Like many of my Jewish friends who care about religion in Eastern Europe, I was disappointed to read in a recent survey that more than 6 in 10 Poles continue to believe in a Jewish conspiracy to control banking and the media. Disappointed, but not surprised.
I recall hiring a private Polish guide, a woman who appeared to be in her mid-fifties, to take me around Auschwitz. When I asked her about Polish anti-Semitism in the 20th century, she flatly denied that Poles had ever harbored any such sentiments toward Jews, insisting that the United States was the most anti-Semitic country in the world for refusing to do more to help the Jews before and during WWII. She also denied that anti-Semitism had continued in Poland after WWII.
Following a silent ride back to Krakow from the camps, I met a young Polish dentist while standing in the check-in line in my hotel. After hearing that I had been to Auschwitz, he expressed sadness that so many people had been killed there before leaning in and sharing this observation: “Well, the Jews ARE secretive and cliquish, aren’t they? Maybe the Germans had reasons to be suspicious of them.” I immediately excused myself and went outside to get some fresh air.
Thankfully, I have also interacted with the 37% of Poles who don’t distrust Jews. I delivered a pro-Jewish talk in Polish a few years ago to the Mormon community in Warsaw; several of them told me that that was the first public pro-Jewish address that many of them had heard in their native language. A prominent representative of the local Jewish community was on the stand behind me, and he made a few remarks following my speech. This wonderful night of sharing ended with an unscheduled meeting with Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland.
After hearing that the recent survey merely confirmed what previous surveys of Poles had shown, I decided to see whether Mark’s Law of Israelite Hatred (those who hate Jews also hate Mormons) is operative in the heavily Catholic country. It turns out that more than two decades of active Mormon proselytizing in Poland have produced 1,800 church members in a country of nearly 40 million.
Why the slow growth in such a religious country? Two factors immediately come to mind: 1) The strong influence of the Catholic Church – one that has produced a recent Pope; and 2) The inability of the Church’s top leader in the country (the mission president) to speak Polish. With one exception (Walter Whipple, whom I knew at BYU), to the best of my knowledge no mission president in Poland has spoken the language fluently. When I visited Poland, a wonderful mission president from Denmark was in charge. He spoke excellent English but no Polish, limiting his effectiveness in a country where most people do not speak English fluently. This is par for the course in Eastern Europe, where it is rare to find a mission president – the director of missionary efforts – who is fluent in the local language.
A third factor, the emigration of promising converts, is also a common problem for Mormons in the region.
It is almost impossible for the LDS Church to thrive in an anti-Semitic culture, so my prediction is that Mormon baptism levels in Poland will not go up until the level of anti-Semitism in the country goes down. May that day come soon, for the good of Mormons, Jews and the Polish people.