Though born into a Catholic family in Lublin, Poland, Sebastian Rejak became interested in Judaism when he began studying Christian theology in college.
His sharp interest in ancient Israel and contemporary Jewish thought launched Rejak on a career path that pits him at the center of a bitter debate on a recently approved Polish law. If it passes review by the nation’s constitutional court, the law would make it illegal to blame Poles for complicity in the Holocaust or to refer to such chambers of horror as Auschwitz and Birkenau as “Polish death camps.”
Since March, Rejak has been the senior program and policy officer at the Central Europe Office of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in Warsaw. He is one of four people in an office that supervises AJC’s programs in seven countries of Eastern Europe — Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, the Baltic states, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia are the others.
Speaking fluent English but with a guarded, diplomatic tone, he told NJJN at the AJC’s New Jersey headquarters in Millburn on Feb. 12 that not only is the new law “very much upsetting,” but it is also an issue of concern for historians and Polish Jews around the globe.
AJC, he added, “shares this concern and the deep disappointment with the legal procedure” that enacted the broad, restrictive law over a period of less than two weeks. It will undoubtedly have a negative impact on long-term, cordial relations between Poland and Israel, he said.
During his seven-day visit to AJC’s offices in New Jersey, New York, and Washington, D.C., Rejak said the law’s passage created the “harshest crisis in Polish-Israeli relations and Polish-Jewish relations” since the end of the Cold War. He said he hopes the judges on the constitutional court will find that some of its provisions violate free speech. It would be “very unfortunate,” he said, if it is ultimately deemed constitutional.
Rejak criticized Polish President Andrzej Duda for signing the bill last week that asserts that neither Poland nor the Polish people bear responsibility for the Holocaust.
“It is one thing to say that ‘Yes, it’s Nazi Germany that was responsible,’” Rejak said. “But it’s something quite different to say that ‘no single Pole was involved in that, or that Poles behaved in a benign or angelic way.’ That is historically untrue.”
He said lawmakers “argue their objective is not to ban all Holocaust narratives, but what they want to achieve with this law is to defend Poland’s good name.”
Rejak said teachers and journalists are especially vulnerable to prosecution just for quoting scholars who have said “the Polish population in town X or Y was complicit in murdering Jews,” even though there are “well-documented cases” of Poles murdering their Jewish neighbors.
But if one were to say or write that tens of thousands of Poles were “complicit in certain anti-Jewish actions,” such as blackmail and denouncing Jews to Nazis or Polish police, “or even murdering them, if you make those claims it is quite likely you may be punished based on the law.”
Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been in contact with Duda with regard to the law, Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid Party was strongly opposed to such dialogue.
“We cannot hold negotiations over the memory of the murdered,” Lapid tweeted. “The Jewish state was not founded for us to be silent in face of deniers of the murder of the Jews.”
Rejak noted that “there has always been anti-Semitism in Poland, sometimes more latent, sometimes more overt. We’re seeing a time where it is on the rise, unfortunately. It seems to be on the rise in all of Europe,” with Poland and Hungary, particularly, “major concerns.”
While current anti-Semitism in Poland “is very rarely physical, it is palpable and more vocal” than it was a few years ago, Rejak said. Even though the Polish government has condemned such expressions, he said, “in our eyes that is not enough.”
In January both Rejak and AJC executive director David Harris had what Rejak said was a successful meeting with Duda and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
“Our organization was perceived as a friend, and people usually take their friends’ opinions seriously,” Rejak said. “Our expectation is to have the Jewish voice taken seriously.”
His message to the Polish government, he said, is there is too much at stake and “you should think twice before taking steps that can negatively affect your relations with a major ally.”
Rejak was on hand last July when President Donald Trump delivered a “unique” speech in Warsaw.
“He understood Polish history and spoke to the Polish soul,” although Trump — unlike all other presidents since World War II — did not lay a wreath at the Warsaw ghetto memorial, sending his daughter, Ivanka, to do so in his place. But Rejak was loath to wade into those waters. “It would be very uncomfortable for me to comment on the president’s position.”