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Poland’s Foreign Minister is Jewish, but Most People Say It’s No Big Deal

March 15, 2005
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Adam Daniel Rotfeld, who replaced Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz as Poland’s foreign minister earlier this year, was born to a large Jewish family in the eastern part of the country, near what is now the Ukrainian city of Lvov. JTA was unable to obtain an interview with Rotfeld, but in an interview he gave to Polityka, a Polish magazine, he spent the years between 1941 and 1948 hiding in a monastery, and then he lived in a children’s home in Krakow. He was one of two family members to survive the Holocaust.

After the war, Rotfeld studied international law and diplomacy in Warsaw and Krakow. He mostly ignored his Jewish background. That’s typical of people in his situation, according to Stanislaw Krajewski, a Jewish leader in Poland and the American Jewish Committee’s consultant on that country.

He is open about being Jewish, but he makes no attempt to join the Jewish community, and community leaders respect that position.

“There is nothing the organized Jewish community can reasonably do in such a case,” said Krajewski. “And if anything was done he would feel, I guess, extremely embarrassed. This certainly does say at least as much about Poland as it does about him.”

All religion was looked on unfavorably in Poland during the Communist era. Jews, in particular, faced unemployment and discrimination if they were open about practicing their religion — or even about simply being of Jewish descent. Often they faced discrimination even if they were not open about being Jewish. March 1968 saw a huge anti-Semitic purge in Poland, and thousands of survivors and their families who had stayed in Poland after World War II left. They went to Israel, Scandinavia and the United States, among other destinations.

In the Polityka article, Rotfeld said that he tried to enter the foreign service after graduation. He was one of the top three scorers on the entrance examination, but the foreign service rejected him nonetheless. Years later, he told an interviewer that he was sure he had been turned down because he was Jewish.

For nearly 30 years, starting in 1961, Rotfeld worked in the Polish Institute of International Affairs.

He was forced out for some time right after March 1968 — he had both a Jewish-sounding name and what was considered to be a Jewish look. He was denied a passport until 1973 — a situation that was particularly infuriating for him as a specialist in international affairs.

In 1989 Rotfeld became director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. He remained there until 2002, when he was named vice minister of foreign affairs.

Poland was instrumental in aiding the recent revolution in Ukraine, and Ukraine’s continuing democratization is one of Rotfeld’s primary concerns.

Rotfeld also is focused on Poland’s involvement in the Iraq conflict.

Poland has 2,500 troops stationed in Iraq. In an interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel, Rotfeld said that in Iraq, “The United States achieved a brilliant military victory. But they underestimated the fact that the country has no civil society. This has been a bitter lesson for us. We learned the hard way that democratic, sovereign states can only be formed on the basis of their own traditions.”

He pointed to the Solidarity movement, which started in a Gdansk shipyard 25 years ago, as an example of a natural process of democratization.

Rotfeld is not the first prominent Polish Jewish politician in the post-Communist era. Bronislaw Geremek, a former foreign minister, is now a member of the European Parliament. He had a Jewish upbringing but avoids talking about his Jewish roots. Krajewski noted that in a book-length interview, Geremek “was able to say two sentences about it, to the effect that it is a personal matter, of no relevance to the public.”

Since the end of the Communist era, several politicians and other notable Poles have been accused by their detractors of having Jewish roots. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who in 1989 became the country’s first post-Communist prime minister, lost a bid for the presidency the next year. His loss was attributed, in part, to a whisper campaign that accused him of being Jewish.

“In general, people are accused of Jewishness by their opponents,” Krajewski said. “Interestingly, the attacks are more fierce against those who are believed or gossiped to be Jewish but have not admitted anything, perhaps because they have nothing to ‘admit.’ President Kwasniewski belongs to this category.”

Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi, said, “My sense is that Rotfeld is talking about it not to head off the critics but simply because that is who he is. He is a very straightforward and honest person. I would agree with those who simply think that Rotfeld being Jewish is not a real issue for Poland.”

Today Poland is seen by many as one of Israel’s best friends in Europe. Krajewski said, “Poland is among the most pro-Israel countries. Paradoxically, in Poland — and I think in much of Europe — Jews are sometimes less willing to promote pro-Israeli attitudes than non-Jews, who are not afraid of the double loyalty accusations.” He added that he believes the foreign minister’s religious background should have no bearing on Polish/Israeli relations.

Rotfeld’s future is less likely to be affected by his background than by the unpopularity of his political party, the Democratic Left Alliance, or SLD. Both Poland’s president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, and its prime minister, Marek Belka, belong to the SLD, which is made up mainly of post-Communists. The government is now in the middle of a major upheaval, Kwasniewski’s second five-year term ends this year, and elections are due in a few months. The chance that Rotfeld will retain his office as a more right-wing government takes the stage is slim.

“Because of the political scene in Poland, the present government will last only a few months more, and it is improbable Rotfeld will remain,” Krajewski said.

Schudrich added, “The political tide against SLD is far more important than what your religion is.”

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