Although he didn’t meet a Jew until the late 1990s, in his role as the Polish Foreign Ministry’s envoy to the Jewish Diaspora, Sebastian Rejak has spent the past two and a half years assiduously cultivating relations with Jewish communities throughout Europe and North America to improve his country’s ties with world Jewry.
Prior to taking on his diplomatic role, Rejak, who comes from a traditional Catholic family in Lublin, studied Judaism and Jewish history and gained a working knowledge of Hebrew. A member of the Polish Society for Jewish Studies, Rejak is also the author of two books — “Jewish Identities in Poland and America: The Impact of the Shoah on Religion and Ethnicity” and “Inferno of Choices: Poles and the Holocaust.”
Today, after having spent decades delving into the rich intertwined tapestry that is Polish Jewish history, Rejak said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel that he cannot conceive of a situation in which Poland would be bereft of Jews. As he put it: “It’s impossible for me to imagine Poland without Jews. It would be a tremendous loss for Poland.”
Most recently, he worked tirelessly behind the scenes to raise awareness of the new Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II, which was officially opened in the remote southeastern Polish village of Markowa on March 17 in the presence of Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, and the chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich.
As Rejak acknowledged in an interview in Warsaw the day before the opening, it was a big deal for Poland, a chance to improve its image in the eyes of Jews and the international community. In his view, the new museum, financed by Markowa and the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, will serve as a positive role model for Polish youth.
The younger generation, he noted, appreciates the richness of Jewish culture and regards it as an integral component of Polish history. “It’s inextricably a part of what we are as Poles,” he said. “But to my regret, there is still a degree of anti-Semitism in Poland.”
The museum, eight years in the making, honors Polish rescuers of Jews, but focuses on Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma, a middle-aged couple from Markowa. In 1942, as the Nazi hunt for Jews intensified, eight Jews asked the Ulmas for help, and they agreed to shelter them. In exchange, the Jews worked on their farm.
On March 24, 1944, German police, acting on a tip from a Polish informer, fatally shot the Ulmas, along with their six children and the Jews in their care: In 1941, the German governor of occupied Poland, Hans Frank, had issued an order forbidding Poles to assist Jews on pain of death.
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust research and educational center in Jerusalem, recognized the Ulmas as righteous gentiles in 1995. About a decade later, the Vatican launched a beatification process to confer sainthood on the Ulma family.
Rejak suggested that contemporary Poland tapped into the Ulmas’ heroism to offset a public relations disaster caused by the publication of Jan Tomasz Gross’s 2001 book, “Neighbors.” A Polish American historian who had left Poland in 1969, Gross examined the 1941 pogrom in the northeastern town of Jedwabne, during which a mob of anti-Semitic Poles, encouraged by the Germans, burned down a barn with at least several hundred Jews crammed inside.
The book sparked an impassioned debate in Poland because it tarnished the cherished notion that Poles had been victims of Nazi aggression. Now, in “Neighbors,” they emerged in a far different light, as hateful oppressors of Jews.
To Jews in the Diaspora, Jedwabne seemed to confirm their worst suspicions about Poles, for anti-Semitism had been a malevolent phenomenon in pre-war Poland. During the Holocaust, a cadre of Polish collaborators and blackmailers tormented Jews. Post-WWII, a pogrom erupted in Kielce in 1946. And in the wake of the 1968 anti-Semitic campaign — dressed up as an anti-Zionist response to so-called Israeli warmongering in the 1967 Six Day War — more than 10,000 Jews were driven out of Poland.
The Ulma story, however, presented the Polish government with an opportunity to adjust negative Jewish perceptions of Poland, where 3.3 million Jews lived on the eve of the war. Rejak agreed that the events in Markowa may work in Poland’s favor.
Poland is obliged to ‘own up’ to its past
“There is a general feeling among Poles that Poland has been perceived through the prism of pre-war anti-Semitism and wartime blackmailers who betrayed Jews, and this image has, in general, dominated discourse about Poland,” he said. “We want to balance the picture more, but I hope the museum won’t be used to claim there were only good Poles.”
Poland is obliged to “own up” to its past, he added. “It’s a complex history. We have to take into account the extremes.”
Rejak admitted that the Roman Catholic church has not always played a positive role in fostering good Polish-Jewish relations, but he pointed out that John Paul II, the late Polish-born pope, succeeded in diminishing anti-Semitism in Poland. Nonetheless, there are priests who have not accepted his ecumenical teachings. “In the church, change comes slowly,” he said.
‘It’s impossible for me to imagine Poland without Jews’
Asked how many Jews live in Poland today, Rejak said that 7,353 Polish citizens declared themselves Jewish in the 2011 national census.
“The actual number may be several times greater,” he added. “There is a core Jewish population and a non-practicing segment of Poles of Jewish descent.”
Rejak expressed the hope that the Jewish community, a pale imitation of its former self, will continue to grow and thrive, and that Polish society at large will be receptive to a Jewish presence in Poland.
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