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March 9, 1997 No 10 (437)

- News


SYNAGOGUE FIRE

Sparking a Show of Unity

A fire at Warsaw's synagogue prompts an outpouring of support from most-but not all-segments of society.

 

Warsaw's only synagogue nearly fell victim to arsonists last week. Polish politicians and representatives of other religious denominations have condemned the attempt. Warsaw authorities promised to help repair the damage.

The fire in Twarda Street's Nozyk Synagogue broke out 20 minutes after midnight on Feb. 26. The shrine's vestibule and the main door to the prayer room were destroyed in the blaze. Security guards and a police officer from the station recently built nearby were the first on the scene. Firefighters arrived quickly and succeeded in putting the fire out.

"Radical nationalists, skinheads and ordinary hooligans could all have to set fire to the synagogue," Warsaw police headquarters Press Spokesman Colonel Witold Gieralt told the Voice. According to him, the arson attempt indicates that the perpetrators weren't professionals. They used gas, oil paint or liquid gas to start the fire. The police found a plastic bag which they said was used to carry the flammable materials.

The police have interrogated 60 Republican League activists-members of a rightist student organization-and searched the apartments of 40 of them. League activists denied any responsibility for the incident and criticized the police for linking their organization with nationalist radicals. They have accused Minister of Internal Affairs and Administration Leszek Miller of using the police to start a political feud with the League.

Miller has rejected these accusations. "All police operations were fully authorized by the prosecutor general," said the minister.

Gieralt admits that the police are treating the incident as a priority case. "Warsaw police headquarters commander Michal Otrebski has been updating his National Police Headquarters superiors about progress made in the investigation," says the spokesman.

On the day of the fire, a service was held in the synagogue, with the smell of charred wood still lingering in the air. The meeting was organized to reflect Poles' solidarity with the Jewish community. Among the participants were Deputy Sejm Speaker Aleksander Malachowski and Deputy Senate Speaker Zofia Kuratowska. The head of the President's Chancellery, Danuta Waniek, and head of the president's National Security Office, Marek Siwiec, also visited the site. The prime minister and foreign affairs minister were represented by Krzysztof Zliwinski, government commissioner for contact with the Jewish diaspora. The U.S. Ambassador to Poland, Nicholas Rey, also came to the ceremony.

"In the past, whenever I read the beginning of the May 3rd Constitution (Poland's first constitution, written in the 18th century) 'We, the Polish nation'-I felt proud because I knew that it meant `We, Poles, Jews, Lithuanians and Germans.' Today, when I hear this invocation, I feel very ashamed," said leftist Labor Union parliamentary deputy, Zbigniew Bujak. Politicians have also commented on the new constitution currently reviewed by the Sejm. "The National Assembly project bans discrimination on national and ethnic grounds," said Danuta Waniek.

The Polish Episcopate addressed a letter of sympathy to the Jewish community. Nevertheless, no Roman Catholic Church dignitary came to the synagogue. Lutheran Church Bishop Jan Szarek and Orthodox Bishop Jeremy appeared at the service.

Warsaw Provincial Governor Bohdan Jastrzebski apologized to the Jewish community for the incident, promising that city police will work hard to find the perpetrators. "They will not only be punished by the courts but will be condemned by Polish society," said Jastrzebski. Warsaw Mayor Marcin Zwiecicki promised to provide the synagogue with financial assistance to repair the damage.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich claimed that when gazing at the burning synagogue around one o'clock in the morning, he felt surprised, terrified and outraged. "When I look at this room now, I experience contrary feelings. I know that what has happened last night wasn't representative of the real Poland," said Schudrich. The rabbi and other Jewish community members claimed that Poles' participation in the prayer service shows the true face of Polish society-a very different face from that of the unknown perpetrators.

"Not all political groups were adequately represented, however," stressed Stanislaw Krajewski, co-chairman of the Committee for the Dialogue of Christianity and Judaism. Members of rightist parties and the co-ruling Polish Peasants' Party failed to attend.

According to a high-ranking State Protection Office (UOP) officer, radical nationalist groups are becoming increasingly active, joining forces to create larger organizations. UOP officers have recently broken up such a group, prosecuting its members. Officers found fascist bulletins and leaflets as well as T-shirts and badges with skinhead emblems [a cross inscribed in a circle and a hand with a sword] in the group's headquarters. "Polish neo-Nazis look for contacts with similar groups in the West. We are keeping an eye on them," claims the UOP officer.

He said, however, that many fascist-inclined groups are weak, made up of a solitary leader and little else. The police downplay the fascist threat. According to Gieralt, Poland is not threatened by a flood of right-wing terrorism. Warsaw police don't monitor skinhead communities. "Those groups usually operate under cover of another political party and the police cannot keep political parties under surveillance," maintains Gieralt.

Krzysztof Iszkowski
Kuba Spiewak
Konrad Niklewicz


March 9, 1997 No 10 (437)

- Viewpoint


BY INVITATION

When Words Are Not Enough

Violence is scary. This is both its attribute and its goal. Just how concerned should we Polish Jews feel in the aftermath of the arson at the Warsaw synagogue?

"Jews in Poland should not fear being Jews," said Rabbi Michael Schudrich repeatedly after the arson. "What had happened that night does not represent Poland."

On the face of it, he is right. The next evening the synagogue was packed. Responding to our appeal, over 300 people-prominent politicians, clergymen, ordinary Varsovians, came to express their solidarity, and their outrage. Messages of sympathy were prompt and unambiguous. This, clearly, was Poland's true face.

On the other hand, the perpetrators remain anonymous. No message was left, no calls made. It is as if all they had to say was already expressed through their act. Just a random act of violence, then? Hardly. One cannot fail to notice that it happened in a context in which hate speech against the Jews has reached new levels of tolerance. Father Jankowski in Gdansk, who sees the Star of David "contained in the sign of the swastika" continues to preach. Zygmunt Wrzodak, the Solidarity leader in Ursus, who sees Jewish plots against Poland under every bed, continues his political career in Jan Olszewski's party. These are but the most clamorous examples. The ongoing fury over the "restitution law"-which sets a legal procedure for Jewish congregations to reclaim only a fragment of their property-has further inflamed passions.

It is obvious that expanding the boundaries of tolerance for hate speech lowers the threshold for hate acts. It is not enough to denounce them. Which is why I find it worrying that not one representative of the Catholic Church, not one of the political Right, saw it fit to speak at the synagogue that night. It was not even clear if they had responded to our appeal and been there at all. When a synagogue burns, saying that one is opposed to burning temples is simply not good enough.

Dawid Warszawski
Gazeta Wyborcza commentator

 


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