Lech Kaczynski, a Staunch Friend of Polish Jewry

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who died Saturday in a plane crash in western Russia, was a former anti-communist activist who teamed up with his twin brother to take his country in a nationalist, conservative direction.

During his presidency, which began in 2005, Poland's relations with Israel strengthened, and he was a staunch friend of Poland's Jewish community. Kaczynski, who often said he loved Jews, prided himself on being "nationalist without being anti-Semitic."

"Yes, I love Jews. I've had many Jewish friends in the different periods of my life," Kaczynski told Haaretz in an interview in 2006.

"I understand today what I did not understand as a child, that my attitude toward the Jews was that I viewed them as Poles ... albeit as special Poles," he said. Asked if it was possible to be a Polish patriot without being a nationalist, he said that "I will surprise you and say that it is even possible to be nationalist without being anti-Semitic."

Kaczynski, 60, pursued a strongly pro-U.S. line in foreign relations, in accordance with a cross-party consensus that has grown in Poland since the fall of communism. He was an enthusiastic backer of U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense system in the country, the largest of the European Union's new members to the east.

Kaczynski first rose to fame as a child star alongside his identical twin in a hit 1962 movie, "The Two Who Stole the Moon," about two troublemakers who try to get rich by stealing the moon and selling it. That was the end of their film career, however.

In the 1970s and '80s, the Kaczynski brothers were activists in the anti-communist opposition and went on to serve as advisers to Solidarity founder Lech Walesa.

Kaczynski supported Walesa's presidential bid in 1990 and became the chief presidential adviser on security issues. His cooperation with Walesa later ended in acrimony over political differences, and Walesa was defeated in 1995 by ex-communist Aleksander Kwasniewski.

Kaczynski served as Poland's justice minister in 2000-2001, and his tough stance against crime laid the foundations for the popularity that would fuel his later rise to the presidency.

A man of old-fashioned mannerisms, Kaczynski kissed women's hands, including those of his secretaries in the presidential palace.

His conservatism was reflected when he was elected mayor of Warsaw in 2001 and forbade the Gay Pride Parade in the city's streets twice.

The prickly nationalism of Kaczynski and his identical twin brother Jaroslaw - a former prime minister and now opposition leader - sometimes complicated ties with European neighbors and Russia.

He was an outspoken anti-communist whose statements annoyed Russia's leaders, including Vladimir Putin. He agreed to U.S. president George W. Bush's request to put missiles in Poland, despite Putin's threats to aim Russian missiles at Warsaw if he did so. But he also had frequent disputes with the Germans, whom he kept reminding of their Nazi past.

He long held out against the EU's Lisbon Reform Treaty before signing it last November. Still, his appeal at home rested partly on his forthright representation of Polish views and tough stance on law and order.

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