Polish PM: There Is No Polish Culture Without Jewish Culture

Tusk: If there's one country that can be trusted to understand the complexity of history is Israel.

WARSAW - "My family history, like that of many Polish, German and Jewish families from Central Europe in the 20th century, is complex," says Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who is due to begin an official visit to Israel on Tuesday. He is alluding to the fact that his grandfather was forced to serve in the Wehrmacht, Hitler's army, during World War II. In an interview with Haaretz, Tusk claims he did not know about his grandfather's past until his political rivals - twin brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski - publicized it as part of their smear tactics during the 2005 election campaign.

Tusk's family, which comes from the Baltic Sea port city of Gdansk, belong to the Kashubian people, a Slav community influenced by both German and Polish traditions. The Nobel laureate Gunter Grass described their history well in his novel "The Tin Drum." The Germans sometimes saw them as Poles and Slavs, while the Poles were suspicious of their foreign-seeming language and customs. Tusk's grandfather, a railroad laborer, was arrested by the Nazis after the occupation of Poland and sent to two concentration camps. In 1944 he was forced into the Wehrmacht.

"My Kashubian family, like the Jews, are people who were born and live in border areas and were suspected by the Nazis and by the Communists of being disloyal."

What are your personal feelings about this? Do you regret this part of your family's past?

"I have nothing to regret, it's my family's biography. As a historian and as a man, I prefer to know the painful truth over a pleasant lie. If there's one country that can be trusted to understand the complexity of history, it's Israel."

Not just a 'Jewish graveyard'

This will be Tusk's first visit to Israel, and the first visit by a Polish leader in nearly a decade.

"For anyone, and certainly to a Polish prime minister, a visit to Israel is important and special; my excitement is understandable. It's the Holy Land, the country that the whole world is interested in and it also has a deep connection to the special history of the relationship between Poles and the Jewish people."

Tusk, 51, is affable, with a ready smile. His visit will kick off Polish Year in Israel 2008-2009 with a sound and light show by two Polish artists on the facade of the Tel Aviv municipality building.

He says relations between the two countries are very good, so "on the face of it it is not a difficult visit. We have common interests and feelings and a long, complex history. Of course there's always room for improvement." One aspect of the improvement Tusk refers to is his desire for Israel to view Poland as more than what historians and politicians often term "the graveyard of the Jewish people."

"I'm not surprised, and I understand that for many Jews and Israelis Poland means Auschwitz, and they go there as on pilgrimage. I definitely understand the idea of the March of the Living. We Poles and my government don't seek to change that. It is a right and a duty to remember and not forget - and we must not minimize - the symbolism and the significance of Auschwitz.

"But other things can be added. The relationship between Poland and the Jews is centuries old. Poland was the homeland of various peoples, including the Jews. There is no Polish culture without Jewish culture. We want Israelis, especially the young, to experience this side."

What would you like to happen?

"Decisions must be made. Political will to vary the character of Israelis' visits to Poland is needed. My government is willing; we propose creating a joint mechanism or institution to deal with it. I hope that during my visit I will hear that Israel too is willing, and will demonstrate goodwill on the matter."

Why is this so important to Poland?

The Polish people was not partner to the Holocaust carried out by the Germans on Polish soil. We want awareness of this fact to be made public as much as possible in the entire world, and especially in Israel, but that is not the situation now. The key to change is in education and in cultivating the patience to learn history and to look at the truth, even when it's uncomfortable. We must take action so that Poles and Israelis will better understand our common history, the good and the bad."

Anti-Semitism and denial

Do you believe there is anti-Semitism in Poland?

"There are anti-Semites in Poland, but they are a minority, on the margins. But there is no public expression of anti-Semitism. If we do have an anti-Semitic minority it is painful to us and it more of a problem for we Poles than for the Jews. It is shameful that there are still people with this attitude. Anti-Semitism is of course an ugly thing but anti-Semitism after the Holocaust is evil. We are committed to fighting anti-Semitism and to extinguishing it once and for all. But if we compare Poland to other states in Europe, we have almost no anti-Semitic incidents and certainly no anti-Semitic attacks, at most we have people who are not smart and words that are not intelligent."

But in Poland there are expressions of Holocaust denial, like that voiced by Senator Ryszard Janusz Bender, who said that Auschwitz was a work camp, not a death camp, and claimed that the prisoners ate better than the Poles outside. And there are historians who are trying to rewrite history and anti-Semitic individuals connected with Radio Maryja, the Catholic nationalist station. What do you intend to do about this?

"Polish law is very clear on this. Denial of the Holocaust is illegal. The law is called the "Auschwitz-Lie law." Bender is an alien to me, politically, and I oppose his ideas. We try to fight such expressions but it's not easy. As a nation that opposed Communism and the Soviet Union we are attempting to draw the line between protecting freedom of expression on one hand and action against Holocaust deniers on the other. We have taken action against them in the past and I intend, together with the chief prosecutor, to take action against denial of the truth about the past."