Iain Dale has an interesting interview with Michal Kaminski. I think Iain should be congratulated for asking all the right questions, rather well. It is not his fault that Kaminski was dissembling wildly in his answers.
I knew Kaminski slightly when he was a young political activist in the late 1990s. I was at the time First Secretary in the British Embassy and much concerned to identify the new political leadership, untainted by Communist mindset, which might bring Poland into the European Union. I should say that the Embassy had a group of young Second Secretaries who were absolutely brilliant in this. William Elliott, Anna Clunes, Andy Smith and Dominic Meiklejohn were amazingly talented; I tried to take credit for their work!
Life is complicated sometimes. Kaminski certainly was anti-Semitic. He was also a very personable and polite young man. Let me try to explain this paradox.
When Alexander Kasniewski defeated Lech Walesa to become President of Poland in 1995, Kaminski was one of the right wing activists involved in lobbying the media to publish stories stating that Kwasniewski’s grandmother was Jewish. That accusation became the focal point of the entire election campaign. The Kwasniewski camp felt unable to reply that the ethnicity of Kwasniewski’s grandmother was immaterial; in fact, they went to great lengths to produce documents and witnesses to show that she was not Jewish. That fact is crucial to an understanding of the depth of anti-semitism in Poland. Even Kwasniewski felt unable to face it down electorally.
Living in Poland for four years, I was continually shocked by the casual anti-semitism I encountered. One day I was going to lunch with Kasia Krause (now a diplomat at the Polish Embassy in London). I said to the kindly old Polish lady in the Embassy who fixed my appointments:
“Oh Kasia, that’s great, she’s really lovely”.
The old lady replied
“You do realise she is Jewish, don’t you?”
It would be a lie to say that I encountered casual anti-semitism every day. But I did so often enough to be severely worried – and often from very nice people who did not otherwise have weird opinions. Anti-semitism was absolutely endemic in the Polish Catholic Church, and still is. There has been no serious attempt to eradicate it, despite the odd rap on the knuckles for Walesa’s priest Father Jankowski or the rabid crowd at Radio Marija – Kaminski’s most important media support. It is worth noting that whilst within the Polish Catholic Church, the conservative Polish Pope John Paul II had always been considered a far liberal.
I should add that a young black British businessmen reported to me that being spat at was an almost daily occurence.
The strange thing is that I adore Poland, and Poles, and Polish culture. I was ever so happy in my time there. There are reasons for the development of this deep-seated racist strain which are historic. There is a limit to how far you can blame individuals for adopting attitudes which are widespread in their culture; and without understanding you cannot change attitudes. Which brings me back to Kaminski. Much as he tries to hide his past, for the present I do not think we should rule out that he really has changed his views, after being exposed to wider cultural influences (like Iain Dale!)
There undoubtedly remain, however, many really nasty anti-Semites in the political grouping in Poland around Kaminski. I still think the Tories will regret this alliance. It is a wonderful irony that Kamiski is a strong advocate of the Lisbon Treay, which rather obviates the reason for the Tories to have shot themselves in the foot with their weird alliances.
A key part of Poland coming to terms with its anti-semitism will be an acknowledgement of what Polish people did to Jews in or just after World War II. Iain Dale’s questioning about the Jedwabne massacre is actually important. This was one of a number of massacres of Jews by Poles, but there were also hundreds of individual murders of Jewish survivors who inconveniently resurfaced, and perhaps tried to reclaim their property.
Poland must come to terms with all of its history, not just the heroic bits. Poland suffered terribly for three hundred years of near continuous foreign occupation. It was moved about physically on the map, sometimes disappearing, and emerged an artificially placed and artificially ethnically homogenous nation. Of course it was screwed up and nationalistic. Of course Kamnski is screwed up and nationalistic. Poland is slowly getting better. Who knows? Maybe Michal is too.