PRAGUE, Aug. 8 (JTA) — Even a decade ago, almost no one could have predicted that Poland, of all places, would serve as a refuge for Israeli children. But a country that some Jews still think of as ground zero for European anti-Semitism is among the first in Central and Eastern Europe to sponsor a free getaway for young Israelis who were spending most of their time this summer in bomb shelters as Hezbollah sends rocket salvoes into the Jewish state. Jerzy Kropiwnicki, mayor of Lodz — once home to the second-largest Jewish population in Europe — decided his city would pay for 15 teens from the northern Israeli city of Nahariya to escape to Lodz. Starting Sunday, the young Israelis embarked on an 18-day vacation in Poland, to include sightseeing, educational programs and Jewish community visits. “We want them at least to forget for a little while about what is happening in Israel,” said Jarek Nowak, a member of the Lodz City Council who played a key role in organizing the trip. In an afterthought that belies the city government’s well-known affinity for Israel, Nowak added, “This is the least we can do. If we can’t solve the situation they are in, at least we can give them a little rest to comfort them.” He said the Israelis, ages 12-16, were from poor and single-parent, mostly Sephardi families. Their home city, which chose the children to participate in the visit, has been hit particularly hard by Hezbollah rockets. Israel’s ambassador to Poland, David Peleg, who met the children when they arrived at Warsaw airport, said he wasn’t surprised by the Lodz mayor’s initiative. “He has been involved in Jewish issues for some time, including the annual commemoration of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto,” Peleg said. “Our embassy is providing logistical help for the young peoples’ trip, but the credit goes to the city,” he said. “The mayor’s gesture warmed our hearts.” In a phone interview, Nowak said the teens so far were infatuated with Poland and the reception they have received. “They’re so excited. For all of them, it’s their first trip on an airplane, their first trip outside the country,” he said. The program includes horseback riding, kayaking, painting classes and photo classes; tours of Warsaw, the Warsaw Ghetto monument and Lublin; visits to the Jewish communities of Wroclaw and Lodz; and Shabbat dinners. “We will offer them some Holocaust education as well, but not until the end of the trip when perhaps they can focus more,” Nowak said. One of the group’s two Israeli guides, Dima, said they were having the time of their lives, though they were constantly worried abut friends and family back home. “They can’t believe how green Poland is,” he said. “But what I think they like most are the shops.” Symcha Keller, cantor of Lodz and chairman of its 300-member Jewish community, said the teens were dining at the community headquarters and that he was honored to help organize the itinerary. “For the first time, the mayor of a city in Poland, in this case of Lodz, is helping people from Israel,” he said. “It’s very beautiful that we Poles can give something to Israel.” Lodz is paying for the children’s daily kosher meals. Accommodation at hotels, arranged by the Lodz Jewish community, has been provided free of charge. LOT Airlines paid for most of their flights, while the Polish president’s office took care of the remaining amount. “Once the Polish media started to cover the visit we started getting calls from hotels, restaurants, businesspeople, asking how they could help,” Nowak said. The publicity also resulted in the mayors of Wroclaw and Lublin contacting Peleg and suggesting that they too would like to host Israeli children desperate to escape Hezbollah’s wrath. Nowak likes to think of his city’s reaching out to the Israeli teens as yet another step in its effort to honor the city’s Jewish heritage. On the eve of World War II, Jews made up 34 percent of Lodz’s population. “When the mayor, a Catholic nationalist, was elected four years ago, the city was known as the most anti-Semitic in Poland. It was covered in anti-Semitic graffiti, which was really about a rivalry between two soccer teams, and the people had some very negative attitudes towards Jews,” he recalls. Everyone in Jewish circles agrees that Kropiwnicki has changed Lodz’s image. In 2004, he organized a yearlong, 60th anniversary commemoration of the Lodz Ghetto’s liquidation with hundreds of events. The final ceremony included the participation of 10,000 locals. “Kropiwnicki wants what happened to the Jews to be taught in schools, and believes that as witnesses of the Holocaust we all have an obligation to the victims,” Nowak said. Last year, the city erected a monument on the spot where nearly all of Lodz’s 223,000 Jews were deported to their deaths by the Nazis. But now, much of Lodz and Poland, where sentiments are pro-Israeli, is occupied with young Israelis who are very much alive, Nowak said. Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi, said he was impressed with Lodz’s example. “It’s an important sign from the country of Poland, taking in these kids,” he said. “Sitting in a bomb shelter is no way to spend your summer vacation.” Schudrich hopes the efforts of the Lodz municipal government might change some people’s ideas about Poland. “There are lots of things that shouldn’t happen in this country and we hear about them,” he said. “We should also take notice of the good.”
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Dinah Spritzer is JTA's correspondent in Prague. She has been covering the former Eastern European bloc since 1990 and currently serves as the news editor of The Prague Post. The former Europe editor for Travel Weekly, she also contributes to several other publications, including The Independent on Sunday, Conde Nast Traveler and several guidebooks on the Czech Republic.