Early this month, world leaders including the president of the United States gathered in Warsaw, Poland, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the first truly democratic Polish parliamentary elections and the Solidarity movement’s successful bid to elect the first non-Communist prime minister behind the Iron Curtain, Tadeusz Mazowiecki.
And yet, across Poland’s southeast border today, the people of Ukraine are struggling to realize their own democratic ideals in the 21st century. Jewish tradition teaches to “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18), so it is fitting that Poland’s resurgent Jewish community is hoping to offer its transformation as a positive message and to provide needed material support to its cousins across the border.
By removing the Communist regime in the 1989 elections, Poland’s Jews were given credence. Hidden by a veil of repressive governments for 60 years, at long last, Jewish heritage and contributions to both Jewish and Polish culture were validated. Twenty-five years later, this validation of Polish Jews’ freedom and democracy provides stability and security necessary to lend a helping hand to Jews living in Ukraine and around the world.
When we launched Taube Philanthropies’ Jewish Heritage Initiative in Poland 10 years ago, it was a strong investment in producing incalculable dividends for Jews in and outside of Poland.
Overthrow of the Communist regime gave Poles the possibility of remaking themselves as an independent nation, and of openly discussing their own history and values, including the place of Polish Jewish culture. Poles, through their newly gained freedom, could finally acknowledge the enormous contribution of Jews to Polish history and life, and to reflect on the role of Jews in Poland’s post-Communist future.
Toppling the Communist regime in Poland was a prelude to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union. During a weeklong celebration of democracy, Polish Jews marked a seminal moment in the formulation of their identities — the reclamation of their freedom to lead Jewish lives and rebuild Jewish community.
With that in mind, it becomes timely to rededicate the Taube Foundation’s mission to the ambitious goals we had set — to increase worldwide awareness of the centrality of the Jewish experience in Poland in contemporary Jewish life and to recognize the millennium of Polish Jewish civilization as a foundational element of Judeo-Christian Western culture.
Over the past decade, our philanthropic strategy has produced gratifying and tangible results. Today, our Jewish Heritage Initiative in Poland supports more than 100 programs and five educational initiatives in the arenas of scholarship, archives and genealogy, publishing, community building, the arts, educational tourism and heritage restoration.
In the years leading up to World War II, Poland experienced mounting anti-Semitism under the growing shadow of its two totalitarian neighbors — Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.
The devastating experience suffered by Poles in World War II is only beginning to be understood. Sixty percent of Poland’s industrial base was demolished, as was every major city, save beautiful, medieval Krakow. About 12 percent of the country’s population — approximately 3 million of them Jews — had died or were killed. Much of the surviving population had been dislocated. Two million were deported to slave labor camps.
When the war ended, an estimated 280,000 Jewish survivors emerged from hiding or returned from the Soviet Union to try to rebuild a communal life in a shattered Polish nation under Soviet occupation. As the Communist government lurched from crisis to crisis, Jews were made the scapegoats. Massive Jewish emigration due to Communist expulsion left only an estimated 30,000 Jews in Poland by 1970.
But by establishing a beachhead in Poland and by strengthening Jewish institutions, we have been able to measure how our Jewish Heritage Program in Poland has profoundly impacted Jewish life and to engender Polish participation in changing the Jewish narrative.
As a beacon of Jewish awakening in the new Poland, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews traces the millennium of Jewish life and culture that existed in Poland before the Holocaust. That millennium comprised the most important center of the diaspora after the end of the Jewish Golden Age in Spain, producing formative religious, intellectual, cultural and political currents from Hassidism to Zionism, from Yiddishism to Jewish socialism, from the birth of the Jewish theater to the flourishing of the Jewish press.
In this 25th anniversary year of Solidarity, we celebrate a once-fledgling democratic
revolution that envisioned a new Poland in the making, one in which everyone — including its Jewish citizens — could enjoy the fruits of freedom, and could serve as a model for neighboring countries. They believed then, and it is our legacy now, not only to affirm that the horrors and indignities of the past should never be repeated, but to demonstrate a model for Eastern Europe.
Tad Taube is founder and chairman of Taube Philanthropies, president of the Koret Foundation and honorary consul for the Republic of Poland in the San Francisco Bay Area.