An interview with the Reverend Professor Waldemar Chrostowski
by Pawel Paliwoda

polish version
Excerpts translated by: Mariusz Wesolowski

  ZYCIE (Warsaw)
10 April 2001

PP: You have postulated many times the reciprocal character of Polish-Jewish relations. Why does this need repeating?

WC: This reciprocity should find its expression in a mutual goodwill acquaintance of the partners, as well as in respect for the identity of the other side. I must say that my first disappointment in this respect took place at the beginning of the 1990s. It was related to the developing conflict over the Carmelite convent in Auschwitz. In my opinion, already at that time Polish-Jewish relations were lacking in reciprocity. That's why I have now serious doubts, looking back at the last 15 years, as to whether true dialogue has ever taken place.

PP: Was it this realization that caused your resignation from the position of co-chairman of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews?

WC: Our ways parted when I clearly told some people engaged in that dialogue that the Catholic participation in the Council couldn't be limited to repeating and presenting Jewish demands to the Polish Catholics. That was the very essence of the problem. Tensions in this respect surfaced in the mid-1990s when, after the relocation of the convent at Auschwitz, the Jewish side advanced new demands, among them one about the removal of the papal cross.

PP: What kinds of opinions or positions caused this asymmetry in the dialogue?

WC: It was mostly the focus of the entire dialogue on Jewish sensibilities and Jewish points of view. In some cases the demands were very specific: for help in the diplomatic recognition of the state of Israel, or for support of the Israeli policy toward the Palestinian and Christian populations. Another aim was to involve the largest possible number of Christians in propogating the Jewish vision of World War Two, which reduces those dramatic events solely to the Holocaust [...]. Mutual contacts also became a forum for various material and financial demands. This aspect now becomes more and more pronounced on the Jewish side.

PP: Is the Jewish community in Poland and the world so homogeneous and united that it can be simply called "the Jewish side"?

WC: All those groups [...] differ somewhat between themselves. However, their fundamental aims and principles render them strongly cohesive. Whoever, on the Jewish side broadly understood, breaks away from the canon is immediately criticized and removed from the contacts with the Christians, and even ostracized. The first element of that canon is the very strong ideologization of the Holocaust. At present, this is the main ingredient of the Jewish identity. The second element is the exclusion of any criticism of the state of Israel. And, finally, the issue of anti-Semitism whereby, as seen clearly in the Polish-Jewish dialogue [...] the main goal for the Jewish side is finding among the Christians allies to fight anti-Semitism. This [...] is coupled with a totally arbitrary definition of anti-Semitism.

PP: How does the Jewish side define anti-Semitism?

WC: It would seem that anti-Semites are those people who don't like Jews, and who employ means and methods reflecting this hatred toward the Jewish society. During the last few years, however, it has become clear that anti-Semites also include those who are not liked by the Jews. This reversal of perspective turns the term "anti-Semite", just like "Jew", into a label, a bad name or an insult. Just as one can become a Jew in name, one can become an anti-Semite in name. Just one such response, one such label, is sufficient to raise a general outcry: "Watch out, [he or she is] an anti-Semite!" Of course, such tactics (on one or the other side) make any kind of dialogue extremely difficult.

PP: Did the concept of anti-S\semitism lose its moral implications?

WC: In my opinion, this term has been so politicized and abused that today it very seldom carries any moral message. It appears most often as an element of political correctness. Just listen to those people in the media who chant in one breath: "intolerance, xenophobia, anti-Semitism" (...) [In this way] they cheapen the real meaning of this term.


Let's note a specific paradox here: those, who want to fight so radically against anti-Semitism, at the same time are very tolerant of other "isms" and other, equally threatening, forms of evil. This shows once again that anti-Semitism and the fight against it are treated in the categories of a political struggle which is aimed not so much at eliminating anti-Semites per se (who, fortunately, seldom have any political importance) as at combating all of those who are inconvenient to the Jewish side and its sympathizers.

PP: A few years ago one of the most progressive dailies in Poland formulated a thesis that whoever does not loudly distance himself from anti-Semitism is also tainted with anti-Semitism.

WC: Such a diagnosis shows that the people who have thought it up need a diagnostic, maybe even professional, help themselves. Before penning something like that, one needs to stop and think whether one does not help in turning a blind eye toward real anti-Semitism.
It is my conviction that the abuse of the term "anti-Semitism" has already hurt the Jews themselves, and it will hurt them even more in the future. [...] Maybe one day, somewhere in the world, Jews will need again the help of their non-Jewish neighbours; that's why they should try even now to gain their understanding, solidarity and sympathy, not just submission. Otherwise, when real danger strikes, their appeals for help will have no effect.

In the 1990s there took place several more or less showy apologies and they didn't change anything in [Jewish-Polish] relations. On the contrary, they created a specific fashion for apologies, and fashions tend to trivialize the meanings of serious messages. [...] An absolute misunderstanding [is] a recent proposal put forth by "Wprost" magazine. Its authors offer the President, the Prime Minister and the Primate a formula based on the famous letter of the Polish bishops to the German bishops which contained the sentence "we forgive and ask for forgiveness", but in a significantly changed and humiliating form [...]: "we apologize and ask for forgiveness". This is a sick idea; a one-sided and humiliating repentance of Poles does not help in the development of a dialogue. [...] A true reconciliation is difficult because it also requires an honest look at the future and genuine participation on the Jewish side.

PP: What we can propose instead?

WC: Until now Polish-Jewish relations in the context of the Holocaust were perceived within the Poles-Jews-Germans triangle, but the accents on the responsibility of each and every party were gradually shifting. Right after the war it was said that the Germans were persecutors, Jews and Poles victims. About 20 years later that paradigm changed: Germans were persecutors, Jews - victims, and Poles - witnesses. In the 1990s this interpretation changed again: the Germans - persecutors, Jews - victims, Poles - persecutors. The Poles have been put into the category labelled by the Jewish historiography as "the Nazis and their allies". The case of Jedwabne shows that the analysis of Polish-Jewish relations ought to be undertaken within a quadrangle: Poles-Jews-Germans-Soviets. I say purposely "Soviets", not "Russians".
Only this approach, without the current hypocrisy, would reveal the historical complexities in Polish-Jewish relations. But the problem here is, does the Jewish side (just like the Polish side) want to confront this aspect of its contemporary history? Frankly, I doubt it.

PP: Why are you being so pessimistic?

WC: In 1989, as part of a group of Polish clergy engaged in religious dialogue, I visited a synagogue in Chicago. We met there a Jewish community led by a man who seemed to be an over-zealous practitioner of Judaism. I didn't recognize him until I heard his name; then I realized that until 1968 he had been the Communist Party secretary at the University of Warsaw.
  I perceive this episode as symbolic. The Jews living in America don't want to know anything about their engagement with Communism. They speak about this subject with great dislike, and are very sensitive on this point. In this situation it is difficult to expect any candid discussion in the future. To many Jews in America and elsewhere such a discussion would mean the necessity to confront their own biographies and, in a sense, the questioning of their current identities.

PP: Is then Polish-Jewish dialogue doomed?

WC: Reconciliation has a very important meaning, it is a great goal. In order to reach it, a lasting change in the mutual perception on both sides is absolutely necessary. Reconciliation implies reciprocity. Not because the faults of Poles and Jews are identical or even comparable, but simply because they did exist on both sides. On the other hand, empty gestures have no meaning and achieve nothing. There are certainly matters for which we Poles ought to apologize to people with whom we share a common destiny. But there also exist matters about which we Poles should hear words of apology. This also applies to the Jewish side. [...]


back to the english home page

Hosted by www.Geocities.ws