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Poland currently holds the presidency of the European Union (EU) – a position that rotates every six months – and one that will end at the end of December. Poland, with its long history of anti-Semitism has, ironically, become one of Israel’s closest allies in Europe, and it is now in position to render support to the Jewish nation by promoting Israel’s narrative in the EU. For Israel, it is an opportunity to drum up support in Europe, where the delegitimization campaigns against Israel have increased, particularly in western European media and on campuses.
Poland, during the Middle Ages, served as a refuge for scores of persecuted Jews fleeing Germany. The population of Jews in Poland just prior to the outbreak of WW II, was the largest in all of Europe and, Warsaw, Poland’s capital, boasted a vibrant Jewish cultural life. More than a third of Warsaw’s residents were Jews, and the 3.3 million Jews of Poland represented 10% of the country’s population – the highest such demographic in Europe. The Holocaust, which took place on Polish soil, decimated Polish Jewry. More than 90% of the Jews perished in Nazi run death camps – including Treblinka (where Warsaw’s Jews were sent to their death) Auschwitz, Belzec, Maidanek and Sobibor. Those who were not murdered in death camps died of starvation, beatings, and betrayal by anti-Semitic Poles. Conversely, many individual Catholic Poles risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors.
Poland’s Communist past is another sorry episode in the history of this former Soviet satellite and the Jewish nation. State sponsored anti-Semitism was pervasive throughout the 43-year long Communist rule. Poland, however, emerged from the fall of Communism as a strong constitutional democracy. Lech Walesa, the famed Solidarity Trade Unionist leader, became Poland’s first democratic president and he made a conscious effort to improve relations with the Jewish nation. The New York Times reported on May 21, 1991, that in an unusual, emotional speech to the Israeli Parliament, President Lech Walesa of Poland apologized for the anti-Semitism in Polish history.
Walesa, addressing the Knesset chamber filled with Israel’s leaders – some of whom were survivors of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps built in Poland after the Germans overran the country, said, “Here in Israel, the land of your culture and revival, I ask for your forgiveness.” He issued his words knowing that many in the audience and others, who would read the account, blamed the Poles for not having done more to protect Jews from the Nazis.
“I am a Christian, and I cannot weigh with a human scale 20 centuries of evil for both of our people,” he said.
Responding to Walesa, Israel’s Prime Minister Itzhak Shamir, who was born in Poland and whose father was murdered by anti-Semitic Poles during WWII said, “The Polish president represents in his history and character the new Poland, liberated and rejuvenated, a Poland which aspires to join the era of integration into democratic, free nations,” Shamir said, “We want to hope and believe that the first official visit is a sign of the opening of a new page in relations between our people.”
Pragmatic considerations, no doubt, influenced the Polish government rapprochement with Israel. Hoping to capitalize on Jewish clout in Washington’s corridors of power, and the need to rehabilitate the ailing Polish economy were indeed some of the factors. The desire to benefit from Israeli expertise also played a crucial role. And, Poland’s normalization process with Israel was a way to assert its independence from Soviet control. With the onset of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (the Oslo Accords); the Polish government was encouraged to seek a role in the peace-making process.
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