Tel Aviv mourners pay respects to late Polish president

Kaczynski “a true friend of the Jewish people."

Polish High School students 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Polish High School students 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Hours before the beginning of Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday evening, hundreds of Israelis and tourists passed by the Polish Embassy in central Tel Aviv, lighting candles and signing a memorial book next to a picture of president Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria, who perished when a plane carrying many leaders of Poland’s government and military crashed in Russia on Saturday.
In addition to the dozens of memorial candles and flower bouquets, a hand-made sign taped to the fence of the embassy read “With you and the people of Poland on this tragic day – your Tel Aviv neighbors.”
The memorial book set up next to theçç’ picture bore the words of dozens of well-wishers, most of them referring to the late president as “a true friend of the Jewish people” and a “great leader.”
Aviv Kelner, who was born in Lodz, Poland in 1946 and immigrated to Israel in 1957, came to the embassy to pay her respects, and referred to Kaczynski as “a very friendly man and a great friend of the Jewish people.”
She said she had fond memories of meeting the late president during one of his visits to Israel and called his death “a huge loss to Poland and people all over the world.”
Kelner’s husband Tzvi, who also grew up in Poland before immigrating to Israel several decades ago, went further, describing Kaczynski as a man who “opened a new page with Jews and Poles. His efforts helped these two peoples begin to look at each other as human beings, not just as Poles or Jews.”
A heartbroken group of Polish high schoolers came to the embassy Sunday to pay their respects and mourn for their beloved president, only hours before they were set to take part in a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony.
The group’s leader, a young teacher from Bialystok named Ewelina, said the students heard the terrible news during their visit to Masada on Saturday.
“We were completely shocked, just like everyone back in Poland. Our first reaction was to go back home, but we decided to stay because this trip is important to us,” she said.
The students, in Israel as part of an exchange program with Israeli high school students, had all spoken to their families back home in Poland, which is “completely paralyzed,” Ewelina said.
On an overcast, dust-filled day, the students gathered with a group of their Israeli counterparts and joined their nation in mourning an admired leader whose life was cut short.
Israeli leaders continued to offer their condolences to the Polish people following the tragedy.
“On behalf of the Israeli Government and people, I would like to express our participation in the Polish people's profound grief over the tragic deaths of President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and the other members of the Polish delegation who perished in the plane crash,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.
“I knew president Kaczynski as a leader who did much for his country and as a great friend of the State of Israel. We last met in Warsaw this past January in the framework of the events marking the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and International Holocaust Day.
“President Kaczynski led a process of opening a new page in relations between the Polish and Jewish peoples, in the framework of Israel-Polish relations. In this context, he advanced the opening of a Holocaust museum in Warsaw, which will be established soon. His untimely passing constitutes a great loss for the Polish people and all peace- and freedom-loving nations,” he continued.
“Our relationship with Poland is very deep and very important. This finds expression in a broad range of areas. Bilateral relations are very significant for us and I think that they are also very significant for them. To a large degree, it was President Kaczynski who brought this about and I am pleased that there is complete continuity in this regard in the current government. But he must be given important credit for the change towards cooperation and for a comprehensive view of both global problems and the challenges that face free societies. He did much in this regard.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said President Kaczynski’s actions as well as his positions demonstrated time and again that he was a true friend of Israel, adding that the Polish president’s role in formulating strong strategic relations between Israel and Poland will be remembered for many years to come.
IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi offered his condolences to the Polish military and the family of Polish Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Franciszek Gagor, who was among the 96 people killed in Saturday’s crash.
Ashkenazi spoke of the warmth he felt during his meetings with Gagor and described him as “an amazing military man.”
“In the name of the Israel Defense Forces, in the name of the GeneralStaff and myself, I share the grief felt by the Polish nation and thegrief of the Polish military and its commanders,” Ashkenazi added.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon also said he was deeply saddenedto hear of the tragedy, adding “Poland is a good friend of Israel andwe hope that the tradition of President Kaczynski will be preserved andwe will continue Poland’s good relationship and cooperation withIsrael.”