trip back to Warsaw, the young tour guide confessed:
"I hated when those villagers asked me whether I was Jewish. In Australia, we Poles
were made to feel like outsiders, even though I had an Australian passport.
"But some people are good and others aren't. That man
saved a Jewish woman and risked his life. I think, for the first time, I understand
anti-Semitism. I'm ashamed of my own people," the young Pole said.