October 22, 2018

Peres in Poland

While some of the details have faded over the years, we will never forget when Shimon Peres, then Israeli Foreign Minister, came to Poland, August 22-23, 2001. My wife, Rachel and I were running the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, helping rebuild Jewish life and institutions. We all knew that Peres had been born as Szymon Perski in Poland and emigrated to Israel as a boy with his family. But what none could have expected — and certainly not then-Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and the assembled guests at the Presidential Palace — that he spoke an elegant and fluent Polish.

Perhaps because he left Poland while still a child, or that his parents never dwelt on the difficulties for Jews in prewar Poland, we never sensed for a moment any animosity from this great statesmen towards Poland. So often, when Jewish leaders would speak, we would anticipate they would say something. But not Shimon Peres. He reminisced, and you could literally feel the nostalgia in his voice, and the immense historical gravitas, of this shtetl boy arriving at the palace of the Polish president as a dignitary. A select group of Jewish leaders joined others for a small lunch around a large u-shaped table in the palace. Rachel and Rabbi Michael Schudrich of Warsaw had ensured that kosher food could be served for those who ate kosher. Peres took the kosher option.

Later that evening, the Israeli Ambassador to Poland held a reception at his residence for many leaders of the Jewish community. Peres, I had been told by my friend who was running security at the Israeli Embassy, was not feeling well. We worried if he would make it to the event. But Peres was unstoppable. He had already met with the Polish President, the Prime Minister, laid a memorial wreath at the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, and he was in his 70s. However, he was not going to miss this opportunity to provide “chizuk” to the local community. Peres spoke with dozens of people in Polish, Hebrew and English, and posed for photographs with his confident, warm smile. He commanded the room in a moment by starting to speak, again in Polish, then Hebrew. He enchanted us all with his unwritten remarks and left everyone inspired and hopeful about peace and the possibility for people to overcome decades-long animosity.

Peres was a truly legendary figure, an integral part of the miracle of modern Israel from its first breath. Yet, he always remembered where he came from, and honored his ancestors and all of us with his life’s work.