Polish party leader receives anti-Semitic death threat

A Polish lawmaker from a political party with a strong anti-racism agenda said her party leader received a handwritten, anti-Semitic death threat whose author signed it “Sniper.”

The note, which is presumably addressed to the leader of the Modern Party, Ryszard Petru, read: “A bird that shits over its nest needs to be shot. Time unknown, Jewish son of a bitch. Sniper.”

On Monday, Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, a lawmaker for the party headed by Petru, who is not Jewish,published a photo of the note on Twitter.

Earlier that day, the Modern Party, which in the 2015 election won 30 seats out of 460 in the Polish parliament, presented its program for combating discrimination. It proposed several steps to increase protection for homosexuals and people with disabilities.

This complements its three-point program to combat hate speech and hate crimes that features proposed changes to the penal code that would make hate speech against certain groups subject to especially strict punishment.

“Poland has a problem with hate speech and this is visible in soccer matches, but not only there,” said Jonny Daniels, founder of the From the Depths group, which promotes Holocaust commemorations in Poland. “Prosecutors often do nothing about it.”

The program presented by the Modern Party and action by other entities in Poland “gives the general hope that the issue will be taken seriously, not as a fringe theme anymore,” Daniels said.

The death threat shows “the seriousness of the issue,” he added, “which most certainly cannot be taken lightly.”

Mexican TV anchor Zabludovsky, symbol of government spin, dies at 87

Influential Mexican journalist Jacobo Zabludovsky, seen for years by critics as an unofficial mouthpiece for the government, died on Thursday morning after suffering a stroke in hospital.

Zabludovsky was from 1971 to 1998 host of “24 Hours” a nightly news show on the dominant Televisa TV network, which had a cozy relationship with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

Ruling Mexico continuously from 1929 to 2000, the PRI became synonymous with vote-rigging, corruption and authoritarianism, but its many detractors said it could rely on Zabludovsky to deliver the government line, glossing over inconvenient truths.

Such was his notoriety that popular Mexican rock band Molotov even opened an 1997 album with a song called 'Que no te haga bobo Jacobo,' or 'Don't let Jacobo fool you.'

Born in Mexico City in 1928 to a family of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Zabludovsky left Televisa in 2000, complaining his son had been overlooked for the post of the network's leading nightly news anchor.

President Enrique Pena Nieto, who returned the PRI to power in 2012, was among many prominent Mexicans to express their sadness over Zabludovsky's death. He was 87.

Zabludovsky, who continued interviewing top politicians and wrote a regular newspaper column until late June, was still sending out news bulletins on his Twitter account until he was hospitalized on Tuesday night with signs of dehydration.

Lies, silence surround flouting of Poland’s kosher slaughter ban

After a Polish court tossed out a government regulation permitting kosher slaughter in 2012, Poland’s $500 million ritual slaughter industry was expected to be brought to its knees.

Evidence shows, however, that not only was kosher slaughter still being performed in Poland as recently as this month, but also that kosher meat producers had help in skirting the law from a high-ranking official in the office of Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich.

JTA has obtained two letters signed by Michael Alper, a top aide to Schudrich, informing Polish officials that several hundred cattle would be slaughtered after being stunned with electric current — a requirement of Polish law that is inconsistent with kosher slaughter, which mandates that animals be killed without prior stunning.

Meat from the slaughterhouse where Alper said stunning would be used was subsequently certified  as kosher by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and several European certifiers before being exported abroad. The European certifiers declined JTA’s request for comment, but several knowledgeable insiders confirmed that the animals were not in fact stunned and that the meat was indeed kosher.

“If there were a kosher concern regarding one of our labels, we would have acted,” Maor Ziv, a spokesman for the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, told JTA.

Under a 2002 amendment to the 1997 law on animal welfare, Poland required that all animals be stunned prior to slaughter. The law appeared to conflict with another measure passed that year guaranteeing religious minorities the right to perform ritual slaughter.

In 2004, the government issued a regulation that aimed to resolve the apparent conflict by exempting Jews and Muslims from the animal welfare law. But in 2012, a constitutional court scrapped the 2004 exemption, effectively banning what had been a $500 million ritual slaughter industry.

Several businesses registered heavy losses and laid off employees as they scrambled to convert their operations or reconfigure themselves as middlemen, purchasing kosher meat produced outside Poland and reselling it for export. But the Alper letters show that some businesses continued to produce kosher meat in Poland and had assistance from inside Schudrich’s office in concealing the operation from authorities.

Schudrich has denied prior knowledge of Alper’s activities and suspended his aide. Alper declined to comment.

In July, Alper sent a letter to a district veterinary inspector requesting permission to slaughter 250 heads of cattle after stunning them with electric current, a formality meant to inform authorities of slaughter activities. A second letter in November requested permission to slaughter an additional 310 cows. The letter is signed “rabbinate coordinator for kosher products in Poland.”

“I am writing to request to carry out the slaughter of 310 heads of cattle on Nov. 24, 2013, with use of electric current to render the animals unconscious,” Alper wrote in the November letter.

The animals mentioned in Alper’s letters were killed at the Biernacki slaughterhouse in Jarocin, 150 miles west of Warsaw. The slaughterhouse, which was one of Poland’s main facilities for kosher meat, included living quarters for the rabbis who performed the actual slaughter cuts.

Several sources who spoke to JTA on condition of anonymity said kosher slaughter was taking place at Biernacki as recently as this month. A spokesman for the slaughterhouse declined to respond to JTA’s inquiries, but emphasized that the facility adheres to Polish and European law.

Only cows are slaughtered at Biernacki, while some labels carrying kosher certification from prominent rabbis are for kosher chicken produced in Poland last year. The labels do not carry the names of the slaughterhouses where the birds were slaughtered, but a well-placed source named two poultry meat producers, Brynek and Grzegorz Tuz, neither of which responded to repeated requests for comment.

Schudrich would not confirm whether commercial kosher slaughter continued in Poland after January 2013, but he called Alper’s letter “a very serious mistake.”

Schudrich also disputed the idea that an actual ban on ritual slaughter is in place, noting that a constitutional court has been reviewing a petition by Jews and Muslims arguing that the two 1997 laws are in conflict.

“The court’s ruling in 2012 is not a ban,” Schudrich said. “It is a case of conflicting legislation that is being reviewed by the Constitutional Tribunal.”

But some fear such nuances will be lost on the general public when Poland’s Channel 1 airs the results of its own investigation next month into the kosher slaughter in Poland. The report will harm efforts to resolve the matter and and become grist for the mill of anti-Semites, according to Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak of Beit Polska, a national umbrella organization for Polish Reform and Progressive congregations.

“Clearly, there has not been a cessation of kosher slaughter,” Beliak told JTA. “Manipulation of the issue of kosher-halal slaughter for political purposes by Polish politicians or Jewish community officials or by various business interests reduces the respect that the practice of keeping kosher deserves. Lying about it erodes the community’s credibility and is quite simply playing with fire.”

Beliak said he fears the report will create the impression that Jews don’t respect Polish law, though he added that kosher slaughter could not have continued without Polish officials looking the other way.

“Ritual slaughter is too big a business for Poland to simply walk away from it,” he said.

Renata Kania, a press officer for Poland’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, said her office had no immediate comment.

Judaism in Poland: It’s Warsaw, Jake

You would think that when the Polish edition of Forbes, the internationally respected financial magazine, publishes a front-page exposé on the disappearance of tens of millions of dollars of Holocaust restitution funds, Jews everywhere would be outraged and demand an immediate, independent investigation.

You would be wrong.

Instead, the two main institutional Jewish reactions have been: 1. Hey, it’s Poland — what can you do? And 2. Those Forbes people — what a bunch of anti-Semites.

But if you talk to committed liberal Polish Jews and their supporters about the scandal, you get a different reaction — absolute outrage. 

“The Polish Jewish community is potentially the wealthiest Jewish community in the world, per capita,” Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak told me. “But instead, there’s no money.”

Rabbi Beliak, who lives in Los Angeles, has been a key figure in supporting various streams of Judaism in Poland. 

He said the loss of funds means that the estimated 80 percent of American Jewry who trace their history to Poland will see their patrimony sold off by the very people charged with protecting it. And it means that the revival of a vibrant, living, breathing Polish Jewish community will be, if not impossible, then impossibly difficult.

Last week, Rabbi Beliak came to my office with Piotr Stasiak, chair of Beit Polska, the umbrella organization for all progressive Jewish communities in Poland.

Stasiak is a solid, middle-aged man, a physicist-turned-businessman with a heavy brow over bright blue eyes. Like many Polish Jews, he discovered his identity from parents who had long kept it hidden. Thousands of Poles share similar stories. Poland is not just, as so many Israeli and American Jews would have it, a Jewish graveyard. It is also a Jewish opportunity.

But it seems what makes being a Jew so difficult in Poland these days is other Jews.

According to the Forbes article, titled “Kaddish for a Million Bucks,” a woman named Monika Krawczyk sits at the head of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, which is charged with recovering the property of Jewish communities confiscated by Nazis and the communist regime.

Krawczyk also works for the Regulatory Commission for Jewish Communities, which distributes restitution funds. Krawczyk, Forbes said, personally benefits from the restitution decisions she makes. Forbes also accuses the president of the Union of Jewish Communities, Piotr Kadlcik, of personally taking money resulting from the sale of several Jewish communal properties.

Kadlcik controls some $310 million in communal restitution properties, Forbes reported. And where is that money? No one can say.

The Forbes story, bold as it is, is far from thorough and raises many unanswered questions.

The Polish Parliament adopted a “Restitution Law” in 1997 to return all the communal Jewish property that existed in Poland before World War II to Poland’s official Jewish community.

The World Jewish Congress (WJC) and the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) lent the indigent Polish community $800,000 to process the filings. In return, WJRO and WJC were meant to receive half the value of the properties recovered. 

According to Forbes, and confirmed by Stasiak, much of the money is completely unaccounted for.

“I am asking a very simple question,” Stasiak said. “Please explain to the community what happened to the money.”

If Stasiak and other Polish Jews are the victims of this scandal, its Zola is an L.A. Jew, Severyn Ashkenazy.

Ashkenazy has been the kol koreh bamidbar — the voice crying in the wilderness — for years. Tall, courtly and determined, Ashkenazy has for years maintained to Jewish leaders and journalists that something was rotten in Warsaw. 

Born in Poland, he survived much of the Holocaust by staying silent while hiding under a stranger’s floorboards. After becoming a successful businessman in Los Angeles, Ashkenazy has returned to Poland frequently over the years, almost singlehandedly founding and supporting the revival of the liberal, non-Orthodox Jewish life that flourished there before 1939. He witnessed the glorious synagogues and Jewish community centers of his past being sold off in Poland’s real estate boom, and the monies that should have been directed to all Jews disappearing into other pockets.

The Twarda, the officially recognized Orthodox community in Poland that has received the lion’s share of existing restitution funds, has called the Forbes editors anti-Semites on a witch hunt — never mind that the article was instigated, and reported, by Jews.

And in a press statement, Ronald Lauder, chairman of the New York-based WJRO, flatly repudiated Ashkenazy’s charges, and the article.

“To make it very clear,” Lauder said, “neither the WJC nor the WJRO, of which the WJC is a founding member, have ever sought or received money coming from the restitution of Jewish property in Poland, as the articles suggest.”

With all due respect to Lauder and the Polish Jewish leaders, their denials cannot be the final word. In the name of the Polish victims of the Holocaust, and on behalf of their heirs struggling to rebuild Jewish life there, and in recognition of the history and tradition so many of us share, an outside, independent forensic accounting firm must fully investigate the dispensation of every last dollar.

To read the Forbes article, visit forbes.pl.

It’s rabbi vs. rabbi in competing campaigns to overturn Poland’s shechitah ban

A few weeks before Poland’s parliament voted last month on whether to overturn a ban on ritual slaughter, Rabbi Menachem Margolin was scheduled to meet the Polish president in an effort to find a solution to the problem.

The ban had been imposed in January, when a Polish constitutional court outlawed Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter in response to a petition filed by animal welfare activists.

But shortly before Margolin’s meeting was to take place, President Bronislaw Komorowski’s office unexpectedly canceled.

Margolin, director of the European Jewish Association and the Rabbinical Centre of Europe, both based in Brussels, saw a reason for the cancellation: Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, whom Margolin accused of “torpedoing” the meeting.

Schudrich denied the charge, and one of his associates told JTA that the meeting was canceled after the president’s office learned Schudrich would not be attending the meeting with Margolin.

When parliament followed through with its 222-178 vote to uphold the ban on Jewish ritual slaughter, known as shechitah, Margolin again blamed Schudrich, calling him incompetent and demanding that he resign. Schudrich in turn accused Margolin of meddling and jeopardizing Polish Jewry’s coordinated campaign to overturn the ban.

To outsiders, the back-and-forth accusations might seem bizarre. Why would two rabbis who ostensibly share the same goal of reinstating the legality of shechitah in Poland go at each other’s throats? The spat goes to the heart of an issue that has bedeviled communities across Eastern Europe for more than two decades, ever since the fall of the Iron Curtain: control.

Schudrich, a U.S.-born rabbi who has lived in Poland almost uninterrupted since 1992, long has ruled the roost in Poland. He was named chief rabbi in 2004 and has close ties with Polish leaders.

Perhaps because Schudrich has been around almost since the fall of communism, Poland is one of the ex-communist countries where Jewish affairs are not dominated by Chabad, the hasidic Orthodox outreach movement.

Chabad operates only two centers in the country, compared to six serving the similarly sized Jewish community in Belarus and more than 30 each in Russia and Ukraine, where Chabad rabbis have laid claim to the title of chief rabbi — to the occasional consternation of non-Chabad colleagues. Chabad is eager to expand in Poland, says Rabbi Shalom Ber Stambler, the movement’s emissary in Warsaw.

Margolin, who was born in Israel, is affiliated with Chabad. One of the groups he heads, the Rabbinical Centre of Europe, has a 17-member rabbinical council that includes some of the leading Chabad rabbis in Europe. Among them are Rabbi Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, Hungary’s Baruch Oberlander and Binyomin Jacobs of the Netherlands.

The European Jewish Association, the other group headed by Margolin, also has Chabad ties.

Margolin sees Schudrich as more interested in preserving his own power and influence within Poland than in cooperating in a broad-based international effort to overturn the shechitah ban.

Schudrich acts “irresponsibly, as though Poland is his own fiefdom, while ignoring the need for coordinated action on an issue which affects all of European Jewry and beyond,” Margolin said. His “refusal to consult is the antithesis to how Holland’s Jewish community collaborated with international Jewish groups until the successful overturning of the shechitah ban passed in Dutch parliament in 2011.”

For his part, Schudrich says the issue is not about fiefdoms, noting that he has the backing of Poland’s Union of Jewish Communities and has been in contact with the European Jewish Congress and the Conference of European Rabbis. Rather, he says, the issue is avoiding disrupting the coordinated effort already underway to reverse the ban.

We “cannot risk that our efforts will be hindered by the actions of people who will not bear the consequences of their interference,” Schudrich said in a joint statement with the president of Poland’s Union of Jewish Communities, Piotr Kadlcik. The reference was to Margolin’s European Jewish Association. “This is the same organization that called for unity on one day only for it to issue an appallingly disrespectful and inaccurate attack on Poland’s Chief Rabbi Schudrich the next day.”

The European Jewish Association “has the right to protest,” said the statement, which was posted on the union’s website. “However, as the representatives of the Jews in Poland, we consider it unacceptable that any legal or policy initiatives from abroad are initiated without the coordination, or at least consultation, with us.”

Matters took a stranger turn when the European Jewish Association announced last week that it had hired a Polish nationalist lawyer — Roman Giertych, the one-time head of the now-disbanded League of Polish Families, a far-right political movement accused of anti-Semitism — to challenge the shechitah ban.

A spokesman for the European Jewish Association, Asher Gold, said Giertych was hired “because of his professional skills and connections in the Polish political scene.”

Until the ban, ritual slaughter was a $500-million-a-year industry in Poland, producing a large portion of the meat for export. After the ban was imposed in January, some kosher and halal slaughterhouses halted production while others continued, sources said, out of lack of clarity about the law.

Last week, Poland’s interior minister reportedly said that noncommercial ritual slaughter could continue pending a government petition.

For the time being, it seems that both Schudrich and Margolin are proceeding with their competing campaigns.

Give Polish Jewry a kosher choice

Remember “Had Gadya”? What satisfaction when, onto the scene of carnage, walks the Holy One of Blessing, and destroys the angel of death that slew the butcher that killed the ox that drank the water that quenched the fire that burned the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the kid. And what relief! But only momentarily. For where are we in this lineup of violence? It is forever, for us, the question of what am I, now, an angel of death or the little white kid that daddy bought for two zuzim? And can I be both? And do I have to be either?

To be human is to be aware of one’s own morality. To be able to act morally, we must have the freedom to choose to do or not to do so, which demands we have the freedom to reject morality. Without that freedom, we are but tools in other people’s hands. 

In the recent debate on the Polish government’s decree de-legalizing shechitah, or kosher ritual slaughter, we hear strident voices from many sides. Some say the only motivation for the decision was to prevent needless animal suffering. Other voices argue that skillfully performed shechitah causes the animal less pain than all the other feasible methods of killing it. Others still express discontent, outrage or fear, due to the fact that discontinuing kosher slaughter effectively makes it impossible for observant Polish Jews to eat meat altogether.

I do not know which is worse: a shochet’s knife to the throat, or a killing machine in a meat plant. I know that, kosher or not, slaughterhouses are cruel places, where overworked butchers have to do their quota of killing, and helpless animals experience horror and pain. While I realize that Poland cannot, for reasons of its largely agriculture-based economy, its traditions and customs, opt out of mass production and consumption of meat, I would like government experts to conduct an inquiry into all killing of animals — not just the preparation of kosher meat — to ensure that animals’ deaths can become less traumatic than they are now. As important is an inquiry into how these animals live before they find their deaths in Polish slaughterhouses. I imagine a national commission, made up of Muslim leaders, Progressive Jewish leadership, Orthodox rabbinate, philosophers and ethicists, as well as animal behaviorists and farm engineers, working together to design ways to lessen the severity of pain we inflict on livestock as it is reared, handled and killed. 

Once a viable system is designed and a door is opened about kosher (and halal) slaughter, it may be easier to open it for all slaughter. So what I imagine as a solution now is a law that would keep wholesale butchering for export markets outlawed, but would ensure that Polish faith communities that require kosher (or halal) meat are enabled to butcher the chickens, the calves, the cows and the kids whose meat they want to eat. In other words, I want a law that, while keeping the ban on mass killing for foreign markets, would ensure the existence in Poland of slaughterhouses producing meats for local communities and provide for this meat’s fair distribution. 

My current choices don’t really give me a choice. Could the sages of our government work with our rabbis to devise a law that would return to Polish Jews the freedom currently enjoyed, at least potentially, by non-Jewish Poles, of pondering in meat shops the decision of whether to participate, with just a flick of my credit card, the animal hecatomb people have carried on since Noah and the flood, or refusing to do it? For Jews to be able to exercise such a choice, the meat bought or rejected must be kosher meat. 

We are a complex people. We embrace our diversity. Given the freedom to choose, some of us will want to go and butcher that kid that they can buy for two zuzim. Some will let it live. Some will focus on whether the kid can live a life where it is treated with care and regard for its needs, and whether it dies as painless and humane a death as possible. Some will flicker between choices, depending on a myriad of reasons why. Even though I hold with one of these choices only, I respect them all. After all, only the Knower of Secrets, the Holy One of Blessing, knows what lies deep at the root of our choices and how we arrive at our decisions. And it is only when He, the final player in the “Had Gadya” we sing here on Earth, says so, will the world break up the cycle of violence. In the meantime, each Polish Jew should be granted the freedom to choose for herself or himself whether they will or will not become, by virtue of buying their meat or refusing it, the halef — an instrument that transforms life into death.

Dr. Joanna Auron is a new board member of Beit Polska, the Poland-wide Progressive Jewish umbrella organization of Jews affiliated with the European Union for Progressive Judaism and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. She lives and works in Poland.

At last, Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews is dedicated

Krzysztof Sliwinski, a longtime Catholic activist in Jewish-Polish relations, gazed wide-eyed at the swooping interior of this city's Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Nearly two decades in the making, the more than $100 million institution officially opens to the public this week amid a month of high-profile, state-sponsored events marking the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

“It’s incredible, incredible, incredible how things have changed,” Sliwinski told JTA. “I remember commemorations of the ghetto uprising under communism when only a few people showed up. How good it was that we were optimistic.”

Sliwinski organized Jewish cemetery cleanups and other pro-Jewish initiatives under communism, when Jewish practice and culture were suppressed by the regime.

In 1995, then-Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, an Auschwitz survivor, appointed him post-Communist Poland’s first official ambassador to the Jewish Diaspora, part of the state’s unprecedented outreach policy.

On Sunday, both Sliwinski, now 73, and Bartoszewski, 91, joined hundreds of local Jews and other VIPs as Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, unveiled a mezuzah at the museum’s main entrance.

“This museum is in the heart of what was Jewish Warsaw,” Schudrich told JTA. “It is in the heart of what was the Warsaw Ghetto. Now it will be in the heart of what will be the future of Polish Jewry. It is a bridge from the past to the future.”

Reflecting this symbolism, the mezuzah was made from a brick from a building in Warsaw’s prewar Jewish quarter, the area that the Nazis turned into the notorious ghetto and where the museum now stands.

A huge flattened cube with a shimmering facade — broken by a dramatic gap that symbolizes both the biblical parting of the Red Sea and the rupture caused by the Holocaust — faces the monument to the heroes of the ghetto uprising.

“I am one of the few here who witnessed the unveiling of the ghetto monument in 1948,” Bartoszewski told guests following the mezuzah ceremony. “If anyone had told me then that this could be happening now, I would have said they were crazy.”

Designed by the Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki, the striking building with undulating interior walls is in fact still largely empty. The museum will inaugurate its cultural and educational programs on Friday, but its core exhibition — an interactive narration of 1,000 years of Polish Jewish life — will not be installed until next year.

“The museum is a part of the history that it tells,” Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblett, the New York University professor who is overseeing the design of the core exhibition, told JTA. “It speaks to the renewal of Jewish life in Poland, to the enormous Jewish presence in Polish consciousness.”

On the eve of World War II, Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe, with 3.3 million Jews making up one-tenth of the country’s population. More than 3 million Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust; thousands more survivors left in the wake of postwar pogroms. Still more departed in the 1960s amid anti-Semitic campaigns by the Communist regime.

But with the fall of communism, there has been a revival of Jewish life in Poland and a movement by Jews and non-Jews to reclaim Jewish culture.

“Imagine, the idea for this museum arose in 1996, just a few years after the fall of communism,” Kirshenblatt Gimblett said. “The many efforts of the last two decades to renew Jewish life, to recover the Jewish past, and to foster open debate and dialogue about the most difficult moments in the history of Poland and Polish Jews have created the momentum and support for this initiative.”

The only permanent part of the exhibit installed to date is the dazzling reconstruction of the roof and painted ceiling of an 18th century wooden synagogue that once stood in Gwozdziec, now in Ukraine. So stunning that it has been compared to the Sistine Chapel, it features a wealth of brightly painted folk designs combined with Jewish symbolism: lions, griffins, Zodiac signs, birds, flowers, unicorns and much more.

Financed by the Polish state, the city of Warsaw and numerous Jewish and non-Jewish private donors, the development of the museum suffered setbacks and delays over the years due to political and organizational issues as well as funding shortfalls. The very idea of such a museum in Poland, which many Jews regard as a vast Jewish cemetery, was long a hard sell.

Over the past decade, however, Polish-born Jewish philanthropists such as Americans Sigmund Rolat and Tad Taube passionately took up the cause. Taube Philanthropies and the Koret Foundation collaborated to provide the largest private commitment to the core exhibition of the museum, a total of $16 million since 2007.

“The Taube Foundation and the museum share a similar mission: to understand not only how European Jewry died in the Nazi genocide, but how European Jewry lived in Poland and created a prodigious civilization over many centuries,” Taube told JTA. “This knowledge is not a betrayal of Holocaust memory. In fact, we honor Holocaust memory by reclaiming our rich, long and varied existence in Poland.”

Taube and others say they are hopeful the museum and the story it tells can have a long-term impact: on local Jews, local non-Jews, and the Jews from the United States, Israel and elsewhere who are expected to visit.

“The idea of there being an authentic Jewish community in today’s Poland is notoriously met with bewilderment and often sheer disbelief,” said Katka Reszke, the author of “Return of the Jew,” a new book about young Jews in Poland today. “The museum — its staff, its narrative and its programming — must be prepared to confront this skepticism and the often difficult questions coming from foreign Jewish visitors.”     

Swiss diplomat Simon Geissbuehler, a historian who has written several books on Jewish history, called the museum and its mission “an important step forward.”

Still, he added, “We don’t have to have illusions. It will not change everything immediately. There are those who don’t want to recognize this part of their history. But I hope the museum will help.”

March recalls liquidation of Krakow ghetto

Some 400 people made a remembrance march in Krakow to mark the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Polish city's Jewish ghetto.

The marchers on Sunday walked from Ghetto Heroes Square to the site of the former concentration camp at Plaszow.

“There are voices in the world that say it was all not true, that it was impossible to kill 6 million people,” Israeli Ambassador to Poland Zvi Rav-Ner said during the ceremony. “Therefore, it is important to remember what happened. From this square in Krakow should go out into the world the message that such crimes cannot happen again.”

Tadeusz Jakubowicz, the president of the Krakow Jewish community, said the Nazis wanted to humiliate the Jewish community and started the liquidation of the ghetto on a Saturday, a few days before Passover.

The Krakow ghetto was among the largest in Poland's general government, which was under Nazi rule from 1939 to early 1945. In March 1941, 17,000 people lived there. The Nazis transported them to the camps at Belzec, Plaszow and Auschwitz.

Polish court reportedly rules against allowing ritual slaughter

A constitutional court in Poland reportedly has ruled against allowing Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter in the country.

The Warsaw court’s ruling, which was made known on Tuesday, said the government had acted unconstitutionally when it exempted Jews and Muslims from stunning animals before slaughtering them as their faiths require, according to Piotr Kadlcik, president of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland.

Kadlcik told JTA that in addition to the special exception announced by the Polish Ministry of Agriculture, Jewish ritual slaughter, or shechitah, is permissible under the 1997 Law on Regulating the Relations between the State and the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland.

“It appears there is a legal contradiction here and it is too early to tell what this means,” he said. “We are seeking legal advice on this right now.”

Poland has approximately 6,000 Jews, according to the European Jewish Congress.

According to Kadlcik, Poland has no kosher slaughterhouses but locally slaughtered kosher meat is nonetheless served at kosher cantines across the country.

“I’m not sure we will be able to keep serving meat there,” he said.

Oldest-known Auschwitz survivor dies

The oldest known former prisoner of Auschwitz reportedly has died at the age of 108.

Antoni Dobrowolski died Sunday in the northwestern Polish town of Debno, The Associated Press reported, citing Jaroslaw Mensfelt, a spokesman for the Auschwitz-Birkenau state museum.

Dobrowolski was arrested and sent to Auschwitz  in 1942 for holding secret lessons past the elementary school level — any education beyond four years of elementary school was banned by the Germans in an effort to destroy Polish culture.

Dobrowolski was liberated from Sachsenhausen in 1945.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers heat up the Holyland

The Red Hot Chili Peppers made their first visit to Israel on Sept. 10, but the band member who stole the show wasn’t even onstage. Hillel Slovak – the group’s Israeli-American guitarist and co-founder – died tragically of a heroin overdose in 1988, but his presence was felt throughout every moment of the raucous performance in Tel Aviv.

“Hillel had his own brand of Israeli funk,” Flea, the band’s gap-toothed, perpetually bare-chested bassist told the crowd of 50,000 at Yarkon Park. “To come here tonight, and to think of him, is truly a dream. We’ll never forget this night as long as we live.”

Slovak was born in Haifa in 1962 to a Polish mother and Yugoslavian father, both Holocaust survivors. Five years later, the family emigrated to the United States – first to the New York borough of Queens, then the Fairfax area of Los Angeles. Slovak first picked up an electric guitar after receiving the instrument as a bar mitzvah gift.

The teenager soon became a virtuoso – the Chili Peppers would base many of their early songs around Slovak’s hard-driving riffs – and in 1983 founded the now-legendary band with high school friends Flea (aka Michael Balzary), singer Anthony Kiedis and drummer Jack Irons.

With the exception of Irons, all of the band members struggled with drug abuse – including heroin, LSD, cocaine and methamphetamines – but only Slovak would pay the ultimate price. The shock of the guitarist’s death led Irons to leave the group, which ultimately replaced him with its present drummer Chad Smith.

Slovak is interred in Mount Sinai cemetery in the Hollywood Hills. In April of this year, he was posthumously inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with the rest of the group – his brother James accepting the honor on his behalf.

During the performance, the Chili Peppers and their fans paid tribute to the guitarist. “Hillel, we love you” flashed across the giant onstage screens as fans wielding the signs were caught on camera. As he launched into the 1999 hit “Around the World,” Keidis dedicated the song to Slovak’s hometown: “This jam is for Haifa!”

“They told a story about how in the band’s early days, Hillel visited Israel and came back so invigorated,” said Scott Piro, a public relations professional from Philadelphia who immigrated to Israel three years ago. “They went on and on about how amazing his trip was, and how since then they had all wanted to come to Israel.”

Despite attempts to dissuade the band from performing in Israel and calling for boycotts of the Jewish state, the Chili Peppers were not deterred. In fact, they have a YouTube video announcing their Tel Aviv stop. Flea gushed, “We’ve always had a great love for Israel… We are so excited to go there.”

Israel was the last stop on their European tour. On the day of their arrival to the Holy Land, Flea posted “Yay!!” on his Facebook page and their fun began. Traveling the country they took time to float in the Dead Sea and to visit the Western Wall.

“They were also so appreciative,” said Piro, 42. “They said so many times how thankful they were that we were there. They must have thanked the crowd at least ten times.”

The performance kicked off with “Monarchy of Roses,” the opening track from the band’s last studio album “I’m With You.” Fan favorites were the drug-addiction lament “Under the Bridge” and “Californication,” the title track from the five-times-platinum 1999 album of the same name. On both, thousands of exhilirated fans – some under 10 years old  – sang along to every word. The encore concluded with a boisterous rendition of “Give It Away,” the pounding 1991 single that gave the group its first number-one hit.

Slovak is not the only Jewish musician to have earned a spot with the Chili Peppers. Irons and former guitarist Arik Marshall (both L.A. natives) are also Jewish, as is their current guitarist, Josh Klinghoffer – a distant relative of Leon Klinghoffer, the 69-year-old wheelchair-bound passenger murdered in the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro.

For Flea and Kiedis – the two founding members still with the group – Slovak’s memory seems to have left them with an undeniable affinity for his homeland, making their performance a homecoming of sorts.

“Good night, Tel Aviv,” Kiedis told the enraptured crowd before exiting the stage. “We love you! And your families, too!”

Karen Springer is a Los Angeles-based writer, and a former speechwriter for Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, as well as a former editor at OLAM Magazine.

Oren Kessler is a Tel Aviv-based freelance journalist, formerly with Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post.

Holocaust Museum of Buenos Aires, Polish government honor Janusz Korczak

The Polish government and the Holocaust Museum of Buenos Aires inaugurated a two-day seminar about Janusz Korczak.

The event, which began Tuesday, is part of activities marking 70 years since German soldiers sent Korczak and 192 Jewish orphans to their deaths in Treblinka, a Nazi extermination camp in Poland.

“The importance of Korczak in relation to the Holocaust is very well known, so in this seminar we try to focus on his huge importance as a revolutionary educator and his support of the rights of the child,” Edyta Kwiatkowska Farys, the Polish embassy’s cultural attaché in Argentina, told JTA.

The first day of the seminar included the participation of Argentinean Federal Judge Daniel Rafecas; Israeli professor Iosi Goldstein, as well as other researchers; and the presentation of the book, “Inferno of Choices, Poles and the Holocaust,” by Sebastian Rejak and Elzbieta Frister.

According to Holocaust Museum of Buenos Aires president Alejandro Dosoretz, the objectives of this conference are to “learn in order to transmit, to keep alive the memory of Korczak and to promote his message.”

The seminar, “Janusz Korczak: the legacy of an educator,” continues Wednesday with addresses about Nazis experiments; childhood during the Holocaust; Korczak as educator; the Korczak view of the relation between teachers and students; testimony of Holocaust survivor Monica Dawidowicz; and a final panel with two dean of Argentinean universities.

The last activity, for teachers and researchers, is organized by the Polish government as part of “2012 Janusz Korczak year” activities and the Holocaust Museum of Buenos Aires, with the support of almost 20 private companies; the Education Ministry of Buenos Aires City; Education Ministry of the Federal Government; Human Rights Department of Argentinean Foreign Affairs Ministry; DAIA, the Argentinean Jewish umbrella; and AMIA, the Buenos Aires Jewish Community Center.

Poland honors Janusz Korczak on 70th anniversary of death

Polish government officials unveiled a memorial plaque in Warsaw in honor of Warsaw Ghetto hero Janusz Korczak.

Sunday’s unveiling took place exactly 70 years after German soldiers sent Korczak and 192 Jewish orphans to their deaths in Treblinka, a Nazi extermination camp.

Korczak, director of the Dom Sierot orphanage for Jewish children, declined help from friends in the Polish underground who offered to hide him. He insisted on staying with the children and orphanage staff.

During the ceremony, representatives of Poland’s Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Culture read aloud a letter written by Poland’s first lady, Anna Komorowska. They laid wreaths at a statue of Korczak situated near the plaque.

The plaque was installed on the site of the last location of Korczak’s orphanage, in the area that Nazi forces declared as the city’s Jewish ghetto.

Sunday’s ceremony was part of a series of commemorative events in the framework of Korczak Year, a government-sponsored campaign headed by Komorowska.

In addition to Korczak, the children and the orphanage staff, some 6,400 people were deported on Aug. 5, 1942 to Treblinka from the Warsaw Ghetto.

August Kowalczyk, Polish actor and Holocaust survivor who escaped Auschwitz, dies

August Kowalczyk, a Polish actor who was the last survivor of a group of Polish prisoners who escaped from Auschwitz, has died.

Polish media said Kowalczyk died Sunday in a hospice he had recently founded in Oswieciem, the small town in southern Poland where Auschwitz is located. He was 90.

As a Polish soldier, Kowalczyk was captured by the Germans and sent to Auschwitz in December 1940, when the camp was used mainly for Polish military and political prisoners. He was among a group of 50 prisoners who attempted an escape from Auschwitz in June 1942. All but nine were killed, and Kowalczyk was believed to be the last survivor of the group.

Kowalczyk became a stage and screen actor in Poland after World War II. He served for many years as vice president of the board of the Society for the Protection of Auschwitz, an association that aims to transmit the memory of Auschwitz to future generations.

He spoke frequently to young people about his experiences at Auschwitz. “It was my life to bear witness,” he said in 2005.

Kowalczyk told an interviewer that he had recounted his personal story “more than 6200 times in over 5,000 schools across Poland. “

Romney tours site of future Polish Jewish museum

Mitt Romney toured the site of the future Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, completing the third leg of a three-country tour that also included Britain and Israel, on Tuesday met with museum chairman Piotr Wislicki, deputy chairman Marian Turski, interim director Waldemar Dabrowski, exhibition director Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, and representatives of the museum’s two largest benefactors, the Taube Foundation and the Koret Foundation, Helise Lieberman and Yale Reisner.

Also present during the tour was Romney’s wife, Ann.

The museum, which is to open in 2013, is near the site of the city’s Holocaust-era ghetto.

Krakow waiters made anti-Semitic remarks, Jewish patrons allege

A group of Jews patronizing a restaurant in Krakow said they were verbally and physically attacked by waiters.

The anti-Semitic and racist comments allegedly were made over the weekend at the Moment restaurant during the Polish city’s Jewish Culture Festival. The group was from Poland, Israel and Germany.

Uwe von Seltmann said his group came to meet friends who were sitting at a table in front of the restaurant.

“Immediately after our arrival I heard the words ‘f***ing Jews’ and something like ‘we’ll not serve you’ spoken by a waiter,” von Seltmann said. “The four members of staff were in general very unfriendly, and their body language showed that they would not serve us.”

A member of the group went inside the restaurant to complain about the slurs, which led to a verbal confrontation, von Seltmann told JTA. Following the complaint, a waiter threw an object at a female member of the group.

The group then left the restaurant and, according to von Seltmann, someone told them to “Go back to Israel.”

Moment manager Sebastian Wojnar said he would punish the staff involved in the altercations.

“We are an open place that promotes dialogue between cultures and nations,” he said.

The incident was reported to the police.

Gunter Grass told to stay away from Polish synagogue

Gunter Grass, the Nobel Prize-winning poet banned from entering Israel, is being asked not to visit the Gdansk synagogue.

Grass, 85, will arrive on Friday in the Polish city of his birth to open an exhibition of his paintings.

“We wish to Gunter Grass very fruitful and pleasant stay in Gdansk,” Michal Samet, chairman of the Jewish Community in Gdansk, told the Gazeta Wyborcza. “There are so many wonderful places in Gdansk, the city has more than a 1,000-year history; certainly he will have a lot of things to see here. He was in our synagogue once, five years ago, and I think that would be enough.”

Earlier this year, Grass published in a German newspaper and other international publications his poem “What Must Be Said,” which condemns the German government of Chancellor Angela Merkel for agreeing to subsidize the sale of additional submarines “from my country” to Israel “justified as reparations.”

Grass also said that his reluctance until now to speak out against Israel was due to his own sense of connection with the Jewish state and that “the charge of anti-Semitism” is easily flung at those who criticize Israel.

In 2006, Grass admitted in an interview that he had joined the Waffen-SS as a teenager at the end of World War II. He was accused at the time of having hidden the truth for decades while at the same time pointing the finger at others for hiding their Nazi past.

Tomb of courageous Polish non-Jew is rededicated

The tombstone of a Polish woman who saved a Jewish woman by hiding her in the roof of her barn for two years during the Holocaust was rededicated with a Talmudic inscription.

Maria Jalowiec, who died in 1979, hid her neighbor Regina (Rivka) Wallach, who had managed to jump off a wagon after being rounded up by the Nazis, from 1942 to 1944.

Rivka’s son, Irving Wallach, who lives in Sydney, and her daughter, Sabina, of California, were present at the ceremony Sunday in Brzostek, Poland. They sponsored the renovation of the tomb after discovering it by chance last year.

Other family members traveled from Israel, Germany, Poland and the Netherlands to witness the event, which also marked the 70th anniversary of the roundup by the Nazis of the Jews of Brzostek. Most were shot in a mass grave.

A new memorial to the Jews of Brzostek and nearby villages who were shot by the Nazis also opened in the presence of the chief rabbi of Poland and Australia’s ambassador to Poland.

Irving Wallach said of the event, “It marks the righteousness and courage in saving life, that of a Jewish neighbor. Maria Jalowiec’s courage and her decision to save my mother’s life came at the risk of possibly sacrificing her family’s and her own life. Such people deserve to have their names and deeds shouted from the rooftops.”

Wallach and his sister included on Jalowiec’s tombstone the Talmudic dictum “Whoever saves one life, it as if he saved the whole world.”

He said he hoped to have Jalowiec included as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Anti-Semitic T-shirts sold at Polish soccer stadium

T-shirts featuring anti-Semitic slogans were discovered being sold outside a soccer stadium in the Polish city of Lodz.

The T-shirts were being sold outside the stadium of Widzew Lodz, which plays in Poland’s premier league, according to an April 12 article on the website of Polskie Radio.

The shirts featured slogans such as “This is Widzew territory, entry to Jews is forbidden” and “Curl hunters,” referring to Orthodox Jews’ payos.

A woman who works in the shop that sold the T-shirts told the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza that the shirts are popular. The shop is adjacent to the team’s official shop.

A third of Lodz’s population was Jewish before World War II.

The Polskie Radio article noted that Poland is co-hosting the Euro 2012 soccer tournament and that government regulations prohibit fans from bringing racist materials into stadium.

Polish president reaffirms right to shechitah

Polish President Bronisław Komorowski said he supports European Jews’ right to kosher slaughter, or shechitah.

“In Poland, we are proud to stand firm in supporting the Jewish community’s right to shechitah, and will play our full part in the EU deliberations,” the president reportedly told a delegation of rabbis from the Conference of European Rabbis at the presidential palace in Warsaw.

This week’s meeting took place amid growing concern about shechitah bans in Europe. Over the summer, the Dutch House of Representatives became the latest European body to ban the practice.

The meeting was part of this week’s convention of the Conference of European Rabbis in Warsaw.

“Today we are asking all the governments of Europe to unite with us in preserving the European tradition of religious freedom and religious pluralism,” Moscow’s chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, said at the group’s gala dinner. “Together we must implore the Dutch Senate not to ratify a law which will ban a most humane and divinely appointed method of religious slaughter.”

Polish museum opens exhibit on Warsaw Ghetto Uprising leader

A Polish museum has opened a section dedicated to Marek Edelman, one of the commanders of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis.

The exhibit at the Historical Museum in Lodz opened Oct. 2, two years after Edelman died at the age of 90.

Edelman, a cardiologist by profession, lived and worked in Lodz after World War II, and the exhibition is arranged to evoke his home and office. The display uses his furniture, books, photographs and other objects.

A longtime human and social rights activist, Edelman joined the anti-Communist Solidarity movement in 1980 and was interned by Poland’s Martial Law authorities. After the fall of communism, he served as a member of Parliament and was awarded Poland’s highest civilian honor, the Order of the White Eagle, as well as the French Legion of Honor.

Obama meets with Polish Jewish leaders

President Obama met with Polish Jewish leaders and laid a wreath at the Warsaw Ghetto monument during his visit to Poland.

Obama began his May 27 visit to Poland by laying a wreath at the Warsaw Ghetto monument and by meeting two dozen leaders of the Jewish community including survivors and Righteous Among the Nations, as well as Polish government officials.

Obama was greeted by Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, who then introduced Wladislaw Bartoszewski, a minster in the Chancellery of the Prime Minister well as a Righteous Among the Nations who as a very young man helped to establish Zegota, the organization sponsored by the Polish government in exile to save Jews from the German death camps. Piotr Kadlcik, president of the Jewish Community of Poland, also greeted Obama.

“President Obama was talking so beautifully and warmly about Righteous Among the Nations and his words were spread all over the world,” said Anna Stupnicka-Bando, the chairman of Polish Society of Righteous Among the Nations, after she was asked by reporters about her conversation with Obama.

Jozef Walaszczyk, vice chairman of the Polish Society of the Righteous Among the Nations, underlined that Obama spoke kindly with each one of the guests.

“We took this with great respect,” Walaszczyk said. “The conversation was very warm and private, nothing was forced.”

Obama visited the Jewish Museum being built across the plaza from the Warsaw Ghetto monument. He received an update from the Minister of Culture Bogdan Zdrojewski, as well as Sigmund Rolat, chairman of the North American Council for the Jewish Museum; Marion Turski, a survivor who is heavily involved in the museum; and Piotr Wislicki, chairman of the Society for the Jewish Historical Institute.

Historic Polish synagogue rededicated

The historic synagogue in Zamosc was rededicated after a $2.4 million restoration, though the Renaissance town in southeast Poland no longer has a Jewish community.

Ambassadors, Jewish leaders and other dignitaries attended Tuesday’s festive ceremony, which was followed by the opening of a conference on Zamosc Jewish history.

Amid prayers and commemorative speeches, Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, affixed a mezuzah to the door of the fortress-like building, which was built originally in the early 17th century.

The restored building will function as a cultural center, including a Jewish museum, and serve as a hub for a tourist “Chasidic Route.” Located near the site of the Nazi death camp of Belzec—now a memorial and museum—the synagogue also will be available for religious services.

Israel’s ambassador to Poland, Zvi Rav-Ner, called the synagogue a “kind of small bridge” and said he hoped it would be “a Jewish place that will serve the city, so that Jews and Poles can meet here, so that in some way the dialogue that we had for 900 years can be continued.”

The building is one of the most important synagogues in Poland to have survived the Holocaust and communism; most were destroyed. Most of the town’s 12,500 Jews were killed during the Holocaust.

During World War II the German occupiers used the vaulted interior of the elegant building as a stable and carpentry workshop, and after the war it served as the local library. The building was restituted to Jewish ownership in 2005.

The restoration project was overseen by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland and largely funded by grants from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

Director of Polish Jewish theater is attacked

Bricks painted with swastikas and a firecracker were thrown through the window of the director of a Jewish theater in Poland.

The attack on the home of Thomas Pietrasiewicz, director of the NN Theater in Lublin, took place late at night on Dec. 17.  A bottle had been thrown at the house a month earlier but had been dismissed as a prank, the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper reported.

The newspaper reported that the theater has been the victim of several anti-Semitic attacks in the past, including the painting of a Star of David on a gallows on the door, threatening letters and a container with a foul-smelling substance thrown in the building.

“When I looked at the brick, I felt the incredible aggression of the person who threw it,” Pietrasiewicz told Gazeta, saying that he felt powerless, like the Jews of Europe during the Nazi era. “But I’m not going to change anything in my life, put bars on the windows or move out because those who paint swastikas on these bricks, what is the point?”

The Anti-Defamation League on Wednesday called on the Polish government to take swift action in response to the attack.

“This anti-Semitic hate crime directly targeted Thomas Pietrasiewicz, but was also clearly intended to terrorize the broader Jewish community, of which Mr. Pietrasiewicz is a prominent member,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director.

In a letter to Robert Kupiecki, Poland’s ambassador to the United States, ADL urged the Polish government to consider the crime an attack against both an individual and against the Jewish community, and to ensure that the full resources of the police and other public authorities are dedicated to the case.

Kaczynski leaves legacy of Polish-Jewish reconciliation

For Jews, Poland’s late president, Lech Kaczynski, was a man of many firsts.

He was the first Polish president to attend a service at a Polish synagogue, the first to celebrate Chanukah at the presidential palace, the first Polish leader to provide support for a Jewish history museum on Polish soil.

His death in Saturday’s plane crash along with his wife and 96 members of Poland’s political elite represents a huge loss for the Polish-Jewish relationship, Poland’s chief rabbi, New York native Michael Schudrich, told JTA.

“A lot of those who are politically right of center are open to Jewish contributions to Polish culture, but if you had a different person in power they would have been quiet about it. Kaczynski empowered those people to also have a voice,” Schudrich said.

Schudrich had been invited to accompany the presidential delegation to the April 10 event in Katyn commemorating the 1940 massacre there of 20,000 Poles by Soviet forces, but the rabbi could not attend because it was on the Sabbath.

On Sunday, mourners packed Warsaw’s Nozyk Synagogue, where Kaczynski once visited, for a memorial service for the victims of the crash. Nearby, some 100,000 Poles filled the streets as the president’s coffin passed by in a procession.

It was one of the great ironies of Polish history that a nationalistic, ultra-conservative Catholic who may have counted some anti-Semites as his supporters was a pivotal figure in the post-Communist healing of grudges that have so long divided Poles and Jews.

Kaczynski’s death, as tragic as it may be, is not likely to set back Polish-Jewish or Polish-Israeli relations, insiders say. The role of president is largely ceremonial in Poland; the government is run by the prime minister, currently Donald Tusk. Tusk and his Cabinet are considered allies of Israel and the United States, and are friendly to Jewish concerns.

“Fifteen years ago, such a calamity would have serious repercussion, but today relations are well established,” said Andrzej Zozula, executive director of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland. Zozula said he had been friendly with the late president since their days together in the anti-Communist opposition in the 1980s. “The interests of all are more important than one man, even a person such as Mr. Kacynsnki,” Zozula said.

Examples of the president’s dedication to Jewish issues reads like the refrain in Dayeinu, the Passover hymn: “It would have been enough if…”

As mayor of Warsaw before winning the presidency in 2005, Kaczynski donated public land and money for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, to open in 2012.

In 2008, as president, he restored Polish citizenship to the 15,000 Jews exiled in 1968 by Poland’s Communist government in the throes of an anti-Semitic frenzy. Kaczynski was among Europe’s top political supporters of Israel.

“The president and his wife were great friends to Israel,” Israel’s former ambassador to Poland, David Peleg, said. “And those who traveled with him on that plane were not only personal friends of mine, but were dedicated to the preservation of Jewish sites in Poland.” Peleg singled out for praise Janusz Kurtyka, head of the National Remembrance Institute, Deputy Culture Minister Tomasz Merta and presidential adviser Mariusz Handzlik. Handzlik was so close with the Jewish community that he attended the bat mitzvah of Schudrich’s daughter.

Peleg, now head of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, noted that Kacynski lobbied against the Goldstone report criticizing Israel for its actions in the 2009 Gaza war. He also upgraded military, economic and cultural cooperation between Israel and Poland and opposed anti-Semitism by emphasizing the shared history of Jews and Poles.

“In my first discussions with him as mayor he talked about the Jews at Katyn,” said Peleg, referring to the Russian site where Kacynski was headed when his plane crashed. “He made the point that more than 10 percent of those killed in Katyn were Jewish officers.”

This focus took on special meaning when post-Communist Poland began reexamining its history without Communist censorship.

Long-simmering confrontations erupted: Some Jews felt Poles were too sympathetic to Hitler’s Final Solution; some Poles insisted that their suffering under Hitler was ignored by Jews. There were condemnations of Jewish-Communist collaboration, and of Polish Catholic disdain for Jews.

All along, the conservative Kaczynski, from the Law and Justice Party, did what he could to bring the two sides together.

“I would never vote for his party, I have leftist views,” said Oskar Skuteli, a member of Zoom, a Polish youth organization. “But the amount of things that Kaczynski did for Jews had never been done before by a leftist government. He was even called a Jewish agent by the radical right.”

To be sure, there were bumps in the road to Polish-Jewish reconciliation that still have not been quite smoothed over. For a short period, the Law and Justice Party partnered in a government coalition with the League of Polish Families, whose members have been accused of anti-Semitic rhetoric. Kaczynski also never fully turned his back on Radio Maryja, a Catholic fringe broadcaster who accused Jews of terrorizing Poland with demands for property restitution.

Progressive Jews also found some of Kaczynski’s social positions disdainful. He twice banned gay pride marches in Warsaw, citing fears that homosexuals were trying to “spread their lifestyle.”

But few would deny that Kaczynski, along with others who worked to preserve Jewish culture and died in the plane crash, collectively represented a brain trust of Jewish-Polish-Israeli relations.

“Kaczynski and those around him, they are not replaceable,” said Monika Krawczyk, CEO of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland. “His approach to Jewish issues has to do with his personal experience and convictions. We hope for people similarly sensitive, but they will not be the same.”

For now, the speaker of the Polish Parliament, Bronislav Komorowski, assumes the presidency until elections are held in two months. Komorowski is one of several top candidates for the post. All are likely to continue Kacynsnki’s path of Polish-Jewish reconciliation, observers say.

Books: The anti-Chagall offers a field guide to the shtetl


“They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust” by Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (University of California Press, $39.95).

Mayer Kirshenblatt was born in 1916 in the Polish town of Apt. In 1934, when he was 17, Mayer, his mother and his three siblings immigrated to Toronto to join his father, who had made the trip six years prior. The family ran a paint and wallpaper store. In 1990, after a lifetime of selling paints, Kirshenblatt, retired and at loose ends, decided to pick up a paintbrush himself, and from its tip the world of his youth poured forth.

Kirshenblatt’s canvasses, together with a stunningly vivid text — the product of four decades’ worth of interviews with his daughter, noted New York University folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett — have now been reproduced in a handsome volume by the University of California Press, and the result is a marvel: With his scrupulously recalled images, Kirshenblatt has managed to do no less than create a new visual language for describing pre-war Eastern European life. In stark contrast to the black-and-white record that has made up our vision heretofore, Kirshenblatt’s paintings are untainted by the horrors to come. They offer a picture not of Polish Jewish life as it was before tragedy struck, but simply as it was. If Chagall was the shtetl’s mythmaker, then Kirshenblatt is his antithesis: a shtetl anthropologist.

The book — the product at once of scholarly rigor and a boy’s sense of wonder, respect for the dead and an even greater respect for the living, ethnographic exactitude and artistic style, a yearning born of loss and a synthesis born of collaboration — is a book like no other.

“They Called Me Mayer July” unfolds not in a grand narrative arc, but in small, bite-size anecdotes, often no longer than a paragraph or two. It is a style, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett writes in the book’s afterward, “more picaresque than bildungsroman.” Like his images, Kirshenblatt’s episodes can stand alone, but they offer more punch when taken together.

While the classic Chagall figure is ever floating skyward, its Kirshenblatt corollary is nothing if not earthbound. The only whitewashing that happens here is literal, as when one of the town’s rabbis repainted the study hall’s walls after a less devout soul had stenciled them with flowers and butterflies. Kirshenblatt’s town, which he often calls by its Polish name, Opatów, is a world of prostitutes and chamber pots, outhouses and broken wind. It’s a world of colorful nicknames: Simkhe the Scab, Avrum the Lump, Yosl the Little Square Noodle and Shmiel the Dog. Sometimes, Kirshenblatt writes, the nicknames sprang from no apparent reality, but in other cases the reason was all too clear. Kirshenblatt tells the story of his poor cousin Malkele, who one day fell into a latrine. Her nickname? Malkele drek.

The book’s title is based on the author’s own nickname, or at least a translation of it.

“Everybody in town had a nickname,” Kirshenblatt writes. “Mine was Mayer tamez, Mayer July, because July was the hottest month of the year. Mayer tamez means Crazy Mayer. People get excited when it is hot, and I was an excitable kid.”

Excitable indeed. Kirshenblatt was someone with his finger in every pie — boundlessly curious, mischievous to the core, a teacher’s nightmare.

“I failed one grade of public school because I played hooky,” he writes. “I was too busy watching everything that was going on in town. I would spend hours observing the blacksmith and the tinsmith, the ropemaker and the cooper, the mills and the carp ponds, and the town square on market day, when all the peasants came to town.”

Given the fact that he’s a painter without formal training, it’s temping to call Kirshenblatt’s work “Outsider Art,” but the label, with its intimations of a life lived on society’s periphery (or maybe even in the loony bin), doesn’t really fit. If anything, he comes across as the consummate “insider.” “He has often said of himself that he is a doer, not a watcher,” his daughter writes, “he likes to be a participant and active observer, not a voyeur.” It is a quality that he took with him across the Atlantic. In his adult life, Kirshenblatt became an enthusiastic camper and sailor, a collector of antique clocks and a restorer of furniture.

This spirit of “active observation” is apparent throughout Kirshenblatt’s book. He explains not only what his townspeople did, but how they did it. Indeed, so keen is his understanding of the inner workings of things that the book at points reads like a “how to” manual. He offers illustrated sections on how to make a dreidel, a whistle, a shoe, a brush, even a shofar from a willow branch.

Which is not to say that Kirshenblatt lacks a storyteller’s gifts. Like all good raconteurs, he is drawn to the bizarre and unusual: those in town who specialized in disabling people so they wouldn’t be drafted (one good at giving hernias; another, a specialist in lopping off trigger fingers) or the wealthy Winona Ryder antecedent who stuffs a live fish down her fancy blouse. But alongside this, Kirshenblatt also displays an understanding of the rhythm and texture of everyday town life: its trades, its politics, its religious diversity, its sounds and its smells.

“They Called Me Mayer July” is a memoir, but this too is a label that fits imperfectly. Kirshenblatt’s telling cannot really be termed a “confession.” As his daughter again helpfully points out, Kirshenblatt’s narrative mode, “because it is more concerned with the palpable world than with interiority,” can best be understood as “extrospective.”

Kirshenblatt will often end his stories with a nice little kicker. Sometimes, these are mournful. Of his uncle Yankl — a handsome ladies’ man who lived in Warsaw — Kirshenblatt writes, he “disappeared like the others.” But more often than not, these little codas are more wry and whimsical than they are elegiac. Never one for organized study, Kirshenblatt suffered in a JCC painting class; the model, he said, moved too quickly from pose to pose.

“My daughter told me to forget about the classes and paint from memory,” he writes. “The teacher also encouraged me to work on my own.”

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Briefs: Holocaust denial resolution goes to U.N.; Swiss admit Israel-Syria mediation; Survivors owed

Holocaust Denial Resolution Goes to U.N.

The United States presented a resolution condemning Holocaust denial to the United Nations General Assembly. The text, introduced Tuesday in advance of the U.N.-designated International Day of Commemoration for victims of the Holocaust on Jan. 27, urges member states “to reject any denial of the Holocaust as a historical event” and “condemns without reservation any denial of the Holocaust.” Although it does not mention Iran, the measure is seen as a reaction to last month’s Holocaust denial conference hosted by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a reaction to, but certainly the conference in question only reminds us that there are those among us who actually minimize or deny the Holocaust, and we find that frightening,” said Richard Grenell, the U.S. mission’s spokesman. “And this resolution makes clear it’s unacceptable to even minimize it.”

The resolution, which has some 25 sponsors, is expected to go to a vote Friday.

Pole Wins Jerusalem Prize

This year’s Jerusalem Prize will go to Leszek Kolakowski in recognition of his critiques of the repressive aspects of Soviet communism and his championing of human liberty. The prestigious literary prize will be presented at next month’s Jerusalem International Book Fair.

Born in 1927, Kolakowski earned a doctorate from Warsaw University and went on to serve on the faculties of Harvard, Oxford and the University of Chicago before retiring in 1995. Past recipients of the prize include Bertrand Russell, Arthur Miller, Susan Sontag, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera and Simone de Beauvoir. Some of the recipients went on to receive the Nobel Prize for literature, including V.S. Naipaul and J.M. Coetzee.

Swiss Admit Israel-Syria Mediation

Switzerland confirmed that it had been mediating secret efforts to launch Israeli-Syrian peace talks. Swiss President and Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said Monday that top emissaries from her government were currently in Damascus. She refused to elaborate, but the disclosure appeared to confirm a Ha’aretz report earlier this month that a European country had mediated two years of unofficial talks between a retired Israeli diplomat and a Syrian American businessman about how the two countries could resume peace talks that were cut off in 2000. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dismissed the contacts as unauthorized, while the Syrian government called the Ha’aretz report baseless.

Survivors Owed Billions, Study Says

Holocaust survivors are still owed as much as $175 billion in reparations, according to a new study. The Jewish Political Studies Review in Jerusalem said European nations had promised $3.4 billion in reparations, but only half of that had been paid by 2005. Only about 20 percent of Jewish assets have been returned overall, according to the study, which was made public last Friday by Reuters. The study said payments slowed after the United States stopped pressuring Europe on restitution. Holocaust survivors, many of them poor, are frustrated with the lack of payments. “Things are moving much too slowly,” said Menachem Rosensaft, founder of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. The Claims Conference said it would not comment on the report.

Katsav to Face Rape Charges

Israel’s attorney general decided that President Moshe Katzav should be charged with rape. Menachem Mazuz’s office issued a statement Tuesday saying it had collected enough evidence to support charging Katsav with rape and sexual harassment of former employees, obstruction of justice and fraud. A final decision on whether to indict Katsav will be made after a hearing in which the president may present his case. The president has immunity while in office, but said last month that he would resign if indicted. Katsav has denied any wrongdoing.

JDub, Matisyahu End Legal Troubles

In a release issued Tuesday, nonprofit Jewish record label and management team JDub announced it has resolved all legal disputes with Matisyahu, although its business relationship with the artist remains severed. In a surprise move last March, the Chasidic reggae star abruptly ended his management agreement with JDub’s Aaron Bisman and Jacob Harrison on the eve of the release of his first major studio album, “Youth.” JDub claimed their agreement with the artist had three years remaining on a four-year contract when Matisyahu moved to representation by former Capitol Records president Gary Gersh.

— Staff Report

Rap Mogul Addresses Jewish Congress

Rap mogul Russell Simmons called on Jewish entertainers to fight racism. In a speech Monday to the World Jewish Congress titled “Unity: Fighting Our Fights Together,” Simmons spoke about his public service announcements against racism and anti-Semitism that will be aired in Europe later this month. The ads, produced by Simmons, co-leader of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, feature Simmons and rapper Jay-Z encouraging young people to fight racism and anti-Semitism in their communities. Simmons called on the Beastie Boys and other Jewish entertainers to create another public service announcement with him, this one focusing on Islamophobia.

Saddam Chroniclers Look to Yad Vashem

Iraqis documenting Saddam Hussein’s crimes have been consulting with Yad Vashem. Yediot Achronot reported Tuesday that a group of Iraqi exiles that want to honor the late dictator’s victims visited the Jerusalem-based Holocaust memorial last year and also met with Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, who has documented the stories of Holocaust survivors. “It is difficult for me to make a comparison between the story of the Iraqi victims and the Holocaust of the Jews in Europe,” Kanan Makiya, one of the researchers, told Yediot. “Yet there are many basic similarities. Saddam behaved toward some parts of his people as Hitler did toward the Jews. Both cases are tragedies and there were innocent victims in both cases.”

Shipwreck Found Off Israel’s Coast

An eighth-century shipwreck was discovered off Israel’s northern coast. Though the 50-foot-long boat was discovered almost a decade ago, Haifa University’s Institute for Maritime Studies announced the find Tuesday after completing its research into the vessel.

“We do not have any other historical or archaeological evidence of the economic activity and commerce of this period,” said the university’s Ya’acov Kahanov. “The shipwreck will serve as a source of information about the social and economic activities in this area.”

In addition to the wooden hull, many of the boat’s contents were preserved. Among them are 30 vessels of pottery of different sizes and designs containing fish bones, ropes, mats, a bone needle, a wooden spoon, wood carvings and food remains, mainly carobs and olives.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Polish the Soul for Elul

I spent the first three days of Elul polishing a lamp that has hung in the upstairs stairwell of my home for 80 years. I thought that the lamp was made out of cast iron,
but discovered after applying a mixture of abrasive compounds and elbow grease, that it was crafted of shiny brass.

Only after finishing the project did I catch the appropriateness of the endeavor. For Elul is traditionally a month for polishing the soul. During this time, we search ourselves for blemishes. Then, through the process of teshuvah, we polish and refine ourselves. The culmination of this refinement is the fast of Yom Kippur, from which we hope to emerge as shining and radiant as my restored lamp.

The word “teshuvah,” heard so often during the month of Elul and the first 10 days of Tishre, is unfortunately translated as “repentance.” Thus, the word carries a harshness that can lead us to feel shame about ways we may have blown it during the previous year.

Teshuvah, however, is more about cultivating compassion than about being held in judgment. Legend tells us that teshuvah was created even before the creation of the world.

This suggests that built into the structure of the universe is the understanding that mistakes will be made, as well as the consolation that there is always the opportunity to begin again. Judaism provides a spiritual technology for continually acknowledging both that to err is human and that we can repair our mistakes.

The first mechanism for this process of renewal (perhaps a more apt translation of the word “teshuvah”) is to cultivate compassion. Compassion is the theme of the chant that we sing over and over during the High Holidays:

Auschwitz Might Get Name Change

Poland has long wanted its name not to be used in reference to concentration camps that existed on Polish soil during World War II.

Now Poland has made an official request to change Auschwitz’s name — to mixed reviews.

The Polish government made the request last month to change the name of the site from “Auschwitz Death Camp” to “former Nazi German Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp.” It made the request to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which has jurisdiction because the site of the death camp is a U.N. cultural heritage site.

UNESCO is expected to respond by mid-2006.

The debate goes to the heart of the question of how Polish behavior during the Holocaust is remembered.

The camp was set up by the Nazis on the site of a former Polish army barracks on the outskirts of the southern Polish town of Oswiecim — Auschwitz in German.

The name change is intended to stop the description of the camp by the international media, including The New York Times and the German magazine Der Spiegel, as a “Polish death camp,” which greatly offends many Poles because the camp was run by Germany.

“In the years after the war, the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was definitively associated with the criminal activities of the national socialist Nazi regime in Germany. However, for the contemporary, younger generations, especially abroad, that association is not universal,” Culture Ministry spokesman Jan Kasprzyk recently told journalists. “The proposed change in the name leaves no doubt as to what the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was.”

Many Jewish groups and individuals, both in Poland and around the world, are backing the call.

The Union of Religious Jewish Communities in Poland, representing the country’s estimated 7,000-10,000 Jews, released a statement in support of the government’s request.

Petr Kadlcik, the group’s chairman, said “institutional and national responsibility for the Third Reich’s policy” is not historically accurate, “but also becomes a present-day necessity” in the wake of constant newspaper referrals to Auschwitz as a Polish death camp.

Several Jewish organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League and Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, have recently backed the name change.

So have others long involved in Jewish life.

Menachem Rosensaft, the founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, said in an e-mail that the Polish government’s request is “absolutely legitimate. The death factory of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where more than 1,000,000 Jewish men, women and children were murdered, was a German camp, conceived by the Nazi-German government and operated by Germans.”

Rosensaft, whose parents were inmates at Auschwitz and whose grandparents and brother were gassed there, added that “it makes no sense to obfuscate valid concerns about historical and present-day Polish anti-Semitism by suggesting that Poles rather than Germans bear responsibility for the evil that was Auschwitz.”

Complicating the issue is the feeling among non-Jewish Poles that their own victimization by the Nazis has been ignored as world attention has focused on the Holocaust.

During the war, Poles were both martyrs — the Nazis labeled them “subhumans” — and victimizers, because some of them were involved in anti-Semitic acts before, during and after World War II.

Dr. Maram Stern, deputy secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, accused Poland recently of trying whitewash history with the proposed change.

Stern says that although the death camp was built by Germany, everybody in the region knew about its existence, and workers were recruited from neighboring Polish villages.

This latter claim has been denied by the Polish government, and academics also have challenged it.

An official with the Auschwitz museum strongly criticized Stern’s comments.

“It is a pity that people from the World Jewish Congress [WJC], an organization whose name suggests that it represents the opinion of Jews living all over the world, say something which is totally absurd. The WJC statement testifies to Mr. Maram Stern’s complete ignorance,” said Karoslaw Mensfeld, a spokesman for the State Museum of Auschwitz.

Israel Gutman, Yad Vashem’s chief historian, would go even further with the name revision. He said the name proposed by Warsaw “does not fully convey what really happened in this place.”

“I appeal to the Polish government [that] the phrase ‘site of the mass murder of Jews’ be inserted into the camp’s name. The full historical truth cannot be concealed,” he wrote in a column for Poland’s Dziennik newspaper last Friday.

Gutman’s proposal was immediately attacked by the Polish historian Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former Auschwitz prisoner who favors Poland’s proposal.

Gutman’s suggestions “would demand an additional commentary,” because it is “not completely true,” said Bartoszewski, a former foreign minister who was a member of the anti-Nazi Resistance.

He noted that along with Jews, 22,000 Romani, 15,000 Soviet prisoners and 80,000 Polish Christians were murdered in Auschwitz, a fact no single name could possibly convey.

Meanwhile, Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Jews against the Nazis, said he believes the notion of changing Auschwitz’s official name is “absurd.”

Edelman’s comments came as Jews and the government commemorated the anniversary of the uprising April 19.

“The only thing it does is to cause conflicts and disputes that should not exist,” he said.


Spectator – Hard Truths of ‘Hamburg’

Polish journalist Hanna Krall’s “The Woman From Hamburg: And Other True Stories” (Other Press, $19) is based on interviews she did that in some way involved the Holocaust. But when one of the 12 stories was recently featured in The New Yorker’s fiction issue, an accompanying note explained that her writing is indeed factual.

The 60-something Krall was a reporter for Polityka from 1957 to 1981 when martial law was imposed and her publications were banned. Her award-winning books have been translated into 15 languages, (the English version is by Madeline G. Levine). Yet the boundary between fact and fiction can seem blurred in her work, for Krall writes in an unadorned but intimate style, moving in fractured time, creating a rhythm that might resemble contemporary fiction.

“My work as a reporter has taught me that logical stories without riddles and holes in them, in which everything is obvious, tend to be untrue,” Krall wrote in one of the “Hamburg” stories. “And things that cannot be explained in any fashion really do happen.”

In “Portrait With a Bullet in the Jaw,” Blatt is a survivor living in California. Krall accompanies him back to his village, where they try to meet up with the Polish man who had agreed to hide him and two friends and then ordered them killed. Blatt was the only one to escape; the bullet intended to kill him has remained lodged in his jaw for more than 50 years.

When a man asks him why he holds onto the bullet. Blatt realizes that without it, he would “lose everything. If I had it removed, I would lose it, and this way it sits in my jaw and I know that it’s there.”

In another story, a Jewish woman finds refuge with a childless Polish couple in 1943, hiding out in their closet. She becomes pregnant; the wife begins to go out with pillows under her clothing, and then takes the baby out as though it were her own. The Jewish woman slips away, and the couple raise the child. As a young woman, she finds out the truth of her parents and then travels to meet “the woman from Hamburg” who tells her, “I had to agree to everything. I wanted to live.” And then she says, “Don’t ever come here again.”

Krall pays great attention to detail — the ribbons sewn onto a pillow used to create the look of pregnancy, for example.

As she once explained in an interview, “We know the world through details. We never see it in its entirety, only its fragments. And that’s how you should write about the world, making sure you select the fragments that really matter.”