WASHINGTON — Underscoring an intensifying effort to confront its troubled past, Poland has signed an agreement with the United States to preserve and restore historic Jewish sites in Poland.
The agreement, signed last month in Washington, is the latest in a series of accords America has signed with European governments since 1992 to preserve Jewish sites, particularly those destroyed in World War II. Of 17 such pacts signed so far, Warren L. Miller, who chairs the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, hailed the agreement with Poland as the most significant.
Poland, Miller explained, had the world’s largest Jewish community before the war, as well as the greatest number of Jewish institutions and sites, and it is the country of origin of the largest single group of American Jews. “Poland was the country with the most importance to our commission,” Miller said.
Several observers emphasized, however, that last month’s agreement does not mark a new beginning for U.S.-Polish cooperation on protecting Jewish sites. “It is, rather, a confirmation of the work we have done on many fronts to try to commemorate the history of more than 800 years of Jewish life on Polish soil,” said Poland’s ambassador to Washington, Przemyslaw Grudzinski.
Poland was home to approximately 3 million Jews before World War II, about one-tenth of its total population, of whom 90% were killed by the Nazis. Most of those who survived left the country in successive waves, the last in 1968, when the communist government launched a campaign of antisemitic harassment. Today the Jewish population is estimated at 3,500.
Poland’s post-communist government has been pursuing restoration and preservation projects for more than a decade, both independently and in cooperation with the U.S. government and with American Jewish groups, said Grudzinski. Projects include synagogues and cemeteries as well as the concentration and death camps that Nazi Germany built in Poland during World War II.
The government is currently building a new museum in Warsaw to commemorate the nation’s Jewish heritage. It is assisting in the restoration of several Jewish cemeteries, in cooperation with Miller’s U.S. heritage commission, the Polish Jewish Cemetery Restoration Project, American groups such as the American Jewish Committee and Poland’s own tiny Jewish community.
Closely related, Poland has launched an aggressive public campaign to fight antisemitic attitudes. “We want to make sure that hatred is not directed at Jews or at any other group of ‘others’ in Poland,” said Grudzinski, whose daughter is one of Poland’s leading translators of modern Hebrew literature. Poland has also agreed to chair the International Holocaust Education Task Force next year.
Miller, the U.S. official, said that while Poles were “working diligently” to confront the past, the negotiations over the agreement had been lengthy and complex. “It was mainly the fear of the unknown,” he said, citing uncertainty over the legal implications, financial cost and likely implications for public and private property restitution. “We sometimes forget that many people over there are products of the Communist culture, which taught them that the status quo is safe and that any change is potentially costly,” said Miller.
At the same time, Miller noted that Poland is eager to tighten its already close relations with Washington, partly through reaching out to America’s Jewish community.
According to Grudzinski, Poland’s financial concerns were genuine. “Unfortunately, things always boil down to the issue of financial resources, and we are far from being an affluent country,” he said. His government aims not only to restore Jewish sites — “and we are talking about hundreds of buildings and cemeteries” — but also to maintain and run them. Maintenance is costly, and it requires human resources and religious expertise that Poland’s small Jewish community cannot provide.
Therefore, Poland’s government is looking for ways to enlist American Jews in its efforts. “The idea is to create partnerships between local Polish communities and Jews in America, or perhaps in Israel or anywhere else, who came from those areas and care about them,” Grudzinski said. Such partnerships will foster interaction with local Polish communities, making the onetime presence of Jews in their midst more tangible and providing an opportunity for a people-to-people connection, he said.
“Rather than dealing with rocks and objects, this could put a human face on our efforts,” for the sake of Poles and American Jews alike, Grudzinski said. “The reaction in Poland to this would be very positive.” The Polish government has not yet launched a comprehensive initiative to match American Jews with communities in Poland, he said, but it hopes to pursue such a project in the future.
A good example of such a partnership between a local community and American Jews is the “Days of Remembrance,” held in April in Czestochowa, a southern city known as a birthplace of Polish Catholicism. The city’s three-day commemoration of its once-large Jewish community was initiated by non-Jewish Poles and was organized jointly by the city council, local activists, the 37-member local Jewish community, the Jewish Historical Society in Warsaw and several American Jews who are descendants of the city’s prewar Jewish community.
Before World War II, one-third of Czestochowa’s population — more than 40,000 people — was Jewish, and there were numerous Jewish schools and synagogues. The April ceremonies commemorating the town’s Jewish community were held at the Philharmonic Hall, known before the war as the New Synagogue. More than 350 Jews who trace their origin to Czestochowa, most of them from America, attended the conference, which included an academic symposium, an exhibition and tours of relevant sites. One point of interest was the 200-year-old Jewish cemetery, a deserted enclave on the grounds of an industrial plant that the city’s municipal authorities are now helping restore.
Two American businessmen of Czestochowa origin, Sigmund Rolat and Alan Silberstein underwrote the event. Rolat’s parents and brother perished in the Holocaust. Silberstein’s parents survived a forced-labor camp near Czestochowa.
Silberstein, 56, a financial services expert and former president of Western Union, told the Forward he was heartened by the efforts of the local community, both Jewish and non-Jewish. “At first I wasn’t sure what motivated them to get involved in this event,” he said. “American friends told me: ‘They are only interested in Jewish money.’” But as he worked with local historians, teachers and municipal officials, he said, “I was convinced that their dedication was sincere. That it really came from the heart. That they really wanted to learn and know.”
Poland’s efforts, impressive though they may be, are not enough for the Bush administration. Washington wants to see more than synagogue and cemetery restoration. It is insisting on private property restitution for Polish Jews. “We would still like to see Poland pass legislation dealing with comprehensive private property restitution, a matter of direct concern to Americans,” Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said at last month’s White House signing ceremony for the U.S-Polish agreement.
The Poles, however, are not yet willing to go quite that far. Given the legal difficulties, the lack of domestic support and particularly the lack of financial resources, Ambassador Grudzinski said, “I don’t think it’s a priority for our government at the moment.”