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Kaczynski leaves legacy of Polish-Jewish reconciliation

PRAGUE – For Jews, Poland’s late president, Lech Kaczynski, was a man of many firsts.

He was the first Polish president to attend a service at a Polish synagogue, the first to celebrate Chanukah at the presidential palace, the first Polish leader to provide support for a Jewish history museum on Polish soil.

His death in Saturday’s plane crash along with his wife Maria and 96 members of Poland’s political elite represents a huge loss for the Polish-Jewish relationship, Poland’s chief rabbi, New York native Michael Schudrich, told JTA.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem on Sept. 12, 2006. Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90/JTA

“A lot of those who are politically right of center are open to Jewish contributions to Polish culture, but if you had a different person in power they would have been quiet about it. Kaczynski empowered those people to also have a voice,” Schudrich said.

Schudrich had been invited to accompany the presidential delegation to the April 10 event in Katyn commemorating the 1940 massacre there of 20,000 Poles by Soviet forces, but could not attend because it was on the Sabbath.

On Sunday, mourners packed Warsaw’s Nozyk Synagogue, which Kaczynski once visited, for a memorial service for the victims of the crash. Nearby, some 100,000 Poles filled the streets as the president’s coffin passed by in a procession.

It was one of the great ironies of Polish history that a nationalistic, ultra-conservative Catholic who may have counted some anti-Semites as his supporters was a pivotal figure in the post-Communist healing of grudges that have so long divided Poles and Jews.

Kaczynski’s death, as tragic as it may be, is not likely to set back Polish-Jewish or Polish-Israeli relations, insiders say. The role of president is largely ceremonial in Poland; the government is run by the prime minister, currently Donald Tusk. Tusk and his cabinet are considered allies of Israel and the United States and are friendly to Jewish concerns.

“Fifteen years ago, such a calamity would have serious repercussion, but today relations are well established,” said Andrzej Zozula, executive director of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland. Zozula said he had been friendly with the late president since their days together in the anti-Communist opposition in the 1980s. “The interests of all are more important than one man, even a person such as Mr. Kaczynski,” Zozula said.

Examples of the president’s dedication to Jewish issues reads like the refrain in Dayenu, the Passover hymn: “It would have been enough if…”

As mayor of Warsaw before winning the presidency in 2005, Kaczynski donated public land and money for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, to open in 2012.

In 2008, as president, he restored Polish citizenship to the 15,000 Jews exiled in 1968 by Poland’s Communist government in the throes of an anti-Semitic frenzy. Kaczynski was among Europe’s top political supporters of Israel.

“The president and his wife were great friends to Israel,” Israel’s former ambassador to Poland, David Peleg, said. “And those who traveled with him on that plane were not only personal friends of mine, but were dedicated to the preservation of Jewish sites in Poland.” Peleg singled out for praise Janusz Kurtyka, head of the National Remembrance Institute, Deputy Culture Minister Tomasz Merta, and presidential adviser Mariusz Handzlik. Handzlik was so close with the Jewish community that he attended the bat mitzvah of Schudrich’s daughter.

Peleg, now head of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, noted that Kaczynski lobbied against the Goldstone report criticizing Israel for its actions in the 2009 Gaza war. He also upgraded military, economic, and cultural cooperation between Israel and Poland and opposed anti-Semitism by emphasizing the shared history of Jews and Poles.

“In my first discussions with him as mayor he talked about the Jews at Katyn,” said Peleg, referring to the Russian site where Kaczynski was headed when his plane crashed. “He made the point that more than 10 percent of those killed in Katyn were Jewish officers.”

This focus took on special meaning when post-Communist Poland began re-examining its history without Communist censorship.

Long-simmering confrontations erupted: Some Jews felt Poles were too sympathetic to Hitler’s Final Solution; some Poles insisted that their suffering under Hitler was ignored by Jews. There were condemnations of Jewish-Communist collaboration and of Polish Catholic disdain for Jews.

All along, the conservative Kaczynski, from the Law and Justice Party, did what he could to bring the two sides together.

“I would never vote for his party; I have leftist views,” said Oskar Skuteli, a member of Zoom, a Polish youth organization. “But the amount of things that Kaczynski did for Jews had never been done before by a leftist government. He was even called a Jewish agent by the radical right.”

To be sure, there were bumps in the road to Polish-Jewish reconciliation that still have not been quite smoothed over. For a short period, the Law and Justice Party partnered in a government coalition with the League of Polish Families, whose members have been accused of anti-Semitic rhetoric. Kaczynski also never fully turned his back on Radio Maryja, a Catholic fringe broadcaster who accused Jews of terrorizing Poland with demands for property restitution.

Progressive Jews also found some of Kaczynski’s social positions disdainful. He twice banned gay pride marches in Warsaw, citing fears that homosexuals were trying to “spread their lifestyle.”

But few would deny that Kaczynski and others who worked to preserve Jewish culture and died in the plane crash collectively represented a brain trust of Jewish-Polish-Israeli relations.

“Kaczynski and those around him, they are not replaceable,” said Monika Krawczyk, CEO of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland. “His approach to Jewish issues has to do with his personal experience and convictions. We hope for people similarly sensitive, but they will not be the same.”

For now, the speaker of the Polish Parliament, Bronislav Komorowski, assumes the presidency until elections are held in two months. Komorowski is one of several top candidates for the post. All are likely to continue Kaczynski’s path of Polish-Jewish reconciliation, observers say.



Reaction to tragedy showcases changes in Polish-Jewish relations

Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, were buried after funeral services at St. John’s Cathedral in Warsaw on Sunday. Andrzej Rybczynski/AFP/Getty Images</td>

ROME – The Jewish reaction to the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of other senior Polish officials in an air tragedy highlights a remarkable change in how the Jewish world views Poland.

The prayers, public statements, and personal tributes, including a special remembrance during the March of the Living, were normal expressions of grief and solidarity for a close friend and ally — in short, heartfelt sentiments that probably could not have been made 20 or even 15 years ago.

First Person

Poland looms large in the collective Jewish consciousness. Huge numbers of North American Jews trace their ancestry to Poland, and before World War II Poland was Europe’s Jewish heartland. Some 3 million Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

Until fairly recently, however, much of the Jewish world regarded Poland as little more than a vast, anti-Semitic Jewish graveyard. These attitudes were exemplified in 1989 by Israel’s then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who famously declared that Poles “suck in” anti-Semitism “with their mother’s milk.”

Today, however, Poland is one of Israel’s best friends, and Jewish leaders hailed Kaczynski and others on the doomed plane for their dedication in helping write a new chapter in Polish-Jewish relations. Kaczynski was buried on Sunday.

This change in Jewish attitudes by no means came overnight. It was the fruit of a deliberate, sometime rocky post-communism Polish policy aimed at convincing the Jewish world that Poland — and Poles — could be trusted partners.

This included organized outreach, Poland’s emergence as an ally of Israel, and extensive Polish interaction with international Jewish organizations on both a formal and informal basis. In 1995, the Polish government even established the unprecedented post of roving ambassador to the Jewish diaspora to foster contacts and provide a conduit for communications.

Meanwhile, lacerating public debates in Poland over anti-Semitism and the Polish role in the Holocaust, sparked by several books and films, also demonstrated to the Jewish world a willingness in Poland to tackle these troubling issues.

“Jewish attitudes became more positive as the world began to recognize Poland as a modern democratic nation rather than the apocryphal place of our ancient sufferings,” says Michael Traison, a Jewish American lawyer who has maintained an office in Poland since the mid-1990s. “And attitudes were impacted by the growth of information flowing out of Poland to the Jewish world as people learn that ‘Am Yisrael chai’ [the Jewish people lives], even in Poland.”

Jewish figures themselves played key roles by demonstrating their own openness to Poland and highlighting the revival of contemporary Jewish life in the country.

Shevach Weiss, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor and former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, became a popular and even beloved figure among locals as the Israeli ambassador to Poland from 2000 to 2004.

I’ll never forget seeing him plunge into a crowd of 10,000 frenzied fans, most of them Catholic Poles, who crammed into the main square of Krakow’s old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, for the final concert of the annual Festival of Jewish Culture in 2002.

The Krakow Festival and the new Museum of the History of Polish Jewry under construction in Warsaw also have won enthusiastic American supporters. Poland’s American-born chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, has been tireless in spreading the word that a small but living Jewish community exists in Poland.

Organizations such as the San Francisco-based Taube Foundation and the American Jewish Committee make it a point to bring Jewish groups to Poland not just to commemorate the Holocaust but to take part in Jewish cultural events and meet local Jews and Catholic Poles.

“The story of Judaism in Poland did not end with the Holocaust,” promotional material for Taube-led tours says.

What all this means is that after decades of looking at Poland through a lens tinged darkly with tragedy and distrust, Jewish leaders increasingly are willing to demonstrate belief that Poland has changed. Or at least is changing.

To be sure, this does not mean that Polish anti-Semitism has vanished; on the contrary. It does recognize, however, that other forces are in play, too.

To someone like me, whose relationship with the Jewish experience in post-Holocaust Poland goes back nearly 30 years, this change of attitude is as dramatic as it is welcome. It remains to be seen, though, how far it has trickled down.

An American Jewish friend here in Italy, who first told me the news about Kaczynski’s death in the plane crash, was surprised when I expressed dismay.

“I don’t know anything about him except that he’s an anti-Semite,” my friend said.

An Israeli Facebook friend wrote: “I wish that Poles — who indeed suffered a grievous loss in the plane crash that killed its leadership — felt the same sense of loss over the 3 million Polish Jews murdered in their country, often at the hands of the Polish people.”

Still, I was moved and encouraged by the homage paid to Kaczynski by the 10,000 participants of this year’s March of the Living, the annual youth gathering that commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Day with a ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Back in 1994, when I was the cultural guide for a March of the Living group, the youngsters I was with spent their last evening in Poland acting out anti-Polish skits. Their handbook took for granted that the youngsters would feel nothing positive toward local Poles.

“We will hate them for having participated in atrocities, but we will also pity them for their woeful living conditions today,” it read.

But at this year’s March of the Living, young participants wore black armbands to honor Kaczynski and the other crash victims.

“We join our Polish brothers and sisters in their time of sorrow, and express our deepest sympathies for their loss,” a statement from the March of the Living said. “Our thoughts, hopes, and prayers are with them during this difficult time.”



Survivors share memories — and recipes — that sustained them

A story for Mother’s Day


Bronia Furst of Linden was only 9 when she was separated from her parents in her native Poland and sent to a concentration camp in the Ukraine.

“We slept on the floor, and every morning I would see dead people all around me,” she recalled. “Anyone who was left alive got schlepped around to different camps in the Ukraine. I don’t even remember all of them.”

Furst’s story has a surprise ending, as chronicled along with 129 other narratives in “The Holocaust Survivor Cookbook,” first published in 2007 and now in its fifth printing. The book includes 250 family recipes alongside the stories of survival — many of them depicting courageous acts by the survivor’s mother.

After liberation by the Russians, at age 12, Bronia was shipped to an orphanage in Odessa. “That orphanage was worse than the concentration camp — just terrible,” she said. In January of 1946, a Jewish army officer came there to claim a girl he had hoped was his daughter. “I fit her description and I was from his hometown,” she said. Both knew immediately that Bronia was not his daughter, but she begged him in Yiddish to take her anyway. The next morning, he returned to claim her, took her to the train station, put her on a train to Poland, and disappeared.

“The Holocaust Survivor Cookbook” editor Joanne Caras, center, with, from left, son Mickey, husband Harvey, son Yonatan, and daughter-in-law Sarah (holding Zahava), presenting a display check for $100,000 to Carmei Ha’ir soup kitchen.

“I was two weeks on the train,” said Furst. “The goyim used to come on the train and see a little girl by herself, and they would give me cheese, a piece of bread, an apple. So I wasn’t hungry, just dirty.”

Finally arriving in her hometown, Bronia went over to a woman at a kiosk and asked to be directed to the Jewish market. “I had never been there, but I remembered hearing about it,” she said. “The lady told me it no longer existed. But she asked my family name, and she said that she knew my aunt was still alive. She took me home, fed me, washed me, and put me to sleep.”

The next day, the kind woman brought the “aunt” to see Bronia. In fact, it was her mother. Yet thrilled as she was, she initially was hesitant to stay.

“My mother was remarried and I didn’t want to have a stepfather,” Furst explained. “I was ready to run away. But my stepfather was a very, very good man. He had lost his wife and children, so he was a very good dad to me. He legally adopted me. When he passed away, I sat shiva.”

The reconstituted family first went to Israel, where Bronia later married. They all came to live in Linden in 1959. Her mother, who died at age 70, passed down her recipes including two that are in the book — one for apple cake and another for rugelach.

“I still have nightmares,” said Furst, whose husband died 11 years ago. “I am twice a survivor, once from concentration camps and once from cancer. And I thank God for every day that I can get up and be useful. If somebody needs help, I am there for them.”

Joanne Caras of Florida, editor of “The Holocaust Survivor Cookbook,” told The Jewish Standard about another of her favorite submissions, from Ruth Steinfeld of Texas. “When she was very young, her mother was taken away to a concentration camp. She doesn’t remember her mother’s face. The only thing Ruth remembers about her mother is the smell of her chicken soup. She said that even today, when she makes the soup, the smell makes her feel like her mother is in the kitchen with her. This chicken soup recipe is in our cookbook.”

Caras also shared the story contributed by Desiree Kate of Ohio. “She told us about her mother, Ruth Gans Mayer. When Ruth was in the concentration camp, she was selected for the gas chamber. But her mother switched places with her, choosing death in order to preserve the life of her daughter. And in spite of the tragedy she suffered as a child, Ruth’s motto was ‘Cherish the sweet things that life gives you.’ We have recipes for sweet treats from Ruth in our cookbook.”

It is fitting that the book itself was a project of a mother, mother-in-law, and daughter-in-law. The concept grew out of a visit by Caras and Teaneck resident Gisela Zerykier to their children soon after the newlyweds moved to Israel in 2005. Sarah Zerykier Caras took the moms along when she volunteered at Carmei Ha’ir (City Gardens), a Jerusalem soup kitchen that serves about 500 meals each day.

“They both were really impressed because it looks like a restaurant and people are served with the dignity of paying customers,” Sarah Caras said.

Bronia (Netzler) Furst and Abraham Furst at their wedding party.

Sarah and her husband, Yonatan, mentioned to their mothers that they were thinking about compiling a cookbook. That summer, Zerykier’s mother died and she sent her loved ones an e-mail describing her Belgian mother’s Holocaust survival story. When Joanne Caras read it, a light bulb went off in her head: She suggested to her son and daughter-in-law that together they edit a cookbook in memory of Sarah’s “Oma” and other survivors, donating all proceeds to Carmei Ha’ir.

“Yonatan made a Website [] where people could submit stories and recipes, and it was publicized through word of mouth, newspaper articles, and radio and TV interviews with my mother-in-law and me,” said Sarah Caras. “Everything was for tzedakah, so we had no advertising budget.”

The stories poured in from Argentina, Australia, China, England, Sweden, and the United States — from every continent except Antarctica. “We’re working on that one,” Sarah Caras said with a laugh. The first edition came out in 2007. “Every time there’s a new printing, we rededicate the book to those who have passed away” since the previous edition.

Joanne Caras reported that some 28,000 cookbooks have so far been sold. “As of Jan. 10,” she noted, “our family has donated $100,000 to Carmei Ha’ir. In addition, we have also raised over $400,000 for Jewish charities” by partnering with them to sell the book.

“It’s mostly being bought in the States,” said her daughter-in-law. “But there has been a large demand for it lately in England. My mother-in-law is planning to go there for a week in June to do speaking tours. The book has also made its way to Australia and South Africa.”

She reflected that growing up in local institutions such as The Moriah School of Englewood and Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Aaron instilled in her an awareness of the power of charitable endeavors. “There were always huge tzedakah projects going on at school and shul,” she said. “From an early age, mitzvah work was part of my world.”

In northern New Jersey, the book may be obtained directly from the Zerykiers at (201) 862-0868.


And her little dog, too


Europe’s Jewish revival

Is Jewish life in Hungary and Poland sustainable?

Ruth Ellen GruberCover Story
Published: 07 October 2011

BUDAPEST, Hungary — It is not easy to decipher the complicated trajectory of Jewish life in post-communist Europe.

“There are claims and counterclaims about contemporary European Jewish life,” said Jonathan Boyd, the executive director of London’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR). “At one end of the spectrum there are reports of a remarkable renaissance of activity; at the other, there is a strong narrative of decline.”

Boyd’s institute recently published a pair of reports written by local researchers in Hungary and Poland that offer a more nuanced view. The reports looked at the development of Jewish life in these two countries since the collapse of communism and examined the challenges their Jewish communities face going forward.

The reports, Boyd said, “illustrate that both perspectives are correct: While Jewish life has undoubtedly been reinvigorated since the collapse of communism, considerable investment is required to ensure the long-term sustainability of Jewish life in both places.”

Hungary, with an estimated 100,000 Jews, has the largest Jewish population in post-communist Europe outside the former Soviet Union. In Poland, the European Jewish heartland that was home to more than 3 million Jews before the Holocaust, the Jewish population today is estimated at only 8,000-15,000.

The reports were based on personal interviews with a range of Jewish community activists in each country, followed up by focus-group discussions. Their results highlight similarities in the post-communist Jewish revival process, but also illustrate the differences between various Jewish communities.

They also demonstrate the increasing importance of alternative forms of engagement in nurturing identity among younger Jews. These include Jewish community centers, Jewish studies programs, grassroots educational projects such as Limmud, and even initiatives such as Jewish cafes and culture festivals.

The research in Hungary showed a community reinvigorated over the last 20 years, but facing the challenge of low engagement in communal life, with only 10 percent of the Jewish population affiliated with a Jewish organization.

Young people especially appear alienated from established Jewish communal structures, such as the umbrella Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities — or Mazsihisz, to use its Hungarian acronym.

The JPR Hungary report calls for an urgent overhaul of Mazsihisz and the entire institutional system of organized Hungarian Jewry to ensure that decisions on issues affecting the whole community are made in a democratic and transparent fashion.

It also calls for greater religious pluralism and more cooperation and coordination among the plethora of often competing local Jewish groups and initiatives. This, it said, could help foster the emergence and training of a new generation of leaders “who recognize that success in any part of the community should be regarded as success for the whole community.”

“One of our purposes was to present conflicting views on every issue we considered,” sociologist Andras Kovacs, an expert on Hungarian Jewish issues who was one of the co-authors of the report, said. “We wanted to provoke debate.”

In Poland, research bore witness to the rebirth of a community that remains tiny but has a disproportionate impact both at home and abroad, in part due to the importance of Polish Jewish history and heritage to world Jewry.

Because of this, the report said, and “because of the remarkably positive reaction of the Polish state and most of civil society to Jewish interests and concerns,” Jewish programs in Poland “have a very high multiplier effect,” with a direct impact “both on the world community of Jews of Polish origin, and on Jewish and non-Jewish Poles alike.”

Therefore, it said, preservation and study of Jewish heritage — from cemeteries, synagogues and Holocaust sites such as death camps, to archival, museum and library collections — “are of great importance.”

Moreover, it said, while Orthodox Jewry remained the primary established religious stream, only a minority of the community identified with Orthodoxy.

The report urged greater investment in programs supporting Jewish cultural initiatives and non-Orthodox alternative forms of Jewish engagement.

“There is a future for the Jewish community in Poland, but the community will remain small,” Konstanty Gebert, a leading Jewish intellectual and writer who co-authored the report, said. “While the Orthodox part will remain a core of it, it represents only a minority,” he said.

“Culture is a main identity factor for young Jews,” he went on. “The most important things are happening on the interface between the Jewish community and society at large.”

Jonathan Ornstein, the director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, said the report gave a good overall picture of Jewish life in Poland today and many of its complexities.

“It accurately portrays Polish Jews as being optimistic and not overly concerned with anti-Semitism, which stands in marked contrast to the rest of Europe,” he sad.

He added, however, “I would have liked to see more focus on the somewhat unnatural structure of the community, where official religious life is Orthodox, but few of the members are. Polish Jewry coming to terms with that situation, and having its institutions more accurately represent the people is to me the greatest challenge we face moving forward.”

The reports were the first two of a series of JPR investigations into contemporary Jewish life in Eastern and Central Europe funded by the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe. Future reports will deal with Ukraine and Germany.

“This research highlights the importance of avoiding generalities about Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe,” Sally Berkovic, the chief executive of the Rothschild Foundation Europe, said in a statement. “Despite some shared experiences, each Jewish community, with its distinctive characteristics, has responded differently to the challenges precipitated by the fall of communism.”

JTA Wire Service

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