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Poles Asking Questions

Ryszard Bankowicz

Reprinted with permission from European Jewish Press

March 20,  2007

Jews lived in Poland for 900 years before World War Two, and about half the Jewish victims of the Nazis came from Poland. Today, Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka is a senior government representative of President Lech Kaczynski, charged with Polish-Jewish relations

WARSAW - Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka is the minister in the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland Lech Kaczynski responsible for Polish-Jewish relations. The 52-year-old is a graduate of law and former journalist and editor-in-chief of the "Dziennik Polski" daily in Detroit.

From 2001 till last month she worked for the development of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, recently as the deputy director responsible for contacts with the Jewish and Polish communities in the United States and for the promotion of the Museum's project in Poland and abroad.

In an exclusive interview Junczyk-Ziomecka spoke to the European Jewish Press about her contacts with the Polish Jewish community and her hopes for the future.

What are your official responsibilities in terms of Polish-Jewish relations?

As a minister in the Chancellery of President Lech Kaczynski (who took office on December 23, 2005) I am the head of the Office of Social Issues and at the same time the president's plenipotentiary for the inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue. Although I was appointed less than a month ago, it has become clear to me that managing Polish-Jewish relations calls for extraordinary effort and attention.

Still, I believe that my involvement in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews project, as well as the president's focus on dialogue between civilizations were reasons President Kaczynski entrusted me with this kind of job.

I represented the president during the International Holocaust Remembrance Day and read his address. The next day I took part in ceremonies commemorating the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. One of my tasks was the preparation for a meeting with the American Jewish Committee during the recent trip to the US, which turned out to be very productive. The weight of the Holocaust exceeded the importance of the fact that Poland was the country where Jews had lived for more than 900 years.

How does that history link to the issues on your desk?

Very closely. President Kaczynski pays meticulous attention to the issues of the past, especially those not mentioned in communist-censored history textbooks. This can be exemplified by the history of the Warsaw Uprising and the fact that it was President Kaczynski - then the mayor of Warsaw - who set out to build the Museum of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The museum was officially opened in 2004. The second large-scale history project in Warsaw that President Kaczynski wishes to see accomplished is the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. But there are also painful issues of the past such as property institution. There is still an unanswered question of the scope of restitution of private property of all citizens of pre-war Poland. The problem is hard to resolve because of the financial burden of the restitution of property unlawfully appropriated by the communist state. Be it costly and difficult, the problem of restitution has to be resolved and I believe that during President Kaczynski's term the right legislation will be introduced.

Still, as I see it, the financial or assets issues, though so significant, are secondary to present changes in the public awareness of the long-time Jewish presence in our country.

Have you noticed an increase in awareness of this Jewish presence by the general public?

With every week passing. When in 1989 Poland regained its independence after almost half a century of communist rule, Poles suddenly began searching for their identity, asking questions they earlier felt too suppressed to formulate. According to Ryszard Kapuscinski, a well known Polish writer, the 21st century is the era of people exploring their roots. When Poles start digging into their history, examining old maps and documents concerning houses, streets or towns they live in, they also start asking about their former Jewish neighbors, who are mostly absent today. It is a feeling that something contributing to what Poland used to be has been lost, a feeling that for people's own sake it should be restored.

How can the President and his Chancellery help? After all, this is not the government with its administration and budget.

I would say President's mission is to lead the way. It is up to him to present his views and attitudes to help people understand how much the Jews meant for Poland. It is true that the Chancellery itself does have some tools of government administration, but what really counts is President initiating and developing Polish-Jewish contacts - especially between the youth - so they can last in the future. President Kaczynski, as the mayor of Warsaw (2002-2005) paid only one international visit, and this was a visit to Israel.

But what about anti-Semitism in Poland?

I am aware of this and it hurts me. However, I believe that Poles listen to what their President says. In his address to participants of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day he wrote "I am making this statement to turn attention of every one of you and make sure that anti-Semitism, which John Paul II called a sin, does not poison your hearts"

Still, he does not say what should be firmly said. Anti-Semitic literature is sold at some stands or bookshops in Poland. It is an obvious violation of Polish laws which do not allow for racist acts and propaganda and still prosecutors refrain from investigations declaring that those acts are of "limited social significance".

Give us some time, please. I do not expect the President, a professor of law himself, to keep silent about that.