Diaspora Envoy: Poland Holds Special Place in Jewish Memory

One year ago, in an attempt to improve often-troubled relations between Poland and the world’s Jewish community, the Polish government named Krzysztof Sliwinski to the unprecedented post of roving ambassador to the Jewish Diaspora.

The initiative came largely from Poland’s then-Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, himself an Auschwitz survivor who has been honored by Israel as a Righteous Among the Nations.

Sliwinski’s appointment, announced in August 1995, came in the wake of continuing crises in Polish-Jewish relations. These included the controversial commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, accusations that then-President Lech Walesa condoned anti-Semitism and concern among Jewish organizations about delays in the restitution of property confiscated during the Holocaust.

Sliwinski’s first year in his post has been marked by further crises, including an ongoing controversy about construction of a shopping mall at Auschwitz and accusations by right-wing Poles that Poland’s new president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, is too accommodating to Jews.

In an interview, Sliwinski characterized the past year as a learning experience, but said his role and the scope of his job were not fully clear. “I still have to build this office, to give it meaning, a more precise goal,” he said, “because it is coming from no anterior experience. There is no parallel institution in the world. It is still a period of formation.”

He added that he hopes to create a “better atmosphere.”

Sliwinski said he spent much of the past year traveling, meeting people, networking and getting a feel for what he had to do. “I have discovered a good list of important Jewish leaders who I’m sure have a genuine commitment to improve relations, to build bridges. Serious people, who include important personalities and leaders as well as non-public figures.”

“An enormous contribution is made by Israeli officials,” he said. “Wherever I am, dealing with the Diaspora, I have the support of the Israeli ambassador. Israeli-Polish relations are developing well, and this is extremely important. The Israeli ambassador in Warsaw is of enormous help.”

Sliwinski said he had been “warmly and well-received” by Jewish groups and also had received important support from organizations of Polish Jews within Poland and in the Diaspora.

Given his ambassadorial role, Sliwinski said, his leading duty is “to meet with people and discuss problems that arise, and to communicate” to Warsaw the “Jewish point of view.”

In Warsaw, he has access to the highest levels of government. He added that he also maintain contacts with local officials, the Roman Catholic Church, the local Polish Jewish community and the Polish media.

“My problem is that I get [many] proposals from [foreign] non-government organizations about fighting anti-Semitism, xenophobia,” he said. “But here in Poland, non-governmental organizations are few and weak. It is hard to find partners to undertake these initiatives.”

Sliwinski, 56, was active in dissident movements during the Communist era. He also worked in journalism and served as Polish ambassador to Morocco from 1990 to 1994.

His interest in Jewish affairs dates back to the late 1960s and early 1970s when, as a member of the liberal Catholic Intellectuals Club, he helped organize activities such as restoration work at Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery as well as annual Jewish culture weeks.

Sliwinski sees a commitment to bettering Polish-Jewish relations as part of Poland’s evolution into a true modern democracy.

Poland’s leaders are aware that if their country really wants “to become a full member of the family of democracies,” it has to “transform its political system and economy” in addition to the “sphere of minority rights,” which is not as developed, he said.

He added that Polish-Diaspora relations and Polish-Jewish relations as a whole are important in that respect.

“With so many Jews having direct roots to Poland and at least a moral right to say a word about the Jewish cultural heritage [here], it is a very special thing,” he said.

“It is symbolic that present-day Poland recognizes its bonds with a good part of the Jews in the world, though that is not to say that I am only concerned with Jews with Polish roots.

“Thanks to the Holocaust and history, Poland occupies a special place in Jewish memory regardless of roots.”

He noted that the Polish government’s attempt to incorporate itself in the broader world community, a thrust that includes its current effort to become a part of NATO, has presented a special challenge to the Polish people. He said, “It is a very important exercise to respect memories. It is very important for the future.”

“Poles were used to living in a homogeneous society,” he said. “They now have to learn to live in a pluralistic world.” Sliwinski also said he viewed some of the recent controversial events as clouding Polish-Jewish relations in that light.

In April, for instance, skinheads demonstrated at Auschwitz. “It was seen in the skinhead demonstration that Auschwitz, as it is painful, is being [manipulated] for other political, ideological goals on the part of people who are against Poland in a pluralistic world,” he said. “They are afraid of Europe, of the West, of capitalism.”

He said, “Sometimes anti-Semitism is used by these people to draw more attention. If you have a demonstration at Auschwitz, it gets worldwide publicity. If 80 skinheads demonstrate in an ordinary public square, no one pays attention.”

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