Poland Is Rediscovering Its Jews, but Landmines Remain in Its Ties With Israel

Poland's new envoy to Tel Aviv is proud of the developing ties between Israel and his country, which takes a growing interest in matters Jewish. Still, painful issues continue to dog Polish-Jewish ties.

Moshe Milner/GPO

The Polish ambassador to Israel took up his current post after serving as the Africa and Middle East department head in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and before that as envoy to Damascus. However, with 20 years of experience in diplomacy, Ambassador Jacek Chodorowicz guards his tongue when it comes to his stint in Syria, which ended in 2008. "I wouldn't like to talk about Syria," he says. "My personal experience isn't relevant. I was the ambassador and have a knowledge of the region, which helps me understand the situation all around Israel."

This is the first interview Chodorowicz, 48, has granted to the media since he entered the Polish Embassy building in Tel Aviv last May. The embassy is located in a typical apartment building in the heart of a quiet and pleasant neighborhood. An old and claustrophobia-inducing elevator - of the sort that one can also find in cities with a Communist past, like Warsaw - leads to his handsome office.

"Polish-Israeli and Polish-Jewish relations are of a special nature," he says. The aim he has set for himself in his new post may at first sound simple, but many sensitivities and tensions are inherent in it. "Though we are determined to look to the future - to build on the history but look to the future - we will never and we should [never] leave behind us this history and the tragic end of the 3.5 million Jews in Poland."

His attempt to explain how he would translate this statement into action reveals the complexity of the picture. As he talks, Chodorowicz both addresses the "joint history" of the Poles and the Jews - and steps on one of the most explosive land mines in the relations between Israel and Poland, which were renewed fully in 1990: the common Polish perception that sees their countrymen as victims of the Holocaust, and does not talk about their part as perpetrators in it.

"Well over half of Jewry has Polish roots," the ambassador says, "and that's exactly the reason the tragic end of the large part of the Jewish communities in Europe took place in death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. But that's always, or sometimes, a problem for us to clarify: why these camps were put in Poland. They were simply put in Poland for practical reasons. That was because these were logistical reasons. The Germans decided to shorten the distance for transporting the whole communities to what we later learned were death camps."

Another land mine on the way to a better joint future is the matter of the "Holocaust trips," as the envoy calls them, in which Israeli high-school students participate.

In the past in both Poland and Israel there has been criticism of the conduct of students on these trips. In Poland, for example, some did not look kindly on teens who wrapped themselves in Israeli flags at various sites; they saw it as provocative, nationalist behavior. In Israel there has been criticism of students who have run amok and made the trip into one big party.

The ambassador is optimistic: "There have been fewer incidents than there were in the early years of these [high school] trips," he says. "We haven't had any recent problems. Those groups have become - in places like Krakow, Warsaw, Lublin - sort of welcomed and a permanent picture.

"Over the 20 years since those groups started, much has been done. First, to gradually include into their program visiting not only the Holocaust sites but also the other attractions in Poland. More of these groups are meeting with Polish youth," says the ambassador, adding that he hopes the new Jewish museum slated to open by the end of 2013 on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto will also become a destination for Israeli youngsters and a meeting place for the two peoples.

It is hard to interrupt the flow of the ambassador's praise for the new museum, whose aim he defines as "recalling the memory of the Polish Jewry, to contribute to the formation of more than the individual and collective identity of Polish Jews ... This multimedia museum and cultural center will preserve the history of the Polish Jews over the course of 1,000 years.

"It'll be a unique institution," he notes. "Not only is it the first and only museum to focus on the history of the Polish Jews, but also it's a 21st-century institution in every regard ... using the latest historical research."

As he sees it, the museum will be a part of what he calls "the big troika" of international Holcaust museums, whose other two members are Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

Will Poland ever become a normal tourist destination for Israelis, as has happened with Berlin?

"I think that Poland is already a normal tourist destination among Israelis. We see more and more Israelis who come with a package tour just for the weekend, to Warsaw or Krakow, to enjoy these places, to do shopping ... as much as we see here, in Israel, not only Polish Catholic pilgrims coming to visit Israel as the Holy Land ... but also we see more and more Polish young people, coming to spend a weekend in Tel Aviv, so this pattern that we have - Israelis coming mostly for the Holocaust sites and Polish visitors mostly pilgrims - is still true, but it's changing."

The image Israelis have of Poland is complex.

"We are aware of the complexity and the problem of the image of Poland in the eyes of Israelis," the diplomat says. "That's why we say: Come to Warsaw, come for a weekend, for shopping ... which many do. It's huge progress. You can judge it also by the fact that many Israelis have applied for Polish passports. There are more and more Israeli students going to study in Poland. There's still a lot of things to do, but it's going well."

Bookstore in the basement

It seems that Poland has rediscovered its Jews in recent years. In Krakow, for example, tourists are invited to attend the annual Jewish Cultural Festival - a major national event - to browse in the Jewish bookshop that's been set up under one of the synagogues, to listen to klezmer music, to taste kosher Jewish dishes at restaurants and to frequent cafes decorated with signs in Hebrew, while the university offers courses in Hebrew and Yiddish.

This past year was declared Janusz Korczak Year, with worldwide commemorations of the legendary Polish-Jewish educator, who chose to accompany the children of his Warsaw Ghetto orphanage to their deaths in Treblinka, despite being given opportunities to survive. This coming year the new museum will be inaugurated in Warsaw as part of the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Not everyone, however, is in agreement as to the Polish commitment to the Jews. Some see recent developments as a trend that represents the government and the cultural elite more than the general populace. In effect, it could be said that Judaism is being celebrated in Poland today despite the fact that there aren't a lot of Jews: Only a few thousand, most of them elderly (the precise number is not known ) are thought to be living in the country.

The ambassador praises what he calls the "revival of Jewish life in Poland," as well as "the efforts being made by the prime minister to fight anti-Semitism, and the generally positive attitude of the Poles toward Israel."

Last month, the relations between Poland and Israel were put to the test when the UN General Assembly supported granting "the State of Palestine" nonmember observer status. Poland, like Germany, abstained in the vote.

"Poland is considered by Israel as a friend - rightly so," says Chodorowicz. "Being friends doesn't mean that we are always supportive of the policy of the government of Israel. We have our critical position regarding the settlements."

Another sensitive issue in bilateral relations is the return of the property that was stolen from Polish Jews during World War II and nationalized afterward during the years of communist rule. While most Central European countries have already adopted a policy or passed legislation for compensation for the property that was stolen, Poland has not done so. According to a decision by the government last year, when it suspended work on a law that would have regularized the process of restitution, anyone who wants to sue for property must now file a suit in a regular court. At the World Jewish Restitution Organization, they say this procedure is complicated, costly and inefficient, and they are calling upon Poland to adopt a different policy or to go back to addressing the issue in legislation.

"Polish citizens of Jewish origin who lost their property when it was taken over by the Polish state between 1944 and 1962, and their legal successors, don't represent a separate category from Poles," explains Ambassador Chodorowicz. "Legally, the situation of a person with Jewish origins and their successors - also those who are today not Polish citizens - is no different from the situation of others, in particular from that of Polish citizens. I'm saying that because there is no law that would regulate compensation for the property taken by the communist state in Poland - for the time being.

"A person of Jewish origin may claim it in court on the same grounds as other eligible persons. There are tens and hundreds [of claimants] who have used this channel with very good results over the last 20 years. Also, since 1997, hundreds of sites have been returned to the Jewish communities, and those properties are the source of income to finance the Polish revival of Jewish life."

Lili Haber, head of the Association of Polish Jews in Israel, dismisses this last claim as "utterly trivial," since the number of properties owned by Jews before the war was "more than 100,000." With regard to the ambassador's statement to the effect that sites have been returned to Jewish communities, Haber says: "There are thousands more applications that have not been discussed. And in general, we're talking here only about properties registered in the name of the Jewish community. This doesn't include properties like synagogues or a Hebrew gymnasium [secondary school] belonging to associations that donated them to the community. What have been returned are cemeteries - which the communities are having a hard time maintaining."

Haber, who presented her arguments to Chodorowicz after he took up the post, has harsh words for the government in Warsaw. "The Polish government," she says, "cannot demand of the government of Israel that it talk with Palestinians without Poland itself being prepared to conduct negotiations with us on the property. They have decided not to talk. I ask: 'Hast thou killed and also taken possession?' They think that it doesn't pay to deal with this because in any case they [the survivors] are all going to die."

Chodorowicz is aware of the problems. "We have to remember and understand the reasons for this complexity: the shifting of Poland's borders after World War II; population resettlements; change of the political-economic system in 1945; wartime losses. It's complicated because of the number of claimants, which will make it difficult to handle it by the budget and to imagine that those compensations will be anywhere near, in financial terms, to the real value of the property."

Poles and Jews need each other

"The passion to become familiar with the Jewish past is creating nostalgia and longings in Poland for something that no longer exists, for a limb that has been cut off, for an absence and a vacuum," says Prof. Jacek Leociak, of the Polish Academy of Sciences. "But it is necessary to be careful: This memory is distant and is located on a postcard."

Leociak visited Israel this week in the context of a seminar held by the Massuah Institute for Holocaust Studies. In a conversation with Haaretz, he provided another angle on the way Poland is dealing with its past.

"The memory of the trauma is constructing our identity as Poles," he says. "We are trying to look at our history in the most mature way, to grapple with the whole truth and look at it without propaganda, without myths, and without ideological indoctrination. Without trying to find who was the bigger victim.

"We have to look at our history, to talk about everything that was criminal, about the unpleasant experiences and about the negative behavior of Poles. We must not pretend, evade and lie. The Poles did not commit the Holocaust of the Jews. The Germans were the architects of the Holocaust. But there were situations in which Poles supported it. We must not hide behind the claim that 'they were marginal to society' or 'rabble.' We have to take the responsibility for this upon ourselves courageously."

Leociak believes that relations between Israelis and Poles are in the midst of a process of normalization. "The Poles see that in their history there is a Jewish part. The Jews know that in their history there is a Polish part. We need each other. But on one condition: that we talk about everything."

Alon Ron