Sunday, February 27, 2011


Changing topics, here is a great broadcast from's Richard Engel. Journalism is a great way to be a witness to history, and I often envy Engel for the assignments he covers, the access he is afforded as a member of the press, and his expertise in presenting the information. Broadcast journalism, I assume, has as much to do with what you look like as it does anything else. Print journalism not so much, of course; either way, it's a wonderful way to see the world, witness history, and be part of something significant and meaningful.

Interview w/ Polish FM

A fascinating interview came out of Israel today, where Ha'aretz interviewed Poland's Foreign Minister. Mr. Sikorski, who is married to a Jewish American woman who happens to also be a Pulitzer Prize winner and well-known journalist, speaks eloquently about Poland's past, its involvement in the Holocaust, and its history vis-a-vis the Jewish people. I love reading about high-level officials like this, for I feel it's enlightening to see how they view their country's past and how they interpret the events that brought Poland to its knees 70 years ago. While Mr. Sikorski does not acknowledge that, outside the years that comprised the Holocaust, Poland's relationship with its 3.5 million strong Jewish population wasn't always rose gardens, he poignantly makes clear that the Holocaust, and the death camps that live on Polish soil, were not the creation of the Polish state.

He states:
The Polish state was too weak in 1939 to stand up to Nazi Germany. It was not able to defend all its citizens. Nazi Germany carried out the Holocaust on our soil - against our will, but in front of our eyes.

He goes on to speak about Poland's friendship with Israel:
Poland and the Jewish people share a thousand-year history, and ever since we regained our independence, the state-to-state relations have also increased in importance. Both Israel and Poland live in interesting and at times dangerous neighborhoods, and so both take security matters with the utmost seriousness... We would like to upgrade Israel's relations with the EU. Today Israel already has privileged relations with the EU, which includes regular summits and regular high-level contacts, but we would like to see more.

Later on he speaks about Iran, and describes Poland's position:
We do not feel threatened by Iran. We are not high on the ayatollah's list of targets. Our opposition to Iranian policy is based on the conception that theocracy is the last form of ideological dictatorship of the 21st century, after fascism and communism. This is why we also opposed the Durban II conference against racism, at which Iran intended to spread hatred and anti-Semitism. After all, our country does not lack for physical traces of what anti-Semitism can lead to.

In posting this, I realize what I wrote above is inaccurate, in that he does acknowledge anti-Semitism in Poland's history. He's certainly not direct with it, and he doesn't go into details by, for example, mentioning Kielce, or Jedwabne, or Radzilow; perhaps what is most important is that he recognizes that Polish-Jewish relations were a challenge at one time. But is that enough? Should we expect more? The author asks the Foreign Minister if modern Poland is now philo-Semitic, and his answer is fascinating:

The fact that a large portion of the world's Jews lived in Poland before the Holocaust needs to be taken into account. For generations, Poland absorbed Jews while they were expelled from other countries. The Holocaust that took place on our soil was conducted against our will by someone else. So what is happening now is simply that free Poland is returning to its natural self.

Certainly, there does seem to be a greater acceptance, (or might a better word be appreciation?) by Poles of their country's rich Jewish heritage.  Rabbi Schudrich has been quoted as saying that many Poles would like to 'do something Jewish.' The annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow is attended mostly by Poles, and I know from my Fulbright affiliation with the Foundation for Preservation for Jewish Heritage in Poland, that teachers and young people are exploring the country's Jewish heritage together. It's wonderful to read about and even more fascinating to explore in person when visiting Poland. I simply can't get enough of this!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Spark among the Ashes

I recently rented the documentary Spark Among The Ashes, a well-done film about a boy from CT who goes to Krakow, Poland to have his bar mitzvah. In 1985. The year is just as important, in my view, as the premise itself; for in 1985, Poland was still behind the Iron Curtain at a time when most people saw no end in sight to the Cold War, or so the world thought. At the time, Poland was going through the solidarity movement and momentum was slowly beginning to shift; today we know the conclusion - the end of the Soviet Union and a democratic, free-market economy Poland that continues to thrive today.

The boy from CT, now 38 and interviewed for the documentary in 2007, found himself in Poland by coincidence. In 1985 there were perhaps 200 Polish Jews still living in Krakow, where one of them was asked by a visiting American Jewish group if there was anything that could be done to help their current situations living in communist Poland. The request wasn't for money, or food, or clothing; the request was to have the very first bar mitzvah in Krakow since pre-WWII. Word went back to the US, where a rabbi in Stamford, CT introduced the idea to a boy who was preparing for his bar mitzvah at the time. The family agreed and the stage was set, with the media catching on. This was a significant undertaking in a place that is largely considered a massive Jewish graveyard. One wonders if such things happen today in Poland, a question I was hoping to have answered with a Fulbright scholarship. Not to be, unfortunately.

Because of the media attention (it was on the front page of the NY Times), the situation was made more complicated as the boy's rabbi was a.) reform, and b.) a woman. An Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn read about the event and decided to intervene; he denied the female rabbi her right to officiate the event and set out for Poland on his own to intercept the ceremony. The documentary interviews both individuals (oddly, the Orthodox rabbi looks no different in 2007 as compared to 1985, even his English is about the same, which is to say not good), and recounts how the Orthodox gentleman would not allow the female rabbi to wear her tallis while on the bimah. They made a small scene as the boy began his Haftorah, and today, as then, the Orthodox rabbi remains convinced of his righteousness in keeping the moment aligned with Jewish traditions.

What's interesting about the interviews in 2007 was when one of the producers compared 1985 Kazimierz to the South Bronx. It is the second time I've heard that comparison, the first was last May when Rabbi Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, made the same comparison during a talk in New York on Polish-Jewish relations. Rabbi Schudrich, a native New Yorker, had visited Krakow in the '70s, when it was in a dilapidated state, apparently. Today's Krakow and Kazimierz quarter are the talk of everyone who visits Poland now. Just yesterday someone was telling me how they thought Krakow was so beautiful. It's fascinating to learn that the Krakow we see today is a recently upgraded version of what it looked like 25-30 years ago while it was still under Soviet control. So while the city was not destroyed like Warsaw or Breslau/Wroclaw during the war, it clearly was not a sight to see until the post-Communist era.

Another fascinating element from the interviews: the director notes that since his trip to Poland in 1985, he has done several other films about Polish Jewry, notably the excellent Hiding and Seeking. He talks about how Poland changed him, and I thought I was watching a mirror image of myself. I can't get enough of Poland. Visiting that country is a life-changing experience in my view. And while the change in my life has not been in terms of career success or monetary reward (yet?), it's the change in mindset, in focus, and in what I think I could be in the future that has made Poland so important in moving me away from business and finding new and more meaningful work in international affairs and perhaps World Jewry. I wonder: where will it all lead?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Polish President Visits USHMM

Received an email from the USHMM and within it was a link calling attention to Poland's newly elected president visit to the museum in December before he met with president Obama. The video is below and it's quite obvious that the museum administrative staff were very happy to have president Komorowski visit. It's significant for a number of reasons. First, in my view, it's important to see Polish officials of higher office acknowledge the rich Jewish history that is very much a part of Polish history. The former president, before he died in the plane crash last April, was the first, and I believe the only, president to visit Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw on Hanukkah to light the first candle. I do not know if the new president followed in president Kaczynski's footsteps, however, this past December. Second, that president Komorowski recognizes that the Holocaust, as the person in the video says, is very much a Polish story is important. With some 10% of the country's population Jewish in 1939, the loss of some 3 million citizens should be remembered, especially if it can play a role in alleviating hate. Further to this point, officials of higher office are in a very important position vis-a-vis setting an example for their citizens. Given the amount of anti-Semitism that was once very prevalent in Polish society, and exists to a degree today, someone of Komorowski's stature can have influence over those parts of society that continue to believe in aged-old stereotypes about the Jewish people. That is what was so admirable about Kaczynski visiting the synagogue. For Jewish Heritage travel, Poland is a fascinating place. Many of the buildings are still there, with many of them in ruins. So while the people who occupied those synagogues were taken from the earth in brutal fashion, memory remains, and it must be cherished.