Analysis: We have lost a dear friend in the late Polish president

By Rabbi Michael Schudrich , April 15, 2010

We lost a friend.

As president of Poland, Lech Kaczynski was a very strong and outspoken supporter of Israel and of our local Jewish community.

Just recently he strongly opposed the Goldstone report, which is quite unusual for a European politician. He insisted on including our small but re-emerging Jewish community at all national ceremonies.

He was the first President the light Chanuccah candles in the presidential palace and then in December 2008 became the first sitting president to visit our Nozyk Synagogue for the lighting of the first candle of Chanuccah.

He created a special presidential ceremony to honour the Righteous Among the Nations. The president was one of the first supporters of the Jewish Museum of Warsaw now being built.

Two years ago, during President Kaczynski's last visit to Katyn, he made a point of taking me to the memorial plaque for Rabbi Baruch Sternberg, the Chief Rabbi of the Polish Armed Forces who was also killed in Katyn along with hundreds of other Jewish soldiers (it is estimated that around 10 per cent of the soldiers murdered in Katyn were Jewish). We looked together for this plaque, found it and stood together in silent prayer.

The president emphasised on several occasions that we must also remember the Jewish soldiers of Katyn. He also said that you cannot understand the history of Poland without also knowing the role of the Jews throughout the past almost 1,000 years.

There were others on the plane who were our dear friends. Father Roman Indrzejczyk was one of the first priests to be involved in dialogue with Jews and was an outspoken voice against antisemitism. Polish Orthodox Bishop Miron Chodawski always had a smile and made sure that I was included in every way possible. Andrzej Przewoznik worked with us to preserve the death camp of Belzec and we are now in the middle of a project to do the same for Sobibor. Mariusz Handzlik was a fighter for the truth including for Israel and the Jewish people. He joined us for our daughter's batmitzvah.

In April 1940, the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB) murdered over 22,000 Polish military elite, and then blamed it on the Nazis. For 70 years, during communism, the Soviets absolutely denied responsibility. Thirty years ago, there was the beginning of an acknowledgment that the Soviets were involved. Then Mr Putin, for the last decade, reverted to the Soviet-period lie. He refused to acknowledge Soviet responsibility for this atrocity. Until last Wednesday.

At a ceremony together with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Mr Putin for the first time alluded to the fact that this was done under the regime of Stalin. Katyn had become a symbol of the last vestiges of the Second World War and communist lies. This lie is finally beginning to fall.

This was due to quiet diplomacy and perseverance which can actually work. This is an example for the entire world.

And then this tragedy. More Polish lives again lost because of Katyn.

Poland is in shock. We in Poland do not know what to do with the tragedy of losing 96 people, many of them leaders, all at once. The President and the First Lady. Fifteen members of the Sejm (parliament) and 3 senators. The top five military commanders.

I lack the words to describe the pain, the bewilderment, the agony of the entire nation. I lost friends. The Jewish people and Israel lost friends. The friends we lost fought to change Poland for the better. And Poland is better thanks to them.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich is Chief Rabbi of Poland

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010