2014. április 13., vasárnap

Alien and unpleasant - Interview with Pawel Spiewak, the director of Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Istitute

A goon, fat Jewish man carries his own belly with a wheelbarrow. A rabbi treads a map of Poland unmercifully. A group of Hebrew men are laughing at the crucified woman who symbolizes Poland itself. These are cartoons which became cruel prejudices. And after becoming prejudices they turned into false facts which celebrate their renaissance today. A new exhibition in Warsaw displays about 300 caricatures from the period between 1919 and 1939. The exhibition, which is being hosted by the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, tries to highlight the use of the cartoons which were published in Polish press like Gospodarka Zydów or Pod Pregierzem in the middle of the time when antisemitism was common in Europe. These prewar pictures were made almost 90 years ago. Are they old? Yes, of course. The cartoons are very old. Are they already a part of the past? We cannot answer this question so easily. We were partly talking with Mr. Spiewak about the exhibition and partly about present of the drawings today.

What was your aim with this exhibition?

My aim was mostly historical. I did not want to speak about the contemporary times or to discuss the hate speech in the political and the public discourse now, but we had to show how deep and how strong was the antisemitism before the war, how it looked like, what kind of patterns were used to produce negative image of Jews.
Simply we wanted to show three elements in this exhibition. First of all how Jewish bodies were exhibited, because, as you could see, they were drawn in a very special manner: they are ugly, fat and disgusting persons with big belly and nouse. This is the essence, I think: they are not human beings, but more closed to the rats and vermins. This kind of humiliation of the Jews was just one step closer to the propaganda which was used by the Germans during the occupation. They wanted to produce the image that the Jews have no human traits. It was quite important. This kind of picture created some kind of division between the normal people and the Jews, who are strange and not fully human beings.
The second main element of the exhibition was to show the subject of how could a minority control the majority. I mean the false beliefs about Jews: they are controlling the litelature, all the money belongs to the them and so on. The false belief of everything was in the Jewish hands and the Poles were the victims.
The third element which we wanted to show is the most shocking: the idea of solving the Jewish case. It was visible, you can see on the drawings, they wanted to adapt some ideas: to send them to Madagascar for example. They should have been simply vanished. But the methods of how they should precisely vanished is a completely different question.
I think these cartoons are part of the Polish history. It was very strong image of the Jews in Poland before the war. We wanted simply to show how intense and how negative was the picture about the Jews between the wars and point out the fact that they had the right to feel themselves very badly before the Second World War. They felt like an alien and they were threaten by not only physical but also symbolical aggression.
The question of the contemporary times is competely different story. It does not mean that I want to say that the same kind of pictures do not still exist, perhabs they are. But what is uniting the prewar times to the contemporary events is the question of technic and application: how to produce an image for someone who is alien? What kind of language, icons and patterns are used to create of hate speech.

Why did they use caricatures? What is the essence of this cartoons? How can you describe the power off these drawings?

This kind of drawings was presented in every country all over Europe before the war. Sometimes I have such a feeling that these drawings were the same in Germany, in France and perhaps in Hungary too. The antisemitic language was very dominant in the twentieth century. I think the main question needs to elaborate a bit more. The question of the extent of nationalistic and antisemitic speech. On one hand they are completely different from each other, but on the other hand the connection between them is strong. We have to address this question precisely. Nationalism usually created tensions between the nations, but antisemitism was also an element to unit them. One country can make a war on the other but at the same time they can have common roots on the fields of antisemitism.

What were the key factors enabling the propaganda to succeed in convincing people as to how „evil” the Jews were? Was it religion, was it nationalism, or were it low subsistence and financial problems?

In Poland it was connected firstly with religion. Just think about the crucification: the Jews should be blamed everywhere by all generation because of their responsibility of Christ's death. It is only one story but quite important and quite influential one in Europe. Completely different stories connected with the political antisemitism which started to exist firstly in German and Austria in the 19. century and later France, Russia and Poland started to follow these examples. Let me mention a quite famous and influential Polish writer, Zofia Kossak-Szczuczka. She wrote a memoir about her life in the Eastern part of Poland. She used the language which was lied by the drawings. Jews with specific thoughts, different shape of ears, lips and so on. According to her the Jews are responsible for the growing anti-religious thinking and the Bolshevik revolution is the part of the Jewish conspiracy. The fighters were not only revolting against the tsarism and the Russian Empire, but it was a revolution against God. All of this was done by the Jews. She wrote that they are responsible for strong and aggressive atheism. On the other hand she was a good Christian, and one of the members of the Underground Movement, which was saving the Jews during the war. She stated that the Jews have to take the responsibility for their own suffering, because they are not only victims but also perpetrators who advertise the atheistic views. And now they are punished by the Germans. But at the same time as a Christian she must have defended every human being.

Caricatures become prejudices. Prejudices turn into false facts. The „evolution” of hate speech. Could we use the word of „evolution” to describe the phenomenon of growing antisemitism or of any kind of hatred against other groups in many places in Europe?

Take a look for example at the Bosnians' hate towards the Serbs. I do not think that they used such kind of pictures. But antisemitism produced a special kind of image for the enemy: the Jews were the enemies of the international scale, for example. It is enough to mention Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Company. He was obsessed in his antisemitism, and repeated the same kind of language which was used by the Germans. This kind of ideas were moving from place to place and every time with the same phrases: the Jewish conspiracy will destroy the world, and so on. This sense of antisemitism was visible especially after the Soviet revolution. The theory of Jewish conspiracy was born that time mostly thanks to the book of The protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was written in the beginning of the twentieth century in Russia, but it was translated into foreign languages and disseminated internationally only in the early twenties. Antisemitism got lots of energy because of this book. It was quite influential before, during and especially after the war. Just take a look at the nature of hate speech after the war, in which the main ingredient was the concept of Judeo-bolsevisms.

How popular were the newspapers in which the caricatures were published, how big was their circulation and how many people could actually have had access to them?

These were quite influential nationalistic newspapers. But not only simple nationalistic or fascist, but also democratic papers. I do not have precise information about the circulation, it depended on where they were published. Some regions of Poland were more antisemitic than others. In general it was influenced by the people's imagination. A whole generation grew up with these prejudices about the „evil Jews” which were used by their parents and grandparents.

Where were they sold and who were the buyers by social strata?

It is not easy to answer. Mostly it depends on the number of the people who were able to read and to spend a few grosz for these papers. The buyers were mostly the members of the lower middle class. Some of the antisemitic elements did not only present as part of newspapers but also - we showed the exhibition – different leaflets were distributed among people.

What is the brief common history of media and antisemitism? If we are talking about caricatures, we are talking simultaneously about the media. Where is the starting point of the responsibility of media? Let me put it this way: does and can exist the antisemitism and any kind of hatred without the involvement of media?

In the past antisemitism was very connected to religion but the economic position was also a key factor. Lot of Jews in Poland was working as a craftsman for example, but mostly they were merchants, they were buying things from the peasants and selling them later. Negative attitudes toward the Jews were connected to these special economic position. But it was not a Polish phenomenon. The same had happened in every other country. The intent with these cartoons was ideological. People who were writing and drawing for these papers produced a special language with false facts. It is simple: writing or drawing about this falsities… It is the point of responsibility of media.

And what about today? I am thinking also about the influence of globalization. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Tumblr and blogs, if we mention the main sites, where the drawings, pictures and cartoons appear. How can they shape the thoughts of people? Is there difference between the influence now and decades ago?

Yes, it looks like a new chapter of antisemitism. In some countries the Nazi symbols are completely acceptable. For example in Greece. As I see the new kind of antisemitism in Europe is more an more powerful. The efforts to eliminate it are too weak. This is a very strong pressure for the political elites to abandon this kind of language. Because to stop and to fight against this attitude is two different things. But what is new in it? I think the role of Israel. People nowadays tend to think that we have to blame Israel for everything which is bad. This point of view is not so popular in Poland, but for example in Germany, in France or in he Scandinavian countries is quite influential. 

When I was asking about the contemporary cartoons I was thinking about the Palestinian-Jewish conflict in the Middle-East. As we can see, Arab antisemitism is inspired by the old European drawings, and this „new antisemitism” is leaking back to Europe. Is it really a new phenomenon in the history of antisemitism or are we drinking old wines from new bottles?

On one hand we are using new bottles. I am thinking about blaming Israel as I said before. But the „new” cartoons are using the same language, so we are drinking the old wines. I am not able to make any commence in the case of Youtube for example, because I am using it very rarely. But at the same time I have a positive feelings, because if you compare the level of the antisemitism 30 years ago and now, we are able to see real changes. People are more sensitive to this question of tolerance here in Poland, and they understand better that the Jews were victims of the second World War. Poles and other nations took responsibility for the committed crimes. As I see now Poland is not so obsessed with antisemitism than other countries. We have nationalistic movements but these have been not so strong and radical like Jobbik in Hungary for example.

As I see this kind of exhibition can help people to face with the facts that happened in their country decades ago. To be honest, I can hardly imagine organizing similar exhibition in Hungary now.

This kind of exhibition is a symbol of success. No-one wanted to attack us because of this exhibition. Of course, people are not so happy to live with these kinds of memories. Poles tend to forget that the Second Polish Republic was not the greatest country in the world. It was a flourishing society but the antisemitism took root that time. I like very much a Czeslaw Milosz's formula. He wrote that Poland is a very good nation composed by very bad people. This is something what is true. Some Poles hated Jews, they had a very negative attitude toward them but no-one was thinking about making concentration camps for killing them there.
Maybe we should organize a similar exhibition together. It would be a comparative exhibition showing what kind of images was using in Hungary before the war. If you compare the cartoons and its language in different countries it would be possible to understand why Europe was so infected by antisemitism.

Numerous politicians are afraid of criticizing the hatred, in order to keep voters' trust, and the antisemitic parties of the extreme right are getting stronger all around Europe. Neo-nazis are quite powerful, especially among young people. Is this phenomenon could be the proof of the power of the Internet?

It is hard to answer to this question. If you see the deeds of football hooligans or just listen some music what is prepared for youth, you can see that they use only hate speech. But I do not think at the same time that they would understand what they are doing. Mostly I have the feeling that young people are prone to listen to radical language. This is the point. They are using the antisemitic language because the Jew is someone who they could hate without normal reasons. But who is the real Jew, what is the Jewish culture, what was the Jews before the war… I do not think that they know anything about these things. They are able to learn something from their textbooks, but what they can find there is not enough. I think that their negative emotions are not directed against anyone personally. I do not feel myself unsafe here in Poland and no-one of my Jewish friends are really threaten. They could feel a little bit alienated, but it does not mean that they should feel threatened by their neighbours.

So what is really powerful is the nature of radical language.

Yes, mostly because of the social situation and economic crisis. I think that your generation will be the first one which will have worse life than your parents had. You could have made carrier twenty years ago. I am not saying that it was easy but the possibilities were much more favorable than now.

In the light of the ongoing antagonism in the Middle-East, and violent and less violent actions here in Europe (the murders of gypsy families in Hungary a few years ago or the bloody fights in Greece between the members of Golden Dawn and its opponents) what can be the future of „new antisemitism”, racist or any kind of hatred if it truly exists?

I believe that the majority of people understand quite well that this is not the answer to the situation. The strong nationalism is very serious and dangerous. It seems to me that these all nationalistic conflicts are a big part of our European heritage. Creating enemies unites the countries. Enemies, not in my opinion but in opinion of numerous political movements. It is almost the same story what I told you about the antisemitism. Anti-Muslim, anti-African language is much more stronger than the attempts to justify these people.

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