‘This is a special moment… full of honor, so full of hope,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, as he presented the ADL’s Distinguished Statesman Award — a menorah designed by Israeli artist Yaacov Agam — to Aleksander Kwasniewski, president of Poland. An emotional Foxman added: “To be a child of Poland, born in Baranowicz in 1940, saved from hell by a Polish Catholic woman who risked her life to save me, to honor the president of Poland!” Among the attendees at this special September 16 luncheon at ADL headquarters were ADL national chair Barbara Balser, Poland’s ambassador to the United Nations Andrzej Towpik, Polish foreign minister Adam Daniel Rotfeld, New York’s outgoing Polish consul general Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska and her successor, Krzysztof W. Kasprzyk, Rabbi Haskel Besser (subject of the recently published book “The Rabbi of 84th Street”), the Lubavitch-appointed chief rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar, Jewish National Fund president Ronald Lauder, Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein and Michael Miller, the executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
In a thumbnail overview of Polish-Jewish history, Foxman cited 12th-century charters of privilege issued to Jews “that guaranteed life and property and the inviolability of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries…. In 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 accusations against any Jew because such a charge was without foundation.” Foxman added, “[After] a brief golden age… an epidemic of religious hatred and violence exploding in other countries spilled into Poland.”
Foxman thanked President Kwasniewski for his courageous and inspired apology at a ceremony marking the massacre of 1,600 Jews at Jedwabne on July 10, 1941: “It was not Nazi soldiers — the story in Poland’s popular mythology — but ordinary Poles who beat, stabbed and burned fellow Jewish villagers alive in a barn,” in Foxman’s words. He lauded the president for his battle “against all manifestations of antisemitism… anti-Jewish bigotry, for vetoing a shameful piece of legislation that would have provided for the restoration of private property to Polish citizens only discriminating against Jewish claimants — most of whom are no longer Polish citizens, for strengthening closeness in bilateral relations between Poland and Israel and, at the request of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, visiting Israel for the dedication of the new Yad Vashem.”
Kwasniewski said, “Speaking from my heart … you cannot have Polish history without the Jews; you can’t speak of Jewish history without the history of the Jews in Poland.” He touted the renaissance of Jewish culture in Poland, citing courses in Jewish studies at Polish universities, the popularity of books by Jewish authors — and “not only by I.B. Singer.” While being driven to Warsaw’s airport along a route named in honor of Pope John Paul II, Kwasniewski recalled seeing “two Jews in traditional dress returning from prayers. They were so symbolic of Poland’s past.”
Like Foxman (whose father, Joseph, shared a kheyder benkl in Baranowicz with my father, Matvey Bernsztein), I too was saved by a Polish Catholic woman who risked her life to hide my mother and me during our escape from Nazi-occupied Warsaw. And now for me to chat with the president of Poland in a Jewish arena is something neither Foxman’s nor my father could have imagined. My comments to Kwasniewski focused on Hasidic Jews in the garb of 18th-century Polish noblemen still being perceived as the principal image of the 1,000-year Polish-Jewish history. It distorts the reality that a rainbow of Jewish religious and secular entities — such as the Bund — fueled and contributed to the dynamic, cultural, social and political texture of pre-Holocaust Poland. Kwasniewski nodded and smiled.
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The launch of the 2005 New York Jewish Music and Heritage Festival — the brainchild of founder and festival producer Michael Dorf — got its start on September 13 at the 92nd Street Y with a program titled “Great Jewish Artists Perform Great Jewish Composers.” The Klezmatics performed Randy Newman; guitarist Mark Ribot played variations on themes by Billy Joel, then got a bit farblondzhet — lost — with an aside about Mozart being Jewish and an absurd take-off on “Don Giovanni!” The group Pharaoh’s Daughter honored Carly Simon. And a svelte Tovah Feldshuh — liberated from the prosthetics she had worn for over a year as Golda Meir in “Golda’s Balcony” — wowed the audience with her renditions of George and Ira Gershwin classics, focusing on works inspired by liturgical modes, such as the chant that morphed into “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
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It is never too early to become a philanthropist. At the September 8 Israel Cancer Research Fund’s Barbara S. Goodman Annual Scientific Awards evening at the Center for Jewish History, Marc Canarick, an 8th grader at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Nassau County, presented the ICRF with a check for $24,000. He had asked each of the guests at his bar mitzvah the week before “to bring a check made out to ICRF” in lieu of gifts. It was noted that three of Marc’s grandparents had been victims of cancer. The evening’s keynote speaker was Dr. Avram Hershko, distinguished professor of biochemistry, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, an ICRF grant recipient and co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Science for his research that led to the discovery of a protein called ubiquitin.
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Apropos the passing of Simon Wiesenthal on September 20, I recalled that several years after my father’s 1945 release from Soviet imprisonment, he contacted Wiesenthal and provided documentation that was later used at the Nuremberg trials. During my visit to Vienna in 1979, I was honored to have an extended phone conversation with Wiesenthal — entirely in Yiddish.