Behind the Headlines: Survivors of Polish Anti-semitism Answer Walesa Plea with Skepticism

Many Israelis were deeply moved when Lech Walesa begged them from the Knesset rostrum Monday to forgive Poland for centuries of anti-Semitism.

But a number of those who had experienced such anti-Semitism firsthand found the powerful words of the Polish unionist-turned-president hard to stomach.

For a group of old friends sitting at a Tel Aviv cafe, most of them Holocaust survivors, it was unseemly that Poland’s chief of state–”that Polish anti-Semite” — was invited to speak in the Knesset, a rare honor even for visiting dignitaries.

“It’s enough that he is being treated as a ‘mensch,’ ” said Yashek (Yitzhak) Goldberg, a tall, fragile-looking man who was born in a village near Katowice and survived three years in concentration camps, including Auschwitz.

For Goldberg, stirring his coffee in the outdoor cafe on Ben-Yehuda Street, it was enough that Walesa is Polish. “All Poles are anti-Semites until they prove they are not,” he said.

He conceded it was good that Walesa wanted to come to Israel and “fine that he should be welcomed.”

“But to let him enjoy the great honor of addressing the Knesset? Why? Like all Poles, he is an anti-Semite, and he doesn’t even try to hide it,” Goldberg exclaimed.

The others at the table tried to calm him down. “This is not something to get a heart attack over,” said one friend.

Goldberg shrugged. “To this day I don’t know what happened to my two sisters and three brothers,” he said. “They simply disappeared, like the rest of the Jews in Poland.”

Walesa was confronted directly with the Jewish wartime experience in Poland when he visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum on Tuesday. He appeared deeply moved as he gazed at the names, etched in stone, of more than 1,400 Polish Jewish communities eradicated by the Nazis.

HAVE NEVER GONE BACK

But that did not seem to matter to the circle of friends sitting at the cafe on Ben-Yehuda Street.

The Poles “are real anti-Semites,” said Bluma Levy, a blue-eyed woman who said she was “older than 60 but not yet 70.”

Levy, who only recently retired from her small grocery business on Gordon Street, is also Polish-born but the only one at the table without a blue tattoo on her arm.

“I was spared the camps, but not the anti-Semitism,” she said.

After the war, much of which she spent hidden in the attic of a local monastery, “we went back to our home in Bendin, or at least that was what we wanted to do,” she recalled.

“When we came there, our neighbor who had always been very nice to us, told us that since we had run away, our flat was now hers, and since we, the Jews, had started the war anyway, it was a small price for us to pay.”

According to Levy, that was the moment she realized a Jew could trust only another Jew. The next day the family was on its way to Paris, where Bluma joined Betar, the militant Zionist youth movement.

Neither Levy nor Goldberg, or anyone else in the group has ever been back to Poland.

“Why should I?” asked Renia Isacowitch. “I have nothing to look for there. My two Israeli sons don’t want to go either. They know it is not a place for living Jews, only for dead ones.”

“What Shamir said last year about the Poles drinking anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk is true,” said Goldberg, referring to a widely publicized remark by the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, that offended the Polish people.

The veracity of the remark is proven every few years, Goldberg maintained.

“First the pogroms in Poland, when the surviving Jews came back from the camps,” he recounted. “Then in 1956 Gomulka, who threw out most of the Jews, (followed by) the convent at Auschwitz, and now Lech Walesa, an electrician, the Polish president, who is not ashamed to visit Israel after declaring he is 100 percent Polish.”

Walesa has apologized for that remark, made when anti-Semitism was injected into the presidential election campaign in Poland.

Goldberg’s complaint against Wladyslaw Gomulka, who was installed as Communist Party boss in 1956, referred to the events of 1968, when the country was rocked by student riots.

Party conservatives opposed to change and hoping to oust him in the wake of the riots, seized on anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism. As a means of attacking Gomulka indirectly, they began a war against liberals and intellectuals, many of whom were Jews.

Gomulka turned the tables on his opponents by supporting their campaign. Zionism was denounced at factory meetings held all over Poland.

Many Jews were dismissed from their jobs, and thousands who decided to leave Poland were stripped of their citizenship and given one-way travel documents out of the country. In the end, about 20,000 Jews left the country.

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