My mother, may she rest in peace, despite being a Holocaust survivor, still had a sunny outlook toward mankind. However her recollections on her childhood in Poland, the country of her birth, were not happy. She told us of instances when she was a young girl on her way to school that gentile youth would call her “Jid” (Jew in Polish) while throwing things at her. Another recollection she would tell is how when she wanted to play with her neighbor’s children, the neighbor parents would shoo her away and tell her to go back to “Palestinia” (Palestine) as if she came from there. All this goes back about 90 years and naturally much can change in that timeframe.
I know that Germany and Poland’s younger generations, despite pockets of extreme right nationalists, have taken on practically antithetical views to the ethos (or lack thereof) of the generation of their grandparents or great grandparents. Germany made and is making great attempts to compensate monetarily to the extent that is possible, survivors of its Holocaust. I should say that my mother was a recipient of such reparations and it was used for her care. What is not as widely known is that Poland too is taking responsibility for its share of human suffering and monetary losses incurred by Polish Jews during that period.
The other day I attended a Polish-Jewish Dialogue Committee, held in St. John’s University Law Building, moderated by my friend Jeff Gottlieb who is Co-Chair of the Polish-Jewish Dialogue Committee. It was a small meeting of people around a large boardroom table discussing Poland’s reparations to its Holocaust survivors and the restitution of Jewish property seized by the Nazis and Stalin’s Russia. In that meeting I learned that there is a longstanding international agreement in which Poland is to pay the U.S. government $40 million to be distributed to those deserving of restitution monies. What is new however is that the Polish government is making pension applications available in languages other than Polish to facilitate those claims as well. The Polish government is open to all claims to property held during that time which was later lost due to the Holocaust, as long as there is supporting documents to show legitimate ownership.
Also discussed during the meeting was the ban on Shechita which was temporarily enacted and it was explained by one of the Polish-American representatives that it was inadvertently enacted without realizing that it would affect the practice of ritual slaughter (Shechita). Once that was realized the ban was discontinued. I pointed out that the ban was not indiscriminately applied since the effort to curtail cruelty to animals (which the ban purported in the Shechita process) did not apply to those who kill animals when hunting. (That was a question that I had heard posed by Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld.)
Aside from the technicalities of money restitution and other legal matters discussed in the meeting, however, one could sense a Polish-Jewish solidarity. Even the VP of Community Relations of St. John’s University, host of the committee meeting, who is Italian, said that he felt that he was Jewish growing up because at that time all of his friends were Jewish. After the meeting I chatted up the fellow who was sitting next to me during the meeting, a Polish-American attorney by the name of Romuald Magda. I asked him what he knew of my parents hometowns - my mother from Bedzin, pronounced in Yiddish as Bendeen and my father from Kolomyia. He was aware of both, even though I only knew the Yiddish pronunciation of my mother’s hometown. He gave me the approximate geographic location of both cities - Bedzin being further North and bordering the Austrian border and Kolomyia being South and near Ukraine. I asked him whether the (tongue in cheek) description of ‘Galitziana’ (which he understood) applied to my father’s hometown and he said that Kolomyia is indeed near Galicia. He explained that both cities had heavy concentrations of Jews - his estimation - Kolomyia 60% and Bedzin (Bendeen) 80%. It gave me more of a sense of connecting to my parents' birth country. I shook his hand with appreciation and he seemed to reciprocate the handshake with much warmth.
In 1989 Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach went on a world-wide known tour of Poland during the time when the Iron Curtain was coming down. A documentary was made of that tour by filmmaker Menachem Daum called “Opening the Gates”. I’ve seen parts of it on TV and from what I saw it was extremely inspiring. The Torah says that Esau is sonei (enemy) l'Yaakov but Rabbi Carlebach apparently felt that the descendants of Esau can transform their initial Biblical state of hatred towards their brethren folk. During that tour the Rabbi gave concerts in Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz and Bielsko-Biala to an audience that were mostly non Jewish. Even though Poland was known for that period to be anti-Semitic, Carlebach felt that bearing ill feelings towards the Poles was counter productive. At the concerts he would say “We all need to purify our hearts and fill them with joy”. He was also to have said that it was his goal "to shake hands with every man, woman and child in Poland.” The filmmaker said that Poles would surround him and ask him to bless their children. In 1995 Pope John Paul II was about to deliver a Mass at Newark’s Giants Stadium when a group of monks sang to him Rabbi Carlebach’s “Leman Achai Vereai'oy” a song that Carlebach had made famous to the people of Poland at each of his concerts. The filmmaker equates Rabbi Carlbach’s efforts with those of the Pope in that they both did so much to “improve relations between the Poles and the Jews” and that’s why the monks sang that song to the Pope.
My friend, Jeff Gottlieb, is publicizing an event of such Polish-Jewish dialogue which will be held on Monday, May 9th at 7:00 pm at the Polish Consulate in New York city. Among the honorees will be Bishop Witold Mroziewski of the Brooklyn Diocese, TV personality and commentator Rita Cosby (whose father was Polish) and Polish Jewish philanthropist Sigmund Rolat. I feel it would be a great honor to the cause if many Jewish people would show up. To offer contributions to the event and to RSVP please contact Jeff Gottlieb at email@example.com or 917-376-4496.