Grapevine February 27, 2019: The Polish connection

During the war, it was looted by the Nazis; and over the years since then, it had succumbed to neglect and decay, which did not quite destroy its natural beauty.

PITTSBURGH MAYOR Bill Peduto (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)

If we delve deep enough into history, we will probably discover that the overwhelming majority of Jews, regardless of their current affiliations, are descendant from the Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal. Going further back, we will find common roots elsewhere in the world, primarily in the Middle East. But few of us seldom trace our roots back more than three or four generations – and usually less.

Thus, in the case of Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog, when references are made to his ancestry, on his mother’s side the reference is usually to Egypt, and on his father’s side to Ireland. The fact is that on both sides of his family, like so many other Israeli Jews, he is of Polish descent, and he occasionally brings this up when talking about his background beyond his parentage.

His mother’s family came from Zamosc, a renaissance city which was once a beautiful trade route, replete with palaces, and built in the style of the Italian city of Padua. To achieve that splendor, Prince Jan Zamoyski, the 16th-century founder of Zamosc, invited artisans and builders from various countries to join forces in bringing the beauty of Italy to Poland. Herzog’s forebears on his mother’s side fell into that category, and thus journeyed from Italy to Poland, where they remained for several centuries.

Almost exactly eight years ago, Herzog was invited to come to Zamosc for the inauguration of the restored Zamosc Synagogue, which is one of the most significant synagogue structures in Poland to survive the Second World War.

During the war, it was looted by the Nazis; and over the years since then, it had succumbed to neglect and decay, which did not quite destroy its natural beauty.

Following a seven-year restoration process, a magnificent inauguration ceremony was held in March 2011 and attended by various ambassadors, including those of Israel and Germany. That in itself was historic, but perhaps even more historic was the fact that the then-mayor of Zamosc, Marcin Zamoyski, who was one of the principal figures at the dedication ceremony, was a direct descendant of the founder of the city, and Herzog was a direct descendant of one of the artisans who had come from Italy to help beautify the city.

Herzog will be back in Poland next week in his official capacity, but also to do some research into his father’s side of the family. His paternal grandfather, for whom he is named, was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the State of Israel, and was born in Lomza, some 80 kilometers northeast of Warsaw. Herzog now wants to learn more about his family’s Lomza history.

After the Holocaust, his grandfather, accompanied by his uncle Yaakov Herzog, went to Poland to look for Jewish children, whose parents had given them to the Church for safekeeping. In the case of parents who did not return to claim those children, the Church wanted to baptize them and make them Catholic. With the youngest children who had come as babies to convents and monasteries, it was very hard to prove that they were Jewish. But with regard to the older children, Rabbi Herzog simply stood in front of them and said “Shma Yisrael,” and they – from some distant vestige of memory – completed the verse, while others had repeated it daily in secret, remembering that their parents’ last words to them had been to never forget that they were Jews.

According to Monika Krawczyk, the recently elected head of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, Herzog will find a Jewish Poland somewhat different from that of 2011. In Warsaw for instance, in addition to the Orthodox congregation at the Nozyk Synagogue, there is also the Reform Ec Chaim congregation, and there is a Chabad congregation, which has attracted several former Nozyk congregants who are more religiously observant and who want to learn more about Judaism.

In addition, Shavei Israel has recently increased its activity by bringing visiting rabbis to various communities throughout Poland, and according to Krawczyk, this is really working well, and community members look forward to the shabbaton which each of these rabbis conducts. Shavei Israel has indicated that it will also contribute to the purchase of matzot for Passover for the whole Jewish community in Poland, for which Krawczyk gives full praise to Shavei Israel founder Michael Freund.

HERZOG WILL arrive in Poland in the midst of another controversy related to the appointment of a new director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The five-year contract of the current director of the museum, Prof. Dariusz Stola, a noted, multilingual historian, has expired and will not be automatically renewed. A recipient of numerous national and international awards, Stola has done much to promote Polish-Jewish dialogue. But he has also fueled the ire of members of the government by speaking out against the legislation that makes any perceived oral or written comment linking the Polish nation with Nazi atrocities a criminal offense.

The Ministry for Culture and Heritage, under whose aegis the museum operates, has in conjunction with the Warsaw Municipality and the Jewish Historical Institute issued a tender for the position. While there have been thousands of protests on social media against the ministry’s decision, Stola is fine with it, and has announced that he will apply like anyone else who is sufficiently qualified and wants the job.

Aside from speaking out against the legislation and warning that it could exert a negative influence and stifle debate, Stola has provoked the anger of the Polish government by commemorating the antisemitic purge of 1968, in which 13,000 Polish citizens who happened to be Jewish were forced to leave the country. To remind Poles of their relatively recent history, Stola organized an exhibition under the title of “Estranged: March ’68 and its Aftermath.”

Though not Jewish, Stola is an expert on the history of Polish-Jewish relations and believes in encouraging healthy and civilized debates on contentious issues related to the Holocaust and to antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

WHEN REVIEWING Holocaust history, the general tendency is to focus on those countries with the largest Jewish populations. Not all the information we might want to have is available, because records were destroyed – some deliberately, and some simply because a bomb hit the place where they were stored. In addition, different researchers were interested in different specifics and, in their search, might have overlooked something else no less valuable in terms of the greater historical picture.

In a recent edition of Pagine Ebraiche, the journal of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, some of the details were published of a new study by Annalisa Capristo and Giorgio Fabre, who were curious as to how many Jews were employed in Italian state positions when the anti-Jewish laws were passed in November 1938. These laws excluded Jews from civil service, the armed forces and the National Fascist Party. In some countries it would be impossible to obtain such information with any sense of accuracy, but in Italy, despite the frequent changes of government, there is a Government Accountability Office, and the two scholars searched its archives to take note of terminations of salaries in 1939, because the cessation of payments had to be registered. They came up with some 720 names.

The prewar Jewish community of Italy, including the products of mixed marriages, was in the realm of 58,500. Of these, approximately 7,700 did not survive the Holocaust.

CHANNEL 13 news anchor Oshrat Kotler came in for very heavy criticism and even threats to her life, after stating on air that soldiers from the Netzah Yehuda Battalion who were suspected of harshly mistreating bound and blindfolded Palestinian prisoners were “human animals.” The soldiers believed that the two prisoners were responsible for the deaths of two of their comrades in a terrorist attack in Givat Assaf. Kotler, in reading a report related to the mistreatment, commented: “We send our children to the territories and receive human animals. This is the result of the occupation.”

Parents of Netzah Yehuda soldiers were furious, and Naftali Bennett, head of the New Right Party, wanted to have Kotler charged with defamation.

Another critic closer to home is former longtime Channel 2 news anchor Miki Haimovich, who is currently running for election to the Knesset on the Blue and White Party ticket. In an interview with Ynet, she was asked her opinion of what Kotler had said, and she replied that it is not the province of a news anchor to comment. A news anchor, in presenting the news, has to be more objective and statesmanlike.

But most television, radio and news anchors are far from objective or statesmanlike, to the extent that interviewees are increasingly imploring “Let me finish the sentence.” There is a difference between respectfully asking probing questions and playing inquisitor.

Among the worst offenders are Dov Gilhar, Assaf Liberman and Kalman Libeskind, who literally scream at their interviewees and, because they have control over the microphone, simply talk much louder than the interviewee, drowning out his or her voice. Even Keren Neubach, who does such wonderful work in battling for the rights of the mentally ill, the physically ill who’ve been exposed to radiation and life-threatening chemicals, and other less fortunate members of society, if she disagrees with or dislikes an interviewee, becomes strident and intolerant.

And then there’s Moti Gilat, who absolutely abhors the prime minister to the extent that he has “Bibiphobia” and keeps harping on the cases in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been under investigation. Gilat has become so tiresome in his repetition and in trying to tie the noose around Netanyahu’s neck that even his colleagues who include him in their various news and current affairs programs have lost patience with him and try to cut short his diatribe, which often starts with “They tell me...,” which in Hebrew is “Omrim li...” But who “they” are is never explained, though it is sometimes implied that he received his information from a reliable source in the police force or in the Justice Ministry. Much of this seemingly reliable information has proved to be false.

WITH REGARD to rumors relating to whom President Reuven Rivlin will task to form a government following the results of the elections and the recommendations by the various parties that pass the threshold, the President’s Office has released a statement in which it assures the public that the president will follow the example of his predecessors and will act in accordance with the election results and the consultations that he holds with each party.

THE FEDERATION of Local Authorities in Israel is engaged in a battle with the Interior Ministry over the right of individual local authorities to exercise city ordinances permitting mini markets and convenience stores to operate on Shabbat. Several cities that are mainly secular passed bylaws prior to the enactment of the law barring such businesses from operating on Shabbat, but Interior Minister Arye Deri has the authority to annul such bylaws, and says that as the head of a religious party, he cannot possibly approve any action, other than a lifesaving emergency, that is in violation of the Sabbath. As a result, the municipalities of Rishon Lezion, Holon, Herzliya, Givatayim and Modi’in have taken their case to the High Court of Justice.

Modi’in Mayor Haim Bibas, who also heads the federation, says that the situation in Israel is absurd. In all other countries, he claims, a city ordinance does not require ministerial approval, but in Israel it does. Bibas believes that Deri is digging in his heels because, given his electorate, he cannot afford to do otherwise with Knesset elections on the immediate horizon.

AMONG THE many mayors attending the 33rd Conference of Mayors in Jerusalem is Michael Jay Wildes, an American immigration lawyer and politician who serves as the mayor of Englewood, New Jersey. A member of the Democratic Party, Wildes served as a federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of New York and as a city councilman for Englewood, before he was elected mayor in 2003. He was reelected in 2006 and again in 2018.

Given his record, he is obviously a good mayor, but he’s probably better known across the US as one of the foremost authorities on American immigration law.

In his political capacity, he was a loyal supporter of Hillary Clinton. In his capacity as a lawyer, he was responsible for representing Melania Trump in her quest to become a US citizen. In fact, he represented her sister as well.

Formerly Melania Knauss, the first lady of the United States first came to America on a tourist visa in 1996, and later received a number of working visas. She worked as a model in New York, where she met Donald Trump two years after arriving in the Big Apple from Slovenia. She began applying for citizenship in 2000 and finally received it in 2006. This gave her the right to sponsor her parents, who now reside in the US. There was some question as to whether she met the criteria for citizenship eligibility, but with a savvy lawyer such as Wildes, the problem was resolved.

Her ability to acquire citizenship came up in relation to Trump’s negative attitude to latter-day would-be immigrants. Then again, they’re not all as strikingly attractive as Melania, and they probably can’t afford the fees of a top-notch lawyer.

Wildes, whose grandparents on one side came from Poland and on the other from Nazi Germany, is a second-generation American Jewish lawyer, with many celebrities among his clients. His father, Leon Wildes, rose to international fame in 1972 when he successfully defended John Lennon and Yoko Ono from a deportation attempt by the US government.

ANOTHER AMERICAN mayor who excited attention during the conference was Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, in whose city 11 congregants of the Tree of Life-Or LSimcha Congregation were murdered by a gunman during Sabbath services last October. Almost immediately after his arrival in Israel, on his first-time visit to the Holy Land, Peduto was taken to the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund Living Memorial Plaza in Emek Ha’arazim in Jerusalem to see the memorial plaque commemorating the victims of the synagogue shooting.

Soon after news broke of the tragic outcome of the attack, the KKL-JNF leadership decided to commemorate the victims in Israel with a symbolic memorial, as part of the unyielding commitment and dedication that KKL-JNF has to the Diaspora. The memorial plaque was put in place only a few weeks after the shooting.

Peduto was welcomed by the head of the Masorti Movement in Israel, Yizhar Hess, on behalf of KKL-JNF, and KKL-JNF chief of protocol Andy Michaelson, who also took the mayor on a tour of the 9/11 Living Memorial Plaza established by KKL-JNF and JNF-USA.

Following the tour, Peduto participated in an emotional ceremony in which he planted an olive tree to symbolize peace and continuity.

After viewing the memorial plaque, Peduto said that he had a long history with the Tree of Life Congregation and knew some of the victims personally.

A memorial gathering in Pittsburgh not long after the attack coincided with the anniversary of Kristallnacht, and Peduto, standing in Jerusalem, made the inevitable comparison and emphasized the difference in reaction.

“Unlike 80 years ago, when Jews were murdered, when synagogues were destroyed and businesses were shattered, when the community called this time, the police didn’t turn their back, they ran in to help. Politicians didn’t look the other way or try to hide, they stood up and said never again. And business leaders and community leaders gathered as one and said ‘an attack against one is an attack against us all.’”

Hess, in thanking Peduto for taking time to visit the memorial, said: “This event and the leadership displayed after the attack made Israelis feel as if we are also people of Pittsburgh. We were there following the news, feeling the pain of it as well. We felt that having this plaque here with the names of the victims listed in Jerusalem was important, and would only strengthen the link between our two communities.”

JNF-USA CEO Russell Robinson said, “JNF-USA is the voice linking America and Israel. We know that when tragedy befalls either of our communities, we stand together to strengthen one another. We are proud to represent the Pittsburgh community in Israel as an enduring reminder of this unshakable bond.”

FOR JERUSALEM Mayor Moshe Lion who, together with Jack Rosen, president and chairman of the American Jewish Congress, welcomed mayors from Albania: Tirana; Belize: San Pedro; Benin: Cotonou; Bosnia and Herzegovina: Banja Luka, Sarajevo; Burkina Faso: Soaw; Cape Verde: Praia; Cote d’Ivoire: Bouake, Yamoussoukro; Czech Republic: Prague; Dominican Republic: Santo Domingo Norte, Veron Punta Cana; Ethiopia: Addis Ababa; Guinea: Conakry; Honduras: Tegucigalpa; Malawi: Blantyre; Mexico: La Paz; Nepal: Lalitpur; Romania: Cluj-Napoca, Sibiu; Serbia: Belgrade, Sabac; Slovenia: Celje; Taiwan: Taipei; Tanzania: Dodoma; Uganda: Entebbe; Ukraine: Kiev; Uruguay: Montevideo; US: Beverly Hills, Pittsburgh, Portland, Maine and Englewood, New Jersey – the event was extremely meaningful.

The name of each mayor was read out by moderator Dan Kaner, and each stood up so that all the participants from abroad would recognize each other.

Lion said that unlike other cities in Israel, Jerusalem does not have a twin city, because the whole world relates to Jerusalem, which is at the heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Given that he is a relatively new mayor, Lion decided to spell out both his short- and long-term programs for the capital. The first is to clean up the streets. “There’s no reason for people to get up in the morning and to be confronted with garbage at the start of their day,” he said. He is also keen to improve on city services for residents, and toward that aim a new Internet site has been built.

Lion also wants to bring back many of the young people who have left Jerusalem in search of better career opportunities and more affordable housing. He announced that 2,000 housing units are going to be under construction in the vicinity of the US Embassy, and that 1,000 of those units are specially designated for young couples, who will receive easy payment terms. In his overall urban renewal program Lion anticipates that 5,000 housing units will be built each year. “We will have tens of thousands of housing units at affordable prices,” he declared, adding that there will also be a boost to hi-tech and biotech industries.

He also wants to turn Jerusalem into the Washington of the Middle East and bring all federal government offices to the capital.

He pledged to maintain the religious status quo, meaning that people of all faiths will enjoy freedom of worship and preservation of their holy sites.

Rosen praised the courageous relocation of the US Embassy to the Holy City, saying that Jerusalem is a place where the very old and very new connect and is a model of coexistence.

Explaining the importance of bringing mayors from so many parts of the world together, Rosen said that people everywhere share common challenges and needs, and that mayors from different places can benefit from one another’s experience. “Every one of you represents a way of how your country and Israel can work together and build dynamic connections,” he said. He also noted that the Conference of Mayors has an excellent track record, with several of its alumni going on to become the presidents and prime ministers of their respective countries.