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(photo credit: Courtesy of the Menahem Begin Center)
Poland's prominent role in European Jewish history is well known, but less commonly acknowledged are the crucial contributions made by Jews to Poland during their hundreds of years of residence there.
A new exhibition, "Struggle for Liberty: Jewish Soldiers in the Polish Army," draws attention to a largely unfamiliar aspect of Jewish life in Poland, depicting Jews' military service in the defense of the country. The show opened last month at Jerusalem's Menachem Begin Heritage Center in the presence of Polish President Lech Kaczynski during the leader's first state visit to Israel.
The show includes some 300 items related to the life of Jews serving in the Polish army between the end of the 18th century and the final days of World War II. At the outbreak of the second world war, the exhibit notes, roughly one-tenth of the entire Polish army was Jewish, with one general among the army's Jewish officers. In the second half of the war, much of the so-called Anders Army, led by Polish General Wladydlaw Anders, was also Jewish. Anders Army would eventually become part of the British Eighth Army, and fought in Egypt and Italy.
"For me, as a Pole, this is a very moving exhibition," said Krzysztof Olendzki, Undersecretary of State at the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. "During the Holocaust, we lost something very important, a living part of our body, of our society. Now, after all these years, we strongly feel a necessity to remember that the history of Polish Jews is an important part of Polish culture and our national heritage."
Until the Holocaust, during which approximately 90 percent of all Polish Jews were killed, the Jewish community played key roles in Polish society for nearly a millennium. The first evidence of Jewish presence in what later became the modern state of Poland dates from 966. Jews made their first appearance in Polish legal documents in the 11th century, and the first long-standing Jewish community there came into existence around the same time.
According to Olendzki there has been a recent surge of interest among Poles in the history of their country's Jewish community. "This revival of thinking, and a wave of interest among young Polish people, about the role of Jews in Poland started around the early Eighties, towards the end of the Communist regime," he said. "Today, the University of Warsaw has courses in Hebrew and Yiddish. My own niece studies both, because she wants to be well-informed about the past, and about what the Jews did in Poland.
"There is particular interest in the Holocaust," Olendzki continued. "When I studied at university, when I studied Polish history, my colleagues and I tried to delve deeper into the history to discover the role the Jews had played. We found books and evidence in all sorts of archives."
The recent rise in anti-Semitism across Europe provides just one more reason Poles should be educated about Jewish service in the Polish army, Polish officials said during the exhibition's opening. While Olendzki is plainly unnerved by the mention of anti-Semitism returning to Poland, he wholeheartedly agreed with the idea that knowledge about the Jewish community can help prevent racism against it. "There is a rise in anti-Semitism all over the whole world, not specifically in Poland, and that is scaring us very much," he said. "We want the whole world to be aware of the Holocaust, not just in Poland. Hopefully, that will help to moderate anti-Semitism."
The exhibition includes facsimiles of a variety of documents, including military call-up papers and birth certificates. There are also enlargements of some highly emotive photographs of Jewish soldiers in uniform, among them one of a young Menachem Begin, with his wife Aliza, during the period when he served in the Anders Army. Another shows a high-ranking Polish army officer, accompanied by a rabbi, receiving a loan from the Warsaw Jewish community.
The exhibition is particularly poignant for Aryeh Reich. The 84-year-old resident of Ramat Aviv turned up at the exhibition's opening resplendent in a British army jacket festooned with medals. "I fought in Anders' Army," he recalled proudly. "I walked across much of Poland before I was captured by the Soviets, in March 1940, and was taken to a camp in the Ukraine. I fought in Italy and North Africa, and I got a medal from [British Field Marshall] Montgomery. We played our part in the war."
In addition to the Polish President, visitors to the exhibition have included the Polish ambassador to Israel and World Jewish Congress Vice President Yehiel Leket. The latter caused something of a stir when he raised the issue of compensation for lost Polish Jewish property at the exhibition's opening, and Kaczynski, who followed Leket to the podium, declined to address the matter, focusing instead on the contributions of Jews to Polish society over the centuries. The Polish leader also presented Sarah Batt, a resident of Haifa, with a decoration in recognition of her work in the Polish resistance during the war.
The exhibition runs through October 15.