Jesus Rex Poloniae

Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images
The construction of the world’s largest statue of Jesus Christ, Świebodzin, Poland, November 2010

Arriving in Warsaw, I am told that Jesus Christ was recently enthroned as king of Poland. On state television, the country’s de facto leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, declares: “Vox populi, vox dei!” Polish populism in a Latin nutshell. The voice of the people is the voice of God, and he, the leader who interprets the will of the people, must therefore also be doing the will of God.

The next day, I take a train to the northeastern city of Białystok, at the heart of a region that returns strong majorities for Kaczyńskis nationalist populist Law and Justice party (PiS). As we rattle through sunlit forests, a chatty lady explains that she boarded the train in Kraków very early this morning, having flown in from Lourdes, where she and her husband run a hotel. There are so many pilgrims to the site of miraculous healing that Ryanair offers two direct KrakówLourdes flights a week. I tell her I’m going to meet a priest, Father Leon Grygorczyk, in her native Białystok. Oh yes, she says, he led a Ryanair pilgrimage group to Lourdes. Such a nice man, very sympatyczny.

Soon I’m ringing the vicarage doorbell of this priest, who has caught my attention because two years ago he celebrated a mass for the National Radical Camp, a far-right, xenophobic nationalist movement whose origins go back to 1934. After some delay, the door is opened by a heavy, slow-moving man with bloodshot eyes, his trousers held up by suspenders over an ample belly. My impression is that he’s been asleep after a good lunch and has only the vaguest idea who I am.

As we sip tea under a portrait of Pope John Paul II, Father Grygorczyk laments to me how young Poles are turning away from the church; they are no longer faithful, no longer “obedient.” You see, he says, fixing me with a baleful gaze, “the West gives them a feeling of freedom.” Meanwhile, what he calls “Europe” is leading a battle against religion, and behind that battle “there must be some forces.

And what forces might those be?

Islam, certainly.

Any others?

Well, you know, always somewhere behind things you find the Jews…

There we go. I wrote it down in my black pocket notebook, and noted the time (“c1435”).

What about Jedwabne, the village just an hour’s drive from Białystok where, in dramatic circumstances following the German occupation of previously Soviet-held territory in summer 1941, a part of the Polish population drove hundreds of their Jewish neighbors into a barn and burned them alive? Ah, says Father Grygorczyk, it’s still not clear who exactly killed the Jews there. Former Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, who made an official apology for the Jedwabne massacre in 2001, comes from a Jewish family,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.