NEW YORK (Nov. 19)
Jewish organizational leaders emerged from an hour-long meeting with Solidarity founder Lech Walesa on Friday praising the Polish hero’s sincerity in reaching out to them, but uneasy over his denial of Polish anti-Semitism and his attitude toward the conflict over the Auschwitz convent.
Walesa was visibly torn between his desire to build a bridge of friendship between Poles and Jews and his ironclad loyalty to the Polish Catholic Church and the Polish people, according to those who attended the closed-door meeting.
While personally denouncing anti-Semitism, Walesa said he did not believe that hatred of Jews was historically part of the Polish character, and that Polish Catholic primate Cardinal Jozef Glemp is “not an anti-Semite.”
In the midst of the dispute over the Auschwitz convent, Glemp accused world Jewry of violating Poland’s sovereignty and of poisoning the international media against the nation.
Walesa said that Glemp’s statements about Jews last August were “unfortunate” but that as a loyal Catholic, he would not publicly denounce the cardinal.
Walesa also said that his religion prevented him from speaking directly on whether he believed the Auschwitz convent should be moved.
“The blood that was spilled there obligates us to find a solution that will enable persons of all faiths to go there,” Walesa said.
Asking for a “common understanding” between Poles and Jews, Walesa said that “the Holocaust was our common tragedy. We must put an end to fighting and remembering our common past, work together to transform Poland’s future.”
In response, Seymour Reich, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which convened the meeting, told Walesa that while Jews “are prepared to engage in a new beginning with Poland, we can’t forget the past, or the anti-Semitism that was rampant in Poland.”
The most emotional moments during the meeting, observers said, came when Polish Jewish survivors of the Holocaust addressed Walesa.
Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering of Holocaust survivors, asked Walesa to see to it that the remnants of Jewish life in Poland that remain, including synagogues and cemeteries, be preserved.
Such preservation was necessary, Meed said, to remind future generations of the once-flourishing Jewish community in Poland and its destruction during the Holocaust.
“I will personally guarantee that any remaining Jewish holy sites will be declared historic shrines. Jews died in the concentration camps simply because they were Jewish. This must and will be acknowledged,” Walesa said in response.
Meed and others were pleased with Walesa’s pledge.
“He has now made a concrete commitment to which he can be held. I would hope that he meant it,” said Menachem Rosensaft, founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.
Despite the points of disagreement, Walesa generally charmed the group of 70 Jewish leaders, as he has all of his audiences during his week in the United States.
Walesa told the group that he believed full diplomatic ties between Israel and Poland were “a matter of time.”
When presented with a 3,200-year-old vase by the President’s Conference, he kissed it, because, he said, “it came from Israel.”