How a Pole could hurt Britain's Conservatives

WARSAW, Poland — Michal Kaminski has become one of the best-known Poles in Britain, but that isn’t something Poles are enormously pleased about.

The reason? Kaminski has become the target of a sustained political attack by the British Labour party ahead of U.K. elections as Labour seeks to damage its Conservative rivals. His impolitic statements about an anti-Jewish pogrom in wartime Poland as well as condescending remarks about homosexuals left him a sitting duck.

Kaminski, 37, was plucked from obscurity to become the head of a new right-wing faction in the European Parliament — the eurosceptical European Conservatives and Reformists — that groups Britain’s Conservatives, Kaminski’s Law and Justice party from Poland, the Czech Republic’s Civic Democrats as well as a smattering of obscure nationalists from the rest of Europe.

Kaminski got the job, which was originally supposed to go to a Briton, by accident. Now his past comments — made to a domestic political audience long before he embarked on a European political career — have come back to haunt him.

The most inflammatory came in 2001, when he questioned the need for a Polish apology for the 1941 massacre of the Jewish population of the village of Jedwabne by some of its Polish inhabitants. Kaminski wrote that there was no need for a general apology because the murders were carried out by drunks and societal rejects. He pointed out that there had been Jewish criminals in the war, like the Jewish guards in the Warsaw Ghetto who had helped the Nazis send their co-religionists to the gas chambers. He also said: “Maybe it is an attempt to quieten the consciences of those Jews who did terrible harm to Poland during the Soviet occupation and during the times of communism?”

Kaminski now says he may have made a mistake, using “unnecessary arguments.”

In 1993 he handed out pamphlets at Warsaw’s main train station denouncing immigrants from the east bringing “typhus, malaria and other diseases” to Poland, something he now says was not his idea.

In 2000, he was recorded calling gays and lesbians “fags,” which is actually fairly normal in Poland but doesn’t translate well in the rest of Europe. Now Kaminski says he knows many homosexuals and is in no way anti-gay.

He also traveled to London in 1999 together with other Polish right-wingers to visit Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator who was being detained in the British capital. “This was the most important meeting of my whole life,” he said at the time, something he now admits was a “mistake.”

He was also a member of a Polish far-right party, the Polish National Revival (NOP), in the 1980s, from ages 14 to 17. The grouping is now extremist and anti-Semitic, although Kaminski says that wasn’t the case when he was a member.

In Poland, the well-fed Kaminski is seen as a bit of a cynic but skilled politically, one of a pair of spin doctors who helped secure the presidency of Lech Kaczynski, the current incumbent, in 2005.

“Racism or anti-Semitism are nonsense. The most you can say about Kaminski is that he is completely devoid of any views,” Stefan Niesolowski, the deputy speaker of parliament and a former political ally of Kaminski, told the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper. “He’ll do anything to advance his career except for attacking the Church. He’s said a couple of stupid things in his life, and that’s being used to harm David Cameron, the leader of the Conservatives.”

But the possibility for seeing nuance in his comments does not translate well into European politics and has turned Kaminski into a juicy target for Labour, which is desperately hunting for ways to weaken the Conservatives in the run-up to parliamentary elections that it is widely expected to lose.

David Miliband, the British foreign secretary whose Polish-Jewish grandfather fled the Nazis, has attacked Kaminski, citing the words of Michael Schudrich, Poland’s New York-born chief rabbi.

However Schudrich has undercut that line of argument, recently saying: “It is a grotesque distortion that people are quoting me to prove that Kaminski is an anti-Semite. Portraying Kaminski as a neo-Nazi plays into the painful and false stereotype that all Poles are anti-Semitic.”

The rabbi’s complicated stance toward Kaminski — in an earlier email he had written: “It is clear that Mr Kaminski was a member of the NOP, a group that is openly far-right and neo-Nazi” — prompted the Conservatives to counter-attack and try to defend Kaminski.

“Bandying around accusations as a British foreign secretary about a mainstream party in Europe I think is quite wrong and David Miliband needs to recognise that,” said Cameron, the Tory leader.