Sunday November 26, 2017, was an historic day in Poland. A national television audience watched as Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and many other Polish dignitaries converged on the city of Torun, three hours north of Warsaw. They came to join an Israeli delegation in paying homage to righteous gentiles.
The story begins with Father Rydzyk of the Main Church of Torun who decided to erect a memorial wall with the names of Poles who were killed by the Nazis because they saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. The chapel where the wall sits was dedicated and named in memory of Pope John Paul II, who was known to have saved many Jewish lives while serving as a local priest during World War II. Jonny Daniels, founder of the “From the Depths” organization, visited the memorial and was so moved that he decided to convene a conference at the site between Israeli and Polish leaders with a theme of “Remembrance and Hope.”
I was honored to be part of the Israeli delegation, along with Minister Ayoub Kara and Deputy Knesset Speaker Hilik Bar. We arrived at the memorial site and were overwhelmed by what we saw –
a stunning marble black wall with 1,170 names and the year in which they were killed engraved in alphabetical order in columns across its face, and images of golden angels blowing trumpets in four directions in front of the wall.
A voiceover continuously recited each name slowly and hauntingly as solemn music played in the background. Seeing and hearing those names — in most cases many members of the same family — we were overcome with both sadness and gratitude: sadness that so many wonderful people were killed for performing incredible acts of kindness, and gratitude to these heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice with the risks they took to save our people.
Then the speeches began. Dignitary after dignitary spoke of the need for Israel and Poland to not only be allies but best of friends. Polish leaders, including the prime minister, passionately expressed their appreciation that Israeli leaders made the effort to come to Torun to pay tribute to the Righteous Gentiles. And then in both their public remarks and private conversations with us, they declared their intention to stand with Israel, and to combat BDS and anti-Semitism. Israeli leaders expressed thanks to the Poles who gave up their lives while saving Jews, and acknowledged Poland’s support for Israel and the Jewish people today.
The most emotional moment of the conference occurred when two Polish Holocaust survivors told their stories: how Righteous Gentiles – including the sisters from a local convent – singlehandedly saved their lives. Seeing the Polish leadership give these now elderly Jews standing ovations sent chills through my body.
The ceremony concluded with everyone rising to their feet to hear a rabbi recite Psalms, and a priest recite a prayer. Seeing the Polish leadership standing solemnly as the 3,000-year-old words of King David echoed off the walls of the chapel is a moment I will never forget.
The conference then continued with a dinner in which leaders of both countries were able to spend time in private conversation. There was the usual small talk, but also serious conversation about the most critical issues of the day, including Iran, Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, BDS and the United Nations.
An environment of love and brotherhood had already been established because an Israeli delegation came to Torun to join in recognizing Poles who saved Jewish lives and were killed for it. This paved the way for productive discussions, allowing our delegation to share Israel’s needs over its core security issues.
The impact of what we had accomplished hit me on the way to the airport for our flight back to Israel. We stopped at a gas station where a gentleman approached me and asked: “Can I please shake your hand? I saw you on television before, and I was so touched to hear an Israeli express thanks for the Poles in the way you did. I especially appreciated your call for our countries to work together to fight against racism and discrimination.”
A mere 75 years ago, the Nazis transformed Poland into a graveyard as their primary base for slaughtering the Jewish people. There is no doubt that many Poles joined that effort. But not all. And today, with the love for Israel that exudes from the Polish leadership and citizenry, it is incumbent upon Israel to focus its attention on the Righteous Gentiles, especially those who were killed for their acts of heroism. We should teach their stories to our children, and delegations to Poland should not only visit the extermination camps but also such memorials as the one we saw in Torun.
It is time for Israel and Poland to publicly stand as one in the fight against religious extremism and intolerance, to partner together with a message that we must remember the past for its good as well as its bad, and look to the future as strong allies fighting hatred everywhere.