Opinion

The Stone One President Placed on the Grave

Why should the president of Poland place a stone from Warsaw Ghetto on Yoni Netanyahu’s grave? And who will guard that celebrity stone?

On January 17 at 2:23 P.M., Benjamin Netanyahu uploaded a photograph to his Facebook page showing him standing at the foot of the grave of his brother, Yonatan Netanyahu, at Mt. Herzl, with the Polish president Andrzej Duda kneeling by the grave and placing a bouquet on it. The caption reads: “Polish president Andrzej Duda asked to visit the grave of my brother Yoni, of blessed memory, today. When we visited the grave at Mt. Herzl together, the president laid down a memorial bouquet and a stone he had brought with him from the Warsaw Ghetto. Yoni was a hero to all mankind, he told me, and I could not conceal the dimensions of my emotion, or the depth to which I miss him.”

As an Israeli and Polish citizen, I felt as though the leaders of my two countries were concurrently desecrating the Polish, Jewish and Israeli memories – my three identities. However, my identities are a personal, picayune matter, and in these days of “post-truth” and of charges against the media that it disseminates “fake news,” I wanted to check the facts in the status cited above.

First of all, insofar as I could ascertain with the Polish Embassy in Israel as well as with the Prime Minister’s Office in Israel, the president of Poland really did, at his own initiative, ask to visit the grave of Yoni Netanyahu, during his ceremonial visit to Mt. Herzl, after laying bouquets on the graves of Rabin and Peres. The Israeli Foreign Ministry advised the Prime Minister’s Office as much on Monday of last week and Netanyahu, moved by the gesture, hastened to Mt. Herzl the next afternoon.

As a concerned Israeli and Polish citizen, not only because my grandmother, grandfather and aunt on my mother’s side died in the Warsaw Ghetto, I was unsettled by the question of why the president of Poland decided to lay a stone from there, of all places, on Yoni Netanyahu’s grave.

It is true that Duda’s visit in Israel was in no small part focused on the decimation of Polish Jewry by the Germans on Polish soil. But what connection was there between the Warsaw Ghetto and the grave of an Israeli military casualty, the brother of the Israeli prime minister, who tends to raise up his memory under national circumstances that evoke some discomfort, with all due respect to his pain?

As a writer about matters of minutiae, I was vexed by the issue of where Duda took that “stone that he had brought with him from the Warsaw Ghetto.” Does the Polish government have a reserve of stones from the Warsaw Ghetto for making gestures on national-cum-personal events like these? And what was done with this stone, so imbued with significance, after the ceremony? Is it still there? Is somebody guarding it?

Insofar as I could ascertain from the Polish Judaism museum in Warsaw, which is in the ghetto, there is no reserve of stones, no fossil gesture of the sort in the protocols of Polish diplomacy. The Holocaust Museum in Washington has some stones from the ghetto that the Polish government sent to the United States in 1948, including paving stones from the ghetto’s Chlodna Street, but this stone was something else. In fact any stone that you might take from any construction site in Muranow, Warsaw – where the ghetto, which was utterly destroyed, had stood – could be considered, theoretically, as a “stone from the Warsaw Ghetto.”

Not to tax the reader too much, there are the rock-solid facts regarding the stone, according to the Polish Embassy in Israel, and the video clip in English which the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office uploaded. This was not a stone that the president of Poland “had brought with him from the Warsaw Ghetto.”

The YouTube clip shows the president extracting a very small stone from his right-hand trouser pocket, and saying to Netanyahu, in English, that it is a stone from “Warsaw” – apparently because he was aware of the Jewish custom of placing a stone on the grave during commemoration. Insofar as can be heard, President Duda does not say the word “ghetto” at all.

A spokesperson from the Polish president’s office confirmed by email that the stone had been from Warsaw, but not from the ghetto area, nor had it been presented as one, and suggested the theory that Netanyahu had engaged in “over-interpretation” and understood the word “Warsaw,” as said by President Duda, as “Warsaw Ghetto.”

A small stone from Warsaw morphed, en route from Mt. Herzl to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Facebook page and to the Prime Minister’s Office’s website in English, into the “alternative fact” of a “stone from the Warsaw Ghetto,” according to the preferred narrative of Netanyahu, who makes the comparison – though it is, famously, proscribed – between Israel 2017 and Polish Jewry of 1942.

Thus, at least, my sense of insult as a Pole and a Jew was appeased. As an Israeli, I still feel considerable unease, to put it mildly, when politicians – led by the prime minister – use the word “Holocaust” as a political prop of professional victims and insult the memory of its horrors, mainly in order to justify, in a very dangerous way, “processes” that Israeli society is undergoing.

If indeed the president of Poland had laid a stone from the Warsaw Ghetto on Yoni Netanyahu’s grave – the right place to keep that meaningful relic, after the ceremony, would apparently have been in a special box, designed for the purpose, and placed in the cabin of the Israeli captain of the submarine built in Germany.