Why Such a Polish-Jewish Lovefest?

The Beautiful Polish Carpathians

C'mon, the Polish Carpathians are at least as beautiful as the Judean Hills!

The recent Forward article entitled “Why Poland’s Jews Mourn Their President” seems to be answering the elephant-sized question that many have been silently asking themselves: Why are so many Jewish organizations (including March of the Living) and The State of Israel voicing such an outpouring of solidarity and sympathy for Poles in a time of their most terrible loss? Could it be an indication that Jewish communities and organizations are finally looking at the Poles as more than the ambivalent caretakers of their most sacred graveyard? Is it simply a sign that the established Jewish community can reach out their hands even to those they perceive as perpetrators of a most grave crime?

Konstanty Gebert, founding member of Solidarinosc and The Flying Jewish University, writes about Lech Kaczynski, the Polish President who died in the crash:

Kaczynski’s politics were not more popular among Poland’s Jewish community of 8,000 than among Poles at large. But the Jews had real reason to mourn a leader who had shown sympathy and support both to them and to the State of Israel, from the day when, soon after winning the 2005 presidential election, he compared himself to Ariel Sharon.

Indeed, there are analogies between the political philosophies of the two. Both were conservative leaders with strong nationalist feelings and were at the helm of countries they considered threatened by neighbors. (Kaczynski took a dim view not only of the past, but also of the present policies of Germany and Russia.) Both were impatient with what they considered liberal indifference to their respective national traditions and values. And both strongly believed in the fundamental role of the state as the nation’s most valuable institution. Both tended to look at what they believed history’s judgment would be, rather than at public opinion polls.

Kaczynski was far from being the only conservative European politician in power today. Yet it would be difficult to imagine any other European leader comparing himself to Sharon; the public-opinion fallout would be devastating. But Kaczynski had no such qualms. To him, the Israeli prime minister was an inspiration, and Israel a friendly state. Much of Polish public opinion tended to agree with him. No criticism followed his Sharon remarks.

That’s right, a top Polish politician was into THE BULLDOZER. In this intricate web of official condolence calls and mixed feelings, Gebert articulates too well that the contemporary Polish-Jewish relationship can be understood through the perceived political affinities between two right-wing nationalists who became intensely unpopular during their lifetimes. It goes to show that as Jewish cultural revival continues throughout the Polish lands, the elite descendants of Polish Jewry living in America and Israel largely see their relationship to Poland through a Zionist, not Ashkenazi, lens. This seems to imply that, at least on an official level, the development of Polish-Jewish reconciliation has largely been achieved through the work of politicians, not through the work of grassroots activists who spend so much time investing in a future for Jewish culture and memory in Poland. I never would have thought that March of the Living, an organization that has been repeatedly criticized for portraying Poland as a bloody, smoldering launching pad for the Zionist future, would require a moment of silence for victims of the crash as it toured its participants through Auschwitz. Do our leaders really feel sympathy for the Poles, or are we just trying to maintain alliances in a Europe increasingly critical of Israeli policy? A mixture of both?

Gebert continues:

His (Kaczynski’s) Jewish sympathies earned him the scorn of antisemitic extremists, who accused him of being Jewish himself (his “true” name supposedly was Kalkstein); somehow, his brother escaped being thus tainted. Rydzyk brutally attacked the Polish president during a lecture in 2007, accusing him of giving in to Jews, both by allocating land for the museum and supposedly ignoring the alleged threat of Jewish reparation demands. In contrast with his brother, Lech Kaczynski never granted the fundamentalist station an interview. But he had to pay the price for tolerating Jarosław’s alliances. At the funeral last year of Marek Edelman, deputy commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and a hero to the president, Kaczynski stood in silence and alone: The family refused him the right to speak, as Edelman had bitterly criticized the twin brothers’ policies…

…Alive, Kaczynski was a divisive and increasingly unpopular figure because of his authoritarian views, with approval ratings recently as low as 32%. But his tragic death has transformed him into a national icon, with all of Poland united in mourning. Polish Jews shared that pain with all other Polish citizens: A memorial service held in Warsaw’s only synagogue was packed full the day after the plane crash.

Full Story.
The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs responds to the Polish Tragedy.

10 Responses to “Why Such a Polish-Jewish Lovefest?”

  1. Hmm… Very interesting.

    Chorus of Apes · April 15th, 2010 at 12:17 pm
  2. American Jew with Russian and Hungarian roots–have now spent a great deal of time in Poland in the last 3 years, have read all the major histories of Poland, and find that it’s a very different place from what I was told growing up. Have come to love it, to appreciate its complicated history, brutal, tragic, and noble. There’s a reason why millions of us went there in the middle ages, and it’s interesting that some are returning. 50 % of Poland’s population has Jewish DNA markers: that’s even more than Genghis Khan :) The story of Poland in WW 2 is a very convoluted and painful one. In defense of many Poles, they are represented in great proportion as “righteous” people in the memorial in Israel. Poland’s history is my history as a Jew, even though my people came from elsewhere. The late president was also a complicated guy–but one thing he did that I liked: he made Poland the most pro-Israel country in Europe, I believe. Not as black and white as I was told growing up.

    Leslie Steiner · April 15th, 2010 at 2:27 pm
  3. I think it is fortunatelly simpler and more optimistic than the author suggests. Also it’s not just politics, it’s a grass root change. Just listing facts:
    - Jewish festival in Cracow is the biggest Jewish festival in Europe, the festival is primary organized by non-Jews,
    - Kaczynski restored the pre-war custom of lighting Hannukah candles in the presidential palace, he attended Hannukah ceremony in Warsaw synagogue
    - Klazmer type music is recently popular in Poland,
    -there are self organized non-Jewish groups that take care of Jewish cementaries
    -in pollish press you can often find references to “pain of a missing limb” when referring to Jews,
    If you are still sceptical just search on google news about what Rabbi Schudrich says about Poland.

    Jerzy · April 15th, 2010 at 4:00 pm
  4. The Poles were NOT “the perpetrators of a most grave crime”…..as you write. It was Nazi Germans who were the “perpetrators” !!! Get that through your head, once and for all. Shimon Perez stated recently that the “Poles are NOT responsible for the Holocaust” !!!

    PJ · April 15th, 2010 at 7:32 pm
  5. Hey PJ- read the whole sentence: ” Is it simply a sign that the established Jewish community can reach out their hands even to those they perceive as perpetrators of a most grave crime?”

    The writer of the post isn’t stating that he believes Poles were perpetrators. He’s pointing out that this is a sadly pervasive sentiment in the established Jewish community.

    rokhl · April 15th, 2010 at 7:39 pm
  6. All interesting comments!

    In response to Jerzy:

    All of the things you listed are wonderful and great initiatives. I just wanted to point out that most of those initiatives reflect the disconnect between official, political reconciliation efforts between the established Jewish community and the Polish political elite. On a more grassroots level, Jewish revival seems to be an internal Polish conversation, not one that brings Israeli or Diaspora Jews and Polish non-Jews and Jews together. I often feel like the phenomenon of Polish Jewish “cultural revival” is actually an internal Polish conversation about what it means to be Polish in an EU context.

    boymlpisher · April 15th, 2010 at 10:21 pm
  7. It’s Peres, not Perez.

    Amit · April 20th, 2010 at 7:21 am
  8. Is it simply a sign that the established Jewish community can reach out their hands even to those they perceive as perpetrators of a most grave crime?

    Sorry, even the “perceive as” is potentially misleading.

    There were certainly Poles who aided the Germans and their allies, some willfully, some under duress.

    However, even in the case of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, there were no less than three armed Polish factions that entered into the fray, fighting the German and Ukranian units (and the Polish Blue Police who were in support positions) that had come to liquidate the Ghetto.

    Jews made up a quarter of Poland’s pre-war population, and consequently contributed a great deal to Polish culture despite the existence of antisemitism. A great many Poles are very much aware of that part of their history.

    Personally, I think it’s a fine thing that Jews and Poles seek friendship, so why question it as if it is somehow illegitimate?

    Ian Thal · April 26th, 2010 at 8:40 pm
  9. Sorry, I haven’t posted here in a while and forgot that the comments section doesn’t accept italics for quotations.

    I just don’t think we should be repeating these sorts of misunderstandings unless we aim to refute them.

    Ian Thal · April 26th, 2010 at 8:42 pm
  10. Italics work fine; there was a typo in your HTML and I fixed it.

    BZ · April 26th, 2010 at 9:08 pm

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik