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Modern Anti-Semitism in Poland

Sam Carneal ’21

Anti-Semitic figurines in a store in Kraków, Poland (Photo Credit: Marc Rubin ’21)
Anti-Semitic figurines in a store in Kraków, Poland (Photo Credit: Marc Rubin ’21)

One of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays, The Merchant of Venice, includes a character rooted in the stereotypes of Judaism: Shylock. Shylock is obsessed with money and charges interest to Antonio (the titular Merchant of Venice), which leads to slurs and anti-Semitic language constantly being hurled at him. Yet, in the 1600s, anti-Semitism was common, so no one challenged the blatant discrimination in the play. Long after Shakespeare’s time, Adolf Hitler, the authoritarian leader of the Nazi Party, came to power in Germany in the 1930s, brainwashing an entire nation to believe that the Jewish people were the enemy. Hitler then ordered the mass genocide of Jews captured in Nazi-occupied territories, resulting in the execution of six million Jews.

However, anti-Semitism did not end after World War II and the defeat of the Nazi Party. Anti-Semitism still exists today and has risen at an exponential rate in roughly the past decade, and surprisingly, the countries with the highest Jewish populations pre-WWII have had the highest surges in anti-Semitic crime.

Poland was once home to three million Jews: the largest Jewish population in the world. It was once considered a safe haven for the heavily-persecuted Jews to freely practice their religion. However, after the Holocaust, the Jewish population dramatically decreased, and today, the population of Jews in Poland is estimated to be fewer than 10,000. Despite its history of Jewish persecution, Poland now has the highest rates of anti-Semitic attitudes out of every country in the world at roughly 48% as opposed to 37% five years prior, according to a survey carried out by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in 2019. Uncoincidentally, Poland’s rising anti-Semitic sentiment has coaligned with the Polish president Andrzej Duda’s time in-office. President Duda, who has represented the Law and Justice Party (PiS) but now classifies as independent, has made several anti-Semitic comments since his presidential reign began in 2015. For example, in a meeting with Jewish leaders in New York, he claimed that Israel’s foreign minister was to blame for a surge in anti-Semitic sentiment in Poland. The Law and Justice Party was established in 2001, and it consists of right-wing, Christian populists. Currently, it holds the largest amount of power in the Polish Parliament, allowing the country’s mistreatment of its Jewish population to persist with impunity. Despite President Duda’s strong Christian beliefs, his followers partake in neo-Nazi like behavior at his rallies. Poland has yet to compensate families who lost family members in the Holocaust. President Duda and the PiS consider this to be a closed debate; however, Duda’s rival in the election, Mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski, believes the compensation to be extremely important. Additionally, President Duda’s far-right following supported a bill that would prohibit the redistribution of items that belonged to Holocaust victims to their living families.

Some of Poland’s main tourist attractions are former concentration camps, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. Over the past decade, Auschwitz has morphed into a tourist attraction rather than a solemn memorial. Visitors are allowed to take pictures of the camp with no limitations. Some of them, such as the infamous “Auschwitz selfie” back in 2014, have gone viral on social media. There is now a restaurant that serves non-Kosher food and a gift shop that sells posters, mugs, and other trinkets that ‘memorialize’ the Holocaust. Auschwitz has evolved from a testimony to the strength of the Jewish people to a mere source of income for the Polish government.

Many foreign travelers and Polish citizens are raised in an ignorant manner such that the true severity of the Holocaust and the history of Judaism in Europe are overshadowed by the more common historical storyline taught in schools. In Poland, anti-Semitism has assimilated into the normalities of daily life. Children can be found reenacting the Jewish prisoners of war being gassed to death in twisted ‘dance recitals,’ politicians and other prominent Polish figures have been quoted denying the Holocaust’s existence, and vandals commonly deface synagogues and other Jewish places of heritage. A well-known Polish priest denied the Holocaust’s existence, and a historically Jewish cemetery dating back to 1581 was vandalized with the letters ‘AJ’ (presumably standing for anti-Jewish/Judaism).

President Duda’s ideology has appeared to rub off on the Polish population: anti-Semitic crimes have risen by 11% since President Duda was elected. Additionally, bazaars in which Jews lived pre-WWII have since been converted to flea markets, where Nazi memorabilia can be bought.

Alexandra Levine from The New York Times found a sign saying “heil Hitler!” while passing by souvenir stands in the market. The markets also sell figurines depicting Jewish people with big noses, having a lot of body hair, and holding coins.

Despite once being home to the largest Jewish population in the world, Poland elected a president who promotes fundamentalist/Eastern Orthodox Christianity and makes claims calling into question the existence of the Holocaust. While it may be easy to sit idly by and criticize Poland from afar for its rise of anti-Semitism, many speculate that the lack of coverage on the issue potentially points to a broader problem: the adoption of casual anti-Semitism across the globe.

Update: On July 17, after a closely contested election, Andrzej Duda was re-elected as the president of Poland.


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