On paper, Chicago seems like the ideal venue for a relationship to flourish between American Jews and Polish Americans. The city has the second-largest Polish population in the world (after Warsaw) and a sizable Jewish community of more than 300,000. But relations over the years between the two communities have been “like two ships passing in the night,” said Michael Traison, a Chicago lawyer who has devoted the past two decades to promoting Polish-Jewish relations and Holocaust remembrance in Poland.
An upcoming Holocaust commemoration is being billed as the chance for a fresh start. While disputes between Jewish and Polish Americans in Chicago rarely erupt, Jewish activists feel that World War II history is still a deep strain and a source of tension.
Traison’s latest project is a commemoration ceremony marking 70 years since the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland. More than 200,000 Jews went through Lodz, but by the end of the war only 10,000 survived. In August 1944 the Nazis decided to liquidate the camp, transporting its remaining residents to Auschwitz and from there on to Dachau, Bergen-Belsen or other camps. When the Soviets liberated the Lodz ghetto in January 1945, they found only 877 Jews left alive.
The ceremony, scheduled to take place August 28 at Chicago’s Union League Club, an institution that in the past did not welcome Jews, will serve a dual purpose: It will commemorate the Jewish victims of the Lodz ghetto, Poland’s second-largest ghetto, often overshadowed by the heroic legend of the Warsaw ghetto. The event is also an attempt to bring closer the Jewish and Polish communities in Chicago that share a joint past but have grown apart in America.
Bridging gaps between the two communities begins with semantics. When Traison put together a first draft of the commemoration event program, it referred to the Lodz ghetto as being in Poland. After circulating the paper among members of the Polish-American community, some called back to complain, stressing that the invitation should note that the Lodz ghetto was in Nazi-occupied Poland. The invitation was revised to reflect this sensitivity and to address one of the key issues raised in many Polish-Jewish dialogue groups — the distinction between Poland’s relations with its Jewish minority and the events that took place during the Nazi occupation.
The Chicago event has 29 sponsors, including Jewish groups, Polish organizations, diplomatic missions and universities. Standing out in the list is the Polish American Congress, an umbrella organization of Polish American groups considered the main representative body of Polish Americans. The group, founded in 1944, initially focused on using the power of Polish immigrants in America to help Poland in its struggle for independence. It later gradually turned its focus inward, to the issues of the American Polish community.
Ties between the PAC and the Jewish community had their golden age during the 1960s and ’70s, but relations went sour when Edward Moskal took over as president of the organization in 1988.
Moskal had a long record of anti-Semitic comments coupled with harsh criticism of Israel. Relations between the PAC under his leadership and Jewish communal organizations gradually escalated, leading to a breakdown in 1996 after Moskal, in a letter to Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski accused the president and his fellow political leaders of “submissiveness” to the Jews. He also equated Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians to the Holocaust.
The American Jewish Committee responded by declaring Moskal an anti-Semite and cut all its ties with the organization. The Anti-Defamation League called on Moskal to retract his comments, a demand to which Moskal replied, “Sorry, no retraction.” In 2002, when Rahm Emanuel, a Jewish Chicagoan with Israeli roots, launched his first run for Congress, Moskal described him as a “millionaire carpetbagger.”
Moskal died in 2005, and his successor, Frank Spula, brought an end to the anti-Semitic rhetoric at the Polish American Congress. “Frank always supports Polish- Jewish dialogue and would condemn anti-Semitism immediately,” Traison said. Jewish groups noted that since PAC replaced its leadership, there have been no anti-Semitic incidents.
When Traison approached Spula with the idea of sponsoring the Lodz commemoration event, he was met with enthusiastic agreement. Spula even offered to host the ceremony at the PAC offices, an offer Traison politely turned down, saying it was “a bit too much.”
Spula did not respond to a request for an interview. Susanne Lotarski, the organization’s vice president, told the Forward that the PAC feels strongly about cooperating with the Jewish community. “We feel that it is very important to remember what the people of Poland went through under Nazi occupation,” she said.
The renewed interest in forging relations with the PAC is not yet shared by major American groups, which have focused their relations in recent years on other Polish groups.
A spokesman for the organization said the ADL “does not have any relationship with the group.”
The AJC has also directed its efforts to other Polish organizations in Chicago. It partnered this year with the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America to screen the movie “Tony & Janina’s American Wedding,” and holds close contact with the Polish Consul General in Chicago. The AJC also worked with Polish American advocates in Chicago on promoting immigration reform, emphasizing the drive to include Poland in the visa waiver program that would allow its citizens to enter the United States as tourists without a visa.
“In Chicago, Jewish-Polish relations are a priority for us,” said Amy Stoken, the AJC’s Chicago regional director. “What we see here is a model for building bridges.”