When Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich received word on Saturday night that Polish President Lech Kaczynski had been killed in a plane crash, along with 95 other members of the country’s elite, he knew that not only had a “great friend of Israel and the Jewish people” perished, but that his own life had been spared.
Schudrich had been invited to accompany the Polish delegation on its trip to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Forest Massacre near the Russian border with Belarus, and had only declined to go because the flight was on Shabbat.
“I know that if it hadn’t been Shabbat, I would have been on that plane,” Schudrich told The Jerusalem Post
by telephone from Warsaw on Sunday. “It gives one great pause for thought.
“However, the point is the tragedy which has befallen the Polish people, and that the Jewish people have lost a real friend,” he said.
Kaczynski had “cared greatly for the Jews, and fought to memorialize both the Holocaust and the contribution of Jews to Polish society,” Schudrich said.
“He was very helpful to the [Jewish] community. He was a strong friend of Israel, and we will all miss him.”
The rabbi explained that since the onset of democracy in Poland, which came with the rise to power of the Solidarity Movement in 1989 and the election of president Lech Walesa in 1990, a Polish embrace of its Jewish past had been “steadily rising.”
“Walesa took the first steps with his  visit to Israel and speech to the Knesset,” Schudrich said. “And each [president since] has taken it to the next level.
“There has been a very steady progression of Polish recognition of the country’s Jewish past and friendship toward Israel over the last 20 years, and it’s never slipped back.”
Reflecting on the fact that Kaczynski’s death came a day before the beginning of Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, Schudrich also mentioned that Poland had lost six million citizens during World War II – three million of whom were Jews.
“Those three million [Jewish] deaths made up 90 percent of the Polish Jewish population,” Schudrich said. “The three million non-Jewish Poles made up 10% of the country’s entire population, which constitutes a horrible tragedy on its own. In some ways, this country is still overcoming the loss it experienced in WWII.
“But there’s been a huge change in Poland, in the sense that for 50 years, you couldn’t talk about Jews,” Schudrich continued.
“Under the Nazis, Jews were killed, and under the Communists, it was forbidden to talk about them. Jewish contributions to culture, Jewish history, it simply wasn’t mentioned. So all of a sudden, you have two generations of Poles who don’t really understand the Jewish contributions to Poland.
“It’s not so much anti-Semitism, which does exist, but the Soviet occupation of Poland, which rendered Judaism in this country a topic that people simply didn’t know about,” he said.
“But sitting here in Warsaw as the chief rabbi, just over the last two years I’ve seen an increase in phone calls from Poles, whether it be a mayor, a high school principal or a priest, who say, ‘We have a neglected cemetery or an old synagogue that needs repair,’ or, ‘We want to put on a play about Jewish culture.’
“And what you hear now,” Schudrich continued, “is that instead of saying we want to save ‘your’ cemetery, they’ll say ‘our’ cemetery. It’s a sense that it belongs to them as well, that it’s part of their greater community.”
Schudrich brushed off a 2006 incident in which he was attacked by a neo-Nazi in Warsaw with pepper spray.
“I got pepper sprayed,” the rabbi said. “Anti-Semitism has been here all along, as it has been throughout Europe. But it’s not what people imagine it to be and it’s not what it was in the 1930s – very much thanks to Pope John Paul II, of blessed memory, who did more to fight anti-Semitism than any Catholic leader before him.”
Nonetheless, the rabbi agreed that Poland’s history, specifically through the prism of the Holocaust, was an especially painful one for Jews.
“I’d say that Poland is a graveyard from the Shoah,” Schudrich said.
“No matter how good relations get – and they are very good – Poland
will always be that graveyard. It’s not a negotiable fact, and it’s one
that somehow we have to live with and pay respect to and be sensitive
“But while I think that we are very good at identifying and fighting
anti-Semitism,” Schudrich said, “we are weaker when it comes to
identifying potential friends. And today here in Poland we have many
friends, not everybody, but many.”
See related story, Page 8.