KRAKOW, POLAND -- Outside a crumbling synagogue in what was once this city's Jewish quarter, someone has scrawled the word "Zrzyd" -- a misspelling of the Polish word for Jew. With a piece of coal, the vandal drew an arrow from his word to the synagogue's locked front door.

This act of desecration against Jews who are not worshiping in a synagogue that is not open in a neighborhood that is no longer Jewish is an apt symbol of a brand of antisemitism that has erupted in post-communist Poland: It is, for the most part, antisemitism without Jews.

Poland's prewar Jewish population, which was the largest in the world, is all but gone. An estimated 2.9 million Polish Jews perished in Nazi extermination camps. Most of those who survived left the country after two postwar outbreaks of antisemitism. Only about 10,000 Jews are left in this country of 38 million people.

Yet there is evidence of growing anti-Jewish feeling. Last week Jewish organizations complained in a letter delivered to the government and to the Roman Catholic church that "for nearly a year now acts of antisemitism of proportions not encountered for years and in various forms have been noted."

The letter said Jewish monuments had been desecrated, graves and tombstones smashed and a Nazi swastika painted on the Warsaw synagogue and Jewish theater. Here in Krakow, swastikas have been painted on the front gate of the old Jewish cemetery.

Menachem Joskowicz, a Polish-born Israeli citizen who returned last year to become Poland's first official chief rabbi since World War II, said he and two Israelis were attacked two weeks ago on a Warsaw street by Polish youths. He said his two friends were beaten up.

"If antisemitism increases, there will be no other alternative but to evacuate the remaining Jews from Poland," Joskowicz said. "It is not a problem to get 10,000 Jews out of here."

More serious than isolated acts of vandalism, according to specialists in Polish-Jewish relations, are the widespread antisemitic conspiracy theories and scapegoating that have darkened Poland's new democracy. One target of such antisemitic thinking has been the Solidarity-led government itself, in which a few leaders are of Jewish ancestry.

In local elections in May, the word Jew was painted on thousands of political posters for Solidarity candidates. During interviews with a reporter in several Polish towns, working-class voters complained that democracy has been stolen by Jews. Some voters accused Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki of being a "secret Jew." In fact, he is a devout Catholic.

During a strike last week in which thousands of farmers used their tractors to paralyze traffic across Poland, several strikers said Jews were causing low crop prices.

"It is the Jewish mafia that has hold of rule in parliament," said Roman Mosinski, a farmer in the village of Blonie near Warsaw. Several of his friends nodded in agreement as Mosinski launched into a vague and angry explanation of how "Jewish products" are being imported into this country to undermine small farms.

"On the level of thinking, there is a rebirth of antisemitism in Poland. This is very bad because thinking comes before doing," said Stanislaw Musial, a Catholic priest in Krakow and a specialist on Polish-Jewish relations. "We are in a really bad economic situation. We have to invent a new social order. In these circumstances, you are searching for simple explanations. The most simple is that Jews are responsible for all the problems."

In an attempt to educate Catholics and head off a possible outbreak of antisemitic violence, Poland's Catholic church is preparing an unprecedented document to be sent this fall to every parish in this overwhelmingly Catholic country. Members of the Polish Episcopate Commission for Dialogue with Jews say the document will instruct priests and nuns to confront and dispel antisemitic folk beliefs.

One such belief that persists in some rural areas is that Jews kidnap Catholic children and use their blood to make unleavened bread.

"This document will explain even to rural people that enemies are not outside; rather, they are inside the human being," said Musial. "The biggest role against antisemitism has to be played by the church. It can fight antisemitism with the best argument for Poles, with God, with love."

The growth of antisemitism is not confined to Poland. It is a major reason for the recently accelerated exodus of Jews out of the Soviet Union, and it has played a role in recent elections in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania.

But anti-Jewish behavior in Poland has a unique resonance among the world's Jews, according to Bishop Henryk Muszynski, who heads the Catholic church's commission on Jewish relations.

"Through their parents or grandfathers, two-thirds of living world Jewry derives from Poland. Poland, in the eyes of many Jews, constitutes one single and horrendous cemetery," Muszynski wrote recently. "Because Hitlerite crimes were committed in our lands, the Jews have the right to remain very sensitive to any signs of antisemitism emerging in Poland."

As Polish historians say again and again, the Jewish question in Poland is "very complicated."

Until the industrial era in Europe, Poland was a relatively hospitable home for Jews. "Here, one rests," went a Jewish adage. Liberties guaranteed in the 14th century by Polish King Kazimierz the Great made this country Europe's most important Jewish refuge. Four-fifths of the world's Jewish population came to live inside Polish borders.

Pogroms, persecution and discrimination later isolated and impoverished many Polish Jews. But Poland remained the world center for Judaic scholarship, and Jews assumed an integral role in the country's economic and cultural life. At the outbreak of World War II, there were about 3.5 million in the country, 10 percent of the population.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, with the Soviet imposition of communism, the 150,000 Polish Jews who survived quickly became objects of suspicion. That suspicion occurred because a group of Jewish Poles returned from Russia after the war and took up positions in the Communist government's hated security operation.

Between 1945 and 1956, the Ministry of Public Security arrested, tortured and murdered several thousand Poles suspected of opposing Communist rule. In the years of this Stalinist terror, some Polish Jews changed their names so they would not sound Jewish.

"The Jews who kept their names secret during the Communist times created suspicion. This created the possibility that today Mazowiecki could be suspected of being a Jew," said Andrzej Szczypiorski, a senator and writer who heads the Polish-Israeli Foundation in Warsaw.

"This antisemitic feeling now is a result of 40 years of communism -- a system built on lies and conspiracies and repression. Jews were playing a role in that government. Today this is beer from that brewery," Szczypiorski said.

Szczypiorski and several other Polish intellectuals argue that the almost total absence of "real living Jews" from the daily lives of most Poles has allowed them to invent "a secret Jew" who is a useful scapegoat for the country's abysmal economic situation.

"A whole generation of Poles thinks about {all the trouble that} has happened . . . to their country. They think it cannot be their fault. There are no more Germans, no more Communists, no more Russians. Still in a democracy we have bad times. Who is to be blamed? Many Poles conclude, 'It must be the Jews,' " said Szczypiorski.

"The 'secret Jew' appears now as a substitute for a concrete human being who lived here through the ages. This fantasy Jew really has nothing to do with Jewry as it exists in the world. When a real Jew is taking a walk in Warsaw, and he is dressed in an identifiable way as Jew, no one is expressing antisemitism. Because he is a real person," Szczypiorski said.

Musial, the Krakow priest, agrees that there is a "mythical" character in Polish attitudes toward Jews. And he warns that the leap from myth to violence is easily made, especially in a poor country that is struggling to build legal and political institutions.

During the recent struggles within the Solidarity movement that have pitted union leader Lech Walesa against his one-time close friend and fellow unionist Prime Minister Mazowiecki, a rural-urban, worker-professional split has emerged.

According to opinion polls, rural and less well-educated Poles are rallying to the support of Walesa, while more urban and better-educated Poles support the intellectually oriented Mazowiecki.

A number of commentators say the split runs along a traditional cultural fault line that keeps rural Catholic Poles suspicious of the "cosmopolitan" -- or in their minds Jewish -- intrigues of city dwellers.

Walesa, the country's most charismatic leader, has criticized "eggheads" in Warsaw for being soft on communism. At the Solidarity congress this year, he said that in the fight against communism he was willing to work with "intellectuals and Jews."

And at a press conference last month Walesa said, "I see writing on the walls, 'Communists and Jews out of government.' {Such slogans} appear because people think there is still a band of con men in the government."

No one accuses Walesa of being an antisemite, not even those in the Solidarity government who have been the target of his populist criticism. But his remarks -- and the nature of the split in Solidarity -- have raised questions about how the Jewish question figures as an organizing tool in Polish politics.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, one of Walesa's senior advisers, says charges that Walesa is toying with antisemitism are absurd.

"Certain circles in Poland would like to have an opposition that was nationalistic and antisemitic," said Kaczynski, whom Walesa appointed as editor of the Solidarity weekly newspaper. "This is a comfortable argument for them. The reason why they are so furious is because they know well we are not antisemites."

But a number of specialists on Jewish-Polish relations say Walesa, whose international profile is greater than that of any Polish politician, is playing a dangerous game that could hurt the country's image.

"Walesa is like a mirror of Polish opinion," said Musial. "Now after the defeat of communism, he is tempted to say this, to say that. It is these little remarks {about Jews and intellectuals} that hit the heart and the brain. He gives the people some easy eating."