Grapevine: In Poland with Peres

A personal account of the president's historic visit to the land of his birth.

THE POLISH media gave enormous coverage to the visit to Poland last week by President Shimon Peres. On the day that Pope Benedict XVI arrived in the US, the press in predominantly Catholic Poland devoted more space to Peres than the pontiff. A double-page interview in Wprost - the Polish equivalent of Time Magazine - replete with a red-bordered cover, was written by Szewach Weiss, who showed it off to all and sundry and eagerly told Israeli reporters traveling with the Polish-born Peres that it was the outcome of an informal tete-a-tete. Both he and Peres had been busy, and so he had accompanied Peres in the presidential car when Peres was being driven to some event, and they chatted about many aspects of Peres's life, starting from his childhood in what was then Poland and is today Belarus. The result of all this was the article in Wprost. A FORMER Knesset Speaker, as well as former chairman of the board of Yad Vashem and former Israeli ambassador to Poland, Weiss now commutes regularly between Israel and Poland, where he teaches Israeli politics at Warsaw University, the alma mater of Menachem Begin and Moshe Sneh. Weiss was part of the Peres entourage in his capacity as a Holocaust survivor, as was Yediot Aharonot correspondent Noah Kliger, who had a somewhat unfair advantage over other journalists because as a Holocaust survivor he was part of the inner circle. But no one begrudged the affable Kliger, who divided his time between fellow survivors and fellow correspondents. Weiss was present in multiple capacities. He contributes frequently to Polish publications, and is also a sought-after interviewee. In fact, some might say that he is the darling of the Polish media. His candid interview with Peres, his former Labor Party leader, was not the only time that Weiss's name appeared in print during the visit. He also got considerable publicity for himself in other Polish publications. Occasionally, when official interpreter Miriam Borenstein - a truly superb professional - was not around, Weiss took it upon himself to act as translator. When Peres's spokesperson, Ayelet Frish, told him that she had heard that his translation of something that Peres had said was inaccurate, Weiss retorted: "I told them what they needed to hear." Weiss is also quite friendly with Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who is due to participate in the mid-May mega-conference entitled, Facing Tomorrow, to be hosted by Peres in Jerusalem. He seemed to be running the show and defying protocol at the state dinner which Kaczynski hosted in Peres's honor. Towards the end of the dinner, following a new-age jazz concert, Weiss threw his arms around a few people clustered around both presidents and began to sing Sto Lat (A hundred years), a traditional Polish goodwill song, expressing the hope that the honoree and all those gathered would still be around for a century. The song, an integral part of Polish culture, was played at Kaczynski's inauguration and during the visit of of Polish-born Pope John Paul II. Weiss's informality didn't seem to bother anyone, and most of the Polish guests and the Israelis of Polish background joined in. n DIPLOMATICALLY, WEISS was not the only former ambassador present. Maciej Kozlowski, Poland's former ambassador to Israel who has been appointed by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs to be responsible for relations with the Jewish Diaspora, was also there with his significant other, Israeli academic Nili Amit, formerly of Tel Aviv University and for the past three years associated with the University of Warsaw and Collegium Civitas. Amit, who speaks fluent Polish, is also the coordinator for Israel projects with the Museum of Polish Jewish History. She has a daughter living in Jerusalem whom she visits several times a year. Kozlowski also comes to Israel quite frequently and most recently accompanied Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who met with Peres both in Jerusalem and in Warsaw. n PROTOCOL AT the presidential palace where the state dinner took place under the watchful eye of Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, was somewhat more formal than similar events at Beit Hanassi. Each of the guests, upon entering the palace, was given a card with a table diagram and an arrow indicating the table at which he or she was seated. Each guest was also given a card on which his or her name was printed. This was not a place card, but an introduction card that was handed to an official as guests took their place in line to be presented to the two presidents and Kaczynski's wife, Maria. The card was inspected by the official, then passed on to a second and a third, who read out the person's name just before the approach to the presidents. Peres shook hands with everyone, while Kaczynski kissed the hands of the women. Joseef Avi-Yair Engel, one of the Peres advisers (popularly known as Jucha), noticed that Kaczynski was kissing the hands only of the Polish women and not those of the female members of the Peres entourage. The exception was this columnist, who had murmured a greeting to him in Polish, and whose hand he kissed again at the end of the evening when she thanked him for his hospitality, again speaking in Polish. His wife, who was in Israel a few months back for the official opening of the Polish Institute, may have been a little suspicious at the accent and asked whether the journalist was from Poland or from Israel. One of the pleasures of the state dinner was the fact that no waiter had more than three people to serve and most had only two. They all marched in together, lined up against the walls, then proceeded simultaneously to the guests, to whom they had been assigned, which meant that contrary to what usually happens in Israel, no one had to wait to receive their courses. n ALMOST IMMEDIATELY after his arrival in Poland, Peres went to Treblinka, where some 800,000 Jews were murdered. It was not initially part of his official schedule. However, when he heard that 600 Israeli high school students in Poland under the auspices of the Education Ministry were going to conduct a memorial ceremony at Treblinka, he decided that he could not stay away. And when Kaczynski, who has an extraordinary sensitivity for all victims of the Holocaust, heard that Peres was going to Treblinka, he decided that his place was there as well. The event then took on a whole new dimension. The high school students, who included youngsters from Sderot, represented a mosaic of Israeli society. They all wore navy or white hoods emblazoned with the word "Israel" thread through a large Star of David, which though a mark of humiliation in the Holocaust years, is now a symbol of pride. Several of the Ethiopian youngsters went a step further and draped large Israeli flags like cloaks around their bodies. Treblinka is a graveyard in more ways than one. During the war, it was an extermination camp, and after the war, it was filled with jagged rocks of different sizes, each representing a Polish Jewish community that no longer exists. The stones are inscribed with the names of the lost communities. Some of the students had been asked by their grandparents to visit the stones representing their communities. Here and there across the vast terrain, individual students placed a single rose on the stone that represented the community in which their grandparents were born. Symbolically, perhaps more by coincidence than by design, the roses in a pale shade of apricot had a blood-red tinge. A small group of girls was gathered around a very small rock that bore no inscription. They were comforting one of their number who was weeping bitterly. Perhaps this stone was a memorial for all those people who were among whole families that were exterminated with no one left to remember their names. Peres's military ADC, Brig.-Gen. Shimon Hefetz, had been charged with a special mission by family friends - the Porneson and Feiner families - who originate from Czestochowa. He had brought a stone from Jerusalem inscribed with the names of the loved ones of the two families who had been murdered in Treblinka and laid it alongside the stone commemorating the Jewish community of Czestochowa. At the impressive memorial ceremony in which the students participated, there were recitations, prayers and mournful songs. One of the songs had been written in 1993 by Yair Engel, a student at the Gymnasia Rehavia in Jerusalem during his visit to Poland. A member of Shayetet 13, an elite naval commando unit, Engel was killed while on a mission in 1996. The usually stoic Jucha, who is a born organizer and commander, stood with tears raining down his face. Yair Engel was his son. n FROM TREBLINKA, Peres went to Warsaw, where he met with members of the Jewish community at the Nozyk Synagogue. Chief Rabbi Schudrich had intended to give him a copy of a Hebrew-Polish children's Haggada published by the World Zionist Organization, but in the flurry of excitement amid security constraints, welcomes by religious and lay leaders and other more prestigious presentations, he simply forgot. He did remember to bring several copies to the state dinner later in the week and distributed the Haggada to members of the local Polish Jewish community as well as to visitors from Israel, explaining that it was important for people to realize that a new generation of Jews who identified with its heritage, was growing up in Poland. In fact, Peres had encountered representatives of this new, very young generation when he entered the Nozyk Synagogue to the welcome of a junior elementary school choir singing Am Yisrael Hai - The People of Israel Lives. In his welcoming address, Schudrich told Peres that despite the traumatic experiences which had befallen the community, organized Jewish life had returned to Warsaw. Peres, in turn, noted that after the devastation of Polish Jewry, the greatest Jewish triumph to date is the fact that the State of Israel is celebrating its 60th anniversary, especially taking into account the extent to which the people of the Yishuv were hopelessly outnumbered by surrounding Arab countries during the War of Independence. n ON THE following day, at the official Polish commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Israeli journalists bumped into former foreign minister and currently the prime minister's plenipotentiary for international dialogue, Wladsylaw Bartoszewski, who had been in Israel the previous week for the opening of the Polish Year of Culture. Bartoszewski, who has been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, has served as head of the Institute of National Remembrance, chairman of the International Auschwitz Council, and was a leading activist during the Holocaust of the Polish Council for Aid to Jews, which was code-named Zegota. He was also an Auschwitz inmate. A tall, vibrant and dynamic figure, he joked that he was a year older than the 84-year-old Peres, and that he was still looking forward to new horizons in his multi-faceted career. To which Israel Radio's Polish-born Aryeh Golan declared: "You're the Polish Shimon Peres." The idea obviously appealed to Bartoszewski, who chuckled and said: "I like that. I'm going to tell Peres that I'm the Polish Peres." n THE ORGANIZATION of the commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was absolutely superb, except for one thing. The translations did not cover the whole ceremony, so visitors to Poland who did not understand Polish missed out on an extremely important history lesson by a Polish military officer. The marching of the Polish honor guard was impeccable, as were the uniforms of the representatives of the three branches of the armed forces. In contrast, the Israeli representatives of the IDF looked like real shloompers. When Israelis commented amongst each other on the difference, one of them remarked: "They can teach us how to march, and we'll teach them how to fight." While the Israeli media focused primarily on the speeches of the two presidents, the Polish press was more impressed with the dramatic manner in which Cantor Joseph Malowany sang El Malei Rachamim (God Full of Mercy), giving him considerable coverage. n IN THE EVENING, at the concert recital given by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the National Opera House in Warsaw as a climax to the 65th anniversary commemorations of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, El Malei Rachamim was sung again - this time in a heart-rending interpretation by Cantor Israel Rand against the backdrop of what looked like the wall of one of the houses in the ghetto. The impression was enhanced by a huge, seven-branched menorah, with its lights glowing and its base somehow fixed into the wall, which was actually borrowed from a production of The Tales of Hoffman. The members of the orchestra rose to their feet as conductor Zubin Mehta came out on stage, and in response to his baton gave a stirring rendition of the Polish national anthem followed by a dramatic and inspiring performance of Hatikva that concluded with a powerful, drawn-out crescendo. Because the event was hosted by the Warsaw Municipality, Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz felt it incumbent upon herself to greet the two presidents and the audience, including many Holocaust survivors from abroad. Thety included survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto and Sobibor Death Camp who filled the auditorium and the galleries on seven levels. She listed some of the cultural contributions to Poland and the world by literary giants who happened to be Jewish, and reflected on how much poorer the world would have been without Jews. She also presented the key of the City of Warsaw and honorary citizenship to Simcha Rotem of Jerusalem , a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the subsequent Polish Uprising. Among the other survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto who were there to witness the presentation was Israel Levin, who had been the only child among the ghetto fighters. Rotem had led those who survived through the sewers to the Aryan side. He did not recognize Levin when they met. "I can't forget you," said Levin. "You're the one who lifted me out of the sewer and saved my life." When the house lights were dimmed in the Warsaw Opera House, a smoky fire-red glow penetrated the darkness. Rand, wrapped in a long prayer shawl, emerged in one of the openings of the wall, high above the stage, and began his chant. The natural instinct of this writer was to rise to her feet, but looking around, she saw that no one else was standing. It was, after all, an opera house. Two seats away, a couple rose slowly, the man taking a kippa out of his pocket to cover his head, and then, in the main auditorium and in every gallery, people, one after another began to stand. The whole audience had stood for Hatikva, because it is customary to pay respect to any country by standing for its anthem. But to stand in the gigantic opera house of Warsaw was more than an expression of respect; it was an expression of Jewish pride and courage, especially by those who more than six decades earlier had been transported to a living hell for no reason other than the fact that they were Jewish. n BET HANASSI deputy director-general, Yona Bar-Tal , was torn between family obligations and her loyalty to Peres. Her son, Dor, who was being inducted into the paratroopers, had told her the visit to Poland was too important to miss, and Peres, who had been at Dor's brit, told her that the induction was too important an occasion to miss. So she compromised and spent two days in Poland, and then went home to be a proud mother. n ALTHOUGH THERE were a few glitches in relations between the Polish organizers from the Foreign Ministry and the Peres people, it all worked out well in the end. The Israeli media contingent could not speak highly enough of Michal Sobelman, the Polish-born spokesman for the Israel Embassy, who has been in Poland for 15 years, has an amazing range of connections and is constantly on the phone, successfully solving problems and getting things done. Sobelman is, inter alia, the editor of Slowo Zydowskie - The Jewish Word - an in-depth glossy magazine that covers Jewish cultural activities in Poland. Also the subject of much praise was Meital Jaslovitz, the assistant to Beit Hanassi spokeswoman Ayelet Frish, who does not let anything frazzle her, and calmly goes about doing her job regardless of the circumstances. It's rare for Israelis to be huddled together for several days without complaining - but not a word was uttered against the incredibly efficient Sobelman or Jaslovitz. n THROUGHOUT HIS four-day visit, Peres barely talked politics. The exception was after a philosophical address on Democracy at War, when he was provoked by Professor Wiktor Osiastynski, who called Israel 's treatment of the Palestinians undemocratic, and made such a long-winded case that he had to be reminded that his time was up. "If countries use religion to justify violence, it's not religion, it's violence. There's not much room in which to philosophize," said Peres. "The problems are not theoretical; they're real." "A democracy should not be aggressive. It should not start a war," he acknowledged, "but when you are constantly under attack, what should you do - commit suicide? You have to defend your people - but if you smell a chance for peace, you should go and make peace." n ONE OF the most joyful events during the sojourn in Poland was the completion of a Chabad Torah scroll. Although it was raining outside, the President's men - Moshe Mizrahi, Yoram Dori, Shimon Hefetz and Jucha, joined the Chabadniks in a spirited dance through the grounds of the Belvedere Palace, each of them singing at the top of his voice and taking turns to dance with the Torah. In a country in which Jews had lived for a thousand years, but which in the post-Holocaust period had for too long been devoid of real Jewish expression, it was a celebration of Jewish survival.