Part of the family

Under communist rule, most of those Jews who had survived the holocaust to return to Poland were exp

There isn't much to choose from in the gift shop at Lodz Airport. Behind a glass screen there is a modest selection of keyrings - and money-pots fashioned into grotesque caricatures of Hasidic Jews.

Poland has always had a complex relationship with its Jewish citizens, whose liberties were safeguarded by the Statute of Kalisz in the 13th century. When written, it was probably the most politically progressive document in the world.

By the 1930s, Poland's Jewish population was around 3.3 million. The nation's Yiddish film industry was admired across Europe. Then came war, ghettoisation and the Holocaust. Under communist rule, most of those Jews who had survived to return were expelled. Today, the most generous estimates place the Jewish population at roughly 30,000.

A little over 100 miles to the south of Lodz, in Kraków, the annual Jewish Culture Festival ended on 6 July. Established 20 years ago, it draws thousands of visitors to the city's old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz. This year's programme included workshops in Hebrew calligraphy and lessons in Jewish cookery.

The overwhelming majority of the festival's participants and organisers are not Jewish. Among young Poles, enthusiasm for the country's Jewish legacy has become a shorthand for intellectualism and progressive politics.

Agnieszka Niemczyk, who leads Zoom, Poland's Jewish youth organisation, thinks the reason for the burgeoning popularity of Jewish arts and language is simply their merit. "At a concert I met a young man who was with his mother," she recalls. "As the music came to an end he turned to her and said: 'How beautiful this is. I regret that I am not a Jew.'"

Despite this, tacky renderings of Hasids are not Poland's only echoes of anti-Semitism. Occasional attacks on graves and other Jewish sites are not unique to Poland. But Radio Maryja, an influential nationalist station, has regularly hosted explicitly anti-Semitic views, condemning Jews as "greedy". Paradoxically, it is the lure of cash that may persuade the station to reconsider its output. Last year it was denied a major EU grant due to its hosting of racists and Holocaust deniers.

The EU has, however, provided the nation's extremists with a new platform. The Oxford-educated MEP Maciej Giertych used Strasbourg to launch a bizarre booklet on the supposed "biological separateness" of Jews. The booklet even carried an official European Parliament logo on its cover.

But Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, is optimistic. He believes various factors are combining to eradicate anti-Semitism, and sees "a rejection of what went before - both communism and xenophobia".

The idea that Jewish life is a separate and alien aspect of Polish society harks back centuries. But for many of Poland's young people, such arguments now seem as absurd as they are distasteful. The challenge today is not just to regard Jewish life benignly, but to see it as part of their own, shared heritage. Rabbi Schudrich insists that "through education and cultural exchanges, anti-Semitism can be lessened to almost nothing".

Paul Evans is a freelance journalist, and formerly worked for an MP. He lives in London, but maintains his Somerset roots by drinking cider.

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’