Interview: Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich
Last Chanucah: Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski (left) passes a lit candle to Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich
The rabbi at the centre of the row over the Conservative Party’s alliance with the controversial Polish MEP Michal Kaminski has issued a fierce condemnation of the MEP’s refusal to support an official apology for Polish involvement in the notorious wartime Jedwabne massacre of Jews.
However, Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, confirmed that Mr Kaminski had been a staunch supporter of Israel in recent years and had spoken out against antisemitism in the Polish parliament.
In 2001, Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski apologised for the massacre of as many as 400 Jews at Jedwabne in north eastern Poland. But Mr Kaminski has consistently argued that the atrocity is not something for which the whole Polish people should be held responsible.
“Mr Kaminski did not deny what happened at Jedwabne,” said Rabbi Schudrich. “He was opposing the apology that was made by President Kwasniewski. It is a position that I completely disagree with. I find his opposition distasteful and wrong.”
He added: “In recent years it is the case that he has been a strong supporter of Israel. His reception by Israeli diplomats in Britain and his reception when he was in Israel a short while ago [demonstrates this]. And I also know from friends in the Polish parliament that Mr Kaminski has spoken out against antisemitism in recent years.”
In his first British newspaper interview on the matter, Chief Rabbi Schudrich said he could not say if Mr Kaminski was antisemitic. “I can’t judge what is in a person’s heart. All I can do is look at what Mr Kaminski said on this or that occasion. People can make their own judgment.”
He said it was not possible to dismiss the past political history of the Polish MEP, who leads the new European Conservatives and Reformists bloc in the European Parliament. His membership of the extremist party National Revival of Poland (NOP) could not easily be shrugged aside.
“Is it true that Mr Kaminski joined the NOP, which is clearly a nasty, fascist-leaning, antisemitic party, when he was a teenager? Yes. From what I have read he quit the party when he was 17 or 18 years old. It’s something we need to remember. But we shouldn’t define a man who is 37 years old by only what he did 20 years ago.”
The American-born rabbi has worked in Poland for 17 of the last 19 years. He said he had been surprised suddenly to find himself at the centre of a political storm in Britain. Both Conservative and Labour politicians have used Rabbi Schudrich’s comments to back their side of the argument. He said he was grateful for the opportunity to clarify his comments to the JC.
“I really know very little about British politics and I have no desire to know any more,” he said. “As a rabbi, I have an obligation to stay out of politics. My responsibility is to represent my community to the government of my country and to other Jewish communities around the world.”
He was concerned that the Kaminski affair perpetuated the idea that Poland was an antisemitic country. He said that since the fall of Communism, thousands of Poles had rediscovered their Jewish roots, something their parents and grandparents had hidden from them during the Communist years.
“That is the story of Polish Jews today. When Jews around the world discuss Poland, they have an obligation not only to remember the past, but also the work being done to bring as many Jews here in Poland back to the Jewish people. This is our real challenge.”