Walesa Reminisces at the 92nd Street Y

‘Communism fits Poland like a saddle on a pig,” Lech Walesa said in a September 28 conversation with James F. Hoge Jr., editor of the journal Foreign Affairs. Their talk was held at the 92nd Street Y in honor of the 25th anniversary of Poland’s Solidarity movement. A white-haired, avuncular Walesa peppered his comments with such folksy Dr. Phil-isms as: “Polish communists are like radishes — red only on the outside.” Commenting on Poland’s parliamentary and presidential elections, Walesa — founder and leader of Solidarity, past president of Poland and Nobel Peace Prize-winner — stated, “This is the first time the prime minister and president will not have a communist background.”

Joshing wryly about the Germans and Russians who “alternately enjoyed traveling though Poland… deciding to stay a while,” and then “for 120 years erasing it from the map of the world,” Walesa opined: “We are as eager for the West to turn to us as we are to turn to the West…. Russia was never able to function without an outside enemy.” Lauding Germany’s discipline and democracy, he said: “We’d have trouble traveling without their cars.… They can always count on Poland… Perestroika, glasnost, the Berlin Wall, would not have happened without Solidarity.” “The Polish people flocked to him,” Walesa said, touting the Pope’s role. He chuckled as he mimicked a badly choreographed crossing. “Even nonbelievers, secret police, learned to cross themselves.” The Poles in the audience roared with laughter.

Unlike Polish President AleksanderKwasniewski, who at a September 16 Anti-Defamation League lunch addressed past and present antisemitism with candor, Walesa rambled about the restructuring of the United Nations when Hoge asked him about antisemitism in Poland. A similar question from the audience led Walesa to pontificate about China’s demographic and economic development!

In my files I found a February 7, 1994, New York Times letter to the editor clipping captioned: “Poland and the Jews.” The letter notes: “To the Editor: ‘Today’s Poland Would Rather Just Ignore Nazi Death Camps’ (letter, Jan. 24) implies that Poland is ready… to cross out from our memory the millions of Hitler’s victims. To forget about the Jews would be the first step to forget about the Poles and other nations who suffered from the Nazis. I am surprised such nonsense was written by the editor of the Undergraduate Review at Binghamton University. I am afraid students will rather accept his statement that in prewar Poland, Polish anti-Semitism ‘in some ways exceeded that of the Nazis’ than study more than six centuries of Polish-Jewish relations.” The author was Jerzy Surdykowski, the Republic of Poland’s consul general. (In my 1993 photo album, I have a shot of Surdykowski dancing with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, hand-in-hand, at New York’s Polish Consulate!)

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“To be informed is not necessarily to know,” said national intelligence director John Negroponte, keynote speaker at the September 21 Appeal of Conscience Foundation dinner. The event was held in New York at the Marriott Marquis. He cautioned: “[There’s an] enormous responsibility of conscience when it comes to assessing the values, beliefs and intentions of that ‘other’… to draw conclusions about that information [uncontaminated] by self-centeredness, ethnocentricity or loose logic. [But] at the end of the day, life does require that we make choices whether we are knowledgeably informed or not.”

“When Nokia was founded 140 years ago,” said its chairman and CEO, Jorma Ollila, a foundation award recipient, “the speed of getting a message from one point to another was the time it took to travel that distance…. In 2003 at the first World Summit on the Information Society, in Geneva, I envisioned [that by 2015] 4 billion people would… have access to mobile communications. This week we reached the milestone: 2 billion mobile subscriptions. For one quarter of these users, 500 million, a mobile phone is the first phone they have ever used.”

“Both my parents came to America penniless from impoverished Greek farming villages,” said Peter Peterson, senior chairman and co-founder of The Blackstone Group and chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations. “My father took a job as a dishwasher in a steamy kitchen of a caboose of a Union Pacific Railroad car… saved everything he earned. Some went to his impoverished family in Greece. The rest he invested in the proverbial Greek restaurant… open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for 25 years… in Kearny, Neb.” In reference to the present, he cautioned: “We recklessly and casually borrow nearly $3 billion every workday from foreign sources.” Expanding on the subject of the mind-numbing national debt, Peterson cited German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “‘The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world it passes on to its children.’”

Alexander Downer, Australia’s minister for foreign affairs, accepted the foundation’s World Statesman Award on behalf of Prime Minister John Howard. Among Downer’s upbeat pronouncements was: “Australia is proud to promote the cause of democracy for those oppressed by tyrannical regimes. We warmly congratulate prime minister of Israel Ariel Sharon for his enormous courage in withdrawing Israeli settlers from Gaza. In the U.N. this year, we are pursuing jointly with Israel, the United States, Russia, Canada and the E.U. a resolution on Holocaust remembrance.”

Rabbi Arthur Schneier, the foundation’s founder and president, articulated its mission: “to assist in ending the war against global religious persecution carried out by cold, heartless regimes. Over the course of time, we worked tirelessly to prevent ethnic conflicts in Central Asia and the Balkans from spilling over into full-blown wars.” In his introductory remarks, Negroponte stated: “There are few world citizens who are as passionate, effective and inclusive as my good friend Arthur Schneier in reaching out in behalf of a cause that transcends us all.”

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Walesa Reminisces at the 92nd Street Y

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