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The Warsaw Voice » Society » March 12, 2008
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Ties That Bind
March 12, 2008   
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Shevach Weiss, Israel's former ambassador to Poland and now a visiting professor at the Political Sciences Department of Warsaw University, talks to Marcin Mierzejewski.

How would you describe Polish-Jewish relations?
I would say Polish-Jewish relations are a true phenomenon in the history of mankind. This primarily stems from the common past which shaped their historical, cultural, sociological and psychological dimensions. Suffice to say that during its 3,000-year history, the Jewish nation has been tied to Poland for some 1,000 or so years. Out of the 18 million Jews who lived in the world in 1939, some 3.5 million lived in Poland, and there were another 1.5 million Polish Jews living in other countries around the world. There was a time when the Polish language was more popular among Jews than Yiddish and Hebrew. But then came World War II and almost the entire Jewish population of Poland was annihilated. The extermination was carried out in German death camps located on Polish soil. Tragically, anti-Semitism in postwar Poland drove many Jewish survivors out of the country. But even after the war, the term "Polish Jew" retained its meaning. Half the Jewish Nobel Prize winners, who account for 23 percent of the total number of Nobel Prize winners worldwide, had roots in Poland. Try and imagine what Poland could have become if the Holocaust had never happened, if the Jewish community had been able to continue thriving in Poland. Poland would have become a global power in science, winning several Nobel Prizes every year. This is also true about spheres of life other than science. After all, the signature sense of humor of Woody Allen, recognizable around the world, originated from Poland, where Allen's ancestors used to live.

Poland is frequently portrayed as an anti-Semitic country, even though instances of anti-Semitism occur in many countries nowadays, even in the West.
I find this frustrating as well. To add insult to injury, for quite a while Europe has tended to blame Poland for all sins ever committed against Jews. For example, you could once hear it said that Hitler chose Poland as a place to exterminate Jews because Poles were to assist him in the crime. Such outrageous claims were even made in Germany of all places. The truth is that Poland never had a collaborationist government like the Vichy government in France, and neither Vidkun Quisling [the Norwegian fascist leader] nor Josef Tiso [the Slovak leader who supported Hitler during World War II] were Polish. It was not Polish policemen who organized transports of Jews to German death camps, the way it happened in the Netherlands, for example.

What is the state of Polish-Jewish dialogue today?
The dialogue between the two states is very good and free from conflicts. Relations between the people are a little different, however. There are many Jews in Israel who remember Poland as a cursed land; they have vivid memories of not only the Holocaust, but also the anti-Semitism they faced among the Polish people before and after the war. However, most contemporary Poles were born after the war; they are a young generation that does not really know Jews at all. There isn't much anti-Semitism in them. On the contrary, you may encounter instances of philo-Semitism. I believe the dialogue will be better with this generation, and with time there will be more and more mutual understanding.

A lot depends on the organization of visits for groups of young Israelis to Poland. So far, the itineraries of these brief trips lacked meetings with young Poles. The current Israeli ambassador, David Peleg, just like I did before him, is doing his best to have these groups spend a day or two with Polish students while in Poland. The young people from both countries could learn about the horrible history of the Holocaust by, for example, seeing the museum in Auschwitz together. Over 20,000 young Israelis come to Poland every year. If only we could take this opportunity and expand their sightseeing schedule, mutual relations could radically change for the better.

Thousands of young Polish people take part in festivals of Jewish culture held in many cities across Poland. Are young Jews interested in Polish culture?
The interest in the other nation is definitely greater in Poland than Israel. But we are at war. When you live in a country that is in a state of war, you can achieve much less than in Poland, which is a safe and free country. Polish youths have a lot more opportunities to study and learn about Jewish culture. Besides, Polish influences on the Israeli public are much weaker these days than Russian or Northern African influences. Polish Jews are a very small minority, totally unlike in the early years of the state of Israel, when many of the country's founding fathers came from Poland.

How do you think Polish-Jewish relations will develop in the future?
There are many ways to enhance them. Tourist traffic is increasing. In addition to visits by young people, cultural exchange is of great importance, which includes cooperation between Polish and Israeli television stations. Perhaps the most important thing is the Museum of the History of Polish Jews currently under construction in Warsaw. Consecutive Polish governments and presidents have given their support to the idea behind the museum. A considerable part in this project has also been played by Jews who, while they frequently have terrible memories of Poland, keep returning here to offer help in spite of the stereotypes. This will not be a museum of the Holocaust, as we already have one. The message of this museum will be different, an uplifting one. I am confident that this will be an extremely important place to Poles, Jews and the whole world alike.
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