Head of Polish Jewish group: Poland-Israel issue is a political not personal

Physical attacks against Jews have been minimal, but verbal attacks in recent months have been vicious.

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February 26, 2019 01:16
DETAILS ON a Jewish grave in Poland

DETAILS ON a Jewish grave in Poland. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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People-to-people contacts between Poles and Israelis are much better than political contacts between Poland and Israel, says Monika Krawczyk, who in January was elected president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland. She is the first woman to hold the post, since the enactment of the 1997 law regulating the status of the union.


Krawczyk was supposed to be part of the delegation accompanying Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to Israel. But when he canceled, she didn’t. It was important for her to come – in her new role to meet people in the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization, the World Jewish Congress, the Foreign Affairs Ministry and other organizations and institutions with which she will have close dealings.
A lawyer by profession, Krawczyk has been the director of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, known by its Polish acronym of FODZ, for the past 14 years. During that period she has overseen the restoration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, and has promoted Jewish educational and cultural programs.


She will wind up her duties with FODZ at the end of March. One of her key missions at the foundation was to lobby for the restitution of Jewish community property.


This task will also be a main focus in her new post.


During a meeting of religious Zionist mayors that she attended at Aish HaTorah last week, which was also attended by acting Foreign Minister Israel Katz, she asked him why he had exacerbated the crisis between Poland and Israel. Katz had referenced a remark made by former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir in which he claimed that Poles “suckled antisemitism from their mother’s milk.” Katz had replied that he was referring to the past, not to the present.


Some Polish journalists actually welcomed Katz’s reference, she says, because it brought the matter into the open and created a new platform for discussion.


But in many cases, this has led to a new kind of antisemitism on social media. FODZ meticulously monitors antisemitic incidents, she says. 


With regard to desecration of Jewish holy sites, there may be only two or three a year. Physical attacks against Jews have been minimal, but verbal attacks in recent months have been vicious.


Krawczyk said that when reading some of these posts, she has to remind herself of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, because not every painful comment falls within the framework of that definition.


“But you read it and it touches you as spreading negativity towards Jews,” she said. “Everyone in Poland thinks he’s an expert on World War II.”


Polish people are very interested in history, she says, “but Holocaust history is not properly taught in the school system.” She intends to take this up with the Polish Education Ministry. Through FODZ, she also has a good and long-standing relationship with the Polish Culture Ministry – which, she says, will intensify.


The Polish people are very sensitive to any suggestion that they collaborated with the Nazis, she says, adding that among those who have filed their protests on social media, some have gone to the extent of accusing Jews of being the perpetrators of the Holocaust, citing Judenrat examples of causing suffering to other Jews, and Jewish policemen betraying Jews in the ghetto.


Krawczyk says that the appointment of the Judenrat was a Nazi ploy, “but you can’t say that the Jews perpetrated the Holocaust against themselves.” She acknowledges that there were Jews who betrayed other Jews, who were forced into leadership positions by the Nazis and who did as they were ordered to save their own lives or the lives of their families. But there were also those who would never have risen to leadership under other conditions, and those who could not bear what they were forced to do and committed suicide.


But that doesn’t mean that Jews as a whole were involved in their own genocide, she insists, noting that the World Jewish Congress raised millions of dollars to help the Jews in the ghettos during wartime and afterward.


Just as the finger of blame cannot be cast at the Jewish people per se, it cannot be cast at the Polish people, as if the guilt of those who did collaborate spills over to the whole nation.


The Polish government in exile in London sent Jan Karski into the Warsaw Ghetto, which was also a destination for people deported from Germany, Austria and Holland, says Krawczyk. It was crucial to bring the information gathered by Karski to the attention of the allies, she says, and he did bring it to the attention of the British and American governments; so to accuse the Polish people of collaboration is illogical.


Krawczyk is concerned that if the Polish social media retaliation gets any worse, it could lead to Holocaust denial. Unfortunately, both Poles and Jews are rewriting Holocaust history to suit their own needs and beliefs, she says. She is convinced that upcoming elections in both Poland and Israel have beefed up the crisis situation.


“We cannot afford to forget that both Jews and gentiles were involved in rescue operations during the Holocaust,” she says.


Yet, despite the diplomatic fall-out, Israelis continue to come to Poland not only to explore their roots, but for shopping and vacations as well because it’s cheaper than doing so at home. By the same token, Polish tourists come to Israel, not only as Catholic pilgrims, but to spend time in Tel Aviv.


“Tel Aviv is known in Poland as a great place in which to spend a weekend,” she says. There are also cultural and business exchanges, in addition to cooperation on defense issues. “Israeli companies are investing in Poland and Polish companies are interested in Israeli technology,” she adds.


All this provides a platform for good relations, she says.


Asked how many Jews there currently are in Poland, Krawczyk can’t give even a ballpark figure because she can only take into account those who are registered with the union or with the Jewish Culture Association. Some 2,000 are registered with the union, which is the umbrella for the nine largest Jewish communities in Poland, and about a thousand more are registered with the Cultural Association. Not all who are registered are halachically Jewish, however; all that is required to officially register as a member of the Jewish community is having at least one Jewish grandparent.


Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Shudrich, says that he believes that there are 30,000 to 40,000 Jews in Poland, but not all are aware that they are Jewish.


Krawczyk doesn’t argue with this. She says she simply doesn’t know, but says she is conscious of the fact that in recent years many hidden Jews have come to the fore.


Relating to the bilateral situation in general, Krawczyk says: “We have much more to gain [by] looking forward into the future than back into the past.”


This is not to suggest that the past should be ignored, but simply to acknowledge that the future is no less important.


She says that face-to-face contact is always more effective than electronic mail or telephone conversations, and that is one of the reasons she decided to come to Israel, even though the prime minister stayed home.


She is also keen to introduce a fresh Zionist spirit into Poland’s Jewish community, and to start the ball rolling. Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog, who has deep Polish roots himself, will visit Poland during the first week of March.


She herself is a practicing Orthodox Zionist, who visits Israel as frequently as possible, but who has put her Zionist dream of aliyah on hold. When asked why she doesn’t make aliyah, her reply is: “Because I’m needed in Poland. We must make sure that places on Polish soil that are connected with universal Jewish history are preserved. For this, we need the political and material support of Israel and the Jewish world.”

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