President Andrzej Duda of Poland speaks to the media in front of remains of the Berlin Wall, Nov. 9, 2019. (Photo/JTA-John Macdougall-AFP via Getty Images)
President Andrzej Duda of Poland speaks to the media in front of remains of the Berlin Wall, Nov. 9, 2019. (Photo/JTA-John Macdougall-AFP via Getty Images)

Trump’s stamp of approval helped re-elect Poland’s bigoted president

Donald Trump has dishonored the memory of the Six Million and done an injustice to world Jewry with the high praise he recently bestowed on Poland’s President Andrzej Duda.

Their joint press conference in the White House Rose Garden last month — only four days before the foreign leader faced the voters — was a de facto endorsement of a regime of far-right populism, nativism and Holocaust obfuscation, along the lines of Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Duda’s campaign pandered to the basest instincts of his followers with a barrage of anti-Semitic attacks.

He was very narrowly re-elected in the runoff on July 12. Given Trump’s popularity in Poland — in stark contrast to the contempt in which he is held in the Western European democracies — it may be that his glowing recommendation dragged Duda across the finish line.

The Polish president has played a major role in undermining his country’s democracy. Since coming to power in 2015, his Law and Justice Party, guided by its powerful party boss Jarosław Kaczynski, has drastically curtailed the independence of the judiciary and freedom of the press, openly reviled Muslims, and introduced legislation to ban all abortions and sex education.

The EU is now on the verge of imposing sanctions on Poland due to the sweeping politicization of its court system.

Duda himself labeled asylum seekers “parasites and protozoa,” and demonized the LGBTQ community as “even more destructive than communism,” an especially incendiary epithet in a country that for two generations suffered under the heel of the Soviet Union.

While Trump’s warm embrace of autocrats, from Bolsonaro to Erdogan to Putin, is well known, boosting Duda should be of special concern to Jews.

Poland is the only EU country that refuses to grant restitution for Jewish property seized during the Holocaust. When Duda’s opponent, Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, raised this issue, Duda claimed that his rival lacked “a Polish soul, a Polish heart, a Polish mind.” Poland’s powerful public television network, a mouthpiece of the Law and Justice Party, accused Trzaskowski of selling out to Jewish interests, a trope often employed by Poland’s anti-Semitic leaders between the wars.

While Trump’s warm embrace of autocrats is well known, boosting Duda should be of special concern to Jews.

Under Duda’s administration, prominent Holocaust scholars have been vilified for “insulting the Polish nation.” Pointing out Poland’s complicity in the Shoah was actually made a criminal offense, a law that remained in effect for five months. That statute conceivably could have sent Holocaust survivors to prison simply for their testimony. Only a worldwide outcry, including a strongly worded protest by the Israeli government, led to the removal of incarceration as the punishment. But it remains a civil offense to express the thought that the Polish people aided and abetted the Nazis in any way.

Last year, Duda’s government did not renew the contract of Dariusz Stola, the internationally respected director of Warsaw’s Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, one of the most vital Jewish institutions on the continent. Stola had spoken out publicly against criminalizing the mention of Polish complicity in the Holocaust, but was removed for another reason, as well: a popular exhibition about the purge in 1968 of about 20,000 Jews in public service, who were forced into exile by Poland’s communist party. Anti-Semitic statements from contemporary Poles, echoing those broadcast a half century earlier, were displayed on the exhibit’s final panels. Evidently, linking yesterday’s hatred of Jews with today’s was too much for the regime to bear.

Paradoxically, a vibrant Jewish revival, initiated and sustained largely by talented, dedicated and generous American Jews and Israelis, has flowered in Poland for more than a decade. Jewish museums, community centers, day schools and cultural festivals took root in a hopeful period when Poland’s leadership had a different vision: one of democracy and inclusion.

But can Jewish life continue to flourish now that the discussion of Jewish death is so tightly regulated? How long will the excellent educational program at Auschwitz, which attracts 2 million visitors a year, be allowed to maintain its independence from government censors? How long can the tiny Jewish community feel secure when minorities of all kinds are threatened?

None of this fazed Trump, who has shown himself to be tone-deaf regarding the Shoah at other times, as well. Astonishingly, his speech on International Holocaust Day in 2017 omitted any mention of Jewish victims. In Warsaw that year, he was the first visiting U.S. president in decades not to appear at the Ghetto Uprising Memorial, slighting one of the earliest and best-known Holocaust monuments in Europe.

Half of the Jews murdered in the Shoah — 3 million — lived in prewar Poland. Its current president has trampled upon their memory, distorted their history and stoked Polish fear and hatred of the Jews for political gain. It is disgraceful that our president has helped him win another term.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

headshot of Fred Rosenbaum
Fred Rosenbaum

Fred Rosenbaum, whose parents were born and raised in Poland, has visited that country numerous times since 1982 and as a traveling scholar for three study tours. He is a historian who has written about the Jews of the Bay Area, and is the founding director of Lehrhaus Judaica (now HaMaqom | The Place).