In an exclusive interview with World Israel News, Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich discusses the controversial Polish Holocaust law and the future of the Jewish community in Poland.
By Steve Leibowitz, World Israel News
Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich has had a tough several weeks. The spiritual leader of a Jewish community literally ‘growing from the ashes’ was thrust into the middle of a major and nasty diplomatic battle between the governments of Israel and Poland. The new Polish ‘Holocaust Law’ made it illegal to publicly attribute the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish nation, also forbidding use of the term “Polish death camp” to describe the death camps where Jews and others were murdered in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II.
Jewish and Israeli leaders as well as historians and Holocaust survivors have railed against the Polish law, insisting that many thousands of Poles murdered Jews during the Holocaust, without being forced to do so by the Nazi occupiers. They did so because of self-interest and deep-seated anti-Semitism.
The rabbi is now working toward an understanding that would preserve Polish national pride while being historically accurate to the memory of the victims of both Nazi genocide and murderous Polish anti-Semites.
Rabbi Schudrich, 62, was born in Long Island, New York. His grandparents moved to the US from Poland before the start of World War II. He became Chief Rabbi of Poland in 2004 and has been widely credited with having played a major role in the “Jewish Renaissance” in that country.
WIN: IS THERE A FEELING OF GROWING ANTI SEMITISM IN POLAND AS A RESULT OF THE DIPLOMATIC CRISIS?
RABBI SCHUDRICH: There is no growing anti-Semitism in the sense of Jews being attacked on the streets of Poland. There is a marked increase in anti-Jewish hate speech on internet blogs and on Facebook. Polish Jewry faced almost no anti-Semitism over the past 30 years, so this outbreak is troubling. What is also troubling is that there has not been a strong response from the Polish leadership. The community has received a few dozen nasty emails, which is really not so much. Interestingly, I’ve only received positive emails – the type where people say, “We’re with you.”
WIN: IS THERE A DIPLOMATIC SOLUTION TO BE FOUND?
RABBI SCHUDRICH: Both sides, Israeli and Polish, have been looking for a solution without losing face at home. I think this is especially true on the Polish side. They must understand, however, that a solution must be found that is honest and historically accurate as well as politically acceptable. I do believe that there is a way. The media has been unhelpful in this. There have been several inaccurate headlines that do not accurately represent the situation. Several have prompted an unhelpful response from the other side, and that further escalated differences. For example, there were reports that the law was frozen. Well, a law cannot legally be frozen, and the Poles never said that it was. I hope the media will work harder because the mistakes are costly.
WIN: WHAT WOULD YOU SUGGEST AS A WAY TO LOWERING TENSIONS?
RABBI SCHUDRICH: A key to an understanding is that each side tries feeling the pain of the other. At the same time, all must resist and reject revisionist efforts to change Holocaust history. It is painful for the Poles to be blamed for things they did not do. We must be careful not to overemphasize the Polish role in the murder of Jews. Some Israeli politicians have clearly exaggerated the Polish people’s role, and that is damaging. (The Rabbi declined to name the Israeli politicians he was referring to, but to this writer it seemed apparent that he was referring to comments made by Knesset member and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.)
WIN: WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF THE POLISH JEWISH COMMUNITY?
RABBI SCHUDRICH: Polish Jewry consisted of three and a half million people before the war and only 350,000 survived. Many Jewish survivors left during post-war Communist Poland. Many who remained gave up their public practice of Judaism and blended into the general population while remaining ‘secret’ Jews. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, many have revealed their Jewish roots. The community in Poland now numbers 30,000-40,000. The future of the community is quite tenuous, and an accommodation between Israel and Poland would certainly be a helpful development. People today are quite mobile, and an increasing number would consider leaving Poland. The community grew over the past years because Jews felt so comfortable here.
WIN: SHOULD THE MARCH OF THE LIVING BE CANCELLED TO PUNISH POLAND?
RABBI SCHUDRICH: I am opposed to cancelling the March of the Living. If it was cancelled, it would send a very negative message and the Jewish community would feel abandoned. Remember that half of the country opposes the new law. Those people are speaking out, and they need strengthening and reinforcement. A boycott would have the opposite effect. By staying away from Poland, Jews around the world would inadvertently be ostracizing the local Jewish community. What we should be doing is looking for new ways to connect with the local Jewish community.
WIN: WHAT HAS BEEN THE ROLE OF POLISH PRESIDENT ANDRZEJ DUDA IN THIS REGARD?
RABBI SCHUDRICH: He has been very much involved, especially in seeking a solution. He recently visited the Jewish Community Center, where he had a private conversation with 15 community leaders. His message is, “There is a place here for Jews and we want you to stay.” He expressed concerns about what happened. We told him our concerns, and he listened to our comments. He seemed to be sincere in seeking solutions to what the government can do to make the Jewish citizens feel more comfortable. He also declared that anti-Semitism will not be tolerated. At least Polish leaders are listening, and that gives me hope.