Less than a week before Israel hosts a government-to-government meeting with its Polish counterparts at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem this coming Tuesday, Polish Ambassador Jacek Chodorowicz took time out to address the Ambassadors’ Forum at Tel Aviv University.
The forum is a relatively intimate monthly gathering of some 50 people. Chodorowicz had met some of them before and was aware that they would ask probing questions, which though politely put, were indicative of sharp differences of opinion between Israel and Poland – at least on the academic level.
Congratulated afterward by a member of the audience for withstanding the unbridled criticism, Chodorowicz replied: “There are friendly places and not so friendly places, and this is a friendly place.”
Indeed, Tel Aviv University has an Institute for the Study of the History of Polish Jewry.
TAU faculty members participate in university-sponsored conferences in Poland and there are student exchanges between TAU and Polish universities.
Krakow’s Jagiellonian University has a program of Jewish studies covering the history of Jews from biblical times to the present day and includes religion, philosophy, culture and compulsory courses in Yiddish and modern Hebrew.
TAU also enjoys good relations with the University of Warsaw, where Menachem Begin was a law student, and where former Israeli ambassador to Poland Prof. Szewach Weiss has lectured and has received an honorary doctorate.
Chodorowicz, 52, was born in Warsaw, and studied history at Warsaw University. Although a diplomat by profession, he is an historian by inclination, and made no attempt to whitewash the unsavory aspects of Polish Jewish history. He explained how the symbiosis between Poles and Jews – a millennium of coexistence – had been disrupted by the Second World War.
Quoting the late Avigdor Dagan, who was Israel’s ambassador to Poland in the early years of diplomatic relations between the two countries, Chodorowicz said, “We want normal relations, but our history has been extraordinary.”
As both an historian and a diplomat, Chodorowicz supported Dagan’s statement, but emphasized that since Poland regained its independence after the fall of the Communist regime, Poles and Jews and Poles and Israelis have proved that they can have a normal relationship.
Poland was one of the first countries to recognize Israel in 1948, but in 1967, as one of the Soviet bloc countries, was obliged to sever relations.
“There was no trade, no flights, no people to people to people contacts.”
Jews were afraid to identify as Zionists, he continued, and those who wanted to see relatives and friends from Israel traveled to meet them in Romania, which was the only Soviet bloc country which did not sever relations with Israel.
“Basically there were no contacts till the 1980s,” said Chodorowicz, who described the period of noncommunication as “terrible,” because Poland, after a thousand years of Polish- Jewish history, had to pretend it didn’t exist. “We need to catch up,” he said, stressing that Poland was the first Soviet bloc country to resume relations with Israel and that Poland today “is a friend of Israel’s.”
Only countries that have good relationships with each other hold G2G meetings, he pointed out. He also noted that Poland has a Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
“The new generation of Polish historians does not shy away from the truth,” he asserted.
“No one questions violence and antisemitism, just as no-one questions the atrocities of the Nazis.”
A new law in Poland makes the expression “Polish death camps” in relation to the killing fields set up by the Nazis a criminal offence, which could lead to a three-year spell in prison or a very hefty fine. Jewish academics including Israelis see this as an attempt to distort or rewrite history, whereas Poles see it as righting a long-standing wrong.
“The law aims to stop attempts to distort the history of Poland.
The camps were set up by the occupying Nazis. We have been struggling with “Polish death camps” for the past 25 years,” said Chodorowicz, explaining that the Polish government has decided that diplomats can’t keep fighting it in the media.
Indeed, Chodorowicz, his predecessors and embassy spokesmen have had to fight it more in Israel than in most other places, partially because so many Polish Holocaust survivors experienced Polish antisemitism before and after the war, and see the Poles as collaborators, even though Polish Righteous Among the Nations by far outnumber righteous non-Jews from other nations who risked their lives to save Jews.
Chodorowicz went to great pains to remind his audience that not only Jewish Poles suffered under the Nazis. Poles of all denominations were victimized.
Chodorowicz spoke softly and convincingly, but he was not sufficiently convincing for at least two TAU academicians.
Prof. Havi Dreifuss, a senior lecturer in the Department of Jewish History at TAU, said that she had read the new law and it bothered her. She was also disturbed by the possibility that Polish-American historian Jan Tomasz Gross may be put on trial for writing about Polish war crimes committed during the Holocaust.
Gross wrote about the massacre by Poles of the Jewish community of Jedwabne, in Nazi occupied Poland, in July 1941. Dreifuss commented that high-ranking Polish officials were involved in hiding the truth about what happened in Jedwabne, as well as the Kielce pogrom five years later, a year after the war was over.
“We can see it happening again with Gross,” she said, asking where was the border between academic freedom, as well as the work of educators and reporters in relation to the new law. “Researchers are very worried about the atmosphere in Poland, where freedom of academic thought is being condemned,” she said.
Prof. Dina Porat, chief historian at Yad Vashem and head of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at TAU, wanted to know who was going to decide the limits of historical rewriting.
She also questioned the attitude of the Polish government to righteous gentiles, and who should be recognized as one, and drew attention to the different attitudes of Polish officials and historians.
Chodorowicz defended his government, acknowledging that there are different voices, but saying that he is not worried about historians. He and Dreifuss concurred that charges of Polish war crimes would be investigated and confirmed or denied by IPN, which is Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, a government-affiliated research institute.
As for the Righteous among the Nations, Chodorowicz doubts that Poland wants to enlarge the criteria, but conceded that there are people in Poland who believe that the way it is done in Israel is restrictive, “because there were others who helped Jews who deserve recognition.”
To drive home this point Chodorowicz said, “We don’t want to impose anything on Yad Vashem, but we want some form of recognition.”
Chodorowicz also referred to the revival of Jewish life in Poland – both religious and cultural – and said that according to the national census there are 8,000 Jews in Poland. According to the Jewish community itself, he said there are 20,000 to 40,000 Jews or people of Jewish origin, but he personally thinks that the numbers are underestimated.
He praised the work of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, and said that in religious terms “Jewish life is booming.”
Polish Jewry follows every stream from Reform to Chabad, and culturally, there are numerous Jewish festivals in Poland that are not necessarily run by Jews, and which have a huge following, he said.
On the last night of the annual Jewish festival in Krakow, he said, there are thousands of people from all over Poland.
The Krakow festival is the biggest and attracts some 40,000 people each year. But there are also Jewish festivals in Warsaw, Lodz, Lublin and Gdansk, and each year on Succot, non-Jews put up a succa in the largest shopping mall in Kielce.
“It’s a phenomenon which you will not find anywhere else in Europe,” said Chodorowicz, who credited the American Jewish Committee, the World Jewish Congress and the Taube Foundation for playing important roles in the renewal of Jewish life in Poland.
He omitted to mention the Lauder Foundation, the Koret Foundation, the Nissenbaum Family Foundation, the Sigmun Rolat Foundation, the JOINT Distribution Committee, Shavei Israel and others, some of which were active even during the Communist era. All these organizations and foundations empower the Jewish community and help to foster Jewish life in Poland.
The really good news as far as Israel is concerned is that “BDS is nonexistent in Poland.”
Other than Jewish issues, Chodorowicz also talked about how beneficial it was for Poland to gain access to the European Union and to NATO.
“We have regained the status of which we were by the Communists, and we do not see our place outside of the EU,” said Chodorowicz, who also commented that the EU “should be less bureaucratic and prove its democratic legitimacy.”