The Jews Are Mostly Gone, But Anti-Semitism Still Lingers A Letter from WARSAW

November 24, 1991|By DIANA JEAN SCHEMO

Warsaw -- The man had been watching us intently, almost expectantly, as we interviewed a carpenter about his reasons for not voting in the Polish elections Sunday. So we went over and asked him how he had voted.

His cocked his thumb toward a campaign poster for the Polish National Community Party.

''In 1946, I was arrested by the Jews who ran this country. I lost seven years of my life in jail. That's why I'm an anti-Semite,'' he said.

He wore a fraying parka, a rough wool cap and thick-soled shoes. His name was Marion Papierowski.

Alex, a mild-mannered Pole, was translating, but the anti-Semite did not look his way. Instead, he stared at me with hard, unyielding blue eyes as he spoke. Suddenly, I felt aware of my own hair, curly brown, and my dark brown eyes.

''But weren't there non-Jews in the Polish government after World War II?'' I asked.

L ''I never met one who wasn't Jewish,'' Mr. Papierowski said.

''And weren't there Jews who also had a rough life under the Communist government?'' I asked.

''I never met a good Jew,'' he said evenly.

Mr. Papierowski darted out to catch his bus. We read his party's poster:

''Poles to the Sejm,'' or Polish parliament, ''Jews to the Knesset,'' the Israeli parliament.

''We assure you ownership and rule of the country. Do not agree to the Jewish government causing poverty, unemployment, immigration, destruction of the educational system and limiting the development of Polish children,'' it continued.

Never mind that in 1946, when Mr. Papierowski complained that Jews were running Poland, the world was still reeling from the discovery of millions of Jews killed in Poland. The few Jews who joined the Communist post-war government and its secret police were enough to justify this hatred.

Now, there are 5,000 to 10,000 known Jews in Poland, and most of them are over 70 years old.

It was the first time I had encountered an anti-Semite in the raw, without the intellectual or social packaging we know in the West.

As we walked away after encountering him, I asked Alex if Mr. Papierowski had been trying to bait me. ''Definitely,'' he said, and tried to comfort me.

The performance of Mr. Papierowski's party in the national elections was hardly alarming. Neither it nor the like-minded Polish National Party scored well enough to win a single seat in the 460-member Sejm. Even the Beer Lovers' Party did better, capturing 16 seats.

Clearly, anti-Semitism was not the over-riding preoccupation of Poles plunging from a planned to a market economy. Poles are more worried about losing jobs and social protections in the shift to capitalism.

Rather, Mr. papierowski and his party were disturbing for their ease and confidence in giving vent to anti-Semitism, as if the last thing they expected was to be challenged.

A Jewish friend in Paris had told me about his own trip to Warsaw last year, when he worked in the cabinet of the French Culture Minister, Jack Lang. He sat one night at a bar with Polish officials when they suddenly heard some boys behind him singing the Hebrew song, ''Heveynu Shalom Aleichem.'' He was pleased, until he turned around and saw them, drunk, giving the Nazi salute.

He called Warsaw a ''ville fantome,'' a city of ghosts.

Perhaps the fear of the old Jews left in Warsaw stemmed not only from the often ghastly childhoods they suffered under Nazi occupation, but from the years of contempt that followed.

The graffiti near the Warsaw synagogue do not just shock the old ones, but terrify them: "Auschwitz: OK.'' ''Dr. Mengele: OK.'' ''Zyklon B: OK.''

And all over the courtyard was plastered the word ''Jude,'' the German word for Jew. The word appeared without demeaning adjectives, as if ''Jude'' were insult enough.

After synagogue last Saturday, Shoshana and Moishe, two old Jews, complained about the graffiti to the young policemen who guard the nearby Yiddish theater.

''Somebody must be directing them,'' Shoshana said. ''Where would they learn about Dr. Mengele,'' the Auschwitz doctor who used Jews as human guinea pigs in his gruesome experiments. ''How would they know about Zyklon B?'' That was the gas I.G. Farben produced to kill rooms full of Jews at a time.

''They're kids. You can't take it seriously,'' one of the policemen responded. ''They probably saw films.''

Moishele, as Shoshana calls her friend, shook his head. Just a few days before, two teen-agers had slapped his face, once on each side, near his house. A group of people stood nearby and watched. He sputtered in anger and threatened to call the police. They laughed.

Then, leaving synagogue Wednesday night, a group of boys muttered ''Jude,'' and shoved Moishe at the bus stop, striking at a 64-year-old man standing alone in his old-fashioned derby hat.

Shoshana was with me later that day. A gifted interpreter, she said she spoke ten languages fluently. In three hours, I'd heard her switch effortlessly into six: English, Polish, Yiddish, German, French and Italian.

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