Posted Michał Zajda/ Poland
The next topic I would like to consider is the issue of self-determination. For over a year, I have been collecting the stories of people who are, one could say, interesting! Indeed, these are the witnesses of a history most dramatic – the history of suffering. These are people stigmatised with the mark of the twentieth century.
A beautiful childhood is a breath of crisp air before a huge cloudburst. Really! For everyone, childhood is, or rather should be, a big gulp of fresh air. Sometimes though, the things that come next are not the ordinary downpour which we experience at times. It can be a real flood! Those few human beings who survived the Shoa, just like in the biblical ark, engage us in stories from the verge of madness, which today are impossible to embrace with one’s own mind. It is to be remembered that the cataclysm of God lasted forty days and forty nights, whereas the one we ourselves put us through – over six years! As you can see, the worldly insanity came out of God’s control and became the point of reference for defining good and evil. But maybe that was the way God thought it up…
The topic of these conversations, however, is not only suffering and the war that caused it. We talk about their lives, mainly the post-war ones. How that pack of survivors, who experienced holocaust and outlived Soviet Poland, have managed to see freedom. How? Well, hundreds kilometres south, their dream of freedom had already come true. A country was born, where they could have done anything they wanted. They would have been at home. But would they? This is the question we will try to answer.
At the beginning, I ask who they are. This seemingly easy question brings lots of emotions and difficulties. I am a Polish Jew. This is one of the most frequent answers I hear. And it evokes instantly another simple question. Who is this Polish Jew? A Pole or a Jew? One is tempted to say that both. But in which proportions? In the pre-war times one could say that they were Jews, but today they would probably identify as Poles!
In order to understand the issue comprehensively, I suggest a bit of history. According to the 2nd census in December 1931, there were three million one hundred thousand Jews, which was exactly ten percent of all citizens of the Republic of Poland. In February 1946, the people’s authority conducted the 3rd census. The outcomes were dramatic. The population of Poland decreased by over seven million! And what happened with the Jews? They got lost in the ruins of the Third Reich. The census mentions only people who are subject to rehabilitation or verification procedures (417,000) and the so called “Others” (300,000). No word about the Jews. Just as if they ceased to exist! The most current research estimates that only one in ten Jews residing on the territory of Poland until 1939, survived the war—bring us to about 300,000. Where are they? Between 1949 and 1950, within the framework of the Self-determination Action, approximately 30,000 Jews left. Through Gomułka’s mouth, the socialist power said that “some of the Jewish comrades do not feel bound with the Polish nation”, and consented to emigration. Another period when the Jews could have left Poland fell on the turn of October 1956, when, within several years, approximately 47,000 people emigrated. Between 1960 and 1967, another four thousand left. By the data of the Social and Cultural Association of Jews (TSKŻ) from July 1967, Poland was inhabited by approximately 25,000 Jews. Of course these are only the people who confessed to being Jewish. The others are impossible to count. As a result of the events of March 1968, around 13,000 additional people of Jewish nationality left Poland with the so called dog passport (it was a travel document telling who the passenger is not – “holder of this document is not a citizen of the People’s Republic of Poland”). Summing up, we get a number of approximately 95,000. Where is the rest? The territory of Poland decreased drastically as a result of war, and what follows is many people forced to love their “new homeland”. By experience, I know that everyone who could, came back. Let’s assume that there were around 30,000 people who left in the Soviet Union, another 20,000 chose a different place, having unspecified possibilities. To round this number, nowadays there should live around 150,000 people being lineal descendants of those who survived. Most of them do not identify themselves with the world of their ancestors. Usually baptised, they merged into the Polish society.
The war broke the spines of many people! They had no sense of spirituality. Their Jewish Poland was no more, and Israel was not, in the physical sense, their homeland. Many of them did not know Hebrew, Yiddish practically disappeared. I know only two elderly men who have good command of this language. Examining everything they have and everything they are, they feel closer to the Vistula river than to Jerusalem. One has to remember that the secular People’s Poland quickly liquidated all the religious schools. This mean that to cultivate the tradition, it would need to be done privately. It didn’t help that the young people who did not want to stand out, rebelled and chose Polishness. It was more convenient. Those who survived, had already received their education after the war. Whether they wanted it or not, they found Polish wives who gave birth to their Polish children.The head of the family, this true Jew, in order to accept their family and themselves, had to assume something. He had to determine himself somehow. The “proportions” of which I referred to in the beginning, gain an almost symbolic dimension. This is a peculiar relocation of weight, determined by one’s circumstances.
Who is this Polish Jew? This is a man who is Polish and Mosaic. And can they be Catholic? Or being Catholic, can they call themselves Jews? This question is faced usually by young people of Jewish nationality who in search of their identity come back to their roots. In my opinion, however, one has to assume something. We have to be flexible because someone, sometime in the past, gave us no choice. The war destroyed Jews in Europe, this needs to be said clearly. The Jews, together with the Poles, lost the war. This is an undeniable fact. All the pretty and bold words spoken out by the politicians are aimed at covering up the facts. Sadly, Poland lost over 80 thousand square kilometres and seven million people, including almost all Jews. Usually, these were the educated people who died, as the Soviet and the Nazi invaders tracked just them. It was done on purpose, and the Krakow and the Lviv professors were its best example. Nobody cared then, whether they were shooting at a Jew or at a Pole. They aimed at a professor – the heart and the brain of the Polish statehood. The most eminent citizens were dying in the Katyń forest, in Ponary or in the chambers of Auschwitz, no matter whether they attended a church or a synagogue before. It was a Polish citizen who paid their taxes from honest work. And this is not a look through the prism of holocaust. This is a sober and clear point of view of a Polish rationalist. The king lost 3 million of his subjects! And this king should be happy? I am asking, about what?
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May 31, 2012 | 3:47 pm
Posted Dana Addadi
The second Israeli documentary film festival in Budapest opened with “Dolphin boy”- the story of a young boy from Kallansua treated for trauma at Eilat’s Dolphin reef. Dr. Vered Glickman, director of the first Israeli cultural institute, is focusing on one goal: paying tribute to what she calls “a new wave in the Israeli documentary scene”..
It seems that for the global Jewish community, Israel represents the best fertilized soil for the most progressive Jewish approaches; Jews growing up in a Jewish state actually manifest Herzel’s vision of a healthy and rather casual sense of Judaism, as they are granted the privilege of observing their surroundings with sufficient confidence. This is how their artistic statements naturally resonate in the Jewish world; We could practically follow the heart-bits of the Israeli-Jewish identity, growing up from a naïve baby to a raged adolescent, up to a settled, matured realist today. This festival doesn’t bring up popular political issues of human rights, nor does it conserve a repertoire of advocacy. What it does do is portray the story of people in Israel through their individual stories. Dr. Glickman acknowledges the fact her Israelity in the Hungarian Jewish scene has it disadvantage, but she rather embrace the advantages. I do not believe a young Jewish community, which is just dusting its way back after years of oppression could overlap such cultural gap so quickly, and generate a healthy connection to Israel without responsible guidance, which I believe Dr. Glickman provides. Being a Jew in Budapest is a confusing state to be in. A major portion of the Hungarian Jewish identity is related to Hungarian Jewish history and the holocaust; Looking ahead to be connected with the controversial Israel is not that fashionable: A dominating right wing regime in Hungary adopts a somewhat contradicting liberal approach, as acceptable in Europe, and though marching the march of the “clean white Hungary” (no Jews no Roman etc.), it finds it easy to protest against Israeli cultural activities (showcasing Israeli culture to Hungarians) as hypocritical and inappropriate due to well known reasons. The Israeli documentary film festival is one of the ICI’s many initiations in the course of maintaining a new adult relationship between Israel and the young Hungarian; It encourages the community to join us Israelis in our realistic point of view on Israel today: as it is attractive and magical, it keeps a strong mythology for us, but also is challenges us to keep up with hard questions. Keep discussions open, Eyes open, but also an open heart.
May 31, 2012 | 3:43 pm
Posted Pavel Pustelnik
We are waiting outside. The wind is whipping our faces and nothing can stop it from penetrating closely tight coats. The sky is dark and does not promise any sun that day. We are trying to reach the Jewish Cemetery in Bratislava.
‘Please come inside, there will be less noise. We are under the Old Jewish Cemetery of Pressburg. The Jews in Bratislava have spoken mostly German, that is why we use the German name for the city’ says Juraj Kohlmann, who guides us through a pathway leading towards a large concrete structure. Kohlmann is here on behalf on the Bratislava Jewish Religious Community. The place we see is a certain kind of monument and a part of the entrance at the same time. Finally, the wind stops blowing. It becomes absurdly silent and one can smell how different the air is. From now on, we will be going only downstairs.
The space that is used for the current graveyard is not large. It can be compared with the space of a large living room. The floor is not flat, the walls have been carved perfunctorily. Lack of time invested? Lack of care? Both? ‘The cemetery has been used for two hundred years and more than 6000 people have been buried there between 1640 and 1840. There have been more than 6000 graves’. Looking at the microscopic space of the current burial site it sounds astounding. The graves have been stacked in layers. ‘The earth on the grave cannot be touched, then how can we bury two persons in one grave?’ asks Kohlmann. The solution that has been found was to remove the gravestones and cover the existing cemetery with a 1,5 meter thick layer of soil. In this way the space already doubled. ‘At that time Jews could not buy any land, they must have been using what they had’.
Years have passed and the cemetery became full again, nobody could use it. This could be the end of the story and we would visit just another forgotten necropolis that is barely recognisable as Jewish. The fate of the Bratislava’s cemetery has been different. In 1942 it had been covered with soil again, as this area was thought to be the flooded area of Danube. One more time, the burial site disappeared. In the same period, the most horrible period for the Slovak Jews, more than 67,000 people had been transported to the Nazi camps in Poland. In 1943 a large part of the cemetery had been demolished due to Jozef Tiso’s (a Catholic priest and anti-Semitic politician all at once) plan to rebuild that part of the city by constructing a tram line in the middle of the burial site. The Jewish community managed to accomplish an incredible task: they have moved the graves and only 23 of them remained in the original place on the left bank of Danube. Those were the graves of the big rabbis. ‘Around the tombs we have built a concrete bunker to preserve them’. Further works have been carried out in the 1990’ so the cemetery has its current shape.
The light is dimmed. Wrinkles on Kohlmann’s face are illuminated when he stands on the stairs talking about the people who are buried at the site. The most important is Chatam Sofer (also known as Hatam Sofer or Moses Schreiber). His story is worth a book that still has not been written. For now, just the cemetery is known as Chatam Sofer Memorial. The rabbi’s grave is majestically located, in an obvious way the most important. Kohlmann seems to know all the peculiarities of the people who are buried here. They do not seem to be dead, in his talk they are alive once again, walking around the yeshiva established by Sofer and enjoying the slow pace of the city. This is a reality that does not exist any more, but is preserved in the oral history.
Currently in Slovakia there are over 600 Jewish cemeteries. Unfortunately many of them have been vandalized or just forgotten. They are disappearing almost every day.
May 25, 2012 | 3:32 am
Posted Masha Pryven
This last month of Spring began, for many, with an exciting and inspiring event: The Paideia Alumni Conference 2012. Annually a European city is selected to host the conference that invites the graduates from the Jewish Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden to meet, converse, exchange, and to share and listen. This time, the alumni convened in Heidelberg, Germany—a place where the architecture meets its surrounding nature in perfect harmony. The beauty of Heidelberg is breathtaking and must-see in Germany. The Hochschule für Jüdische Studien in Heidelberg gladly hosted the alumni event in the historic heart of the Old Town.
The topic of the conference “Contemporary European Jewish Challenges” stubbornly persists, as do the efforts for solutions. This time, participants were fortunate to have Rabbi Dr. Daniel Katz, and Stephen Kramer, Secretary General of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, as the key voices of the current German Jewry. The social structure of the Jewish communities in Germany is quite different from the United States, where each synagogue is an independent institution and a matter of individual preference based upon a variety of possibilities. In Germany, synagogues are run on a centralized basis and a Rabbi is appointed from above rather than elected at the local level. Moreover, the Orthodox movement is dominant in Germany and thus is the only possible option for Jews across the country. Stephen Kramer put the situation of the German Jews bluntly: registered members in the Jewish communities are decreasing; German Jewry was lost in the Shoah, and there is no Jewish Renaissance today. No matter how pessimistic it sounded, Kramer resolutely made his point: what was destroyed before in 1933 cannot be re-built. However, he emphasized, there is a new German Jewry consisting of 97% of Russian-speaking arrivals from the former Soviet Union, presenting new challenges of integration.
While Kramer was presenting a gloomy view of the Jewish revival in Europe, a Jewish revitalization was happening right there in the Hochschule at Heidelberg. Piotr Minsky (Poland), Martin Schubert (Germany), Elisabetta Abate (Italy), and Oriol Poveda (Spain) in their presentations touched upon prospects in education, religious life, and project development. The great success was the small group discussions for both finding the ways of a more efficient cooperation between the alumni and for the “European Café”. For the latter, teams of participants were moving around the room from table to table as they considered many aspects of European Jewish culture viewed through the spectacles of challenges and opportunities. Why preserve objects and places of memory? What creative tensions evolve out of the quest for authenticity and the demand for the currency and novelty? Has religion really become obsolete, no longer the centre of Jewish life? These were just some of the questions presented among many. Between the panels, guests were invited on a tour around Jewish Heideberg. Rabbi Shaul Friberg, of the Hochschule, echoing Kramer’s prognosis, admitted that as one walks through Heidelberg today, they will not see its Jewish past, left with only stories and memories. However, Shaul cheerfully pointed out the Hochschule, which despite its recent addition, is an old construction.
Barbara Spectre, the founding director of Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, led a beit midrash session in the challenging and inspiring spirit like those that she often holds in Stockholm. Again, Barbara looked at the choices and dilemmas of the biblical characters through the universal, all-human, existential lens which proved once more that Jewish traditional texts can be a system of values for humanity in the twenty-first century if read through a cultural, literary, and historical spectacle coupled with a strong passion for re-vitalization of Judaism.
Among the others who made this conference a success was Diane Wohl, Patron of the Alumni Association and Paideia’s friend, who flew across the Atlantic and brought her mix of strong enthusiasm, pertinent and probing questions, and kind encouragement to the Paideia fellows.
The Jewish chronicle does not end here but most certainly will be carried on next year at a new spot, somewhere in Europe, which too is defined by both complexity and by inspiration.
May 23, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted Tal Ofer
It was after lunch several Fridays ago that I politely declined an offer to have a beer with a friend and told him I had to go elsewhere instead – a counter-demonstration organized by British Israel Coalition outside the Israeli Embassy in High St. Kensington.
The demonstration, organized by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign to mark “The March to Jerusalem,” attracted around 600 indoctrinated supporters, many of whom are under 25, as well as a couple of Neturei Karta figures, all holding banners and various flags, chanting racist slogans which call to “burn Israel,” and to “liberate Palestine with blood and fire.” One banner had a swastika superimposed on a Star of David.
Clearly these were people who were not interested in a peaceful two-state solution, but in the destruction of Israel. On our side there were just under 20 people, most of them my parents’ age and above. Among them, a man on a wheelchair and few Christian supporters of Israel.
A young Jewish schoolgirl who passed by the area with her mom on their way home was shocked by the vile nature of the demonstration, but also by the lack of supporters for Israel. She immediately burst into tears and refused to leave the premises. The question asked therefore is simple: Where are the so-called leaders of the Jewish community? Why haven’t any well-funded organizations such as the Board of Deputies, Jewish Leadership Council and the Union of Jewish Students take an active role? Surely dozens of supporters could have attended the counter-demonstration and helped us make a stronger case for Israel and the Jewish people.
It was close to Shabbat, some might argue. Even so, many could have come and left, reaching their homes before Shabbat begins. Many non-Jewish organizations could have been alerted and encouraged to support well ahead of time. Sadly Shabbat is not the problem. The apathetic approach of the community is. At times, when they respond, they argue that countering these demonstrations gives the extremists the publicity they look for. But this is a wrong and dated approach.
The reality is that the level of hostility against Israel has reached an all-time high in the UK because it is not being countered strongly and effectively. Let us be honest: There is a growing bias in the media against Israel, there are more and more anti-Semitic incidents recorded (and probably many more not recorded), universities host extremists speakers who preach hatred against Israel and Jews, and in local politics we have people like George Galloway who are being elected on racist and divisive campaigns while a Labour candidate for London Mayor claims that Jews won’t be voting for him because they are rich.
Following the counter-demonstration I was invited to a Shabbat dinner in Chabad House in central London. As usual, during the meal the rabbi gave a short Dvar Torah, and this week’s lesson couldn’t be more relevant.
It was in 1974 and soon after the Yom Kippur War that Rabbi Yisrael Lau (later to be chief rabbi of Israel) came to Brooklyn to visit the Rebbe. During their conversation the Rebbe asked him what the Jewish people in Israel were saying these days. Rabbi Lau replied that Jews were asking “what will be?” The Rebbe grabbed his arm and said: “Jews don’t ask what will be, they ask what we are going to do.”
The lesson derived from it is that those who ask “what will be” are apathetic to the situation in which they are in, while those asking “what are we going to do,” take a proactive stance. Therefore, we should have a clear plan how to counter these anti- Israel demonstrators, how to stop the delegitimization of Israel in the UK and in Europe and how to make the case for Israel as strong as possible in the media and in the eyes of the public.
Leadership of a community is not just about releasing press statements and attending receptions and gala dinners, it is about the strategy, presence and the action taken to protect the interests of the community. Just like we needed Moses to lead us from Egypt into the promised land, we need an active and strong leadership for the Jewish community in the UK.
Tal Ofer is a London-based Member of the European Jewish Parliament.
May 23, 2012 | 7:53 am
Posted Tal Ofer
April 12, 2012
This Saturday in Istanbul, Catherine Ashton, the EU Foreign Policy chief, will lead the P5+1 talks with Iran over its nuclear program – more than a year after the last negotiated attempt failed because Iran wasn’t prepared to discuss its nuclear program unless the P5+1 removed all sanctions and recognized its right to enrich uranium.
Looking back at the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, one can realize how Iran, throughout the years, bought time by pretending to be open to proposals, only to reject them and defy the international efforts, while in the meantime it continues to enhance its nuclear program and build secret nuclear sites. The EU3 (UK,France and Germany) started by offering several proposals to Iran in 2004-2005. It became P5+1 mechanism when USA, Russia and China joined, and the proposals offered to Iran were one track of the ‘dual track strategy’, which was complemented by sanctions imposed through the UN Security Council (where China and Russia dragged their feet for long). The sanctions have effect on the Iranian economy, no matter what Iranian politicians and diplomats say publicly, and it is the EU who can make the sanctions even more effective.
The EU is still Iran’s biggest trading partner – EU imports from Iran in 2011 amounted to €16.3 billion (compared to €14.5 billion in 2010 and €9.4 billion in 2009) while exports to Iran amounted to €10.5 billion (decline from €11.3 in 2010). The EU as a whole had €72.4 billion in trade with Iran in the past 3 years. Almost 90% of EU imports from Iran are energy related, while Iran ranks as 6th supplier of energy products for the EU.
The EU decided earlier this year to play its strongest card, external trade, and agreed about a ban on oil imports from Iran, but it will only come into force in July, pending a review in May (the ailing economies of Italy and Greece are heavily dependent on Iranian oil). Meanwhile as part of strengthening positions towards the talks on Saturday, Iran announced that it will stop oil imports to Spain and threatened it will do the same with Italy and Germany.
The talks and what will follow them in the next months will be a big test for the credibility and coherence of EU foreign policy, where it is common to see especially the big countries in the EU who prefer to pursue their national interests over the bloc interests. The EU must enforce the oil embargo and get ready to find alternative oil supplies for the continent.
This is not an easy task during recession in Europe and when Russia and China strongly engaged economically with the Islamic Republic. Iran’s economy relies heavily on energy imports from the EU and on EU’s technology for the energy market, that’s why it is the right decision to target the country’s oil and gas industry. The talks are Iran’s last chance but let’s not be naïve about the outcome of the talks. Iran is not going suddenly to open up its nuclear sites for international inspectors, neither to stop enriching uranium. It is the role of the EU sanctions to try and prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons, but sanctions can only be effective if all EU countries enforce them without any exception – that’s the challenge the EU faces and it must ensure that the sanctions come into place as planned and adhered by all the 27 members.
May 23, 2012 | 7:37 am
Posted Tal Ofer
05 April 2012
The abhorrent poem which German Nobel Prize laureate Günter Grass published at the Suddeutsch Zeitung is definitely not going to win him prizes nor plaudits. The former Waffen SS man accused Israel of plotting to ‘wipe out’ the Iranian people, and that Israel poses a danger to global security. He claims that he is sick of the ‘hypocrisy of the West’ and that Germany would ‘take part’ in a crime, by providing Israel with a sixth Dolphin submarine. The submarine is able to carry nuclear missiles however there is no evidence that Israel armed it with such weapons or that Israel has such weapons at her disposal.
It’s ironic that Mr. Grass complains about the sale of submarines, because it was he who volunteered in the 2nd world war to serve in a Kriegsmarine submarine though in the end was taken to be in the 10th SS Panzer division in Dresden. In his book published in 2006 ‘peeling the onion’ he mourns the deaths of the Nazi German soldiers during the 2nd world war much more than those millions of Jews who were murdered. The same Mr. Grass 10 years ago condemned the Bundestag for trying to outlaw Neo-Nazi parties and also called to cancel the ban on the publishing of ‘Mein Kampf’. According to him, it would be good for readers to understand what ‘nonsense’ was written by Hitler.
There is nothing but classic anti-Semitism behind the poem of Mr. Grass . It is Iran’s president who declared his country will wipe Israel off the map, it is Iran who refused the ‘freeze for freeze’ offer by the P5+1 and the same Iran that wasted time in the negotiations with the West .It is also the same Iran which funds Terror organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah and who send terrorists to attack Israeli diplomats Jewish communities across the world.
According to Mr. Grass fears of Nuclear Iran are very much exaggerated, but that’s not what most of the world thinks, certainly not Iran’s neighbours. It is Iran which threatens the global security and the existence of Israel with its pursuit for nuclear weapons and with the possibility that such weapons can make their way into the hands of Hamas and Hezbollah. But let us not speak of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. What must be said is that the outrageous comments by Mr. Grass have no place in the European public discourse and that we have to strongly condemn it.
By Tal Ofer - Member of the European Jewish Parliament.
May 23, 2012 | 7:33 am
Posted Tal Ofer
1 March 2012
Like many others, I was appalled when I heard about the disgraceful comments Baroness Tonge made during an event at Middlesex University last week, which was part of the ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ held on different campuses. In addition to that the police are investigating offensive comments made by the American activist Ken O’Keefe who was part of the same panel, and called for the ‘destruction of Israel, the UN, the US and British Empire’. Baroness Tonge didn’t try to distance herself from the comments.
This rhetoric can’t be tolerated and has no place in the political and public discourse, and Baroness Tonge’s statement last night shows just how dangerous and inflammatory her comments are. She claims that it was taken ‘out of context’ and blames ‘Zionist campaigners’ that disrupted proceedings. She was asked by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg to apologise but refused and therefore resigned from the party.
It is not the first time that Baroness Tonge’s comments cause uproar. In 2010 she claimed Israel should investigate allegations that its medical teams in Haiti trafficked organs of earthquake victims for use in transplants. In 2004 she was sacked as Liberal Democrat children’s spokeswoman when she suggested that she could consider being a suicide bomber and raised questions about the future of Israel.
The European Jewish Parliament, of which I am a member, was inaugurated two weeks ago in Brussels and it aimed to deal with the big challenges the European Jewry faces. Among those challenges are antisemitism and the delegitimisation of Israel in Europe. Abhorrent comments such as those made by Baroness Tonge and by others show how serious our challenge is in the UK and in Europe.
The Community Security Trust last year recorded 586 antisemitic crimes in the UK, nearly half of which were in Manchester. Among the incidents across the UK in 2011 were 92 assaults, 63 incidents of vandalism, 394 reports of abuse and 29 direct threats. In one of the most extreme incidents last year, a Jewish family who filled their tank up in the petrol station were verbally abused, hit and left injured. It shows that antisemitism remains a serious problem which can be exacerbated if not tackled properly and it’s the responsibility of all of us to stress that racial hatred of any kind has no place in our society.
Tal Ofer is member of the European Jewish Parliament and of Progress