Last week, President Lech Kaczynski of Poland visited Israel, where he participated in many events in support of Israel and the Jewish community in Poland.
Kaczynski visited Yad Vashem on Tuesday, September 12, meeting with Israeli high school students who have visited Poland or who will do so this year. Following the meeting with the students, an archival agreement between Yad Vashem and the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) was signed. The agreement, detailing cooperation between the two organizations in the field of Holocaust documentation, was signed by Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate, and Janusz Kuryka, president of the Institute of National Remembrance, in the presence of President Kaczynski.
Kaczynski kicked off an Israeli exhibition on Jews in the Polish army. The Struggle for Freedom exhibition, at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, is supported by the World Jewish Congress and the Polish Embassy in Israel. The exhibition provides details of famous Jewish military leaders who have fought for Polish independence, such as Lt. Col. Berek Joselewicz, celebrated for his role in a 1794 uprising and in battles against various forces that tried to tear Poland asunder. Also noted is the large number of Jews who served Poland in World War II – 10 percent of the forces fighting for Poland under British, Soviet and underground Polish command – some 100,000 soldiers. Among them was the future Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, who served in the Free Polish Army before emigrating to Palestine. The exhibition runs through Oct. 7.
A new agreement paved the way for construction to begin on the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The city of Warsaw, a major financier of the museum, signed a contract with Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki, which means construction can officially begin. The $55 million museum, in the works for more than a decade, will face the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It is slated to open by 2009. The museum will explore 800 years of Jewish life in Poland.
The Polish prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, (twin brother of the president) will be in the United States for the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations. During his stay in New York, he will meet with leaders of the Jewish community.
There are many issues concerning the Jewish community in Poland. Some of the most pressing issues are restitution of private properties, restitution of communal Jewish properties, heritage protection, mass graves and anti-Semitism.
The issue of restitution of private property in Poland has long been a sore spot for many Jews. A law is being considered that will allow for 15 percent compensation. It will also raise many problems for proving succession of title.
The restitution of communal property has faced many obstacles. In many cases only small properties have been returned while larger buildings have been declined, even when there is sufficient proof of ownership.
The protection of Jewish heritage in Poland is also an important issue. Often when a property is returned to the Jewish community, it is in a sad state of disrepair. Local authorities often demand that the sites are cleaned up, and fines are levied if this is not done in a timely fashion. The community wants to have more time to work on the many projects before penalties are placed on them, and are also asking for public funds.
Mass graves are as important to the Jewish community as established cemeteries, but the Council for Protection of Memory of War and Martyrdom often ignores applications for protection.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Poland, as it is in other places throughout Europe. As the Polish president and prime minister visit Israel and New York, it is hoped that they will return to Warsaw with a greater understanding of the needs and concerns of the Jewish community – both here and in Poland – and will address these issues correctly and in a timely manner.
Shmuel Ben Eliezer can be contacted at email@example.com