Polish Ambassador Jacek Chodorowicz has been heavily involved in the planning of events to mark the 25th anniversary of the renewal of diplomatic ties between Israel and Poland. In fact he has been so busy that our interview has been deferred again and again. It finally took place in his office in Tel Aviv on June 5 – an auspicious date in that according to the Gregorian calendar, it was the 48th anniversary of the beginning of the Six Day War, as a result of which Poland and all Soviet Bloc countries with the exception of Romania severed diplomatic ties with Israel.
Now, 48 years later, Chodorowicz is talking about how much Poland wants to strengthen those ties on all levels – political, cultural, economic, scientific and hi-tech cooperation, two-way tourism, academic cooperation and exchanges and more.
Just a few days prior to our meeting, an Israeli delegation representing the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus and the World Jewish Congress was in Warsaw for the launch at the Polish Sejm of the Polish Parliamentary and Israel Allied Caucus.
Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna is in Israel within the framework of the silver anniversary celebrations and is accompanied by all former Polish ambassadors to Israel who are still living, plus historians Bozena Szaynok and director of Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews Dariusz Stola, as well as a 90-member business, academic and local authority delegation, which according to Chodorowicz, is the largest Polish delegation of its kind to come to the country.
In addition to the usual political discussions and meetings with Israeli dignitaries, and a joint Israeli- Polish business forum aimed at two way investments and joint ventures in hi-tech, information technology, green tech and venture capital funds, three other important events were on the minister’s itinerary.
One was a visit to Masada on Friday for the New Israeli Opera production of the scenic cantata Carmina Burana that has considerable Polish input; the second is a conference taking place Sunday in Jerusalem and jointly sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, the Foreign Ministry and the Polish Embassy; and the third is a film on Polish hero, resistance fighter and honorary citizen of Israel Jan Karski, which will be held Sunday night in Jerusalem, in the presence of World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder.
The director of Carmina Burana, Michal Znaniecki, the costume designer Magdalena Dabrowska, the lighting designer Bogumil Palewicz and the Kielce Dance Theater are all from Poland.
The AJC was instrumental in helping to broker a deal whereby emigration restrictions for Jews would be eased providing that they went to Israel and not directly to the United States. Poland, even in Communist times had agreed to be a bridge between the Soviet Union and Israel. In a plan conceived by then prime minister Shimon Peres, those Jews who were granted exit permits would be moved by train to Poland and from there would be airlifted to Israel. The World Jewish Congress was also in the forefront of this effort.
The plan was being discussed as early as 1985, when Edgar Bronfman, who was then president of the WJC, flew to Moscow with a message from Peres to ask the Soviets to allow Jews to leave. Few people at the time believed that an airlift to Israel was possible. There was too much Arab pressure on Soviet bloc countries.
But as is the case with so many things related to Israel, the impossible became possible. Bronfman subsequently spoke to Wojciech Jaruzelski, the last of Poland’s Communist leaders. Arrangements were put in place, but it was not until March 1990 that Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland’s first non-Communist prime minister in nearly half a century announced that Poland would serve as a bridge to enable Jews from what was then the crumbling Soviet Union to go to Israel. Nonetheless, it was a secret operation, carried out only at night. Some 40,000 Soviet Jews were taken to Israel on Operation Bridge.
Chodorowicz attributed Poland’s willingness to an empathy by Poles who had been oppressed for Jews who were living under oppression.
To mark the 25th anniversary, Poland’s Foreign Ministry has released archive documents that include not only all the protocols leading up to the resumption of diplomatic relations that were signed in February 1990 by foreign ministers Krzysztof Skubiszewski and Moshe Arens but also the letters of credence of Polish-born Mordechaj Palzur, who was Israel’s first ambassador to Poland following the renewal of diplomatic ties, and Israel’s agreement to the appointment of Jan Dowgiallo as Poland’s first ambassador to Israel. Palzur will be one of the speakers at the conference.
Lauder will be attending the screening of the Karski film not only in his capacity as president of the WJC, but also as one of the earliest Jewish philanthropists engaged in restoring Jewish life in Poland. The Lauder Foundation funded many educational programs and established a Jewish school in Warsaw that included kindergarten, elementary and junior high school.
The Karski film concentrates on Karski’s conversations with president Franklin D. Roosevelt and Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter about the situation of the Jews in Poland. Roosevelt didn’t want to hear, and Frankfurter found it difficult to believe.
Chodorowicz is much more interested in talking about the 25th anniversary celebrations that will culminate on Monday with a bilateral business conference, than in talking about himself, or even his experiences in his previous postings, but despite his reticence, it was possible to pry a little personal information from him.
Born and raised in Warsaw, Chodorowicz, 51, is a historian by inclination. He studied history at the Warsaw University, whose law school was the alma mater of Menachem Begin, who is listed as one of the Nobel Prize laureates from among the university’s graduates.
A plaque in Begin’s memory was put up in the law school in 2001. But approximately a decade before that Poland’s legendary foreign minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski who died this past April at age 93, came to Israel bringing with him as a goodwill gesture the university’s records of Menachem Begin the law student.
When President Reuven Rivlin was in Poland last October, he visited the university and placed a wreath under the Begin plaque.
Chodorowicz joined Poland’s Foreign Ministry in 1992. By that time, the Communist regime was no longer in power. Solidarity had in June 1989 won the first free elections in a Soviet Bloc country, and doing so changed the course of history not only in Europe, but in the world.
Born and raised during the Communist era, Chodorowicz had no problem in shaking off the Communist mentality. It was natural for university students to hold anti-establishment discussions, and Solidarity had been a significant force long before the elections that swept it into power and changed the order of things in Poland. In addition, he said, there had always been pockets of relatively free thinkers in Poland, with a huge underground opposition structure.
There had been an active underground press that had disseminated anti-establishment ideologies, so the young Chodorowicz had no trouble in making the mental switch from an oppressive to a liberal regime.
His diplomatic career has been primarily focused on Africa, Asia and the Middle East. From 1993-1995 he was head of the Sub-Saharan Africa Section in the Department of Africa, Asia, Australia and Pacific in Poland’s Foreign Ministry. From 1995 to 1999 he was chargé d’affaires in the Polish Embassy in Harare.
Back in Poland again, he was appointed director of the Department of Africa and the Middle East, and in 2002 he was sent to Damascus as ambassador to Syria, remaining there till 2008. He was next back in his old job as director of the Department of Africa and the Middle East, and has been Poland’s ambassador to Israel since 2012.
He will be escorting Schetyna to meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, President Reuven Rivlin and former president Shimon Peres.
During the visit, Schetyna will mention Poland’s expectation that the government of Israel will continue to pursue a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will lead to a two state solution.
Discussion between the Polish foreign minister and Israeli officials will also center on security measures in the region. On a bilateral level the talks will also focus on new levels of cooperation and people to people relations through youth and cultural exchanges as well as changing perceptions of Poland in the eyes of Israelis.
This latter process has already begun said Chodorowicz, as many Israelis travel to Poland not only to find their roots and to visit death camps, but also to see the country which has much to offer. He attributes part of this greater interest in Poland as a tourist destination to the opening last year of Poland’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews that provides a comprehensive picture of Jewish life in Poland for almost a millennia.
Efforts to pin Chodorowicz down on the situation in Syria are almost futile.
“When I was in Syria, I believed that I knew Syria and the Syrians,” he conceded, but he would not venture to propose any possible scenario of how current events will pan out. “What we’ve seen in the last four years is a brutal civil war. We couldn’t see the roots of that in the past.”
Chodorowicz had personally doubted that Syria would follow in the path of the Arab Spring, but readily admitted that he was wrong and that he could be wrong in any presumption that he might make about the end result because facts on the ground are changing so rapidly.
Asked about anti-Semitism in Poland today, Chodorowicz made no attempt to evade the issue. He acknowledged that there were isolated incidents, but emphasized that this is not government policy and that every effort is being made to prevent anti-Semitism and to punish offenders. In general Poles are very interested in Jewish culture, he said, citing the various Jewish culture festivals that attract large attendances of mainly non-Jewish Poles.
Chodorowicz has the impression that Israelis are also interested in Polish culture, particularly its culinary culture as attendance at Polish food festivals in Israel would indicate.
He likes to eat in restaurants that serve authentic Polish delicacies, but these are now few and far between because chefs are always trying to give a new twist to old recipes – and that tends to detract from the authenticity.
Aside from that there is a new Polish cuisine with which Israelis are not yet familiar.
While Poland through the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and numerous academic conferences, is exploring its past in relation to its Jews, it is much more interested in its future and its future relationship with Israel, he said.
As an historian himself, Chodorowicz is extremely interested in the history of Polish Jews in Israel, and when he has the time, he likes to track down Polish born Israelis. Most of the early leaders of the state were either born in Poland or have Polish roots, he said. He and his wife Monika Herbst-Chodorowicz like to travel in the country whenever the opportunity presents itself. They favor the North where the greenery reminds them of Poland, especially when they feel homesick.
Chodorowicz has found his time in Israel rewarding in the many ways in which bilateral relations have been improved, and Israel is also an interesting place for him in which to observe developments in the region as a whole. At the same time he said, “it is disappointing to witness the lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.”
On a personal level, Chodorowicz is so busy that his great regret is that he doesn’t have sufficient time to read.