Besieged by Hezbollah rockets,
Israeli kids find shelter in Poland
PRAGUE, Aug. 8 (JTA)
- Even a decade ago, almost no one could have predicted
that Poland, of all places, would serve as a refuge
for Israeli children.
But a country that some Jews
still think of as ground zero for European anti-Semitism
is among the first in Central and Eastern Europe to
sponsor a free getaway for young Israelis who were
spending most of their time this summer in bomb shelters
as Hezbollah sends rocket salvoes into the Jewish state.
Jerzy Kropiwnicki, mayor of
Lodz , once home to the second-largest Jewish population
in Europe decided his city would pay for 15 teens from
the northern Israeli city of Nahariya to escape to
Starting Sunday, the young Israelis
embarked on an 18-day vacation in Poland, to include
sightseeing, educational programs and Jewish community
"We want them at least to forget for a little while
about what is happening in Israel," said Jarek Nowak,
a member of the Lodz City Council who played a key
role in organizing the trip.
In an afterthought that belies
the city government's well-known affinity for Israel,
Nowak added, "This is the least we can do. If we can't
solve the situation they are in, at least we can give
them a little rest to comfort them."
He said the Israelis, ages 12-16,
were from poor and single-parent, mostly Sephardi families.
Their home city, which chose
the children to participate in the visit, has been
hit particularly hard by Hezbollah rockets.
Israel's ambassador to Poland,
David Peleg, who met the children when they arrived
at Warsaw airport, said he wasn't surprised by the
Lodz mayor's initiative.
"He has been involved in Jewish
issues for some time, including the annual commemoration
of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto," Peleg said.
"Our embassy is providing logistical
help for the young peoples' trip, but the credit goes
to the city, he said. 'The mayor's gesture warmed our
In a phone interview, Nowak
said the teens so far were infatuated with Poland and
the reception they have received.
"They're so excited. For all
of them, it's their first trip on an airplane, their
first trip outside the country," he said.
The program includes horseback
riding, kayaking, painting classes and photo classes;
tours of Warsaw, the Warsaw Ghetto monument and Lublin;
visits to the Jewish communities of Wroclaw and Lodz;
and Shabbat dinners.
"We will offer them some Holocaust
education as well, but not until the end of the trip
when perhaps they can focus more," Nowak said.
One of the group's two Israeli
guides, Dima, said they were having the time of their
lives, though they were constantly worried abut friends
and family back home.
"They can't believe how green
Poland is," he said. "But what I think they like most
are the shops."
Symcha Keller, cantor of Lodz
and chairman of its 300-member Jewish community, said
the teens were dining at the community headquarters
and that he was honored to help organize the itinerary.
"For the first time, the mayor
of a city in Poland, in this case of Lodz, is helping
people from Israel," he said. "It's very beautiful
that we Poles can give something to Israel."
Lodz is paying for the children's daily kosher meals.
Accommodation at hotels, arranged by the Lodz Jewish
community, has been provided free of charge. LOT Airlines
paid for most of their flights, while the Polish president's
office took care of the remaining amount.
"Once the Polish media started to cover the visit we
started getting calls from hotels, restaurants, businesspeople,
asking how they could help," Nowak said.
The publicity also resulted
in the mayors of Wroclaw and Lublin contacting Peleg
and suggesting that they too would like to host Israeli
children desperate to escape Hezbollah's wrath.
Nowak likes to think of his
city's reaching out to the Israeli teens as yet another
step in its effort to honor the city's Jewish heritage.
On the eve of World War II, Jews made up 34 percent
of Lodz's population.
"When the mayor, a Catholic
nationalist, was elected four years ago, the city was
known as the most anti-Semitic in Poland. It was covered
in anti-Semitic graffiti, which was really about a
rivalry between two soccer teams, and the people had
some very negative attitudes towards Jews," he recalls.
Everyone in Jewish circles agrees
that Kropiwnicki has changed Lodz's image. In 2004,
he organized a yearlong, 60th anniversary commemoration
of the Lodz Ghetto's liquidation with hundreds of events.
The final ceremony included the participation of 10,000
"Kropiwnicki wants what happened
to the Jews to be taught in schools, and believes that
as witnesses of the Holocaust we all have an obligation
to the victims," Nowak said.
Last year, the city erected
a monument on the spot where nearly all of Lodz's 223,000
Jews were deported to their deaths by the Nazis. But
now, much of Lodz and Poland, where sentiments are
pro-Israeli, is occupied with young Israelis who are
very much alive, Nowak said.
Michael Schudrich, Poland's
chief rabbi, said he was impressed with Lodz's example.
"It's an important sign from the country of Poland,
taking in these kids," he said. "Sitting in a bomb
shelter is no way to spend your summer vacation."
Schudrich hopes the efforts
of the Lodz municipal government might change some
people's ideas about Poland.
"There are lots of things that
shouldn't happen in this country and we hear about
them," he said. "We should also take notice of the