Grapevine: Polls and Poles

In Israel, the Polish-born Weiss, who was a child Holocaust survivor, is widely recognized as one of the leading experts on Poland.

Woman vists Jedwabne pogrom memorial R370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Woman vists Jedwabne pogrom memorial R370
(photo credit: Reuters)
IN POLAND, where he is a frequent visitor, university lecturer and regular contributor to Polish media former Israel ambassador Szewach Weiss, who is also a former Knesset Speaker, a former chairman of Yad Vashem and even a former member of the Haifa City Council, is widely recognized as the expert on Israel, especially since he founded the chair in Israel Studies at the University of Warsaw.
In Israel, the Polish-born Weiss, who was a child Holocaust survivor, is widely recognized as one of the leading experts on Poland. He is also an expert on the history of the Knesset, and when various outlets were groping for something other than constant repetition with regard to the Knesset elections, several turned to Weiss with the request that he impart some of the gems from his vast store of knowledge about Knesset personalities, legislation and events.
Tonight, Weiss will have an opportunity to combine his knowledge of Poland with that of the Knesset when together with Warsawborn historian Prof. Anita Shapira of Tel Aviv University and veteran journalist and political commentator Shalom Yerushalmi he participates in a lively discussion at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem on “The Polish Branja” or in other words, “The Poles in Israeli Political Culture.”
All three participants are good raconteurs with a treasure trove of anecdotes. The same can be said for moderator Dalik Volinitz, who is a well known actor and television interviewer, whose surname betrays his Polish origins.
The musical interlude will be provided by Ephraim Shamir, who was a teenage rock star in Poland before migrating to Israel. In the early years of the State, many of the country’s leaders from across the political spectrum were of Polish birth or background, with the result that Polish culture with its norms and mannerisms had a profound influence on life in Israel, and continues even to this day.
While there are few if any people of Polish birth in the 19th Knesset, there are certainly incoming MKs whose parents or grandparents were born in Poland. Among them are Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose father was born in Warsaw, Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich is of Polish parentage. Tzipi Livni’s father was born in Grodno, which is now part of Belarus, but which was Poland at the time of his birth. Uzi Landau’s father was born in Krakow. Former prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, whose son Yair Shamir, is a first-time MK for Likud Beytenu, was born in Poland, and there are others who grew up with some form of Polish culture in their homes., even though they may not necessarily have been aware of their Polish legacy.
According to Weiss, the best representatives of the best in Polish culture were Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres.
■ APROPOS PERES, while so many Israelis will be spending the next few days contemplating possible scenarios of Knesset coalitions, Peres will be in Davos, as he is every January, for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. Peres will rub shoulders with other world leaders as well as with prominent economists and executives of global industries. He is scheduled to engage in a public conversation in Davos this afternoon with Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the WEF. Their meeting will be webcast live at 3:50 p.m. on
Following Peres’s return to Israel, the Knesset Elections Committee headed by Justice Elyakim Rubinstein will next Wednesday present him with the final results of the elections after which he will begin a series of consultations with delegations of political parties serving in the 19th Knesset to decide whom he will task with forming the next government.
The person selected by the president must form a government within 28 days, but may ask for a two- week extension. If after 42 days, the candidate fails to form a government, the mandate must be returned to the president to be passed on to someone else.
This is what happened when Tzipi Livni, whose Kadima party four years ago had the largest Knesset representation, was unable to form a government, and the mandate was subsequently passed to Binyamin Netyanyahu.
■ AMONG THE strengths of The Israel Project is organizing special events and compiling and presenting background data. Thus on election night, TIP together with the Government Press Office organized an election happening at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds to which it invited journalists, diplomats, political experts and past, present and future politicians.
A huge media room was set up with all the facilities that journalists might need to file their stories. There were also separate interview rooms in which journalists could conduct interviews in a private no-noise setting.
And there was another large room in which waiters and waitresses bearing trays of cocktail delicacies kept mingling with the crowd till the trays were empty, and then disappearing briefly for replenishments. Lots of people, not just journalists, were walking around with laptops and IPads, frantically recording comments by experts and predictions by left of center representatives who forecast a political shake-up.
Jerusalem-based venture capitalist Erel Margalit, who is 10th on the Labor list, was cautiously optimistic before the announcements of the exit balls, saying only that there was a sense of two major blocs with greater equality than most people anticipated, while former Meretz MK Mossi Raz talked about a more liberal environment if there is a coalition of the Center-Left which would provide a special opportunity for Israel and the Palestinians to achieve peace. Margalit was more interested in the economic opportunities saying that although Israel has the reputation of being a stat-up nation, it has in recent years become a stagnant nation.
■ ISRAELI AMERICANS have been caught up in the election spirit longer than most other people. Last November, those of them who are affiliated with Democrats Abroad, celebrated the reelection of US President Barack Obama.
On Monday night of this week, on the eve of the Knesset elections, more than 50 happy Israeli Americans and friends gathered at the trendy Zolli’s Pub in the Nahalat Shiva neighborhood of Jerusalem to raise a glass at Obama’s second term inauguration which they watched on television. The many wideangle TV screens, usually filled with sporting events, featured all the proceedings live from Washington.
Ironically, the channel was Fox News, which had been unabashedly anti-Obama throughout the campaign. But this time, Obama and his colleagues had the last word.
The current and former chairwomen of the Jerusalem chapter of Democrats Abroad-Israel, Gayle Meyers Cooper and Efrat Benn, beamed as they surveyed the crowd.
“While Obama’s first inauguration had a sense of history, in his being the first Afro- American president,” said Hillel Schenker, acting chairman of Democrats Abroad – Israel. “This inauguration was a tribute to the achievements of the first Obama administration – rescuing the American economy from catastrophe, withdrawing the troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, reviving America’s standing on the international scene, the historic health reform bill, advancing the rights of women and gays, defending civil liberties and preserving the social safety net. It was a vote of confidence in the President to continue the job that he started.”
Schenker also made the point that “the Republicans are going to have to go through a serious soul-searching if they want to have a chance in future elections. The multi-cultural coalition that reelected the president and represents the new America was on full display with veteran New York Jewish Senator Chuck Schumer serving as master of ceremonies; an extremely moving presentation by the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, the swearing in of Vice President Joe Biden by the first Latino Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor, and a moving poem by Cubanborn gay poet Richard Blanco.
■ MOST OF us know that there’s nothing like a Jewish mother when it comes to promoting or protecting her chicks. Lynn Gimpel, the mother of Jeremy Gimpel, the No.
14 on the Bayit Yehudi list who missed out on a Knesset seat as far as current results indicate, certainly lived up to this image.
When her son began co-hosting the Tuesday Night Live television series, she coaxed many of her friends into attending the recording sessions. When her son decided to run for Knesset, she instantly became part of his campaign team, sending out countless emails, making phone calls and faithfully attending parlor meetings where she pushed the cause.
Just before the elections when rival political candidates accused Gimpel of incitement for remarks he made about the blowing up of the Temple Mount, his mom came flying to defend him, sending out-emails in which she unsuspectingly poured oil on troubled waters by headlining her message: “Video that is the evidence that Jeremy is a fanatic.”
Neither mother nor son seemed to realize that in an Internet era one has be doubly and triply careful about what we says or write because our sins, however unintended, remain forever in cyber space to come back to haunt us. Once it’s out there, it’s open to anyone’s interpretation, whether taken out of context or not.
■ HE’S RESCUED more than a million and a half Yiddish books from destruction, but it would seem that though he has done so much for the preservation of Yiddish literature, Aaron Lansky is not up to giving speeches in Yiddish and will talk about his remarkable literary odyssey in English at the National Library on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University on Tuesday evening, January 29 at an event devoted to Yiddish in the 21st century.
It will be interesting to hear how much Yiddish will actually be spoken as most of the other listed speakers will deliver their addresses in Hebrew. There are many people who understand Yiddish quite well, but are not sufficiently fluent for the purpose of making conversation.
This is very obvious at Yiddish theater productions where not everyone in the audience has to look at the simultaneous translation above the stage to understand the script, yet at interval and after the show, hardly anyone is commenting in Yiddish.
Lansky is the founder of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, on the campus of Hampshire College. Lansky, then a 23-year-old graduate student, founded the center in 1980. Today it contains the world’s largest collection of Yiddish books.
Lansky kept hearing how Yiddish was a dying language and this inspired him to salvage what was left of Yiddish culture. He gathered volunteers around him and they rescued hundreds and thousands of Yiddish books from deceased estates and from senior citizens who wanted to be sure that these Yiddish books would not be destroyed. Many of the books collected by Lansky and his team of volunteers survived the Holocaust and Communist rule and were brought to America by Holocaust survivors and Jewish refugees from Communist Russia and Eastern Europe.
Lansky and his passion for Yiddish culture have been written about in some of the most prestigious of publications.
Non-Jews are no less fascinated than Jews by his dedication to the cause. In 2009, Lansky began making some of the books available for downloading. Towards the end of 2011, there were 11,000 books available for downloading, and they were downloaded more than 250,000 times d by computer users around the world.
Lansky was flabbergasted, but thrilled. He would have been overjoyed had there been only 2,500 in a two year period, but 250,000 proved to him that no matter how often people say that Yiddish is dead, it’s still alive and kicking. In 2005, Lansky wrote Outwitting History , an anecdote filled book about his travels across America to collect and rescue Yiddish books. Some of the stories are poignant; others are rib tickling. He will share some of them with the audience at the National Library.
In Israel, Mendy Cahan has taken a leaf out of Lansky’s book and has also rescued thousands of volumes that would otherwise have landed on a garbage pile. Cahan is the founder of Yung Yidish, which started in Jerusalem and branched to Tel Aviv. There are bookcases crammed with Yiddish volumes, newspapers and magazines in both venues.
■ JUST INSIDE the entrance to the Jerusalem premises of the Joint Distribution Committee, a three piece band was playing perennial favorites such as Besame Mucho, Tea for Two, Hello Dolly and Dancing Cheek to Cheek. The occasion was a farewell reception for Alan Gill, the outgoing executive director for International Relations of JDC Israel, who last November was promoted to CEO of JDC global operations working out of the organization’s New York headquarters.
The music was loud enough to be heard, but sufficiently low keyed to allow for easy conversation. Gill and his wife, Rhona, and their three children moved to Jerusalem from Columbus, Ohio in 1993.
JDC Israel’s director-general, Arnon Mantver, recalled that his first meeting with Gill had been in the US Mantver was an aliya emissary and Gill was CEO of the Jewish Federation of Columbus. In those days said Mantver, one didn’t hear of CEOs of Jewish Federations moving to Israel, and certainly not of those with children. But Gill was of another breed. They had met in response to a message that Mantver had received from Yossi Kucik, who at the time was chairman of the Zionist Delegation in North America, telling him that more had to be done to get Jews out of the Former Soviet Union at a faster pace and that Gill was the man who could accelerate the north American effort.
Soon after, Gill moved to Jerusalem, which has been his home for the past 20 years.
Gill admitted that he had mixed feelings about returning to America and had done so only after consulting with Ralph Goldman, the JDC’s honorary executive vice president, whose name has long been synonymous with JDC.
The 98-year-old Goldman, who was born in the Ukraine in 1914, the year in which JDC was founded in New York City, has dedicated his whole life to the Jewish people , and continues to do so.
He was a member of the Hagana and an assistant to Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion. Goldman had been Gill’s predecessor twice removed when he went to New York in 1976 at the age of 62. When Gill asked what had caused him to go at that time in his life the reply was simple. “The JOINT called me.”
The one sentence did it for Gill and he decided that if he had been called by the JOINT, he too would return to the US. Goldman who was present at the farewell reception reminded Gill that he was not only on a mission for the sovereign State of Israel, but also as a participant in the future of the Jewish people, in which capacity it was his duty to also bring them Jewish culture and to promote their proficiency in the Hebrew language.
Among the many dignitaries who had come to farewell Gill were US Ambassador Dan Shapiro and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
Gill marveled at how the Jewish world had changed since Goldman had been called to New York in 1976.
“We have a US ambassador who is a member of the tribe and who speaks fluent Hebrew, a mayor who speaks fluent English and an Israeli ambassador to the US who is an American oleh.”
More than that, Michael Oren happened to have been Gill’s neighbor and personal friend. Gill recalled that after coming to Israel so soon after the fall of Communism, one of his chief concerns had been the reclaiming of those Jews whose identities had been stolen from them during three generations of Communism. In 1976, no one, with the possible exception of Ralph Goldman, could have imagined that this would happen, said Gill. Today, he said, there is a total global opportunity, to reach out to Jews everywhere. Both Shapiro and Barkat had extremely positive things to say not only about Gill, but about JDC. Shapiro said that the JDC represents the highest ideals of the Jewish community, striving to find a way to help wherever a Jew is in need. “The work of the JOINT truly expresses tikkun olam (repairing the world)” he said noting that the JDC reaches out to every area of societal importance, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and is helping to create a society that is more cohesive and more inclusive.
Shapiro said that he knew that it had been a big personal sacrifice for Gill and his wife to leave Israel for New York, but noted that it was “a form of shlihut (mission).” Barkat called Gill a role model of a Jew who understands the deep relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.
After migrating to Israel, he said, Gill is now going as a shaliah to “the best Diaspora community in the world.”
Emphasizing the long list of important people from varied backgrounds who had come to give Gill their blessing in his new position, Barkat said: “You’re so deep into the consensus that it’s amazing. You’re the best leader that the JDC can have.”
Turning to the organization itself, Barkat said JDC is a very entrepreneurial organization, and that’s why there are so many Israeli entrepreneurs associated with the strategy of JDC. He attributed much of the huge change in welfare, education, services for the elderly and community building to projects in which the city had entered into partnership with JDC, especially pilot projects.
If they succeed in such a problematic city ass Jerusalem he said, by definition they’re expandable to the rest of the country.
Then, putting in a plug for the capital, he said to Gill, “In spite of the fact that you’re physically leaving Jerusalem, I don’t think that Jerusalem is leaving your heart.”
Among the many people who came to the farewell to the Gills were Nahum Itzkovitz, director-general of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Services; Ariel Weiss, chief executive of Yad Hanadiv; Amir Halevy, member of the directorate of IVA (Israel Venture Association) and of JFN (Jewish Funders Network); Avi Naor, a leading Israeli philanthropist; Sir Ronald Cohen, former government minister, Rabbi Michael Melchior, Shira and Jay Ruderman, who headed the Ruderman Family Foundation, Guy Spigelman, CEO of Present Tense Israel, Rolinda Schonwald of the Rochlin Foundation and Eva Fischl, the president of JDC Australia.
The music resumed after the speeches and Gill and his wife proved that his talents are not only in his head but also in his feet, and twirled around the corridor dancing cheek to cheek, inspiring other couples to do the same.
■ LOHAMEI HAGETAOT (The Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum) preempted International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 70th anniversary commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising last week by presenting President Shimon Peres with a rare diary written by a Jewish lawyer in the Warsaw Ghetto. The presentation was made in the presence of two surviving resistance fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Chavka Folman-Raban, who served as a liaison courier, was caught imprisoned, deported and later survived the death march; and “Kazik” Simcha Rotem, who fought both inside the ghetto and on the Aryan side.
Because of his fair appearance which belied his Jewish identity, he was able to mingle reasonably freely on the outside.
Inside the ghetto, he reported to Mordechai Anielewicz. On the Aryan side he reported to Yitzhak Zuckerman, codenamed Antek. Both men used a secret passageway between the ghetto and he Aryan side and had planned to bring out other ghetto fighters through this corridor, but unfortunately it was discovered by the Germans.
Unwilling to leave his comrades to their fate, Rotem tried many times to reenter the ghetto and finally succeeded in finding a path through the sewers. He survived, but most of his fellow fighters did not. After the war, Rotem was involved in bringing illegal immigrants who had survived the war to British Mandate-controlled Palestine.
Tomorrow, Massuah, the International Institute for Holocaust Studies, will host Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, sculptor Dani Karavan and British Ambassador Matthew Gould at a special event for the diplomatic corps to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Less than six months ago, Karava completed a 12-year project, a monument to the gypsies who perished in the Holocaust. The gypsies were no less the victims of Nazi genocide than the Jews, but after the war they had less clout than the Jews, and although the German authorities promised them a memorial site as far back as 1964, it took a long time for that promise to be realized. The monument in the heart of Berlin was finally dedicated last October.
Gould, who was touched by the plight of lonely Holocaust survivors in Israel, personally raised more than $1.5 million for the first of a series of social clubs for survivors where they can meet people of similar background and where they will get a lot of TLC.
For many years, there was a tendency when talking about the Holocaust to focus solely on the Nazi occupation of Europe and to ignore the Middle East and surrounds. Even today, it is not that commonly known that the Germans occupied Tunisia, which was then a French protectorate. There were 90,000 Jews in Tunisia at the time. The Nazis confiscated their bank accounts, expropriated their properties and took their valuables.
Five thousand young Tunisian Jews were subjected to forced labor.
The Jews of Tunisia might have shared the fate of their European co-religionists but for the fact that the Germans had to leave in March 1943. Shalom was born in Tunisia and has undoubtedly heard about the occupation from his mother Massuah like Lohamei Hagetaot is preempting Warsaw Ghetto Uprising commemorations and on Sunday, January 27, will hold an all-day symposium on New Perspectives of the Uprising, at which a number of academics will discuss subjects such as the secret of women’s heroism; the uprising in Polish national consciousness, the uprising from the perspective of the ultra-Orthodox, military units within the Warsaw Ghetto and other related issues.
At Yad Vashem, a new display will open on Sunday January 27, 2013, in the lobby of the Library and Archives Building.
“Gathering the Fragments – Behind the Scenes of the Campaign to Rescue Personal Items from the Holocaust” will enable the public to understand the process of collection, research, registration and digitization performed in the framework of the nationwide project to rescue personal Holocaustrelated items. The opening event will be attended by Holocaust survivors whose personal items are displayed in the exhibition.