When an apparently deranged man threw a rock through the window of a synagogue in Gdansk, Poland on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, a remarkable thing happened.
Local Polish law enforcement and elected officials responded quickly, and Catholic leaders swiftly and publicly expressed support for the Jewish community.
“First, the police were very proactive, they were there in minutes, and really did the right thing,” said Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich. The local prosecutors certainly took this as a serious crime.”
As a result, police last week arrested a man for hurling a rock into the synagogue on Sept. 19, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The tossed rock fell into the synagogues atrium where women were waiting for Ne’ilah, the final solemn service of the holiday. There were children in the area and the rock flew close to where the women were standing, according to the Jewish Religious Community in Gdansk. Glass was shattered but no one was injured.
Arrested several days after the incident in a town near Gdansk, the alleged perpetrator underwent psychiatric evaluation, according to news reports. His name has been kept private according to Polish privacy laws, but officials said he also recently attacked a Catholic church. In an online statement, the Jewish community noted that in the 1930s, ultranationalists “would often target synagogues on Yom Kippur.”
Michael Samet, leader of Gdansk’s Jewish community, said the attacker disguised himself after the incident, “so he’s not completely stupid,” he said according to a news report.
The incident triggered public support for the small Jewish community of Gdasnk, a lovely city on the Baltic Sea where decades ago the Solidarity movement began that ultimately defeated Communism in Poland.
Rabbi Schudrich detailed the rapid response of Gdasnk leaders.
“It’s very important to recognize society responded as it should,” he said. The police were very professional. They asked for video tapes and they put it on line asking citizens to contact them, and in this case the monitoring worked, and we were able to identify the criminal.”
Rabbi Schudrich said Gdasnk Mayor Pawel Bogdan Adamowicz was particularly engaged. “I spoke to the mayor right after Yom Kippur. I called him, and he texted me right back.
“I proposed we should do something public the next day, that we should replace the window immediately and have a little ceremony to make it clear this is not the true face of Gdasnk. The mayor immediately accepted the invitation and called the media to cover it. “
A particularly welcome expression of support came from the Catholic Church.
“The church was already aware of what had happened and were planning their own response,” Rabbi Schudrich recalled. They didn’t know about our ceremony. But when they heard about it, they responded positively right away.”
The ceremony itself was very simple, he said. It included the mayor, the local Catholic bishop, an Evangelical priest and Lesław Piszewski, president of Board of the Jewish Community of Warsaw.
“They expressed outrage that this happened, that this cannot be allowed to happen in Poland today and is unacceptable, and it was done with one voice,” Rabbi Schudrich said. While the national government was silent, the President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, promoted the ceremony on social media and condemned the attack as an act of barbarism during a national address. About 100 Gdanskers attended, and about a dozen from the small Jewish community.
Last week, the U.S. Ambassador to Poland visited the Gdansk Jewish community and it was “a very encouraging sign,” Schudrich said. This is indicative of tremendous progress.”
The Polish response should also resonate with communities dealing with the rise of hate crimes in Europe and the United States.
“For some reason, the extremists, neo-Nazis and white supremacists feel emboldened today – we see it around Europe and the U.S. We’re not used to that. I’m not saying why or how but it is noteworthy they feel they can march and spread their hatred. As I like to say, let’s call the bad people by what they are. It’s a problem and something we have to deal with. But we also need to note the more positive part: that good people are willing to come out and make statements and not be quiet. It’s easy to be quiet and comfortable. But to be quiet is immoral and dangerous, and at least enough people in Poland, including some political leaders, understand that.”