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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.

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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.

Polish law criminalizing some Holocaust speech takes effect

March 01, 2018

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A Polish law that makes it a crime to accuse the Polish nation of crimes that were committed by Nazi Germany took effect on Thursday, part of a larger effort by the nationalist authorities to harness history for its larger purpose of defending the country’s honor and pride.

For years Polish officials have struggled to fight phrases like “Polish death camps” that are sometimes used abroad to refer to death camps that were built and operated by Nazi Germany on occupied Polish territory during World War II. Some Poles fear that as the war grows more distant, new generations will mistakenly come to believe that Poles were the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

The law, however, has sparked a crisis with Israel, where Holocaust survivors and officials fear its true aim is to repress research on Poles who killed Jews during World War II. That is something that Polish officials deny. They insist that the law, which calls for prison sentences of up to three years, will only punish those who publicly and “against the facts” accuse the Polish nation as a whole for crimes committed by the Germans.

As the law took effect Thursday, Polish and Israeli representatives were in Jerusalem holding a first working meeting toward resolving a standoff over the law. The law has also created tensions with Ukraine due to a provision that criminalizes denying the wartime crimes of Ukrainian nationalists, who killed up to about 100,000 Poles in wartime massacres.

Poland’s president signed the law last month but also sent it to the constitutional court for review. Polish officials have said no criminal charges will be brought until the court has made its ruling, expected in several weeks.

But prosecutors are already looking for cases where Poland is defamed over its wartime activities. The law has also been criticized by the United States, which fears that it could stifle free expression and academic research, and has warned Poland that to go through with it could hurt Poland’s strategic relationships with both the U.S. and Israel.

Recognizing the concern about the law in the United States, the government dispatched its foreign ministry’s undersecretary of state, Marek Magierowski, to Washington this week to meet administration officials, lawmakers and Jewish groups to try to allay their fears.

Magierowski said Wednesday that the government had been surprised by the outcry over the legislation and allowed that Warsaw had not properly “prepared the groundwork” for explaining the law’s intent and impact. At the same time, he said, media reports and comments from foreign politicians had “brutally misinterpreted” the law and its intent, hence the necessity of his visit.

Magierowski said Poland would never “whitewash” its history and the fact that some Poles did commit “ignoble acts” during World War II. But, he said the law gave the government a means to fight back when the country is accused of complicity in the Holocaust. Previous attempts to push back, such as protesting use of the phrase “Polish death camps,” had been unsuccessful, he said.

“Those efforts had been fruitless,” he said, adding that the new law is a necessary “legal tool to allow us to fend off the narrative of Polish complicity.”

Matthew Lee in Washington contributed.

Israel to recall ambassador to Poland

February 13, 2018

The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Israeli Knesset yesterday started official steps to recall the country’s ambassador to Poland in protest against a Polish bill that criminalizes accusations of complicity in the Holocaust, local media revealed reported.

According to Quds Press, Israeli radio reported the move, which was introduced by the Zionist Union Members of the Knesset Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin and gained the support of many other MKs.

This move comes after the Polish parliament approved a law that disclaims Polish complicity with in the Holocaust that took place in Poland during WWII when the country was under German occupation.

Polish President Andrzej Duda signed the law last week, but before it is enforced it must get the final approval from Poland’s constitutional court.

According to the Times of Israel, the law sets fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone blaming “responsibility or co-responsibility on the Polish nation or state for crimes committed by the German Third Reich – or other crimes against humanity and war crimes.”

The US, France and Israel have criticized the law. Israel refused to receive a Polish delegation last week while Israel’s Education and Diaspora Affairs Minister, Naftali Bennett, had his trip to Poland cancelled following comments he made about the law.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180213-israel-to-recall-ambassador-to-poland/.

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