Polish law places Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish communities on more-or-less the same legal footing, and the Polish government attempts to address the problems that minority religious groups face. Relations between the various religious communities are generally amicable, although the erection by radical nationalist anti-Semites of some 300 crosses near the former Auschwitz concentration camp caused tensions in Catholic-Jewish relations. The Government's actions in removing the crosses in May 1999 were in accordance with the rule of law.
Anti-Semitism persists among certain sectors of the population, occasionally manifesting themselves in acts of vandalism and physical or verbal abuse. However, surveys in recent years show a continuing decline in anti-Semitic sentiment, and avowedly anti-Semitic candidates fare very poorly in elections.
In March 1998, a controversy arose over the "Pope's Cross," located on the grounds of a former Carmelite convent in Oswiecim adjacent to the Auschwitz concentration camp museum. The cross originally adorned the altar at a Mass conducted by Pope John Paul II near Birkenau in 1979 and was erected at the site of the Carmelite mission in 1989. The Plenipotentiary for Relations with the Jewish Diaspora, Krzystof Sliwiniski, was quoted in a French newspaper as saying that the cross would be removed, because its presence was disrespectful of the Jewish legacy at Auschwitz. By the end of March 1998, a large group of government and nongovernment leaders, including then Chief of the Prime Minister's Cabinet Wieslaw Walendziak, 130 Sejm deputies, 16 senators, former President Lech Walesa, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, Bishop Tadeusz Rokoczy, and Gdansk Archbishop Tadeusz Goclowski, went on record as opposing the removal of the cross. The cross is clearly visible from the former camp's Block 11 and marks the site where Polish political prisoners (possibly including Catholic priests) and later Jewish prisoners were murdered by the Nazis. Two radical rightwing groups also emerged that oppose the plan to remove the cross. The leader of the Defenders of the Pope's Cross, Kazimierz Switon, and Mieczyslaw Janosz, leader of the Association of War Victims, which leased the land on which the cross stood, distributed inflammatory anti-Semitic leaflets opposing the removal of the cross. In August 1998, radical nationalist anti-Semites erected dozens of additional crosses outside Auschwitz, despite the opposition of the country's bishops. Government efforts to resolve the situation in the fall of 1998 through the courts by revoking the lease on the land held by the Association of War Victims met with little success. The Government wanted the local courts to agree to appoint an administrator for the former convent site pending a legal decision on the validity of the lease revocation. In October 1998, the local court refused the request to appoint such an administrator, a decision upheld in December 1998 by an appeals court in Bielsko Biala, which returned the lease issue to the local court. At the end of 1998, complicated legal maneuverings continued, and two separate cases were before the local court--the Government's effort to break the lease and the tenants' effort to have the government action ruled illegal. In May 1999, the Parliament passed a Government-sponsored law to protect the sites of all the former camps in the country. The Government consulted with international Jewish groups in preparing the law, which gave the Government the power it needed to resolve the issue of the "new crosses."
In late May 1999, Switon announced that he had laid explosives under the site where the crosses were erected, and that he would detonate them if the Government attempted to remove him or the crosses. Police officers quickly arrested Switon for possessing explosives and making public threats. After Switon's arrest, local authorities removed the crosses to a nearby Franciscan monastery, under the supervision of the local Bishop, and sealed off the site to prevent the erection of additional crosses. The Pope's Cross is not to be removed from the site for the time being.
Sporadic and isolated incidents of harassment and violence against Jews continue to occur in the country, often generated by skinheads and other marginal societal groups. Occasional cases of cemetery desecration, most often of Jewish cemeteries but also including Catholic shrines, also occurred during 1998 and the first half of 1999. Government authorities consistently criticized such actions and pledged to prevent similar acts in the future, for example by increased police patrols around Jewish sites.
In January 1998, a rock was thrown through the window of the Jewish community headquarters in Katowice, hitting the doors of an adjacent prayer room. Immediately following the incident, then National Police Chief Marek Papala instructed the Katowice provincial police chief to work with the Jewish community to tighten security around the property. Papala also sent a letter to the other province-level police commanders instructing them to make themselves available to discuss Jewish community security concerns. Local police continue to work with Jewish community leaders to resolve the case. In May 1998, vandals desecrated 27 Jewish graves in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery in two separate incidents. Police investigated the attacks but have been unable to identify any suspects. Jewish graves also were vandalized at the Palmiry cemetery near Warsaw, which houses the graves of victims of Nazi executions during World War II. The grave of pre-World War II Sejm speaker Maciej Rataj--a Polish Catholic--also was vandalized in that attack. Within days of the incident, both Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek and Sejm Speaker Maciej Plazynski visited the cemetery and laid flowers on the desecrated graves. In a public address, the Prime Minister criticized the act and stressed that society must do all it can to prevent similar acts in the future. He also pledged government funds to restore the vandalized graves. The vandals responsible for both incidents are still at large.
In July 1998, unknown perpetrators vandalized a plaque commemorating Rzeszow Jews killed in the Holocaust. The vandals spray-painted anti-Semitic and anti-German slogans below the plaque, which hangs on the wall of a Rzeszow synagogue. Rzeszow city officials reacted swiftly and cleaned up the plaque upon discovery of the vandalism. Vandals in that area previously had targeted Catholic churches and cemeteries as well as a statue of a World War II hero. Police continue to search for those responsible. In October 1998, vandals attacked and damaged 56 gravestones in the Jewish cemetery in Krakow. On several weekends in 1998, groups of skinheads gathered outside the Wroclaw synagogue for demonstrations, occasionally subjecting persons attending services to verbal abuse. Authorities moved to ensure the safety of the worshipers. The demonstrations ended shortly thereafter, and as of June 1999 none had taken place for several months.
In January 1999, vandals damaged or destroyed 57 gravestones in the Jewish cemetery in Krakow. Vandals had attacked the same cemetery in October 1998. After the first incident police officers increased their patrols of the cemetery. Police promised additional, special protection after the second incident to prevent further attacks. In May 1999, the cemetery was vandalized again when unidentified perpetrators overturned 30 gravestones and set fire to the main door of the pre-burial house. However, the chairman of the local Jewish community called this an act of hooliganism, not anti-Semitism, since in the weeks preceding the attack vandals had smashed gravestones and otherwise damaged two nearby Catholic cemeteries. The chairman also noted the cooperation of the Krakow city police with the Jewish community to improve the security of the cemetery. In June the cemetery was attacked yet again when vandals painted crosses on several tombstones and on the pre-burial house. This incident appears to have been motivated by anti-Semitism, since members of the Jewish community received telephone calls linking the graffiti to the recent removal of crosses that were placed near the concentration camp at Auschwitz.