(c) AP, June 23, 1995
Walesa’s Slow Reaction to Anti-Semitic Sermon Causes Row
[AP Photo WAR150 of June 23.]
By ANDRZEJ STYLINSKI
Associated Press Writer
WARSAW, Poland (AP) – St. Brygida’s Church near the Gdansk
shipyard has been at the center of many shining moments in recent
Polish history – from the birth of the Solidarity free trade union
in 1980 to the fall of Communist rule in 1989.
But this month, the church saw a grimmer event, becoming the
focus of controversy when its pastor, the Rev. Henryk Jankowski,
gave a sermon that linked Jews to the rise of Nazism and communism.
“The Star of David is implicated in the swastika as well as in
the hammer and sickle,” he said at a Mass whose congregation
included his old friend, President Lech Walesa.
Hit by a wave of criticism, Jankowski made matters worse a few
days later. The Roman Catholic priest issued a statement saying
actions by Jews “in banking and finance circles” had led to
“many human tragedies.”
For nine days, Walesa kept silent about Jankowski’s remarks,
even as Poles from all walks of life worried publicly about their
nation’s image. Then Walesa denounced anti-Semitism, without
mentioning Jankowski by name.
There had been fears that the controversy might lead President
Clinton to snub Walesa when both attend 50th anniversary
celebrations of the United Nations in San Francisco on Monday. But
on Friday, the White House confirmed the meeting would take place.
One Polish newspaper quoted unidentified White House sources as
saying Clinton had agreed to the meeting so he could raise the
issue of anti-Semitism in Poland with Walesa.
In Poland, Jankowski’s remarks and Walesa’s delayed reaction
have been widely commented on.
Some commentators have suggested that Walesa, hoping for
re-election in the fall but trailing badly in the polls, was wooing
the right with his initial silence. Others said Walesa did not
understand that silence would only fuel the fury.
“Any silence in this situation means approval of such views.
Walesa is my president and he has behaved in an undignified way,”
said Marek Edelman, the last surviving commander of the 1943 Warsaw
Jewish Ghetto uprising against the Nazis.
But the prominent Catholic writer Andrzej Szczypiorski defended
Walesa, the shipyard electrician who came to symbolize Poles’
struggle for self-determination as head of the Solidarity labor
movement. “It is hard to suspect this man, shaped by the romantic
tradition of Solidarity, of any kind of anti-Semitism,”
The writer said the protests against Jankowski’s sermon and
demands that Walesa speak out were an encouraging sign in coming to
grips with anti-Semitism.
“Those who used to be passive observers now say,`All right, one
has to put an end to it’.”
Some expressed concern that the controversy could be a setback
for Poland’s efforts to integrate with the West.
Poland is at a turning point, hoping for membership in the
European Union and NATO that will determine its long-term fate,
said Kazimierz Dziewanowski, Poland’s former ambassador to the
At such a moment, Jankowski helped those “who want to present
us as backward fanatics one cannot treat seriously as partners,”
Dziewanowski wrote in the Rzeczpospolita newspaper.
Walesa’s delay in delivering a clear and forthright statement
against anti-Semitism was reminiscent of the dispute surrounding
Poland’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of
the Auschwitz Nazi death camp last January.
After weeks of accusations by Jewish organizations that Walesa’s
office was not giving them the prominence they deserved in the
ceremonies, the president delivered a moving and eloquent closing
statement about the murder of 6 million Jews, half of them Polish
Some people close to Walesa say he has a tendency to ignore
controversy, believing it will go away.
But Walesa’s first reaction in this case was to blame the
acoustics at St. Brygida’s, saying he did not hear the sermon
In his next statement, he vehemently defended Jankowski, saying,
“He is not an anti-Semite,” and suggested the news media were
“malicious” in writing about it.
Finally came the statement: “I am convinced that all signs of
anti-Semitism, in Poland and all over the world, should be widely
despised and condemned.”
Walesa, a devout Catholic, said he could not judge a priest. But
Catholic Church leaders did not hesitate to condemn Jankowski’s
words, and said there was no prohibition against the president
On Thursday, in a one-hour telephone conversation with writer
Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, Walesa said he did not condemn
Jankowski because the church has done so and the church is the
“He said that had he heard it (the remarks), he would have left
the church in the middle of the sermon and that is a strong
statement, especially in Catholic Poland,” Wiesel said in a
telephone interview from New York.
Jankowski, who sheltered the opposition in his rectory after the
communist government imposed martial law in 1981, said his remarks
had been taken out of context and thus misinterpreted.
“This was not an attack against all Jews, but criticism of some
of them, those who are doing harm to Poland’s interest,” he told
The Associated Press in an interview.
(Copyright 1995 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)