November 29, 2006

Ghetto survivor warns of Polish 'fascism'

As a 24-year-old banished to the Warsaw ghetto with thousands of fellow Polish Jews, Marek Edelman decided that the only way to fight the Nazis was to take up arms.

More than six decades later, the last surviving leader of the ghetto's courageous but doomed uprising of 1943 said he thought similar action justified in today's Poland.

"If we want to save Poland, my advice would be to take up the knife and hit them where it hurts," Mr Edelman, 87, said in his flat in the central city of Lodz.

His anger is directed at the conservative government, which was elected eight months ago, and two nationalist and radical Right-wing parties that were recently invited to prop it up: the League of Polish Families (LPR) and Self-Defence, whose leader has praised Hitler's economic policies.

Poland's entry to the European Union two years ago has generally been hailed as a success. But it has brought with it heavy doses of illiberalism that are embarrassing the champions of EU expansion.

The nation of 40 million is in danger of becoming a hothouse of extremism and Catholic nationalism.

Ten days ago the European Parliament condemned "a rise in racist, xenophobic, anti-semitic and homophobic intolerance" and urged the government to tone down its rhetoric or risk sanctions.

Drawing parallels with the rise of fascism in the 1930s, Mr Edelman said: "If this coalition continues to shape the country, I truly believe that our freedom is threatened. Persecution starts with small things: first language, then beatings, then murder."

This week a report alleged that the deputy chief of state television had published a neo-Nazi magazine calling for the expulsion of Jews from Poland. Piotr Farfal, 28, claimed that he had only "lent his name" to the magazine.

Asked to confirm his identity on a photograph of him giving a Nazi salute, he said: "You can also use this gesture to greet someone."

Gay rights groups around the world protested after Wojciech Wierzejski, the deputy chief of LPR, speaking before the country's annual gay rights march, referred to gays as "deviants" who should be beaten with sticks if they marched without a permit.

But the main focus of detractors' wrath is Radio Maryja, a popular Catholic radio station that is openly anti-semitic and racist.

The station was crucial to the electoral success of the Law and Justice Party, which squeezed into power on the back of public dissatisfaction with the previous Left-wing government's corruption and poor economic management. As a result, the station has acquired a huge influence on government business.

Its listeners are, like the supporters of LPR and Self-Defence, typically rural, elderly, staunch Catholics who feel betrayed by the country's free market transformation.

Numbering up to four million, they pay for the station through donations and in return lap up not only the morning doses of prayers, recipes and household tips but also the evening political broadcasts and phone-ins in which government figures regularly take part.

In March Mr Edelman wrote an angry letter to the prime minister after a broadcast in which a regular Radio Maryja commentator said that Poland was "being outflanked by Judeans" who, with their "greasy palms", were "trying
to extort money from our government".

"I wanted to point out that the government is lending support to the most reactionary currents of xenophobia and anti-semitism," said Mr Edelman, a retired heart surgeon. "Radio Maryja should be closed down."