The event was covered in all the mass media in Poland, prompting the cities of Wroclaw and Lublin to contact Israel’s ambassador to offer their own programs.
While most of Europe is critical of Israel’s war against Hizbullah, the country that most Jews think of being the most anti-Semitic is hosting a group of Israeli youth from northern Israel to ease their trauma.
Lodz, once the Polish city with the second largest Jewish population in Europe, invited 15 teenagers from the city of Nahariya, a city that has been bombarded by missiles and from which most of the population has sought refuge in other parts of the country.
Jerzy Kropiwnicki, mayor of Lodz, came up with the idea to invite the youth upon seeing news reports of the devastation in Nahariya.
The Israelis came to Poland for an 18-day vacation that will include sightseeing, educational programs and Jewish community visits.
“We want them at least to forget for a little while about what is happening in Israel,” said Jarek Nowak, a member of the Lodz City Council who played a key role in organizing the trip. “This is the least we can do. If we can’t solve the situation they are in, at least we can give them a little rest to comfort them.”
The city of Nahariya chose the children who would participate in the visit. They are between 12 and 16, and come from poor and single-parent, mostly Sephardi families.
The trip was paid for by the city of Lodz, with assistance from the president’s office. Lot, the Polish national airline, provided free travel.
Israel’s ambassador to Poland, David Peleg, met the children when they arrived at Warsaw airport. He said he wasn’t surprised by the Lodz mayor’s initiative.
“He has been involved in Jewish issues for some time, including the annual commemoration of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto,” Peleg said. “Our embassy is providing logistical help for the young people’s trip, but the credit goes to the city. The mayor’s gesture warmed our hearts.”
“While the mayor gets the [major] credit for the event” he continued, “we also have to thank Mr. Jarek Nowak, who handled most of the details. He has a long history of friendship with the Jewish community. When he served as the head of the Polish National Tourist office in New York, he sponsored many Jewish cultural and educational events, including Jewish media trips to Poland. After his return to Poland, he became influential in the city council and worked closely with the Jewish community to organize events such as the annual commemoration of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto.”
In a phone interview, Nowak said the teens so far were infatuated with Poland and the reception they have received.
“They’re so excited. For all of the teenagers, it’s their first trip on an airplane, their first trip outside the country,” he said. “But while they are free of the fear of the missiles, they are still worrying about their friends and families remaining in Israel.”
The 18-day program includes horseback-riding, kayaking, painting and photo classes; tours of Warsaw, the Warsaw Ghetto monument and Lublin; visits to the Jewish communities of Wroclaw and Lodz; and Shabbat dinners.
The food is being provided by the Jewish community of Lodz, which has a kosher kitchen.
Simcha Keller, cantor of Lodz and chairman of its 300-member Jewish community, said the teens were dining at the community headquarters and that he was honored to help organize the itinerary. Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi, said he was impressed with Lodz’s example.
“It’s an important sign from the country of Poland, taking in these kids,” he said. “Sitting in a bomb shelter is no way to spend your summer vacation.”
Schudrich hopes the efforts of the Lodz municipal government might change some people’s ideas about Poland.
“There are lots of things that shouldn’t happen in this country and we hear about them,” he said. “We should also take notice of the good.”