WARSAW — In the Jewish community in Warsaw, the visit of Israel’s military chief of staff was a source of visible elation. On a weekday, at an awkward hour, dozens of members of the 1,500-person community waited in the Nozyk Synagogue, which had been used as a stable during the Nazi occupation, to hear Moshe Ya’alon speak. He told them that as a student of history, he has found that in order to “learn from the past, you must touch it.” Members of the community were relieved that he did not confine his curiosity to the dead, as many past Israeli army delegations have done during their numerous trips to Poland.
The army sends nearly every career combat officer to Poland, which once was home to 3 million Jews. The program, known as Witnesses in Uniform, began a decade ago when then-colonel Elazar Stern, head of the officers’ college, went to Poland on a private trip with his parents, both of whom are survivors of Auschwitz. He returned to Israel, he said, determined to have officers learn why they are asked to sacrifice their lives for an independent state. Stern is now a major general and chief of manpower.
The Jewish community in Poland, unofficially 25,000 strong, has long felt overlooked by these official visits. “What has happened is that many delegations from Israel come to Poland and treat it only as the past,” said Piotr Kadlcik, president of the Association of Jewish Communities of Poland. “There is a formula: Poland is part of the past, and Israel, the land of milk and honey, is the future.”
One community member, Miriam Gondyrska, thanked Ya’alon personally for visiting the living as well as the dead. She received a prolonged ovation from the assembled community members. “For me,” she told the Forward afterward, “this is like a new beginning in Israel’s relationship with us.”