Grapevine: Poles and Jews – A symbiotic relationship

"I wish to say here, very personally, that a person stays or comes out of hiding when he feels empathy around him, when he isn’t lonely, when he experienced human solidarity…”"

October 30, 2014 20:35
Reuven Rivlin

President Reuven Rivlin visits newly built Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw October 28, 2014.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The focal personalities at this week’s opening of Warsaw’s Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews were Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and President Reuven Rivlin.

While each had important things to say, the most moving addresses were those of museum director Dariusz Stola and Auschwitz survivor Marian Turski, chairman of the museum council and vice chairman of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, who in Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish quoted the words from the Partisans’ anthem: “We are here!”

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Alluding to a long wartime and post-war period when Jews hid their identities, Turski said: “When people feel threatened, when they are alone, when they are led to understand that they are aliens – they flee or hide their identity. I wish to say here, very personally, that a person stays or comes out of hiding when he feels empathy around him, when he isn’t lonely, when he experienced human solidarity…”

Stola noted that the opening of the museum’s core exhibition on the site of what was the Warsaw Ghetto fulfills the last will and testament of painter Gela Seksztajn, who on August 1, 1942, during the darkest moments in the history of Warsaw’s Jews, deposited her artworks together with a letter in the underground archives of Emanuel Ringelblum. The letter reads: “What can I say at this moment and what can I ask for while standing on the cusp of life and death, more certain that I will die than live? I wish to say goodbye to my friends and my work.

I’m not asking for recognition. I’m just asking you to remember me and my small daughter. This talented little girl, Margolit Lichtensztajn, is 20 months old and shows a talent for painting.

“I donate my work to the Jewish Museum, to be founded in the future to restore prewar Jewish cultural life up to 1939, and to study the terrible tragedy of the Jewish community of Poland during the war.”

■ During his state visit to Poland, Rivlin, in meetings with President Komorowski, Sejm (lower house of Polish Parliament) Speaker Radoslaw Sikorski, Senate Speaker Bogdan Borusewicz, Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz and leaders of the Jewish community, raised the issue of circumcision and ritual slaughter, which are being banned in many parts of Europe for so-called humane reasons.

Rivlin pointed out that in democratic countries, freedom of religion both in terms of worship and practice is a given. Jews have been practicing brit mila and shechita for centuries, he said, and while he acknowledged there have been some unfortunate accidents with regard to circumcision, the number is so minimal it cannot be used as an excuse to rule out continuation of this sacred Jewish induction into the faith.

Aware that many Poles have a great fondness for pork products, which they eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Rivlin – a vegetarian – gave some of his hosts food for thought when he asked: “How do you know you’re not hurting the pig when you slaughter it?”

■ Before boarding the plane for his return to Israel, Rivlin had a brief press conference with members of the media delegation that had accompanied him to Poland.

When asked shortly after his meeting with Polish Jewish community leaders whether he thought there was a future for Jewish life in Poland, Rivlin was evasive, saying that Jews can live wherever they like, but their true home is in Israel – and he would like to see many more Jews settling in the Jewish state.

■ Many Jews, both of Polish extraction and those without any roots in Poland, wonder how Jews can opt to live there after centuries of anti-Semitism, pogroms and persecution under the Nazi and Communist regimes.

Prominent Polish journalist and Jewish activist Konstanty Gebert has no problem reconciling his strong Polish identity with his strong Jewish identity, and is not the only Polish Jew who feels equally comfortable in both. While he acknowledges there is still some degree of anti-Semitism in the country, Gebert has no fear of walking in the street with a kippa on his head. Sometimes he is the butt of nasty comments, he told the writer of this column, and he doesn’t respond to them, because he knows that some passerby will. He is more likely to be defended on the Warsaw Street than on the Paris Street, he said, and as far as he’s concerned, Warsaw is the safer of the two cities.

Gebert, by the way, was not initially a fan of the Polin Museum, and was concerned it might be some kind of kitschy Disney World. He is glad to have been proven wrong, and believes all involved have done a superb job. Yet as someone deeply engaged with Jewish continuity, he believes this piece to be missing from the museum’s post-war elements – and that this lacuna should be rectified.

■ Devotion to duty is almost always commendable, but special kudos goes to a woman by the name of Jowita from the Protocol Department of Poland’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.

It is customary to display the flags of visiting dignitaries in all the places they will be staying or making an appearance, however brief. At the military airport from which Rivlin flew home to Israel, the Israeli national flag was in crumpled condition. Jowita got ahold of a steam iron and restored the flag to pristine glory only minutes before Rivlin arrived. He might not have noticed the condition of the flag, but to Jowita it was important.

■ When he was chief of protocol at the Foreign Ministry and before that as an ambassador, Yitzhak Eldan led an exciting life – but he finds it more exciting now, training high school students to be diplomats of the future.

He has taken several groups of students abroad to visit state institutions, meet with their peers and discuss bilateral and universal issues.

At the end of last week, together with students from the Blich School in Ramat Gan and Yarkonim School in Hod Hasharon, he returned from the most recent trip in which he and the students had to cope with the cold and snow of Moscow. The group was warmly received at all the institutions they visited.

The most exciting meetings took place at both Jewish and non-Jewish schools, Eldan reports. Encounters with Nativ and Hillel students were particularly emotional; there was instant chemistry enabling an open and fraternal dialogue. The group was also well-received at the international Anglo-American School, where there was a thought-provoking debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The way the Israeli youngsters presented the argument, with particular reference to security issues in the South, gave Eldan cause for pride. “They did a great hasbara [public diplomacy] job,” he said.

The itinerary included a visit to the Russian Foreign Ministry, which Eldan describes as “a unique diplomatic museum” – where the Israeli students were deeply impressed to see a letter written by Moshe Shertok (Sharett) to Andrei Gromyko, in which Shertok asked for Russian recognition of Israel. The Russian guide also drew the attention of the budding ambassadors to the importance of gifts in diplomatic relations. She stressed the fact that only a few of the gifts received by Russian dignitaries were on display.

A gift from Israel was among those on show. The guide explained that a gift is appreciated when it reflects what is most important for the donor or for their nation; it was fitting that the Israeli gift was a beautiful relief of Jerusalem.

Also on the itinerary was a visit to the Duma, the Russian parliament, where coincidentally MK Ze’ev Elkin was visiting. When Elkin was deputy foreign minister, he sent Eldan a letter praising the young Israeli ambassadors project, and was thus very happy to meet the young Israeli delegation in Moscow. He told them their mission was very important because Israel faces many challenges, and needs energetic people who are still starry-eyed.

The visit ended at the Israeli Embassy, where the group met Ambassador Dorit Golender and her staff. Goldender is serving her fifth year in her post, which according to Eldan is unprecedented for someone who is not a career diplomat. Golender previously headed the Russian department at Israel Radio.

From the embassy the group went to Red Square, and because they were so cold, danced a Hora and sang Hebrew songs, including “Hava Nagila” and “Am Israel Hai.” Only a quarter of a century ago, no one would have dared be so openly Jewish or Israeli in Red Square.

The Moscow trip followed a similar mission to London a month ago, in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge. That visit offered the Israelis the unique opportunity to meet with members of the pro-Palestinian NGO Save the Children, and to make the case for Israel.

■ Over 100 Israelis, Palestinians and representatives of the international community gathered at the American Colony Hotel in east Jerusalem last week for the launch conference of the new issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal, devoted to natural resources and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Solar energy entrepreneur Yosef Abramovitz, CEO of Energiya Global Capital, said in the opening panel that “solar energy can be a key to Palestinian economic independence.”

Walid Salem, director of the Center for Democracy and Community Development and a lecturer at Al-Quds University, said the Palestinian ability to maintain and develop its energy resources depended upon an end to the occupation and the ability to make sovereign, independent decisions. Dr. Clive Lipchin, director of the Center for Trans-boundary Water Management at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, agreed with the goal but added that managing wastewater and other issues cannot wait for the desired political solution.

The second panel was devoted to the “Israel-Gaza War and the Humanitarian Crisis: What Comes Next?’ Dr. Alon Liel, former director-general of the Foreign Ministry and a former ambassador to South Africa, said the involvement of the international community was key to the possibility of moving toward a resolution of the conflict. He cited the letter by over 350 prominent Israelis to the British Parliament, organized with one day’s notice, calling on the MPs to vote in favor of the resolution to recognize a Palestinian state as “a Zionist act,” an important contribution to the recognition of a two-state solution.

Hind Khoury, an economist, former PLO ambassador to France and a former Palestinian Authority minister, said that after the failure of the negotiations led by US Secretary of State John Kerry, the Palestinians no longer believe it is possible to negotiate with the current Israeli government. Therefore, they have decided to move forward and ask for international recognition of a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders.

Dr. Christoph Zopel, former German deputy foreign minister, commented that Israel was founded justifiably after the Holocaust, with the aid of an international resolution at the UN; it would therefore be logical that a Palestinian state also be founded with the aid of an international UN resolution. He quoted former German chancellor Willy Brandt, who said: “You can only make progress when you speak to people who think differently than you do,” and that “peace is not everything but without peace, everything is nothing.”

■ Career diplomat and ambassador Jeremy Issacharoff is going to have his work cut out for him in his new role as principal deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry and head of multilateral affairs.

The British-born and raised Issacharoff came to Israel at age 22, joined the IDF and after completing his service, joined the Foreign Ministry’s legal affairs division, participating in the negotiation of several normalization treaties in the wake of the peace treaty with Egypt. He was subsequently appointed a member of the Israeli delegation to the UN, then headed by Benjamin Netanyahu.

From 1992-1993, Issacharoff worked under then-foreign minister Peres. In 1993, he was appointed minister counselor for political affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, where he was primarily responsible for handling bilateral strategic issues in the political- military realm. His next appointment after returning to Israel was as head of the Foreign Ministry’s arms control bureau.

He was back at Washington’s Israeli Embassy in 2005, serving during the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead. In this period, he was asked by the UN secretary- general to become a member of the UN Advisory Board on Disarmament Affairs; he served on the board for five years.

Working in this and other capacities, Issacharoff gained extensive experience in coordinating diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, the US-Israel strategic relationship and Israel’s policy regarding regional security and nuclear issues. Recently, Issacharoff successfully led efforts to reject an Arab draft resolution in the International Atomic Energy Agency regarding Israel’s nuclear capabilities, and to include Hezbollah on the EU terrorism list.

In his current role, Issacharoff will oversee the divisions of international organizations, strategic affairs and economics, as well as Israel’s aid agency MASHAV.

■ Diplomacy was also among the elements of the recent worldwide Shabbat Project led by South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein. British Ambassador Mathew Gould, his wife, Celia, and their daughters, Rachel and Emily, decided to join tens of thousands of Jews around the world and keep Shabbat together.

The Gould family also learned the art of halla baking, which for some people is one of the most important vehicles leading to year-round Shabbat observance.

Gould said afterwards: “We were happy to be part of the Shabbat Project. Shabbat is important to us as a day with family, and without work. In our hectic lives, it is our weekly oasis.”

■ In commemoration of singing rabbi Shlomo Carlebach on the 20th anniversary of his death, the Shlomo Carlebach Foundation is organizing a “Song of Songs that were Shlomo’s,” which will bring together some leading Carlebach exponents, such as Ben-Zion Solomon and Sons, Chaim-Dovid Saracik, Aharon Razel, Shlomo Katz, Chizki Sofer, Yishai Ribo, Ayal Cohen and Yehuda Katz, at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center on Saturday night, November 8 at 9 p.m.

Carlebach was also a great teacher of Jewish thought and tradition, and it is safe to say that few rabbis have left as large an impact. There are many great Torah scholars who are known only within specific Jewish circles, whereas Carlebach was truly a citizen of the world – beloved by Jew and non-Jew, religious and secular alike. His music and teachings have outdistanced the man with Carlebach minyanim in almost every country in which Jews congregate in prayer, adopting bits and pieces of his legacy.

■ It's not uncommon in family squabbles for relatives to say the most hurtful and unkind things to and about each other. But heaven help someone outside the family who says the same things about the same people.

The same goes for a nation. Many of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s most outspoken detractors are bristling over the insulting remarks made by an anonymous senior American administration official. For the time being, many Israelis have put aside their disagreements with the prime minister and have rallied to cry foul against the rude and loud-mouthed official, who if there was such a prize, should ironically receive the award for the promotion of Israeli unity.

■ The embassy of the Hellenic Republic, in cooperation with Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, will commemorate the painful period of Greek Jews under Nazi occupation with several exhibitions, a film and a lecture presentation that will be attended by Greek Ambassador Spyridon Lampridis and Zanet Battinou, director of the Jewish Museum of Greece.

The event will take place at Beit Hatfutsot on Wednesday, November 12 at 7 p.m. Most Greek Jews were deported to Auschwitz; many did not survive.

■ Reporting last week on the opening in Paris of the Louis Vuitton Foundation’s cultural center and contemporary art museum, which was designed by prize-winning, Los Angeles-based architect Frank Gehry, Israel Radio’s Gideon Kutz said Gehry had complained he had never been asked to create anything in Israel, and noted that in the design contest for the new National Library in Jerusalem, he had lost out to the Swiss firm of Herzog & de Meuron. This was because they claimed to have more environmental expertise and had been happy to dialogue with the executive board of the library, whereas Gehry did not want any infringement on his design.

In Paris, the Louis Vuitton Foundation had given him a free hand, and the result was spectacular.

However, it is not quite true that he never had a chance to create anything in Israel. Nearly a dozen years ago, Ghery (born Goldberg to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents in Toronto), was in Jerusalem at the President’s Residence, then occupied by Moshe Katsav, for the unveiling of his model for the Center for Human Dignity, more commonly known in Israel as the controversial Museum of Tolerance, which over the years has developed an image of intolerance and controversy. The land for the museum was made available by Ehud Olmert, then mayor of the capital. The plans included a museum, theater complex, international conference center, grand hall, atrium, education center, library, lecture halls, museum gift shop and gardens.

At the unveiling ceremony, Ghery said: “Designing a building for Jerusalem is indeed a great honor for me.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to have the opportunity to bring whatever talents I have to work on a project of such noble cause, in a city of such great importance.”

In January 2010, Ghery announced his withdrawal from the Jerusalem project. It was not certain whether this was due to a disagreement with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is building the museum, or to the fact that the museum is on the site of a Muslim cemetery.

Construction began in 2005 and was due to be completed in 2007, but protests, court cases and economic realties have delayed the opening by more than seven years. Construction is progressing very slowly, and the project is nowhere near completion.

In the interim, several development projects have sprung up and been completed in the immediate vicinity, among them the Mamilla Mall and Hotel, the Waldorf Astoria and the World Center for North African Jewish Heritage.

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