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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.”



Committee remembers the Rosenbergs, launches new initiative

When Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were brought to trial in the federal courthouse at Manhattan’s Foley Square in March 1951, at least one local resident was watching closely.

“Mine was the generation of the Rosenbergs,” said 94-year-old Miriam Moskowitz, who has long been active in the National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case. The group will hold its 57th annual memorial meeting on June 17.

“The trial was a mockery,” said Moskowitz, author of the forthcoming “Phantom Spies, Phantom Justice” and a resident of Washington Township.

It was also an ordeal for American Jews, who feared the case would exacerbate already blatant displays of anti-Semitism.

Moskowitz pointed out that while the Rosenbergs were charged with conspiracy to commit espionage, “they were really tried and convicted even before they set foot in the courtroom because of the prosecution’s powerful publicity machine,” she said. “And while the charge was conspiracy to commit espionage, in effect, they were tried for treason.” The couple were executed in 1953.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed in 1953, were charged with conspiracy to commit espionage but, “in effect, were tried for treason.”

This year’s memorial meeting will unveil a new initiative, said Moskowitz, noting that the eight-member committee will formally launch a campaign to exonerate the Rosenbergs “of the false charge of atomic spying.”

Among other accusations, the Rosenbergs were accused of passing to the Soviet Union information that could be used to build an atomic bomb. Two years ago, their co-defendant, Morton Sobell — released in 1969 after serving more that 18 years in prison, five of them in Alcatraz — admitted that he and Julius Rosenberg had passed information to the former Soviet Union in the 1940s but said it had nothing to do with the atom bomb.

“Julius gave defensive weaponry information to Russia because he felt they were bearing the brunt of the war,” said Moskowitz.

“They were leftists and they believed in the war effort against Nazis,” she said, pointing to strident anti-Semitic voices in the United States such as Father Coughlin, who was lauding Hitler on the radio.

“They were young and unsophisticated,” she said of Julius Rosenberg and Sobell. “They knew they were wrong but they did not intend and did not think to harm their own country. They never thought it would be regarded with such antagonism.”

She likened the case to that of Jonathan Pollard, “who gave unauthorized information to Israel because [then Defense Secretary] Caspar Weinberger refused to give Israel” classified information. Pollard was sentenced to life in prison.

In both cases, she said, the sentences were “way out of proportion.” (Ironically, Tibby Brooks, executive director of NCRRC, pointed out that “the Rosenbergs were executed … just before sundown [since] the authorities didn’t want to desecrate the Sabbath.”)

Moskowitz further noted that in both cases — and in many of the trials that took place during the 1950s — “being Jewish was an important factor.”

“It’s not an accident that the judge and prosecutor were Jewish,” she said. “That was to make sure that they would not be accused of anti-Semitism; but there’s no question that it lay behind these prosecutions.”

Judge Irving Kaufman’s pronouncement at the end of the trial demonstrated the hostility directed toward the defendants, said Moskowitz: “I consider your crime worse than murder,” he said. “I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason?”

Moskowitz recalled, “You don’t remember the picket lines against the Rosenbergs organized by anti-Semites. They used signs reading ‘Fry them and send the remains to Stalin.’”

Moskowitz had been involved in a similar trial just four months before the Rosenberg hearings, charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice.

“It was the same judge, same prosecution team, and same two witnesses” as those in the Rosenberg trial, she said, adding that she was found guilty in a “kangaroo court.”
She and her co-defendant, Abraham Brothman, were accused of influencing Harry Gold — a laboratory chemist who was convicted of being the courier for Soviet spy rings — to lie under oath to the grand jury.

Tried in the southern district of New York at age 34, Moskowitz was found guilty and sent to prison for two years. In her new book, due out in October from Bunim & Bannigan, she chronicles her experiences during this time.

“The book is about how my trial was run and my experiences as a political prisoner and a Jew,” she said, noting that the prosecution had referred to her trial as a kind of dress rehearsal for the Rosenberg trial, testing the believability of the witnesses and the strength of popular prejudice.

Moskowitz said her initial incarceration was in a New York jail — where many of those held “knew almost instinctively that not everything the press printed was believable. They knew also that truth and justice and the law were frequently unrelated.” Still, she said, “there were a few who muttered ugly threats and it was only through the protection of some of the other women that I escaped harm.”

Moskowitz finished doing her time at the Federal Reformatory for Women in West Virginia, “and the hostility there was more pronounced. Some of the women refused to pass the food to me at mealtime so I pretended I wasn’t hungry,” she said. “When anyone ‘accidentally’ jostled me or took a swipe at me (out of sight of the warders), I pretended not to notice. When some called me ‘Jew bitch’ or ‘spy,’ I pretended not to hear.”

Even after her release, she said, she was “harassed” by the FBI.

“They wanted me to give information against my co-defendant, but there was nothing to tell. He was a legitimate chemical engineer conducting a legitimate business.”

At the June 17 meeting, Michael and Robert Meeropol — the sons of the Rosenbergs, young children when their parents were executed — will be featured in videotaped excerpts from a recent symposium on Sobell’s recent admissions. In addition, Dave Alman, president of the committee and co-author with the late Emily Alman of “Exoneration,” will read excerpts from his book, as will Moskowitz from hers. Dr. Jolie Pataki will read from letters Ethel Rosenberg wrote while in prison. There will also be a musical interlude.

The free program is open to the public and will take place at Musicians Local 802, 322 West 48 St. in Manhattan at 7 p.m. For information, call (212) 533-1015.


My Father’s Coat and Hat

Who he was…

table class="caption">imageLeon Lazarus

The Leon Lazarus of his daughter Rochelle’s memoir was a writer and editor for Martin Goodman’s Magazine Management Company (with friends Bruce Jay Friedman and Mario Puzo), as well as for Goodman’s Timely and Atlas comic-book companies, predecessors of Marvel Comics. He wrote more than 800 comic-book stories from 1947 through 1965. Lazarus also wrote two popular “Nick Carter” detective novels, as well as Little Golden Books for children. His magazine work included more than 350 stories for adventure magazines Saga, Blue Book, and Coronet. Other book credits include “Lassie and the Lost Explorer” (Simon and Schuster/Little Golden Book, 1958); “Tales of Wells Fargo: Danger at Mesa Flats” (Simon and Schuster/Little Golden Book, 1958); “Nick Carter: The Turncoat” and “Nick Carter: The Jamaican Exchange”; and “Other Times, Other Places,” a memoir.

Born Aug. 22, 1919, in the Bronx, he was drafted in the U.S. Army in 1942 and did World War II service in Italy, teaching the use of the then-new radar technology for the Signal Corps. He and his wife, Marjorie, whom he married in 1946, had two children, Sherry and Rochelle. He died on Nov. 22, 2008.


Stopping torture needs unswerving commitment


In teaching about the Holocaust, educators focus on prewar lives, not just camps

The Centropa group in the Czech Republic town of Trebic, where they visited sites of prior Jewish life in July. Centropa

Educators who teach Holocaust history face the same challenge every year: how to get students interested in one of history’s greatest tragedies more than 65 years removed from World War II.

In the old days, the formula was straightforward.

“You show kids horrifying pictures, scare them, then you traumatize them” was how Nina Sasportas, a teacher at the Jewish High School in Berlin, put it. The result, she said, was that “many either block out the memory or get Holocaust exhaustion. This is true if the child is Jewish or not.”

In recent years, however, some educators have shifted their approach toward teaching individual stories.

“You use the family pictures and focus on the family experience before the war, during the war, and after the war,” Sasportas said.

Among others, this approach is being championed and supported by the Vienna-based nonprofit organization Centropa, which has amassed a collection of more than 22,000 digitized photos and 1,300 oral histories on Jewish life in Europe before World War II and beyond. The material reveals the intimacy of the lives of Jews across Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and how those lives were extinguished.

Beyond the technology, the key to the approach is to teach about Jewish lives before World War II, not just their experiences in the concentration camps. They went to synagogue, married, played sports, and were active in civic associations and government; it’s all documented in photographs and interviews.

Centropa’s material, including exhibitions and lesson plans, is available at no cost to teachers.

What this provides is “the beautiful life of Jewish communities in Europe through personal stories,” said Lior Sibony, an Israeli teacher from the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium. “Students appreciate more what was lost and how diverse Jewish life was in Central and Eastern European life.”

Earlier this month, Centropa organized a nine-day seminar for educators that focused on how teaching the Holocaust is changing. Seventy-five teachers from 12 countries visited Prague, Budapest, and Vienna. They toured Jewish neighborhoods, hobnobbed with government ministers, and met luminaries of Jewish institutions, but the program’s core was about how to teach the Holocaust.

“Teachers have such little time to brainstorm, and this trip allows us to do it,” Sasportas said in Prague after seeing its historic synagogues for the first time. “Plus, actually being in the places we are teaching about completely enhances our ability to relate to the material.”

That was especially true for American teachers such as Nick Holton from Los Angeles, a non-Jewish teacher at the Milken Community High School. One reason Holton said he turned to Centropa for help was that he was “intimidated on how, as a non-Jew, I was going to teach the Holocaust to a roomful of Jewish kids.”

Holton visited a former concentration camp for the first time during the trip. He said going to Theresienstadt, outside of Prague, was “a terribly sobering experience that brought home a certain realism and reinforced my passion teach the subject.”

Another high point of the trip for Holton was his first deep interaction with a survivor, Hannah Fischer, whom he sat next to at lunch here. Fischer, a retired child psychologist who fled to England before the Holocaust, studied with Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s daughter, and returned to live in Central Europe.

“Personalizing the Holocaust through a woman like that will not only change my life, it will change the intensity with which I teach the Holocaust and the way I guide others to teach it,” Holton said.

Holton teaches the Holocaust from the viewpoint of both victims and perpetrators. Some students resist the approach at first, Holton said, but eventually they are keen to study those who murdered Jews or stood by as they were sent away. Using Centropa materials, some of Holton’s students make films with computer technology that include the “perpetrator” perspective.

Among the most valuable aspects of the Centropa material, teachers said, is that students from around the world can collaborate and share their materials online.

“It addresses the fact that different people take in information differently,” Holton said, “and it lets students from around the world interact with each other.”


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