Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, was punched and sprayed with what appeared to be pepper spray by an unidentified man in Warsaw, but escaped without injuries from what police said may have been an anti-Semitic attack.
Schudrich said he was heading to a Sabbath lunch on Saturday near Warsaw’s main synagogue with a group of people when a young man yelled out “Poland for Poles!”
“That’s a well-known pre-World War Two slogan which basically means ’Jews, get out of Poland,’ and I didn’t like hearing it, so I approached the gentleman to ask him why he said such things and his reaction was to punch me in the chest,” Schudrich said.
“I was going to hit him back, but before I had a chance to hit him he sprayed me with some kind of spray – maybe pepper spray".
Schudrich said his eyes still burned from the spray but that he was otherwise uninjured.
The man, who fled, was being sought by police, said Interior Ministry spokesman Tomasz Sklodowski. An image of the attacker’s face was drafted with the help of witnesses and distributed to police throughout the city, he said.
“We’re treating this as a possible anti-Semitic provocation, although it may have simply been an act of hooliganism,” Sklodowski said.
“The fact that it happened just as the pope is visiting Poland and going to Auschwitz means the attack could have had an anti-Semitic motive, that it was meant to tarnish the image of Poland.”
Schudrich is to say Kaddish, or the Jewish prayer for the dead, during a ceremony led by the pope at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau later today.
Schudrich disputed the possibility that the attack was at all connected with the pope’s visit, calling it “a false interpretation”.
Instead he linked it to what he said is a rise of intolerance connected to a new governing coalition that includes the League of Polish Families, or LPR, a small right-wing party with ideological ties to a prewar anti-Semitic party and a radical youth wing.
“With the LPR in the government, ultra-rightists who felt somehow constrained in their behaviour now feel they can do whatever they want,” Schudrich said.