Note: The Polish people suffered a loss when President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and 94 other passengers on a Russian jet, including many top Polish officials, were killed in a crash Saturday near Smolensk, Russia. Jewish leaders in Poland praised Kaczynski, 60, as a true friend of the Jewish community and Israel, and participants in the annual March of the Living wore black armbands this week in the president’s memory.
Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi, was supposed to be on the doomed flight. Only because of Sabbath observance did he and several other members of the Polish Jewish community not join the presidential party. The rabbi was a longstanding acquaintance of the president, previously Warsaw’s mayor, who attended holiday events at the city’s main synagogue, visited Israel several times, donated public land in Warsaw for the construction of a Museum of the History of Polish Jews and restored Polish citizenship to the 15,000 Jews exiled in 1968 by the country’s communist government.
Kaczynski and his wife, who were on their way to a memorial ceremony for the 22,000 Poles murdered 70 years ago by Stalin’s secret police at Katyn, will be buried Saturday in a state funeral in Krakow.
We lost a friend. As president of Poland, Lech Kaczynski was a very strong and outspoken supporter of Israel and of our local Jewish community. Just recently he strongly opposed the 2009 UN Goldstone Report (quite unusual for a European politician), which accused Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza.
His record of support for Polish Jewry was long and it was deep:
♦ He insisted on including our small but re-emerging Jewish community in all national ceremonies.
♦ He was the first president to light Chanukah candles in the Presidential Palace, a ceremony I was honored to lead for the past three years.
♦ In December 2008, he became the first sitting Polish president to visit our Nozyk Synagogue, the center of Jewish life in the capital, for the lighting of the first candle of Chanukah.
♦ He created a special presidential ceremony to honor the Righteous Among the Nations, non-Jews who had risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
♦ And he was one of the first supporters of the Jewish Museum now being built in Warsaw.
Two years ago, during President Kaczynski’s last visit to Katyn, he made a point of taking me to the memorial plaque for Rabbi Baruch Sternberg, chief rabbi of the Polish Armed Forces, who was killed in Katyn along with hundreds of other Jewish soldiers. It is estimated that around 10 percent of the Polish soldiers murdered in Katyn were Jews.
We looked together for this plaque, found it and stood together in silent prayer.
The president emphasized on several occasions that we must also remember the Jewish soldiers of Katyn. He also said that you cannot understand the history of Poland without also knowing the role of the Jews throughout the past almost 1,000 years.
Katyn had become a symbol of the last vestiges of World War II and communist lies. This lie is finally beginning to fall.
In April 1940, the NKVD (precursor to the KGB) murdered more than 22,000 Polish military elite. And then blamed it on the Nazis. For 70 years.
During communism, the Soviets absolutely denied responsibility. Thirty years ago, there was the beginning of an acknowledgment that the Soviets were involved. Then Vladimir Putin — president, then prime minister — for the last decade reverted to the Soviet-period lie. He refused to acknowledge Soviet responsibility.
Until last Wednesday. At a ceremony together with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Putin for the first time alluded to the fact that the mass murders were done under the totalitarian regime of Stalin.
Maria Kaczynska, the first lady, was also a special person: warm, open and patient. Her smile would light up the room. She made every person feel special. Whether in Warsaw at some Jewish ceremony or in New York while visiting Park East Synagogue or with her outreach to handicapped children, she cared.
There were others on the plane who were our dear friends. Father Roman Indrzejczyk was one of the first priests to be involved in dialogue with Jews and was an outspoken voice against anti-Semitism. Polish Orthodox Bishop Miron Chodawski always had a smile and made sure that I was included in every way possible. Andrzej Przewoznik worked with us to preserve the death camp of Belzec; now Poland is in the middle of a project to do the same for Sobibor. Mariusz Handzlik was a fighter for the truth including for Israel and the Jewish people. He joined us for our daughter’s bat mitzvah.
All these changes in Jewish-Polish relations were due to quiet diplomacy and perseverance. This is an example for the entire world.
And then this tragedy. More Polish lives again lost because of Katyn.
Poland is in shock. We in Poland do not know what to do with the tragedy of losing 96 people, many of them leaders, all at once. The president and the first lady. Fifteen members of the Sejm (Parliament) and three senators. The top five military commanders.
I lack the words to describe the pain, the bewilderment, the agony of the entire nation. I lost friends. The Jewish people and Israel lost friends. The friends we lost fought to change Poland for the better. And Poland is better thanks to them.
Michael Shudrich is the chief rabbi of Poland.
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