POLISH PRESIDENT Lech Kaczynski can reel off reams of information about matters relating to the history of Polish Jews as if he were a walking encyclopedia. He did this at the Begin Heritage Center on Monday when he came to open an exhibition honoring Jews who served in the Polish army, reviewing 150 years of history up to and including World War II. But he also confounded President Moshe Katsav in their private conversations with the depth and breadth of his knowledge about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. "He is familiar with the most intricate details," said Katsav. "I'm ashamed to say that he knows more than I do."
Both Katsav and Kaczynski emphasized several times the extraordinary progress that has been made in relations between their two countries, which may have accounted in part for the large diplomatic representation at various events attended by Kaczynski. Guests at the state dinner hosted by Katsav and his wife for Kaczynski and his wife included: former Polish Ambassador to Israel Maciej Kozlowski, who is now the Polish Foreign Ministry's liaison with the Jewish Diaspora; current Ambassador Agnieska Magdziak Miszewska; former Israel Ambassadors to Poland Mordechai Paltzur, who was instrumental in renewing long-severed diplomatic relations, Yigal Antebe, Gershon Zohar, Szewach Weiss; and present incumbent David Peleg. Also present was Moshe Arens, who was Israel's foreign minister at the time that full diplomatic relations were restored, and who in recent years has been researching and writing about myths and facts of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
n IT IS difficult to believe that 15 years have passed since the restoration of diplomatic relations between Israel and the former Soviet Union, after a lapse of almost a quarter of a century. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, at his meeting last week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Levrov, mentioned that he would be in Russia next month, at the invitation of President Vladimir Putin, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the renewal of diplomatic ties. On December 23, 1991, journalist-turned-diplomat Aleksander Bovin, the last ambassador appointed by the Soviet Union, presented his credentials to President Chaim Herzog. He came dressed in a naval uniform that had to be specially made to fit his over-generous frame. A day later, he was no longer the ambassador of the Soviet Union, but the ambassador of Russia, remaining in the post till 1997. He was a popular figure with the local Russian community and with the media - partially because of his enormous girth, which somehow tied in with his personality, but also because he was a wonderful raconteur. Ousted from the diplomatic corps on his return to Russia, he went back to his true profession and rejoined Izvestia, where he remained until 2000. He also made frequent appearances on radio and television. He died two years ago.
n FRENCH AMBASSADOR Gerard Araud, who is completing his tour of duty, did not get off to a good start. Prior to his arrival here, Araud was overheard at a cocktail party in Paris voicing a number of unflattering comments about Israel and its leadership. The conversation was overheard by Boaz Bismuth, then the Paris-based correspondent for Yediot Aharanot, who reported that Araud had called Israel "paranoid' and then prime minister Ariel Sharon a "lout."
Limor Livnat, who was then education minister, said that if the report was true, Israel should not accept Araud's letters of accreditation. Araud denied having made such remarks, and Israel chose to accept his version. However, a short time afterwards, Bismuth was appointed Israel's ambassador to Mauritania. In the ensuing three years, Araud did much to demonstrate that he was not anti-Israel, making his residence available for an incredible number of events, and proving to be a genial host. But what really won over the Israeli public was Araud's solidarity with the family of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit, who happens to be a French citizen. Araud became much more involved in the case and with the family than might ordinarily be expected, and so as he leaves, he has many more friends and admirers than when he came.
n THE INTERNATIONAL Institute for Jewish Genealogy, founded earlier this year as an academic institution on the Edmond J. Safra campus of the Hebrew University, this week hosted its first international symposium. Director Neville Lamdan, a former diplomat, explained the importance of inter-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural academic research in the study and pursuit of genealogy. In recent years, Jews the world over have developed an increasing passion for tracing family roots, often making amazing discoveries about their family trees. Amateur genealogists have discovered that the search for branches is addictive, and this was one of the reasons that the Institute for Jewish Genealogy was established. The subject has become sufficiently important to be given academic status. In fact, one of the subjects discussed at the symposium was teaching Jewish genealogy at the university level. Another was using information technology to broaden the scope for study, and to make it easier for researchers to find what they are looking for. An example can be seen in the Yad Vashem archives. Once they were made accessible via the Internet, they were eagerly pounced upon by Jews from around the globe who were researching family trees. This accessibility not only enhanced information, but facilitated several family reunions among people who had previously not known of each other's existence, as well as among Holocaust survivors who for years had thought that their newly rediscovered relatives had perished.
n WHILE ON the subject of Yad Vashem, members of the Melchior family and some of their close friends met at Yad Vashem last Thursday to celebrate the publication of the book, I Chose Life - The Story of a Survivor. The book, about Moshe Aharon (Monik) Schwarz, was written by his nephew, journalist and author Dan Melchior. Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau - who was unable to attend, but who, like Schwarz, comes from the Polish town of Piotrkow Trybunalski - sent a note saying how delighted he was that Schwarz had lived to see publication of the book, which was a fulfillment of the Biblical commandment, "Remember what Amalek did to you."
MK Rabbi Michael Melchior, chairman of the Knesset Education, Culture and Sport Committee - who, like the author of the book, is a nephew of its hero - recounted that his uncle had been 15 years old when the Germans invaded Poland. Monik Schwarz survived several concentration and labor camps, including Bugaj, Warta, Buchenwald, Dora-Mittelbau, Nordhausen and Bergen Belsen. After spending some time after the war in a DP camp, he went to Denmark in 1948. There he met Hilda, who, thanks to the assistance given by the Danish people to the Jews, had also managed to survive. They married and were blessed with children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Melchior observed that God had given his uncle life, and his uncle had chosen to do something of value with that life. Schwarz attributed the reason for his survival to his mother. The last time he saw her, she had declared: "You will survive. I am sure you will survive."
"That sentence is etched into my memory, and I repeated it to myself an infinite number of times in the weeks, months and years that followed," he said.
n ACROSS TOWN, at the David Citadel Hotel, there was another literary launch, hosted by another Holocaust survivor, Sabina Citron, for her book, The Indictment, which presents the Arab-Israeli conflict in historical perspective. The event was a gala dinner - with a nationalist flavor - in one of the hotel's more intimate restaurant areas. Guests included: Shmuel Katz, Uzi Landau, Natan Sharansky, Yuli Edelstein, Arieh Eldad, Yisrael Harel and Yoram Ettinger. The Polish-born Citron now lives in Jerusalem after spending many years in Canada, where she was in the forefront of fighting anti-Semitism and bringing Nazis to justice. This, in addition to her personality and impressive book, is what endeared her to publisher Ilan Greenfield, the head of Gefen Publishing House. Like Citron, Greenfield's mother, Hana, also survived Auschwitz, and has written extensively about her Holocaust experiences.
The Indictment, however, is not a Holocaust book. It is a comprehensive journey into the past to seek out the roots of Christian anti-Semitism and to illustrate how it serves as a foundation for Arab propaganda against Israel. Inter alia, the book asserts a secret pact against Israel between Europe and the Arab League.
n JOURNALISTS WHO cover Beit Hanassi know that it is not easy to get Gila Katsav, the wife of the president, to make an off-the-cuff statement about anything. However, after her brief public defense of her husband in relation to his sexual harassment investigation, the media began stalking her. An attempt to get her to make another public statement when she visited an art exhibition by people with handicaps at Bank Hapoalim headquarters in Tel Aviv last Friday was thwarted by her assistant, Tziona Rosenthal, who instantly moved in to keep journalists at bay. The elegant Rosenthal has served as an assistant to a series of presidents' wives, and is one of the most veteran employees at Beit Hanassi.
n FAMILY AFFAIRS: Mike Herzog, who is Defense Minister Amir Peretz's new bureau chief, is the elder brother of Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog. Both men are the sons of the late Chaim Herzog, Israel's sixth president, and Aura Herzog, who this week stepped down from the leadership of the Council for a Beautiful Israel.
Chaim Herzog was the son of Isaac Halevi Herzog, the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, and of Rabbanit Sarah Herzog, the founder of World Emunah, who for many years chaired the board of Ezrat Nashim hospital, now Herzog Hospital. Chaim Herzog was also the brother of Yaacov Herzog, a personal adviser to David Ben-Gurion, and the principal architect and implementer of Israel's relations with the Vatican. Through his wife, Chaim Herzog was also the brother-in-law of Abba Eban, Israel's first ambassador to the United Nations and the United States, who later was Israel's Foreign Minister.
n HISTORY IS rich in examples of enemies who became allies in the quest for a common goal. Thus, it is not entirely surprising that former prime minister Ehud Barak, who is rumored to be seeking re-election to the chairmanship of the Labor Party, should be mending fences with former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg. In the past, the two used the most acrimonious terminology in reference to one another. After quitting politics, they had nothing to do with one another, until recently, when Barak began making the rounds of reconcile with many political personalities. This is not new to the Labor Party: After many years of rivalry and animosity, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin settled their differences for political purposes.
While Barak makes no secret of wanting to return to the political arena, Burg continues to maintain that he's not interested in a comeback. But his family continues to be represented in the Knesset. His brother-in-law, Menachem Ben-Sasson, is the Knesset Law Committee chairman and a Kadima MK. Burg is also distantly related to Likud MK Reuven Rivlin, and Burg's late father, Josef Burg, one of the founders of the National Religious Party, was elected to the first Knesset, held numerous ministerial portfolios and retired after 40 years as a parliamentarian.