White House refuses to say if Trump will visit Warsaw Ghetto in Poland
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White House refuses to say if Trump will visit Warsaw Ghetto in Poland

In July 2017 trip, US president angered Polish and American Jews by skipping site of Jewish uprising in move seen as pandering to nationalist government

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

US President Donald Trump gestures while answering a question during a joint press conference with Poland's President Andrzej Duda, in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, July 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
US President Donald Trump gestures while answering a question during a joint press conference with Poland's President Andrzej Duda, in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, July 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WASHINGTON — In July 2017, Donald Trump made history as the first American president since the Second World War to visit Warsaw, Poland without stopping by the city’s monument to the Jewish ghetto uprising.

In early September, he will visit Poland again — and it’s not clear whether he will stop by the memorial to Jewish resistance this time either.

The White House on Monday refused to say whether Trump will visit the Warsaw monument, after repeated requests from The Times of Israel.

Last month, the administration announced that the president would visit Denmark and Poland from August 31 to September 3.

The statement said: “The president and the first lady will attend commemorative ceremonies and visit memorial sites in Warsaw on September 1, 2019, on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II.”

When asked to clarify whether that included any Holocaust sites or the official monument, the White House declined to answer.

An iconic image from the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Revolt, during which Jewish resisters temporarily staved the Nazis’ plans to deport the population to death camps (public domain)

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising broke out April 19, 1943, when about 750 young Jewish fighters armed with just pistols and other light arms attacked a German force more than three times its size. In their last testaments they said they knew they were doomed but wanted to die at a time and place of their own choosing.

In the end, the fighters held out nearly a month, longer than some German-invaded countries did.

The Germans razed the ghetto and killed most of the fighters, except for a few dozen who managed to escape the ghetto through sewage canals to the “Aryan” side of the city.

Trump’s decision to skip these sites in July 2017 angered Polish and American Jews who saw it as a “slight” and a victory for the right-wing nationalist Polish party that currently holds power.

US President Donald Trump gives a speech in front of the Warsaw Uprising Monument in Warsaw, Poland, July 6, 2017. (AFP Photo/Janek Skarzynski)

“Ever since the fall of Communism in 1989, all US presidents and vice presidents visiting Warsaw had made a point of visiting the Monument to the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto,” Anna Chipczynska, the president of the Jewish Community of Warsaw, said at the time. “They did this in the name of the American people, who had played such a central role in bringing down fascism, and in that of the universal commemoration of the victims of the Shoah [Holocaust], and condemnation of its perpetrators, that people of all nationalities and religions express.”

“For the Jews of Poland,” the statement went on, “rebuilding in a democratic Poland their communal life, after the horror of the Shoah and the devastation of Communism, this gesture meant recognition, solidarity and hope. We deeply regret that President Donald Trump, though speaking in public barely a mile away from the monument, chose to break with that laudable tradition. We trust that this slight does not reflect the attitudes and feelings of the American people.”

The statement was also signed by Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi, and Lesław Piszewski, president of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland.

Alan Dershowitz at NEP Studios in New York, February 3, 2016. (John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu, via JTA)

One of Trump’s biggest defenders among prominent American Jews, lawyer Alan Dershowitz, said then that it was “a mistake not to go” to the monument.

In Warsaw, Trump delivered a speech in Krasinski Square, in front of a monument that commemorates the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, when the Polish underground resistance took on the occupying German forces for 63 days. That uprising ended in defeat — and the city was destroyed. Trump made only brief mention of the Jewish ghetto uprising.

“Under a double occupation the Polish people endured evils beyond description: the Katyn forest massacre, the occupations, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Ghetto and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the destruction of this beautiful capital city, and the deaths of nearly one in five Polish people,” he said. “A vibrant Jewish population – the largest in Europe – was reduced to almost nothing after the Nazis systematically murdered millions of Poland’s Jewish citizens, along with countless others, during that brutal occupation.”

Former president Jimmy Carter was the first president to visit the Warsaw Ghetto while in office in 1977.  Likewise, former president George H.W. Bush visited in 1989 and former president Bill Clinton did in 1994. Both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama laid wreaths at the memorial.

Meanwhile, high-profile American Jews said that Trump’s omitting the Jewish ghetto during his first visit sent a message inside of Poland.

Poland is currently ruled by the Law and Justice Party — the president is Andrzej Duda, a member — which has downplayed the persecution of the three million Polish Jews who were killed by Nazis during the Holocaust, and the Polish complicity at the time.

“The Polish leadership these days is minimizing the Holocaust, and minimizing the Polish role,” Dershowitz told Politico. “It would have sent a powerful message about Western civilization, which is what Trump is promoting. The Polish government wants to focus on nationalism — and that focuses on what happened to people of Polish, not Jewish, ethnicity.”

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