Reading that the Polish ex-Deputy Prime Minister and the ex-Minister of Education, Mr Roman Giertych, calls himself a “friend of Israel” isn’t a common thing that one reads in the Polish media. I cannot help but to remember that the same person was also the Chairman of the League of Polish Families, a largely nationalistic (borderline fascist some would say) political party and the founder of Polish Youth (!), a nationalistic group of young Poles; both groups have been categorised as quite xenophobic, homophobic and, unsurprisingly judging by the names, anti-Semitic.
Mr Giertych however, never publicly associated himself with anti-Semitism and blamed post-communists for that label. In support of his statement, he has recently supported the right of the Polish Jewish population to practice shechita (the slaughter of animals according to the Jewish Law) and openly fought a battle with the state to regulate the ownership rights of the GUR chassidim to their synagogue in Ger (Góra Kalwarii).
I wasn’t going to even finish reading his blog; a half-intelligent reader will notice that it’s a pompous piece of self-righteous attempt to present how thoughtful Mr Giertych wants to appear in public. Coming from Poland, I also can’t help, but read it as an effort to whitewash the history between the Poles and the Jews, blaming every single Jewish death solely on the Nazis. It brings memories from school where that sort of indoctrination was practiced.
However, Elie Wiesel passed away and he will be missed greatly. It prompted me look at the butterfly effect of our actions, regardless how terribly minor they are, and how they end up having a great effect on the lives of individuals and nations. Elie was that person. That person was also Joseph H. H. Weiler. The outspokenness of the latter prompted Mr Giertych, a person that I wouldn’t have suspected of harbouring any pro-Jewish sympathies based on his political past, to endeavour and settle the past, at least partially, for the GUR families. Despite the fact that such acts of kindness are usually exhibited by a minority, it’s refreshing to see that it shouldn’t matter what cultural and religious differences there are between people: the present should be dealt with kindly and the past should be settled justly for the benefit of the victims.
“A few days ago Israeli friends sent me the log of meetings I had with the Israeli political leaders back in February . Perhaps it would be worthwhile to publically tell the story, which essentially prompted the Israeli President, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, the ex-Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, the Mayor of Jerusalem and other members of the Knesset to offer me their friendship. President Rivlin referred to me per friend of Israel.
Everything started when I became deeply moved by the stance of Joseph H. H. Weiler, a Jewish orthodox man from New York, on the EU ruling regarding the presence of crosses in schools; the case was presented before the Tribunal in Strasbourg. Thanks to his appellation the Tribunal changed their anti-Christian verdict which banned crosses from Italian schools. Mr Weiler was convinced that the ban was unjust.
At that moment I thought to myself that perhaps it would be worthwhile to show my appreciation. I was given that opportunity in 2013. I received a phone call from the biggest group of Orthodox Jews in Israel (and I believe that it is also the case in the USA) called GUR. The group consists of several thousand families in Israel and has its origin in Poland – in Ger, hence the name GUR [trans: góra – mountain]. They seemed to have a problem with unregulated status of ownership of their synagogue in Ger, which was established by the tzaddik [Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter], the founder of the group. The case was so complicated that even the communists didn’t dare to take over its ownership. As a result the synagogue was still owned by several Jewish families recorded in the books. The majority of the families however died in the Holocaust, but the descendants of those who managed to survive were scattered around the world. I suspect that this was the last estate in Poland of such communal significance and of unclear status. The synagogue is still standing and has always served for nothing but religious purposes or, as it was the case during the war, it was closed. Because its status hasn’t been addressed, its condition has deteriorated over time.
I have taken this case upon myself pro bono because, firstly, I considered it to be a way of appreciation for the Weiler’s stance and, secondly, I believe that all sort of temples and places of worship should serve only one purpose. In this situation, leaving the case unsettled made further use of the synagogue impossible. Anyone who is familiar with law knows that such disputes are very difficult to resolve. In January this year  we have finally won the case, meaning, that the synagogue in Ger has returned to its rightful owners – the GUR family. I also visited the graves of the Ger tzaddikim who managed to survive the Holocaust. It was right there that I saw a thing that surprised me mostly during my visit in Israel – a copy of the original synagogue standing in the middle of Jerusalem. They say that even the same number of bricks was used to erect it! In that moment I understood the true importance of the building to the GUR chassidim.
During my stay in Israel, which lasted a few days, my wife and I visited the President of Israel Rivlin. He received us in his residency. You need to believe me that sitting at the table along with Yaakov Litzman, the member of Binyamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, who was declaring his friendship was a surreal event. (They were well-informed about the history of my cooperation with the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw, and the fact that I was the first minister who actually visited Yedvabne.)
After this meeting we continued with visiting the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, who asked me about Ger. Then we visited the Mayor of Jerusalem who gave me a medal of the City of Peace. He mentioned that his family came from Warsaw and would love to visit officially. A lovely meal followed hosted by the ex-Chief Rabbi of Israel, Israel Meir Landau. Towards the end of our stay, after we have spent two days praying at the places of birth and resurrection of our Lord, we visited the Knesset where we had an opportunity to share the experiences with Naftali Bennett, the Minister of Education and a member of the Ministry of Defence, related to the educational reforms which I implemented in Poland.
I have to say that there is one thing that I found mostly moving during our visit – the visit to Yad VaShem. Do you know that a vast majority of memoirs on display were written in Polish? I haven’t noticed even one anti-Polish note. These people, who were murdered by the Germans for simply being Jewish by large considered themselves Poles…”