As Israel Fetes, Jews in Poland Fret

In former center of world Jewry, the few Jews who remain feel more and more isolated.

After surviving seven Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, witnessing pogroms against his people, and losing his job because he is Jewish, Arnold Mostowicz, one would expect, had fought enough battles in his lifetime.

But the sprightly octogenarian is anything but ready to give up his fight for what he calls "recognition of Poland's Jews."

Like most members of the Jewish community here, Mr. Mostowicz says his people have been forgotten and completely cut off from the rest of world Jewry.

"To them, we simply don't exist," he says. "In the eyes of Jews outside Poland, we are only guardians of our ancestors' graves. But Poland is not a cemetery - it was and is the cradle of the Jewish nation."

As Israel marks its 50th anniversary this month, there are few Jews in Poland who will be celebrating along with their relatives in the Holy Land. Although the creation of a new homeland meant the survival of their people, it also meant that for those who decided to stay in Poland, life as a Jew was essentially over.

For centuries Poland was the home of world Jewry. It was here that Jewish culture rose to some of its greatest glories. A haven for those fleeing persecution elsewhere, Poland became home to some 3.5 million Jews before World War II. As the heartland of the Jewish Diaspora, however, it also became Nazi Germany's main killing grounds.

Hitler's "final solution" did not end anti-Semitism. In 1946, just a year after the gas chambers were shut down, an angry mob killed 42 Jews in the Polish town of Kielce.

The pogrom was sparked by a false rumor that Jews were engaged in the ritual killing of Christian children. Pogroms throughout Poland continued, culminating in an anti-Semitic purge by the Communist regime in 1968.

Using the 1967 Six-Day War in the Middle East as an excuse, the authorities argued that Polish Jews were pro-Israeli and therefore pro-imperialist. As a result, thousands of Jews fled.

"If you were Jewish and you stayed in Poland after 1968, you were a traitor," explains Mostowicz, who was ordered to leave his job as editor in chief of a daily newspaper in 1969.

Determined to stay

Even though almost everyone he knew had emigrated, Mostowicz chose to stay. Before World War II, he had studied medicine in Paris. But his ambition to become a doctor had been dashed by numerous ailments resulting from six years of harsh conditions in the ghetto and concentration camps.

He started to write and became an accomplished author on Polish culture. Not leaving was a hard decision, he explains, but a conscious one. He could not imagine living anywhere else.

There are an estimated 3,000 to 15,000 Jews in Poland today. It was not until the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe crumbled that efforts to breathe new life into the community began.

In 1988, a Jewish kindergarten with four pupils was started in a private Warsaw apartment. A few years later, with the help of American businessman Ronald Lauder, an elementary school was created. It now boasts a waiting list.

"Lauder was the only one who wanted to give money to the living and not only the dead," says Konstanty Gebert, editor of the Jewish monthly Midrasz.

"If I had to choose today between saving the synagogue and the school, I'd save the school. We cannot deny the living to feed the dead," he says.

Mr. Lauder, the heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune, has also been named head of a newly established claim foundation. In a long-awaited breakthrough, the businessman has successfully brokered a deal between Poland's small Jewish community and the World Jewish Restitution Organization - a coalition of international Jewish groups. After a year-long dispute, the two sides have finally agreed to work together to reclaim material remnants of Jewish life here.

At stake are more than 5,000 properties that belonged to Jews in Poland before World War II. The properties, valued at millions of dollars, include 1,500 Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, schools, baths, and orphanages.

Jerzy Kichler, head of Poland's Union of Jewish Congregations, calls the cooperation pact "historic," saying it had "broken down the Jewish Iron Curtain."

High-profile visit

The agreement ended a year-long dispute on the eve of a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Poland. To mark Holocaust Remembrance Day April 23, the Israeli leader had chosen to visit the former death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

To its great disappointment, the local Jewish community was not invited. At pains to show that Poland has more to offer than just symbols of the Holocaust, Jewish leaders here convinced Mr. Netanyahu that he should also see the elementary school and a synagogue.

But the visit did not turn out as hoped.

As Netanyahu entered Warsaw's only synagogue, about 40 Jewish children, decked out by proud parents in their finest attire, burst into song, welcoming the Israeli leader with a loud "Shalom, shalom" (peace, peace). Although many of the Polish youths did not know what the rest of the Hebrew words meant, their singing was heartfelt.

Mr. Kichler then addressed the Israeli leader in English, proudly declaring, "We are not just a shadow, but a new generation of future Jews in Poland."

'Fight for existence'

While Netanyahu also speaks fluent English, he delivered his speech in Hebrew, a language few in the congregation understood. Questions he put to the children resulted in an embarrassing silence.

At the end of the lecture, Netanyahu summed up his message: "There is no future without Israel."

After the prime minister left, Jewish leaders could not conceal their disappointment and anger.

"We truly regret that Netanyahu did not address us at all," says Helena Datner, vice president of Warsaw's Jewish Religious Community. "Our people are fighting for our existence."

"What Netanyahu said was exactly the same as what anti-Semites tell us when they say, 'Go to Israel, that's where you belong,' " Mr. Gebert says.

"You don't want to hear the same thing from an Israeli leader. There was not a single mention of our life here, only about those who perished in the Holocaust. We don't want 800 years of vibrant Jewish life in Poland to be reduced to five years of destruction," he says.

Mostowicz, who listened intently to the prime minister's speech, called it "tactless."

Asked if he had ever considered leaving for Israel, where many of his friends and family now live, Mostowicz answers: "Never. This is my motherland.

"I may suffer and it may hurt, but this is where I belong."

* Part of an occasional series, "Israel at 50 - Through the Lives It Has Changed." Previous installments ran on April 29, April 30, and May 4.

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