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Archive for April, 2018

Poland marks 75th anniversary of uprising in Warsaw Ghetto

April 19, 2018

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Sirens wailed, church bells tolled and yellow paper daffodils of remembrance dotted the crowd as Polish and Jewish leaders extolled the heroism and determination of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising fighters on the 75th anniversary of their ill-fated rebellion.

Polish President Andrzej Duda and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder said the hundreds of young Jews who took up arms in Warsaw in 1943 against the overwhelming might of the Nazi German army fought for their dignity but also to liberate Poland from the occupying Germans.

The revolt ended in death for most of the fighters, yet left behind an enduring symbol of resistance. “We bow our heads low to their heroism, their bravery, their determination and courage,” Duda told the hundreds of officials, Holocaust survivors and Warsaw residents who gathered Thursday at the city’s Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes.

“Most of them died … as they fought for dignity, freedom and also for Poland, because they were Polish citizens,” Duda said. Lauder said although the Nazis were defeated and crushed 73 years ago, “oppression and oppressors have not gone away and we need each other today like never before.”

“Jews, Catholics, Poles, Americans. All free people should stand together now to make sure that our children and grandchildren never know the true horrors that took place right here,” he said. People stopped in the street and officials stood at attention as sirens and church bells sounded at noon to mourn the Jews who died in the uprising, as well as the millions of others murdered in the Holocaust.

The daffodil tradition comes from Marek Edelman, the last surviving commander of the uprising, who on every anniversary used to lay the spring flowers at the monument to the fighters. He died in 2009.

At a separate ceremony at Warsaw’s Town Hall, three Holocaust survivors — Helena Birenbaum, Krystyna Budnicka and Marian Turski — were given honorary citizenship of the city. Hundreds of people also attended a grassroots commemoration that was, in essence, a boycott of the official state observances. Many people there expressed anger at Poland’s conservative government, which seems to tolerate anti-Semitism despite its official denunciations of anti-Semitism.

“I am not attending the official ceremonies this year because the government is supporting the rise of a dangerous nationalism,” said Tanna Jakubowicz-Mount, a 72-year-old psychotherapist who carried photos of a grandmother and aunt who were executed by the Germans. “We cannot agree to this.”

The alternative observances began with Yiddish singing and daffodils placed at the monument to a Jewish envoy in London, Szmul Zygielbojm, who committed suicide after the revolt was crushed to protest the world’s indifference to the Holocaust.

Participants then paid homage to the victims at several memorial sites in the area of the former ghetto, including at Umschlagplatz, the spot where Jews were assembled before being transported to the Treblinka death camp. There, one by one, people spoke Thursday about their family members killed by Hitler’s regime.

Signs of rising nationalism in Poland have also strengthened the resolve of those seeking an inclusive society. This year a record 2,000 volunteers were handing out the paper daffodils, which have become a moving symbol of a mostly Catholic society expressing its sorrow at the loss of a Jewish community that was Europe’s largest before the Holocaust.

There were also scattered private observances, including by American Jews returning to the soil where their parents and grandparents lived and died. Some 40 members of the Workmen’s Circle, a group from New York City that promotes social justice, honored the resistance fighters at the remains of a bunker in 18 Mila Street.

The son of an uprising survivor read personal recollections from the diary of his mother, Vladka Meed, while the group’s director, Ann Toback, vowed on what she called “hallowed ground” that the uprising would continue to inspire modern resistance to oppression.

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising broke out April 19, 1943, when about 750 young Jewish fighters armed with just pistols and fuel bottles attacked a much larger and heavily armed German force that was putting an end to the ghetto’s existence.

In their last testaments, the fighters said they knew they were doomed but wanted to die at a time and place of their own choosing. They held out nearly a month, longer than some German-invaded countries did.

The Germans razed the Warsaw Ghetto and killed most of the fighters, except for a few dozen who managed to escape through sewage canals to the “Aryan” side of the city, Edelman among them.

Top EU court: Poland broke law by logging in pristine forest

April 17, 2018

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The European Union’s top court ruled on Tuesday that Poland violated environmental laws with its massive felling of trees in one of Europe’s last pristine forests. The ruling by the European Court of Justice said that, in increasing logging in the Bialowieza Forest in 2016-17, Poland failed to fulfill its obligations under EU directives to protect natural sites of special importance.

Poland’s environment minister at the time, Jan Szyszko, argued that felling the trees was necessary to fight the spread of bark beetle infestation. Heavy machines were used in the process, causing additional damage to the forest.

Poland’s conservative government is involved in a number of disputes with the EU, including one over changes to the judicial system — an argument that has led Brussels to trigger a process that could lead to punitive measures against Warsaw.

In the forest dispute, the court said bark beetle infestation did not justify the scale of the logging, while Poland failed to ensure the safety of birds and other species in the forest. No fines were imposed because the machines have been removed and the excessive logging has stopped.

Environmentalists say the large-scale felling of trees in Bialowieza, which straddles Poland’s eastern border with Belarus and is a UNESCO World Heritage site, destroyed rare animal habitats and plants in violation of EU regulations. They held protests at the site and brought the case before the EU court.

The chief executive of the ClientEarth environmental organization, James Thornton, said the ruling was a “huge victory for all defenders of Bialowieza Forest, hundreds of people who were heavily engaged in saving this unique, ancient woodland from unthinkable destruction.”

Philippe Lamberts, co-president of the Greens group in the European Parliament, said Poland’s government has “repeatedly undermined rule of law.” “I hope this ruling will at last convince the Polish government that they need to change course,” he said.

In January, Poland replaced its environment minister and stopped the logging. The new minister, Henryk Kowalczyk, has said Warsaw will respect the EU court’s ruling and will seek better ways of protecting the forest.

The forest covers tens of thousands of hectares (hundreds of thousands of acres) in Poland and Belarus, and is home to hundreds of animal and plant species, including bison, lynx, moss and lichen. Its younger parts have been traditionally used to produce timber, a source of income for local residents.

The European court ordered Poland to pay court costs. It didn’t specify the amount.

Protests erupt in Poland over plan to tighten abortion law

March 23, 2018

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Thousands of people protested in Warsaw and other cities across Poland on Friday against the conservative government’s latest attempt to restrict abortion. Many also voiced broad anger at the ruling Law and Justice party, which has been accused by domestic critics and international bodies of eroding democracy and civic freedoms.

“This is against attempts at taking away our right to decide what we want,” said Paulina Rudnik, a 44-year-old lawyer at the Warsaw protest. In the crowds around her, people held banners reading “Free choice” and “A woman is a human being” and chanted slogans “Yes to choice! No to horror!”

Poland has one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, allowing abortion only if the woman’s life or health is at risk, the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or the fetus is damaged. An attempt by Polish officials to ban all abortions in 2016 sparked mass nationwide protests by women dressed in black that forced the government to abandon the plan.

The new proposed legislation would still allow abortions when the woman’s life or health is at risk or the pregnancy results from a crime. But it would ban abortions of irreparably damaged fetuses or those with Down syndrome.

In Warsaw, protesters gathered at the seat of the influential Roman Catholic bishops, who are pressing the government to tighten the abortion law. Beating drums and blowing horns, they marched to parliament and then to the headquarters of the ruling right-wing party.

“I hope this protest has the same effect as the one in 2016. Forcing women to have babies is inhuman,” said Karolina Chelminska, a 26-year-old graphic designer. In other protests, thousands gathered in Krakow’s market, and hundreds in some other cities, including Wroclaw, where some signs read “I will not give birth to a dead baby.”

The European Union’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, and U.N. experts are urging Poland’s parliament to reject the abortion bill, saying it puts Poland in conflict with its international human rights obligations.

Most stores shut in Poland as Sunday trade ban takes effect

March 11, 2018

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A new Polish law banning almost all trade on Sundays has taken effect, with large supermarkets and most other retailers closed for the first time since liberal shopping laws were introduced in the 1990s after communism’s collapse.

The change is stirring up a range of emotions in a country where many feel workers are exploited under the liberal regulations of the past years and want them to have a day of rest. But many Poles also experience consumer freedom as one of the most tangible benefits of the free market era and resent the new limit.

In Hungary, another ex-communist country, a ban on Sunday trade imposed in 2015 was so unpopular that authorities repealed it the next year. Elsewhere in Europe, however, including Germany and Austria, people have long been accustomed to the day of commercial rest and appreciate the push it gives them to escape the compulsion to shop for quality time with family and friends instead.

The law was proposed by a leading trade union, Solidarity, which says employees deserve Sundays off. It found the support of the conservative and pro-Catholic ruling party, Law and Justice, whose lawmakers passed the legislation. The influential Catholic church, to which more than 90 percent of Poles belong, has welcomed the change.

Among the Poles who see it as a good step toward returning a frazzled and overworked society to a more a more traditional lifestyle is 76-year-old Barbara Olszewska, who did some last-minute shopping Saturday evening in Warsaw.

She recalled growing up in the Polish countryside with a mother who was a full-time homemaker and a father who never worked on Sundays. “A family should be together on Sundays,” Olszewska said after buying some food at a local Biedronka, a large discount supermarket chain.

Olszewska said that before she retired she served cold cuts in a grocery store, and was grateful she never had to work Sundays. The new law at first bans trade two Sundays per month, but steps it up to three Sundays in 2019 and finally all Sundays in 2020, except for seven exceptions before the Easter and Christmas holidays.

Pro-business opposition parties view the change as an attack on commercial freedom and warn that it will lead to a loss of jobs, and in particular hurt students who only have time to work on the weekends. Even the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions opposes it, arguing that it will just push employees to work longer hours Fridays and Saturdays and that the work will be harder because there will be more customers.

Poles are among the hardest-working citizens in the European Union and some complain that Sundays are sometimes the only days they have free time to shop. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, only the Greeks put in longer working hours than Poles in the 28-member European Union. The average Polish employee worked 1,928 hours in 2016, according to OECD statistics.

Another last-minute shopper on Saturday evening, Daniel Wycech, 26, saw more drawbacks than benefits. “It’s not really a problem to do more shopping a day ahead of time, but if something breaks in my kitchen or bathroom on a Sunday, there will be no way to go to the store and fix it,” said Wycech, an accountant loaded down with bottled water, bananas and other groceries.

“I am angry because this law wasn’t prepared properly. It would have been much better to force store employers to make two Sundays per month free for each worker,” Wycech added. There are some exceptions to the ban. For instance, gas stations, cafes, ice cream parlors, pharmacies and some other businesses are allowed to keep operating Sundays. Stores at airports and train stations will also be allowed to open, as will small mom-and-pop shops, but only on the condition that only the owners themselves work.

Anyone infringing the new rules faces a fine of up to 100,000 zlotys ($29,500), while repeat offenders may face a prison sentence. Solidarity, the union that pushed for the law, appealed to people to report any violators to the National Labor Inspectorate, a state body.

Mateusz Kica, a 29-year-old tram driver in Warsaw, did his weekly shopping early Saturday to avoid the huge crowds he expected later in the day. He complained that the new law only relieves shop employees, but that workers like himself will still have to keep working weekends.

“This law isn’t really just,” Kica said.

Brutal answer to 1968 Polish youth revolt shown in exhibit

March 09, 2018

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A new exhibition opened Friday in Warsaw that looks at how 1968, a year of youthful rebellion across much of Europe and America, played out behind the Iron Curtain in Poland. In the West, young people protested the U.S. war in Vietnam, imperialism, sexism and racism, escalating social conflicts that eventually brought revolutionary change and emancipation to many.

But in communist Eastern Europe, yearnings for freedom and openness were crushed, not only in the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia of 1968, but also by a hard-line regime in Poland that cracked down on students protesting censorship and that persecuted Jews.

It would take Eastern Europeans 21 more years — until 1989 — to finally celebrate the crumbling of oppressive regimes that had spied on its citizens, restricted their travel to the West and kept them mired in poverty.

The Polish anti-Semitic campaign of March 1968, which turned half of the country’s Jews into refugees forced to rebuild their lives in strange new lands, is the main subject of “Estranged: March ’68 and its Aftermath ” at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

The exhibition begins by presenting 1968 as a year of revolt, with the postwar baby-boomer generation coming of age and revolting against the constrictive social norms of their elders. German youth demanded de-Nazification, Spaniards protested the Franco regime, and black Americans were on the streets of Memphis, Tennessee, demanding their civil rights.

“In Poland they were fighting for democratic socialism, against communist dictatorship,” said Dariusz Stola, the director of the POLIN museum. “So there was a global ’68 — there was something similar in the generational rebellion — but the conditions made them rebel against different things.”

The exhibition then turns to the complex story of the anti-Jewish persecution, with anti-Zionism first used as a propaganda tool in 1967 when Israel inflicted a crushing defeat on Arab armies in the Six-Day War.

Initially, Polish society welcomed the victory of Israel, a state whose founders and settlers included many Jews from Poland. A Polish saying at the time, “Our Jews beat Russia’s Arabs” reflected the pro-Israeli sentiment, as well as hostility toward the Soviet Union, which controlled Poland’s own communist regime.

It was then that the regime began referring to Jews in Poland as a “fifth column,” that is, a group that threatened the nation from within. The anti-Semitic campaign intensified in March 1968 in reaction to student protests crushed by the security forces. They used the fact that some prominent student leaders were from Jewish families to discredit the entire student movement.

The eventual result was the mass departure of 13,000 Polish Jews, among them Holocaust survivors, only 23 years after the end of World War II. The exhibition ends with quotes of contemporary hate speech, some of it targeting refugees, which could be easily mistaken for the language used in 1968.

“It’s a warning that if we are not cautious enough, it can happen again,” said Justyna Koszarska-Szulc, one of the curators. In a bitter irony, an exhibition long planned to mark the 50th anniversary this March finally opens after a new wave of anti-Semitism erupted in Poland in late January amid a dispute with Israel — the first large-scale manifestation of anti-Jewish prejudice in Poland since those dramatic days.

The new outbreak of anti-Semitism has left Poland’s Jewish community, which had been growing in the democratic era, frightened and uncertain of what the future holds for them now. The exhibition runs until Sept. 24.

Djukanovic vows EU path after sweeping Montenegro vote

April 16, 2018

PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — Montenegro’s ruling party leader Milo Djukanovic swept a presidential election on Sunday, preliminary results showed, and he pledged to keep the small Balkan country firmly on a European path after it joined NATO last year in defiance of Russia.

Djukanovic won 54 percent of the ballots, securing a victory in the first round and avoiding a runoff, according to results released by the independent Center for Monitoring and Research. His main opponent, Mladen Bojanic, won 33 percent.

If confirmed in the official vote count, the result will present a major boost for Djukanovic and his ruling Democratic Party of Socialists. Sunday’s vote, the first since Montenegro joined the Western military alliance in December, was seen as a test for Djukanovic, who favors European integration over closer ties to traditional ally Moscow.

“We have accomplished an important victory for (Montenegro’s) European future,” Djukanovic told cheering supporters, adding he saw the triumph “as the confirmation of Montenegro’s strong determination to continue on the European road.”

Djukanovic’s party earlier declared him the winner as supporters took to the streets to celebrate. Crowds drove in cars around the capital, Podgorica, honking horns and waving flags as fireworks lit the sky.

“Milo Djukanovic is the new president of Montenegro,” said Milos Nikolic, of the DPS. “This is a great victory, a historic victory.” Challenger Bojanic, who was backed by several opposition groups, including pro-Russian ones, vowed to continue his struggle against Djukanovic, describing him as “the man holding Montenegro and its institutions hostage.”

“I will continue to fight to free Montenegro of Djukanovic and his dictatorship,” Bojanic said. “I am appealing to opposition voters not to view this as a defeat but as a basis for further struggle.” Djukanovic, the country’s dominant politician, and his party have ruled Montenegro for nearly 30 years. President Filip Vujanovic, also of the ruling party, was not running due to term limits.

About 530,000 voters were choosing among several candidates in the Adriatic Sea nation that used to be part of Yugoslavia. For the first time in the staunchly conservative nation, a female candidate also ran for the presidency, winning 8 percent of the vote.

Djukanovic has served both as prime minister and president in several mandates since becoming the youngest head of government in Europe at the age of 29 in 1991. He was prime minister during a tense October 2016 parliamentary election when authorities said they thwarted a pro-Russian coup attempt designed to prevent the country from joining NATO.

Djukanovic led Montenegro to independence from much-larger Serbia in 2006 and was behind the NATO bid, which Moscow strongly opposed. He promised Sunday to work to overcome divisions within Montenegro, a predominantly Orthodox Christian Slavic nation where many still cherish historic links to Russia.

Bojanic, an economic expert and former lawmaker, has accused the ruling party of corruption and links to organized crime following a spike in crime-related violence. The fractured opposition parties supporting Bojanic include the pro-Russian Democratic Front, whose two main leaders are on trial for taking part in the alleged 2016 coup attempt.

Two Russian citizens also are being tried in absentia for the plot, which prosecutors said included a plan to assassinate Djukanovic. The Kremlin has denied involvement.

Macedonia faces new crisis over minority language law

March 14, 2018

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia’s president refused to sign legislation late Wednesday to make Albanian the country’s second official language — an action that could trigger a new political crisis in the small Balkan nation.

Amid protests inside parliament and outside the building, lawmakers approved the bill for second time after President Gjorge Ivanov had refused to ratify it in January. Under Macedonia’s constitution, the president can’t veto legislation approved in two separate votes. But Ivanov said in a statement that proper parliamentary procedure hadn’t been followed and he refused to sign the bill into law.

“As president of the Republic of Macedonia I will not allow this. The constitution and my conscience do not permit me to sign a decree approving such a law,” he wrote in a statement. “After the violent way in which it was adopted, this law can’t be considered an expression of democracy.”

The bill was approved by 64 votes in the 120-seat parliament, but the session was repeatedly disrupted by the conservative opposition. Former conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski tried to prevent parliamentary speaker Talat Xhaferi from speaking by switching off his microphone.

His party also tried to delay the vote by tabling 35,000 amendments — which Xhaferi, an ethnic Albanian, ignored. Macedonia has been plagued by successive political crises by the past three years, fueling intense rivalry between the long-governing conservatives and the Social Democrats who formed a new coalition government last year following months of political turmoil triggered by an inconclusive general election.

Ethnic Albanians make up a quarter of Macedonia’s 2.1 million people. Relations with the Slavic-speaking majority have often been tense.

Greece: Anti-austerity protesters eye post-bailout battle

April 25, 2018

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Athens and other cities Wednesday, vowing to challenge ongoing bailout-related austerity measures after the rescue program ends in a few months.

Three successive demonstrations were held in Athens in opposition to the sale of power plants, planned pension cuts, and funding cuts at state-run hospitals. Left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ government has promised lenders it will continue infrastructure privatization and draconian spending controls after the bailout program ends in late August, in exchange for more favorable repayment terms.

Greece’s post-bailout plans are due to be discussed on a visit to Athens by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Thursday and at a meeting of eurozone finance ministers the following day in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Protest leaders say they were also making their own post-bailout plans. “We don’t owe our pensions to (bailout) creditors. We worked our whole life to get our pension, and we will keep fighting till we get back what they have taken from us,” pension protest organizer Dimos Koumbouris.

The government has already signed up to more across-the-board pension cuts in 2019, the main reason of Wednesday’s march by retirees. State-run hospital workers were also on strike, demanding more funding for healthcare and protesting shortages in the hospitals. And workers at the Public Power Corporation, protesting the prospective sale of lignite plants, dumped sacks of lignite on the steps near parliament.

Greece has depended on international bailouts since 2010, and has had to push through stringent spending cuts and tax hikes in return for the emergency loans. Government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos on Wednesday said there had been no discussion with creditors on whether austerity measures agree for 2019-20 could be amended, but he cited data reported this week showing that the government had beaten budget targets for three successive years.

“Greece’s fiscal adjustment has been completed,” Tzanakopoulos. “The lenders should take that into account.”

Srdjan Nedeljkovic in Athens contributed.

Thousands protest austerity reforms in Athens

April 25, 2018

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Thousands of people have taken to the streets of Athens to protest bailout-related reforms, including the sale of power plants, potential pension cuts and staffing funding cuts for state-run hospitals.

At least three separate successive demonstrations were being held Wednesday, passing by parliament and the ministries of finance and labor. State-run hospital workers were also on strike, demanding more funding for healthcare and protesting shortages in the hospitals. Workers at the Public Power Corporation, protesting the prospective sale of lignite plants, dumped sacks of lignite on the steps near parliament. Pensioners were also marching to protest pension cuts.

Greece has depended on international bailouts since 2010, and has had to push through stringent spending cuts and tax hikes in return for the emergency loans.

EU urge Russia, Iran, Turkey to deliver on Syria promises

April 25, 2018

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union on Wednesday called on Russia, Iran and Turkey to ensure a halt to fighting in Syria, as international donors gathered in Brussels to drum up aid for the conflict-ravaged country.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the three have a “special responsibility” to establish a cease-fire and to press Syrian President Bashar Assad to return to the negotiating table. “We are seeing an escalation in military activities which is exactly the contrary” to what they promised, Mogherini said.

Around 80 countries, organizations and partners backing Syria are taking part in the donor conference. The EU hopes the meeting will give impetus to stalled peace moves under U.N. auspices, on top of gathering several billion dollars in humanitarian aid for Syria and for neighbors like Lebanon and Jordan, struggling to cope with millions of refugees. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said his country will provide 1 billion euros in new funding for 2018 and subsequent years.

The EU, along with many other partners, refuses to help with serious reconstruction in Syria until meaningful peace moves to end the conflict, now into its eighth year, resume in Geneva. Russia’s EU ambassador, Vladimir Chizhov, said “it’s high time the international community …. takes bold decisions to help Syria and its people get their country back together.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who faces elections in two weeks, said the plight of Syrians is simply getting worse. “The bitter truth is that despite all our combined efforts conditions have deteriorated. Lebanon continues to be a big refugee camp,” he said.

Britain’s State Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, agreed that Syria’s needs are enormous. “This is the world’s greatest protection crisis. If you look at what’s happened and what’s been done to people — breaches of humanitarian laws, the weakening of multilateral norms that we have seen for a long time — it’s all focusing on Syria,” he said.

“We all know that what we do on a humanitarian basis is only the sticking plaster on the wound. You’ve got to address the wound itself. So we hope that the seriousness of the conflict and the damage that it’s done might be used to further encourage the various parties to get going again.”

Meanwhile, U.N. Syria envoy Staffan De Mistura has warned that the northern, rebel-held province of Idlib could become Syria’s newest humanitarian crisis area. De Mistura said Tuesday that “Idlib is the big new challenge — 2.5 million people.” He told reporters that “there are women, children, civilians, and this is looming up there.”

De Mistura hopes the two-day donor conference “will be an occasion for also making sure that Idlib doesn’t become the new Aleppo, the new eastern Ghouta, because the dimensions are completely different.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 177,000 people have fled combat in eastern Ghouta since February. The rest — including about 12,000 fighters — relocated to Idlib.

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