KRAKOW, Poland (Jul. 1)
The scene shown live on Polish television this weekend was extraordinary.
The camera panned across the 10,000 frenzied fans who crammed into the main square of Krakow’s old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, for the final concert of the annual weeklong Festival of Jewish Culture.
Suddenly, the camera zoomed in closer.
There in the middle of the cheering, dancing throng was a familiar bearded face: Israeli Ambassador Shevach Weiss, almost lost in the crush, dancing hand in hand with the other revelers.
“Shevach Weiss,” says Konstanty Gebert, publisher of the Polish Jewish monthly Midrasz, “is probably the only Israeli ambassador in the world whose main threat comes from being smothered in love.”
Weiss, 66, a Holocaust survivor born in Poland and the former speaker of the Knesset, has become a popular and even beloved figure in Poland since taking up the post of Israeli ambassador 16 months ago.
He travels widely around the country and appears frequently on television and at public events, disarming and charming the Polish public with his blunt yet informal style.
“Even when he says something that Poles disagree with, they still like him,” Andrzej Folwarczny, a former member of the Polish Parliament who now heads a center for cross-cultural dialogue in the southern town of Gliwice, tells JTA.
At the Jewish Culture Festival, for example, the launch of a book based on intensely personal interviews with him drew a standing-room-only crowd, as did a public meeting and Q-and-A session with Weiss and Poland’s ambassador to Israel.
But festival-goers — 90 percent of whom were non-Jewish — could also find Weiss almost every afternoon sitting with friends at an outdoor Kazimierz cafe, dressed in a T-shirt and puffing on his pipe.
“Shevach Weiss is just great,” says an accordion player from a village near Krakow who, dressed in traditional costume, plays Polish folk music for tourists in Krakow’s main square. “I love him. He really has a way of reaching out to people.”
“He has something called charisma,” he says. “It is very easy for him to make direct contact with his audience, and he is very honest when speaking, without prejudices or hang-ups. It’s very important that he speaks Polish, and of course his personal history, too, makes him special.”
Weiss’ personal history is dramatic and gives him a deep understanding both of Polish sentiments and of the painful complexity of Polish-Jewish concerns.
He was born in Boryslaw, a small town in eastern Poland that was 30 percent Jewish. As a child, he survived the Holocaust, hidden by local Gentiles.
“Boryslaw was typical for the region, multiethnic and multilingual,” he tells JTA. “At home, we spoke Yiddish, Polish and Ukrainian.
After the war, Weiss and his family settled in Israel. He entered the Knesset as a Labor Party member in 1981 and was speaker of the Knesset from 1992-96.
After retiring from political life in 1999, he became chairman of the international board of the Jerusalem-based Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.
Because of his experiences, and because of the often tense nature of Polish-Jewish relations, Weiss regards his job as something more than just representing the Jewish state.
“It’s a mission to be Jewish and an Israeli ambassador in Poland,” he says.
“I am a delegate of Israeli diplomacy, but also the representative of all those who died,” he said.
Because of the Holocaust, “We have lost two generations of dialogue, but in the last 10 to 12 years, there has been a process of renewing. Part of my role is day to day, more and more, to serve as a bridge between nations.”
Poland had Europe’s biggest Jewish population before World War II, and 75 percent or more of Jews in North America trace their ancestry to Poland.
The Nazis set up their main death camps in Poland, and more than 3 million Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
Under communism, Jews were oppressed. An anti-Semitic campaign in 1968 forced some 20,000 Jews to leave the country.
Weiss describes the current state of bilateral relations between Israel and Poland as very positive.
But these political relations, he says, are better than the relations between the Poles and Jews as people — and that’s what he would like to change.
His views on Poles and Poland, in fact, challenge the stereotypes held by many Jews that single out Poles as the embodiment of the anti-Semite.
“No stereotype is fair,” he says. “What about the Nazi Germans? The fascist French? The fascist Italians? The fascist Slovaks? Lithuanians? It is a surreal situation” that many Jews “are ready to go to Germany as tourists, but not Poland.”
Anti-Semitism does exist today in Poland, he says, but it is a fairly marginal phenomenon, and — unlike in other European countries — little anti-Israel bias linked to the current conflict in the Middle East has appeared.
He terms the media in Poland “the most pro-Israel and pro-Jewish in Europe today.”
“Poland is not more anti-Jewish than France or Germany,” he says. “And on many points, the Polish elites are more pro-Israel and pro-Jewish than they are in any other European state. It sounds surrealistic, but it’s a fact.”
Weiss says that it is essential to support Poland in the process of renewal and democratization begun after the fall of communism a dozen years ago.
“Polish democratic culture is one of tolerance,” he says. “It’s not just a political system but a culture.”
Weiss is obviously comfortable in Poland and among Poles, and his style and message appear to have struck a chord.
Poles are flattered, too, that Israel chose such a key political figure to be its ambassador. Weiss, indeed, likes to recount that he turned down ambassadorships in Berlin and Moscow to come to Warsaw.
“I think the shtetl is still inside him,” Janusz Makuch, the director of the Jewish Culture Festival, tells JTA.
“He loves Ashkenazic culture,” says Makuch, who is not Jewish. “He is a witness. He says nothing against the Polish people per se, and he tries to understand the Polish mentality. People feel that he is one of them.
“Sometimes I think he is actually the ambassador of Poland to Israel. I love this man, and I trust him very much.”