Polish President Honored for Leadership in Combating Anti-Semitism
Posted: September 19, 2005
Remarks by Abraham H. Foxman National Director of the Anti-Defamation League
Presentation of the Distinguished Statesman Award to His Excellency Aleksander Kwasniewski, President of Poland
September 16, 2005
I am deeply honored and profoundly touched today to pay tribute with the Distinguished Statesman Award to the president of the country where I was born, in Baranowicz in 1940, on the threshold of hell.Poland was the home of the largest Jewish community in all of Europe – 3.5 million souls. While Jews had lived in the area from antiquity, the immigration of Jews in large numbers began in the 12th century, encouraged by regional princes who offered protection and help. Later Polish sovereigns conferred charters of privileges and protection, guaranteeing life and property and the inviolability of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. In the celebrated charter, the Statute of Kalisz – the only one of its kind in the history of Christendom – King Boleslav the Pious even stated that if a Christian witnessed an attack on a Jew, it was his duty to come to the Jew's aid, and sternly warned Christians not to bring the ritual murder accusation against any Jew because such a charge was without foundation. No wonder the community grew and flourished in this brief golden age until the epidemic of religious hatred and violence exploding in other countries spilled into Poland, and the life of its Jews was caught and crushed into the intolerable state that left unhealing wounds then and for all the succeeding generations, including my own. Today, Poland's Jews are a tiny remnant, estimated at 20,000 or less.
My first trip back to Poland is indelibly etched on my heart. It was March 1977, an ADL staff mission. I remember visiting the Jewish historical institute in Warsaw at at night, being given ragged pieces of ghetto money and seeing the actual milk cans in which the historian Emanuel Ringelblum smuggled out the unforgettable story of the Warsaw ghetto. I remember going to the enormous Jewish cemetery at to try finding the graves of my family, and seeing the graves of ghetto fighters who died at Mila 18. I remember going into the circle of synagogues in Kracow and pulling out water-soaked books, at the request of the president of Kracow's Jewish community, to bring home and save from ruin. I remember walking through the gates of Auschwitz and choking standing in the gas chamber. I remember spending an evening at the home of the Shammes, the sexton of the great Warsaw synagogue, singing at his request in Hebrew and Yiddish, dancing until the wee hours, celebrating life even as we had looked into the face of death.
And 28 years later, being part of the March of the Living 60 years after the end of the Holocaust – having the very special honor of speaking to more than 10,000 people in the great square in Kracow to remember and to cry, to commemorate the most diabolical, deliberate tragedy in history, to meet the challenge of the six million voices that were silenced, to make sure our voices are never, ever silenced.
We are so grateful to President Kwasniewski for his inspired leadership in having his Education Ministry present a free children's book on the history of Poland's once-thriving 3.5 million-strong Jewish community to the generations of Poles who today live in a world without them.
We are so grateful to President Kwasneiwski for his dramatic, courageous and inspired words of apology at a ceremony marking the massacre of 1,600 Jews at Jedwabne on July 10, 1941…words that truly mark a milestone in Poland's relations with Jews and a move toward the tragic truth of what happened in Poland during World War II. President Kwasniewski affirmed that it was not Nazi soldiers – the story in Poland's popular mythology – but ordinary Poles who beat, stabbed and burned their Jewish fellow villagers alive in a barn.He said, "This was a particularly cruel crime. It was justified by nothing. The victims were helpless and defenseless. For this crime, we should beg the souls of the dead and their families for forgiveness. Today, as a man, citizen and President of the PolishRepublic, I ask pardon in my own name and in the name of those Poles whose conscience is shattered by that crime." It takes great courage, it takes overcoming great pain, it takes exposing raw nerves, to confront the ugly reality of history; to admit and to atone for it.
We are so grateful that, under President Kwasniewski's leadership, Polish authorities have begun an investigation into the Jedwabne atrocity as one of many admittedly uncomfortable acts of discovery and contrition, and for his undoubtedly inspiring leaders of the Polish Roman Catholic Church to express sorrow and issue an apology, "for all the evil done by Catholics during World War II."Justice is never too late.
We are so grateful to President Kwasniewski for his strong, unequivocal denunciation of anti-Semitism…for making it detestable and unacceptable in Polish society…for leading the way for many of his countrymen to be involved in efforts to eradicate the hostility to Jews for which Poland was infamous and which led to half the Holocaust occurring in Nazi death camps on what the Nazis considered fertile Polish soil. Auschwitz. Belzec. Majdanek. Treblinka.
In his ten years as President of the PolishRepublic, Aleksander Kwasniewski has fought against all manifestations of anti-Semitism and has stressed the vital issues of education and the media as tools in the struggle against it. Closing the centuries-old Polish-Jewish divide will not come overnight, but thanks to the determined leadership of President Kwasniewski and those who follow his march toward tolerance and justice, anti-Jewish bigotry is waning. It is not gone. I know President Kwasniewski is as sadly aware, as we are, that anti-Semitic feelings still poison some sectors of the Polish population and have sometimes resulted in acts of vandalism, physical and verbal abuse. I am confident he will continue to be vigilant and continue to issue effective, ringing denunciations of such attitudes and behavior.
We are so grateful to President Kwasniewski for his sensitive and dignified presiding at the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in January; for his warm, welcoming hosting of the March of the Living; for his government holding a major international conference to unveil its proposal to open an International Center for Human Rights Education in Oswiecim; for giving a major boost to the establishment of a Museum of the History of Polish Jews by funding a substantial percentage of its cost; for vetoing a shameful piece of legislation that would have provided for the restoration of private property to Polish citizens only, clearly discriminating against Jewish claimants, most of whom do not live in Poland and are not Polish citizens.
We are so grateful to President Kwasniewski for his magnificent efforts creating and strengthening closeness in bilateral relations between Poland and Israel, and for his visit to Israel for the dedication of the new Yad Vashem.In a warm response to Prime Minister Sharon, President Kwasniewski said, "It is a great honor for me to be here in Israel, especially on the occasion of the ceremony at Yad Vashem. I see it as a continuation of the ceremonies held a few weeks ago including those at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I think that it is our obligation to coming generations and to the peoples of the world to teach what we know about the Holocaust and tell the whole world: Never Again."
We are so grateful that Israel has a real friend and advocate now that Poland is a member of the European Union...its 6th largest. We look forward to Poland playing a balancing role in the EU and other international organizations, as is appropriate for the country with the largest Israeli investment in all of Europe, and in a manner consistent with its own primary political and economic needs. Much of Europe, as Polish Foreign Minister Rotfeld has pointed out, fails to show proper understanding and appreciation for the security threat Israel faces.
President Aleksander Kwasniewski has been a leader in his own country since his student days some 30 years ago, holding key positions in a succession of governments and taking active leadership roles more and more internationally. He has skillfully cultivated closer ties to the United States. A deputy secretary of state said last year that Poland is "a partner, a friend and an ally in all things." Thus it is no surprise that President Aleksander Kwasniewski is being mentioned increasingly in the international corridors of power as a potential secretary-general of the United Nations to succeed Kofi Annan next year. Mr. President, you would certainly enjoy our most enthusiastic support.
Mr. President, on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League, I am honored to present our Distinguished Statesman Award to you for furthering the goals of democracy and international harmony, for speaking out so eloquently against the evil of anti-Semitism, for confronting your country's troubled past with courage and candor, for preserving the memory and the lessons of the Holocaust, and for your steadfast friendship to Israel and the Jewish community that illuminates our world.
You join an exceptional group of world leaders who have received this prestigious and special award, including Presidents Jacques Chirac of France, Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, Carlos Saul Menem of Argentina, Guntis Ulmanis of Latvia, Francisco Flores of El Salvador and Carlos Salinas de Gortari of Mexico, Prime Ministers Constantine Mitsotakis of Greece and Mesut Yilmaz of Turkey, Foreign Ministers Johan Jorge Holst of Norway, Hans-Dietrich Genscher of Germany and Giulio Andreotti of Italy. You and they have contributed to significant international events furthering the cause of friendship and peace in our world. We salute you for standing with and standing up for the Jewish people and the Jewish state which holds such a treasured place in our hearts.
Mr. President, the menorah in Jewish tradition represents the triumph of good over evil, of light over darkness. It is with a deep sense of pride that I present this magnificent menorah designed by the great Israeli artist Yaacov Agam…this symbol of the Jewish people…this symbol of light and freedom…to you. May it always remind you of the respect and esteem in which we hold you, and your country.
Remarks by His Excellency Aleksander Kwasniewski,
President of the Republic of Poland
On Receiving the Anti-Defamation League’s Distinguished Statesman Award
September 16, 2005
I wish to thank very cordially all of you gathered here for coming to this meeting.It is indeed a great pleasure for me to have the opportunity to address representatives of an organization that has made such a great contribution to the fight against xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism.It also accords me with an opportune occasion to share with you some thoughts regarding the future of Polish-Jewish relations.
Poland feels it has been entrusted with a special responsibility for protecting and defending the historical truth about World War II, about Nazi crimes and the Holocaust.It was, after all, my homeland, and compatriots and the Jewish community then living within the borders of our country that were the first to fall victim to Nazi aggression.And that is why all attempts to apply relative moral standards to Nazi crimes, to forge history, to invert the roles of the perpetrator and victim arouse strong indignation of the Polish public opinion.We Poles want to hand down to the younger generation an undistorted and incontestable representation of the past.
Over the past 15 years we have done much to cultivate that historical knowledge.Also to reveal dark chapters in our history that remained shrouded in silence till now.This was the case of Jedwabne massacre.In the emotion laden public debate then raging, Poles had to learn to see themselves cast in a role other than that of a victim.The great achievement of recent years is the ever more earnest, ever more vibrant Polish-Jewish dialogue.And that comes as no surprise bearing in mind that the interaction is not between two kindred nations that for great many centuries shared the same land, knew and respected each other.This coexistence was dealt a death blow when Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany.The recent celebrations commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau were an occasion for me to recall the immeasurable and irreparable losses incurred by Polish culture, Polish science and Polish society at large in consequence of the calamity of the Shoah.We also evoked the memory of that past during the ceremony inaugurating the new Yad Vashem extension in Jerusalem this year.
As the time passes we come to see ever more clearly that our shared responsibility extends beyond that of keeping alive the remembrance of tragic chapters in the history of Polish Jewry.That the rich cultural, religious and social legacy of the centuries-long presence of the Jewish community on the Polish soil also deserves to be cultivated with equal care and commitment.The Museum of the History of Polish Jewry to be built in Warsaw will serve that very purpose.We witness with pleasure a true eruption of interest, in the nature of almost a fashion, in Jewish culture.Festivals, presentations, exhibitions and concerts abound in ever-growing numbers.I do hope ever more of my fellow citizens shall come to regard the knowledge of the history of Polish Jewry as an integral part of the knowledge of their own past.
Taking action with the aim of arresting historical amnesia and dispelling ignorance is a precondition for combating the twin scourges anti-Semitism and xenophobia that sprout to life again in many places around the globe.
But we shall not win the battle with just museums and publications in our armory.The politicians of all countries bear responsibility that stretches far wider.Mindful of the lessons of World War II, of the shortcomings of appeasement policy, we mustn’t ever forget that all democratic politicians have a moral obligation to counter without undue delay all present day manifestations or racism and anti-Semitism.This we should see done in Europe, this we should see done in the United States and in all continents.No reasons, no pragmatic calculations, should ever be invoked to justify condoning anti-Semitic or racist slogans and acts.
And such is also the position my country affirms at international fora.Whenever there emerges an ideology of disregard and contempt for man, of disdain for life, one inciting to bloodshed, all countries are under a moral obligation to oppose it by determined and concerted efforts.That is why we resolved there is no room for indecision and hesitation in the fight against terrorism. The battle can be won only if the whole community of free countries combines forces in a determined effort.
I believe that evil in political life can and perhaps should be called by name.There is simply no room for anti-Semitism in a democratic and law abiding state.Politicians, crossing swords over the merits of disparate agendas and social problem solutions should on this one issue adopt a common and determined stand over and above political divisions.It is especially important to call attention to this obligation at a time when – as a result of economic difficulties many countries face in the environment of growing global competition – populist and extremist parties gain in popular appeal.
Especially vulnerable to the ill influence of populism are young, inexperienced people.We, the people of today, are not responsible for the past handed down to us – and we find in that past grandeur and pettiness, heroism and wickedness, glory and disgrace – but we are responsible, we living today, for the way we relate the past, for what we say about the past to each other, for what we tell our children, for what we read about history in books and newspapers, for what we watch on television, for what we put in school textbooks, and through these – into the minds of next generations.And they are the ones to whom we should address, ahead of all others, our initiatives and programs against racism and anti-Semitism.Hence the great value of such educational initiatives as International Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, a project currently chaired by Poland.Remembrance, education and research are indeed a remedy for the ignorance of the past and help combat racism and ethnic hate, namely the social ills that befall all contemporary societies.
And it is here that I see great scope for developing Polish-Jewish relations.I believe we should transpose the excellent relations between politicians, organizations, scientists and artists onto the level of the youth.It is my wish to bring about a situation whereby the Jewish youth visiting Poland would use the opportunity to gain deep knowledge of the history and achievements of their forefathers on the Polish soil. A situation whereby an ever more important part of their journey would be allotted to conversation and exchange of experience with young Poles.I have no doubt that getting to know each other, making friends is the best possible way to uproot warped stereotypes.
Taking stock of the progress we have achieved thus far, I am very optimistic about the future of Polish-Jewish relations.I am very glad that conducting the dialogue between our nations we can always be assured of the support of such organizations as the Anti-Defamation League.As the President of the Republic of Poland whose ten years in office is coming to a close, I can say that today racist and prejudiced views in Polish public life meet with a growing resistance and condemnation.For me, also personally, this is a true cause for great satisfaction.