Behind the Headlines: Reaction to Rabbi’s Appeal to Pope Highlights Generation Gap in Poland

A personal appeal made by Poland’s outgoing chief rabbi to Pope John Paul II to remove the one remaining cross standing near the site of the former Auschwitz death camp has embarrassed and angered Poland’s Jewish leaders.

Rabbi Menachem Joskowicz reignited the debate over religious symbols at the former Nazi death camp. But last Friday’s incident also spotlighted the issue of who should speak for Polish Jewry and underscored the will of Poland’s baby- boom generation of Jewish leaders to manage communal affairs on their own.

Joskowicz, an elderly Auschwitz survivor, was among the people who shook hands with the pope during the pontiff’s visit to the Polish Parliament in Warsaw as part of a 13-day trip to his native country.

Joskowicz, a distinctive figure with his long white beard and black attire, thanked the Polish government for forcibly removing last month hundreds of crosses illegally erected outside Auschwitz by radical Roman Catholics.

But he shocked Jews, Vatican officials and Polish politicians alike when he urged the pope directly “to bring his people to take the last cross out of the camp so that Jews who come here can say their final prayer before dying.”

Before the pope’s visit to his native country, the Polish government removed approximately 300 crosses that had been placed near Auschwitz in the past year by Catholic activists.

The fate of the last cross, erected a decade ago in honor of the pope himself, is the subject of delicate ongoing negotiations.

The impromptu interchange was broadcast live on nationwide television.

Poland’s Jewish leaders, long at odds with Joskowicz on a number of issues, immediately disowned the rabbi’s actions.

The Union of Jewish Communities in Poland issued a statement declaring that Joskowicz had spoken in a strictly personal capacity, not in the name of the Jewish community, and noting that Joskowicz had retired from his position as chief rabbi effective Sunday.

“I hope when he does, he leaves the country,” said Jerzy Kichler, the president of the group, an umbrella organization.

Said a member of the Warsaw Jewish community: “Polish Jews have been deeply embarrassed by the way in which the rabbi made his remarks. Unfortunately, he used broken Polish and spoke in a way that seemed to show a lack of respect for the pope.”

The statement by the union expressed appreciation for the government action in removing the illegal crosses. It noted that many Jews, like Joskowicz, found the continuing presence of the remaining “papal cross” unacceptable, but stressed that the problem had to be discussed in a way that would not be offensive to either side.

“Of course Rabbi Joskowicz can express his strongly held opinions,” Stanislaw Krajewski, a member of the union’s board, told JTA. “But not in public suggesting that he represents `the Jews.’ His appeal has made the search of satisfactory solutions concerning the problem of the cross even more difficult.”

Joskowicz’s action, and Jewish reaction to it, however, transcended simply the cross issue. They reflected the deep, generational changes in Polish Jewry since Joskowicz was brought in as chief rabbi a decade ago.

Joskowicz, a Ger Chasid and Yiddish speaker, survived Auschwitz and left Poland for Israel after the war. Even after his appointment as Poland’s chief rabbi, he has continued to spend much of his time in Jerusalem.

For much of his tenure, Joskowicz remained largely divorced from the revival of communal life among younger Jews, allying himself with the remnant of elderly Holocaust survivors like himself who personally recall the grandeur of Poland’s prewar Jewish life.

His Orthodoxy put him in conflict with the younger, more liberal Jewish leadership, and he demonstrated little sympathy for assimilated young Poles, many of them the products of mixed marriages, who sought to recover their Jewish roots.

Throughout the 1990s until he left his post last year, charismatic American Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the director of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation programs in Poland, served as the main spiritual point of reference for these younger Jews.

In April, Warsaw Jewish community leaders announced that they had hired a Russian-born, 25-year-old modern Orthodox rabbi, Baruch Rabinowitz, to become rabbi of Warsaw, in a move aimed at further buttressing the revival of communal life.

Rabinowitz told reporters that reactions to Joskowicz’s appeal did not hinge on whether one agreed or disagreed with his sentiments, but were a “question of living with the Polish people and our relationships with the Catholic Church.”

The Holocaust was a dominant theme of the pope’s visit to Warsaw. Also on Friday, the pontiff, visibly moved, prayed at the monument at Umschlagplatz, the spot where 300,000 Jews were shipped to Treblinka from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 and 1943.

“Lord, hear our prayer for the Jewish nation, which because its ancestry is very dear to you,” he said; after praying in silence for at least five minutes. “Support it so that it receives respect and love from those who still do not understand the magnitude of its suffering.”

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