Jews worldwide are mourning the death of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland’s first post-Communist prime minister, who fought anti-Semitism and was a friend of Israel. Mazowiecki, a former journalist, died Monday in Warsaw aged 86.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of a great statesman and friend,” Piotr Kadlcik, president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, said in a statement issued Monday.
The Jewish community, Kadlcik said, “will remember him as a symbol of dialogue and extraordinary wisdom and goodness in difficult and rebellious times.”
He noted that Mazowiecki had long been an activist for human rights and against discrimination. As early as 1960, Kadlcik said, Mazowiecki had written that “the fight against anti-Semitism is not any merit or any humanitarian gesture of mercy, it is not only a struggle for the dignity of the Jews, but as much a struggle for our own dignity. It is a struggle for the dignity of all.”
The World Jewish Congress also paid tribute to Mazowiecki as “one of the architects of the modern, democratic Poland and as a friend of Israel and the Jewish people.”
It was under the Mazowiecki government that Poland re-established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1990 and opened Polish airports for Jews leaving the then-Soviet Union.
In a statement, WJC President Ronald Lauder said, “The Jews are grateful to Tadeusz Mazowiecki for his staunch defense of their rights as Poland emerged from Communism, and for his help in resolving the crisis of the Carmelite convent on the grounds of Auschwitz in the early 1990s. He will also be remembered for speaking out against anti-Semitism clearly and unequivocally and exposing war crimes as special rapporteur for human rights in the former Yugoslavia. May his memory be for a blessing.”
Mazowiecki, who emerged from Poland's dissident intellectual tradition, was famously photographed making a victory sign after his election for prime minister, which marked the beginning of the end of 40 years of Cold War politics in Eastern Europe.
He was one of the architects of the "Round Table" talks, which brought together the Soviet-installed communist authorities and the opposition to pave the way for Poland's peaceful transition to democracy in 1989.
Born in 1927, Mazowiecki also authored the "thick line" concept under which lower-rank officials of the communist regime could also work to the benefit of the newly-democratic Poland.
Some of Poland's rightist groups criticized him for this, saying his approach allowed many communist officials avoid responsibility for their wrongdoings before 1989.
As prime minister, he oversaw Poland's shock economic therapy of early 1990s aimed at replacing the centrally controlled communist economy with a free market and sought to mend ties with Poland's neighbors, such as Germany.
Mazowiecki was a Catholic activist under communism and joined the Solidarity trade union 1980 strikes in the Gdansk shipyard offering support for the protesting workers from the country's independent intellectuals.
Arrested in 1981 when the communist authorities declared martial law to crush Solidarity, he became an adviser to the union's charismatic leader Lech Walesa, later elected to become Poland's first post-war non-communist president in 1990.