Ten Years After the Wall: Europeans Embrace Jewish Revival As Symbol of Post- Communist Future

For European leaders, the recent inauguration of three Jewish schools in Central Europe symbolizes far more than a Jewish revival.

They also reflect hopes for a return to normalcy in the heart of Europe more than half a century after the Holocaust — and 10 years after the fall of communism.

After all, says Jerzy Kichler, president of the Union of Polish Religious Jewish Communities, “Poland, where political sympathy for Jewish causes is by now a normal element of Polish policy, is preparing itself for entry into the European Union.”

In this context, the schools — and their message of Jewish renewal in Germany, Austria and Poland, the countries where the Holocaust raged most fiercely – - are feathers in the caps of local governments. They exemplify the ideals of a pluralistic, democratic order, not to mention a brighter future.

“For me Jewish life, culture and identity are closely and inseparably linked with the new Europe in the coming new century,” Austrian Chancellor Viktor Klima said Oct. 11 at the dedication of the new campus of the Lauder-Chabad school in Vienna.

“Anyone who knows the history of this century knows how important we feel this revival of Jewish life to be,” said Klima.

Klima was just one of the prime ministers, Cabinet ministers, members of Parliament, mayors and other VIPs who attended the dedications in Berlin, Vienna and Warsaw.

Not only that, the presidents of Austria and Poland presented Ronald Lauder, whose foundation funds the schools and many other activities aimed at promoting Jewish life in the region, with high state awards honoring his work in strengthening Jewish life and in fostering local relations with Jews.

The homage paid to the new Lauder schools is just the latest in a long series of pro-Jewish actions, gestures and policy on the part of state and local authorities in many countries, part of the volatile mixture of politics, memory and history that are at play in this region.

In the wake of the Holocaust and, over the past decade in the wake of communism, official attitudes toward Jews and Jewish issues have frequently been used as way of gauging the status of democracy, tolerance and civil rights in the region.

Governments, private organizations and even individuals have supported Jewish causes and commemorated victims of the Holocaust in a wide variety of ways, ranging from staging memorial ceremonies, erecting monuments, rebuilding synagogues and Jewish centers, sponsoring Jewish cultural endeavors and opening Jewish museums.

Starting in the early 1950s, official West German policy consciously attempted to make amends to the Jewish people, an ongoing process known as “coming to terms with the past.”

“Deeply flawed though the entire process may have been,” it “represents a sustained effort to prove that Germany has changed and that its efforts to establish democracy and the rule of law are genuine,” wrote Rodney Livingstone in the journal Patterns of Prejudice.

In Austria, such self-examination and confrontation with the past began much later.

Austria was annexed to Hitler’s Third Reich in 1938, and many Austrians were fervent Nazi supporters. The country’s Jews were persecuted, and tens of thousands were deported and killed.

After the war, though, Austria was declared to have been the “first victim” of the Nazis, and — unlike Germany — it did not openly begin to confront its role in the Holocaust until the late 1980s, when Kurt Waldheim was elected president despite evidence he had covered up his Nazi past.

Since then, Austria’s leaders have formally owned up to the country’s history on a number of occasions, but the issue remains highly sensitive.

In former Eastern Bloc countries, “filling in the blanks” that communism had created in historical memory has been a central motif over the past decade. These include gaping “blanks” about Jewish history and the Holocaust.

Under communism Jewish life was stifled, anti-Semitism was often state policy and study or discussion of Jewish topics was taboo. Most Communist states broke relations with Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967.

The new post-Communist governments quickly moved to re-establish diplomatic relations with Israel, encourage Jewish study and open discussion of the Holocaust, including an examination of local involvement.

In all these countries, much of this activity has represented a sincere attempt to make amends and come to terms with the past. But there have also – - inevitably — been many examples of lip service, cynicism and exploitative image-polishing.

Even before the fall of communism, some Eastern Bloc regimes in the 1980s openly coopted or demonstrated support for Jewish causes in order to win support from the West — or from what they believed was a powerful Jewish lobby in the West.

The lofty ideals of officialdom also have not trickled fully down to the mass public, where xenophobia is on the rise in some countries. Gypsies in particular are targets of discrimination, and grass-roots anti-Semitism occasionally surfaces.

At the Lauder-Chabad school dedication in Vienna, for example, Klima spoke just a week after electoral gains by the far-right, anti-foreigner Freedom Party triggered international concern and threatened to sour relations between Austria and Israel.

Shortly before the dedication of the Lauder teacher training center in eastern Berlin, the city’s biggest Jewish cemetery was seriously desecrated.

In the Czech Republic, President Vaclav Havel sponsored a conference on the Czech role in the Holocaust, held in early October at the former ghetto town of Theresienstadt.

But at just about the same time, in the nearby town of Usti nad Labem, townspeople brought back chilling images of the ghetto by building a fence to separate a housing block where Gypsies live from the rest of the street.

Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, attending the dedication of a new campus for the Lauder-Morasha school in Warsaw, quoted a passage from the Talmud about the world being “sustained by children,” and called the new campus “magnificent proof” of Poland’s Jewish revival “after the Shoah.”

Poland’s post-Communist government has taken many steps to demonstrate a commitment to bettering Polish-Jewish relations as part of its evolution into a modern democracy.

Among these was the appointment of an “ambassador to the Jewish Diaspora” in 1995.

“Our authorities are very much conscious that if Poland wants really to become a full member of the family of democracies, it must not just transform its political system and economy, but also the less-well-developed sphere of minority rights, human rights, etcetera,” Krzysztof Sliwinski, who served as this ambassador until early this year, told JTA during his tenure.

“Not just Polish-Diaspora relations, but Polish-Jewish relations as a whole are important in that respect,” he said.

Numerous examples of such political goodwill take place, but they coexist schizophrenically with widespread lingering prejudice.

A year ago, Buzek and other senior state and Roman Catholic church officials took part in the dedication of a monument to commemorate the Kristallnacht pogrom in Wroclaw. But at the same time, anti-Semitic militant Catholics defied church and government orders to remove a forest of crosses they had erected at Auschwitz.

Another example, less dramatic but more typical, came in September, when the city government of Plonsk, a town north of Warsaw, sponsored an international essay competition honoring the memory of David Ben-Gurion. Israel’s first prime minister was born there in 1886, when Jews formed the majority of the population. No Jews live in Plonsk today.

The logo for the competition symbolized the long history of Jews in Poland — a menorah with branches shaped like, and enclosed by, the outline of Poland, with one flame burning at its top.

Prizes were awarded as part of weeklong events highlighting local Jewish culture, history and traditions.

“The event was yet another proof of the fact that the commitment of the Polish elites to Polish-Jewish rapprochement is very real and not a passing fad,” Konstanty Gebert, editor of the Polish Jewish monthly Midrasz, told JTA.

Nonetheless, he noted that there were several xenophobic slogans scrawled on town walls, and comments overheard on the street and in shops after the awards ceremony questioned the necessity of recalling Plonsk’s Jewish history.

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