Grapevine: The Poles are coming

These days, Warsaw is among Jerusalem’s best friends in Europe.

March 12, 2015 20:32
Reuven Rivlin

President Reuven Rivlin visits newly built Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw October 28, 2014.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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This year is the 25th anniversary of the renewal of diplomatic relations between Israel and Poland.

Relations were severed in 1967, when all Soviet bloc countries other than Romania cut off their diplomatic ties with the Jewish state – though in several cases there was back-door diplomacy based primarily on commerce and culture, and bilateral interests went through third-party conduits.

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These days, Warsaw is among Jerusalem’s best friends in Europe. Israelis and Jews from other countries, while still going to Poland to trace their roots and to visit death camps such as Auschwitz, Treblinka and Majdanek, also take in some of Poland’s soul-stirring tourist attractions – such as a Chopin concert in the house where Chopin once lived. In recent weeks, there have been Polish culinary, cultural and political events and more are on the way, including on the immediate horizon.

This week, a group of Holocaust survivors from Krakow who opted to remain in Poland after the war and under the Communist regime came to Israel for the first time, under the auspices of the Krakow Jewish Community Center. One said he had to see Israel before he died; another purchased his first swimsuit in years, to wear when experiencing the uniqueness of the Dead Sea.

Also this week, Prof. Gershon Bacon, speaking at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai, discussed the origins of Polish Jewry and the symbiotic relationship between Poles and Jews that has existed for 1,000 years, as well as the myths and legends that have evolved around the realities of Jewish life in Poland. Next week, there will be discussion on another aspect of the Polish-Jewish or Jewish-Polish experience, and the week after that, the theme will be Jewish life during interwar Poland.

Elsewhere in the capital next week, but not far away, scholars and diplomats from several countries including China will participate in a four-day conference at the Begin Heritage Center on “The Allied Powers’ Response to the Holocaust.” Among the speakers with Polish connections will be Michael Fleming, a professor of history at the Polish University Abroad, London.

He is also the conference secretary for the Institute for Polish Jewish Studies; has previously taught at Jesus College and Pembroke College, Oxford University; and has been a visiting researcher at the Pułtusk School of Humanities and at the Institute of History, Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.

Others include Polish Ambassador Jacek Chodorowicz; historian Dariusz Stola, the director of Polin, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews; and Dr. Wojtek Rappak of University College London, who will discuss how Polish wartime hero Jan Karski was rebuffed by US president Franklin D.

Roosevelt. Apropos Karski, Dr. Laurence Weinbaum, the editor of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, was Karski’s student in Washington.

Weinbaum will be chairing one of the conference sessions and will also chair a special event in which veteran, internationally acclaimed documentary filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, best-known for his epic work Shoah, will present his film The Karski Report.

On March 23, Prof. Leszek Balcerowicz – former finance minister, former deputy prime minister of Poland and author on economic reform in the country at the turn of 1980s and ’90s – will speak at Beit Malam in Jerusalem; he will deliver another lecture on March 26 at the University of Haifa’s Rabin Observatory. He will speak on “Post-Socialist Transition of Central and Eastern Europe,” and will also tackle the problem of growth in today’s Europe/the euro zone. Balcerowicz’s talks are co-sponsored by Kohelet Policy Forum, Friedberg Economics Institute, Haifa Center for German and European Studies and the Polish Embassy.

■ YET ANOTHER Polish connection was in the persona of the late David Azrieli, who pioneered shopping malls in Israel. The Canadian Israeli real estate tycoon, property developer, architect and philanthropist, who died last July at 92, was born in Poland – from where he managed to escape during World War II and come to the Land of Israel.

Azrieli fought in the War of Independence and migrated to Montreal in 1954; it was in Canada that he made his fortune. Although he gave generously to Canadian causes, his heart was in Israel – where in his latter years, he spent a great deal of time investing in the Israeli economy and contributing to educational, cultural and social welfare causes.

He built a network of shopping malls in the Jewish state, inspiring other developers to follow in his footsteps; his first mall was the Ayalon in Ramat Gan.

His daughter Dana, who today runs the Azrieli Group, this month celebrated two major achievements of which her father would certainly have been proud. She opened an Azrieli mall in Ramle and she added a floor to the Ayalon mall, thereby upgrading its image and profitability.

Another Azrieli daughter, Sharon, is an internationally renowned opera singer, with a diverse repertoire that inter alia includes Broadway hits and Yiddish folksongs. Sharon Azrieli Perez has organized a memorial concert for her father, which will take place on March 23 at the Henry Crown Symphony Hall of the Jerusalem Theater. The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra of the Israel Broadcasting Authority will perform Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3, Kaddish, in cooperation with the Azrieli Foundation. There will also be two choirs – one of children, the Ankor Choir; and one of adults, the Oratorio Choir – with narration by Academy Award-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss.

Sharon Azrieli will be the soprano soloist and Steven Mercurio will be the conductor.

In addition, cellist Michael Fitzpatrick will perform Ernest Bloch’s “Jewish cycle,” Schelomo, which was written in 1915, with a centenary performance in memory of David Azrieli.

■ AFTER RUNNING in the Tel Aviv Marathon on February 27, Dutch Ambassador Caspar Veldkamp is running the 10K track in the Jerusalem Marathon today on behalf of Aviv, an independent organization that assists and encourages Holocaust survivors to make full use of their rights.

When Veldkamp ran in the Tel Aviv Marathon, it was also on behalf of Holocaust survivors; he and Australian Ambassador Dave Sharma, together with members of their respective embassies, ran for Aviv at Sharma’s initiative.

The Dutch Embassy team, comprising Veldkamp, embassy defense attaché Lt.-Col.

Dennis van Dijk and several trainees, also included Veldkamp’s youngest son, 14-yearold Philippe. They all succeeded in running the 10K track, each in around or well under 50 minutes.

Aviv is a nonprofit founded in 2007, with the objective of assisting Holocaust survivors in Israel to fully utilize their legal and social rights, to improve their financial status.

Of the approximately 260,000 elderly Holocaust survivors living in Israel today, nearly one-third live in poverty. Thousands of them do not take advantage of their rights under the law and existing Israeli and foreign programs; they are unaware of the benefits or do not know how and where to apply.

Headed by Aviva Silberman, an attorney with long-term experience in the field of survivor rights, Aviv is primarily involved with the instruction of professionals, volunteers, Holocaust survivors and their families on realization of their rights. It is the only agency in Israel that trains volunteers, professionals and survivors on this subject.

Veldkamp was so much inspired by the organization and its goals that he decided to run the 10K in Jerusalem’s Winner Marathon 2015 as well. “I hope I will run a decent time,” he said, “but actually, that is not important. More important is that through participating, I can help to draw attention to this organization and its goals.

“The Dutch Embassy spends much time on allowances and pensions for resistance fighters and war victims from the Netherlands, of which about 1,300 are living in Israel. I have two people working on this full-time and our embassy’s Consul, William Veldhuijzen van Zanten, actively gives attention to the various organizations in this community – such as the two Dutch-speaking retirement homes in Israel.

The survivors from the Netherlands are well taken care of, but we know that so many others are still living in poverty. They should be able to live the rest of their lives with dignity and in comfort.”

Among the other ambassadors who are particularly concerned about the well-being of Holocaust survivors is the UK’s Matthew Gould, who like Veldkamp and Sharma is also an accomplished athlete. Gould will be speaking at the Allied Powers’ Response to the Holocaust conference mentioned above.

■ ON THE subject of athletes and marathons, it goes without saying that Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat will be running in today’s Jerusalem Marathon, as he has done previously.

Barkat also has a record for heroism. It is the duty of every mayor to defend the interests of the residents of his or her city, but Barkat has done more than that – both as mayor and as opposition leader in the Jerusalem City Council. Last month, when he personally tackled an Arab terrorist who had just stabbed an Israeli near city hall, the incident received world-wide media coverage.

Coincidentally, it was exactly 11 years after Barkat entered a Jerusalem bus that had been blown up by a suicide bomber alongside Liberty Bell Park, and personally rescued 16-year-old Liz Montilio, whose wedding he attended in 2013. Barkat was the first to enter the bus after the deafening explosion, and Montilio was not the only person he rescued. He kept returning, and was joined by a passing soldier; the two rescued several wounded passengers before the arrival of Magen David Adom ambulances.

Barkat has been a hero not only in civilian life but also acted bravely during his military service in the Paratroop Brigade – where he served together with Koolanu candidate and former ambassador to the US Michael Oren. Barkat was a company commander and was wounded in the First Lebanon War; he served in the Paratroop Brigade for six years, and later did reserve duty.

As mayor, he has also been concerned with the rights and welfare of the capital’s physically and mentally challenged residents, and has identified with the various organizations and institutions that care for them, advocate for them and protect their rights. Among such organizations is Kamocha, the umbrella body of haredi and other religious voluntary organizations that work with disabled children and young adults; Shalva, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary of vital programs for children and their families, provided free of charge in Jerusalem; and Alei Siach, which provides care and support services for children and adults with special needs, as well as appropriate support for their families.

The Jerusalem Post, which promotes social change including the concept of respect for others regardless of mental or physical disabilities, has a special relationship with both Shalva and Alei Siach. Together with Alei Siach, it has launched Newsbite, a project aimed at improving communal and individual intolerance towards people with disabilities and special needs. The project, in the form of cartoon strips, is the brainchild of Asaf Finkelstein – who together with cartoonist Uri Fink regards Barkat as a superhero.

Fink created a delightful Superman-style cartoon of Barkat, who instead of wearing a skin-tight costume with a big framed “S” on the chest is wearing one with the twin lions emblem of the city.

The cartoon was presented to Barkat on Wednesday by Post Editor-in-Chief Steve Linde and Alei Siach founder Rabbi Chaim Perkal. Barkat was tickled pink by the image, and when asked whether people should learn self-defense, pointed out that Jerusalem – despite knife-wielding and stone-throwing extremists – is one of the safest cities in the world.

Barkat was in Paris following the attack on the kosher supermarket and more recently, returned from a visit to South Africa. He came home on both occasions more convinced than ever of the uniqueness of Jerusalem in terms of security. Chances of being murdered in South Africa are 40 percent higher than in Jerusalem, he said, because unlike the situation in other countries, the capital is full of people who served in IDF fighting units, as well as trained police who are willing to get engaged and stick their necks out for others.

■ GETTING BACK to Shalva, Kalman Samuels – who 25 years ago founded Shalva together with his wife, Malki, when they saw there was no proper facility to care for their son Yossi – has returned home from New York, where more than 300 people attended Shalva’s 25th-anniversary dinner with the theme of “Think Abilities, See Possibilities.” Guests were visibly moved by the four members of the Shalva band as well as by the Shalva parents, and by the evening’s community service honorees, Arlene and Michael Kleinberg, and guests of honor Susan and Mark Claster. Shalva’s Guardian of Zion awardees, Jane and Kim Clement, were unable to attend due to a family medical emergency.

The highlight for many was a special performance by Shalva Band member Dina Samte, who is blind. She sang and accompanied herself on the piano while Yair Vomberg, who has Down syndrome, played percussion and rapped; Elisheva Schwartz, one of Shalva’s national service volunteers, accompanied them on her violin.

But the piece de resistance was a performance by haredi brothers Gil and Arie Gat, who last year took Israel by storm when they appeared on the top-rated talent show Rising Star, taking second place in the finals.

Samuels disclosed that there is a deeper connection between the Gat family and Shalva, in that Gil Gat and his wife, Yael, have a daughter in Shalva’s Me and My Mummy program.

When Samuels and his wife established Shalva for eight children with special needs, they never imagined it would become what it is today – an internationally acclaimed, award-winning association that has helped thousands of children and their family members from across the entire spectrum of Israeli society, around the clock, seven days a week.

■ IN AN open letter on his Facebook page, President Reuven Rivlin wrote that March 17, the day of the Knesset elections, is designated a holiday for democracy. However, there are many citizens who for one reason or another have opted not to vote.

Rivlin invited those citizens who have decided not to exercise their democratic right to enter the polling booth to come to an open forum with him at his official residence on March 10, in hopes he would be able to persuade them to cast their ballots.

He wanted to hear the reasons for their abstinence, and wanted them to listen to all the reasons why they should vote. The invitation received somewhere in the range of 1,000 responses; in the final analysis, the number was whittled down to a little over 100.

As a former Knesset speaker and longtime MK prior to his election to the presidency, Rivlin was concerned by pollsters’ forecasts that voter turnout for elections for the 20th Knesset would be very low. It worried him as a democrat that the general public did not seem to believe in the effectiveness of its vote; too many people had indicated their belief that regardless of which party might win the elections, very little would change.

The frequency of elections and the money being spent on campaigns, when it could be put to better use elsewhere, has also caused Rivlin concern. It bothers him that no party has yet found a solution to the housing problem, and that young couples are becoming increasingly frustrated by their inability to afford the price of an apartment.

The nature of the election campaigns, with attacks on personalities rather than on policies, has also caused him a lot of grief – and has made his effort to change the minds of those disinclined to vote that much harder. In fact, most of the people who attended remained unconvinced by arguments put forward by the president himself, and by veteran pollster Mina Tzemach, who explained that not voting at all or casting a blank vote in protest was irrelevant – because blank votes don’t count.

The evening’s moderator was stage and screen personality Modi Bar-On, who recalled how for his late mother the right to vote was one of the greatest gifts she received in her life, and had insisted on her deathbed that she be wheeled to the polling booth so she could vote. For her, voting in the elections was such an important part of her identity that even when ill health made it difficult for her, she still declared, “I voted, therefore I am.” Tzemach had a similar story about her own mother.

In some countries, voting is not only a right but an obligation. In Australia, for instance, voting is compulsory to ensure that the voice of all the people with voting rights is heard – although there is currently a movement afoot to abolish compulsory voting and to introduce the informal voting system. Voting Day in Australia is on a Saturday, and special allowance has been made for religiously observant Jews to cast postal votes.

■ APROPOS ISRAELI voters with physical disabilities and senior citizens who want to cast their votes but whose designated polling stations are too far from public transportation, Yad Sarah will continue its longstanding tradition of driving such people to the polling stations and returning them home, said Yad Sarah spokesman David Rotner, adding that where necessary it will also supply wheelchairs and oxygen tanks.

Anyone requiring the service should telephone *6444.

■ ON THE day following his attempt to get more people to vote, Rivlin went south with his wife, Nechama, to Sapir Academic College – for the opening of an exhibition of cartoons in which he was the star subject. Although the exhibition in some respects lampooned the president, the main purpose, said organizers, was to honor him.

The cartoonists regard Rivlin as one of their own because he used to appear on satirical TV shows, where his sense of humor was richly appreciated. The cartoonists were angry at the way Rivlin had been treated during the presidential election, and as a tribute to him decided to mount an exhibition called “Crossing the Ruvicon,” playing on his nickname of Ruvi.

Rivlin, who often laughs at himself – even in his role as president – richly enjoyed the exhibition, which will be on view until March 24.

■ MANY OF the soldiers wounded in Operation Protective Edge are still recuperating, and some have even discovered latent talents. A case in point is Daniel Wein, a 23-year-old Australian combat soldier from the Nahal Brigade who was shot in the leg on the fourth day of operations in Gaza. While recovering at Sheba Medical Center, Wein took some art therapy classes, and discovered he had an aptitude for painting.

He created literally dozens of artworks over the past six months, in which he depicted his pain, trauma, fears and hopes.

His works are part of the “Colors in Rifle Barrels” exhibition and competition – which opened yesterday at Beit Hachayal, 60 Weizmann Street, Tel Aviv, under the auspices of The Association for the Well-Being of Israel’s Soldiers, the Israel Police and the Border Police. Drawn from the IDF’s rarely seen collection, more than 81 paintings, sketches, photographs, sculptures and other art forms created by 47 soldiers are on display.

The top five exhibitors have been awarded one-year scholarships to the Avni Institute of Arts and Design; Wein was declared the outright winner.

■ US AMBASSADOR Dan Shapiro and his wife, Julie Fisher, will next week host a reception at the ambassador’s residence in Herzliya Pituah celebrating tolerance and respect in schools. The event will include a special performance by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, David Broza and the Voices of Peace.

Yarrow has performed at the US residence each time he has visited Israel, and has actually been through a series of ambassadors.

In addition to being a popular singer whose best-known song is Puff the Magic Dragon, Yarrow is also a political and social activist, and during previous visits to Israel worked towards creating mutual respect and nonviolence in schools.

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