"Poles and Jews stood shoulder to shoulder in defence of the Republic of Poland”
Your Excellencies the Ambassadors,
All distinguished assembled Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen!
I am very happy that I am able during my visit to the State of Israel to participate in this ceremony in the Menachem Begin Heritage Centre. For the exhibition inaugurated today reminds us of common historical experiences that bring the Polish and the Jewish nations together, and of the values that underpin our friendship, such as freedom, security, tolerance, mutual respect, solidarity and friendship.
I am particularly pleased to be able to meet you in this very centre, named after Menachem Begin, born in Brest on the Bug River as Mieczyslaw Biegun; then in the rank of officer cadet of the Polish Army he came to Israel in 1943 as one of Polish army soldiers under command of general Wladyslaw Anders. And it was here, on this soil at his own request he was dismissed from the service in order to be able to join the struggle for a Jewish state of Israel, whose member of Knesset he was for next ten terms in office, from 1949, the state that he ruled then for six years as prime minister.
A similar decision, like that of Begin, was then taken by about 2.5 thousand Polish soldiers of Jewish origin. Polish military commanders and political leaders of the government of the Republic in exile fully understood the reasons motivating Jews and did not hinder such choices. Poles took leave of their Jewish colleagues, former fellow prisoners exiled in Soviet labour camps and then brothers-in-arms from General Anders’ army wishing them success in the struggle to restore their own state. They wished them success realizing that the same path led them to free Poland and to the creation of Israel: the path of armed struggle.
This way, in the life of Menachem Begin and a whole generation of Zionist Jews, educated in schools of interwar Poland, where along with young Poles of the “Kolumb” generation 1920, they were acquainted with the output of the great romantic poetry, patriotic poetry, in the life of the Jews who ardently desired their own state to be formed, a traditional Polish motto was embodied: "For our freedom and for yours". The freedom that the Jews together with the Poles defended on many occasions in the past and for which they stood up in arms together as citizens of the Republic of Poland.
For one thousand years, Poles and Jews lived together in one country, and Poland was for them a welcoming land: Polin, where they found shelter, fleeing persecution suffered in other countries of Europe. Thanks to the royal patronage and legal guarantees granted to them, Jews were safe, able to benefit from tolerance and freedom to profess their religion, and intensely developed their own culture and spiritual life. That is why in the 16th century Cracow Commune’s Rabbi Moses Isserles termed Poland “paradise for Jews” - paradis Judaeorum.
Most unfortunately, the Republic of friends, which for centuries we were shaping together, working for the common good, building nationwide the welfare of the country’s families, towns and villages, collapsed in the wake of aggression by Hitler's Third Reich in 1939 and in the wake of the Holocaust, which German Nazis brought to our soil. This way, the occupiers murdered six million Polish citizens, including three million Polish Jews. Such a planned destruction was an unimaginable crime.
This tragedy changed the course of history and the destinies of our nations. After World War II, the Jewish people built their own state, while Poland re-emerged on the map of Europe within its new borders, enslaved by the communist regime, and after half a century regained sovereignty and true independence. But the Poles and Jews continue to share many centuries’ heritage of coexistence in the Republic of Poland, in Polin where we jointly built prosperity of our nations and in defence of which we often stood in arms shoulder to shoulder to counter the invaders. I am happy that the exhibition recalls this important aspect on historical experiences shared by Poles and Jews.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Living for centuries in the Polish state, Jews worked hand in hand with Poles to build prosperity of the society as a whole and took on their responsibility for the Home Country. Polish Jews went into annals of history of the Polish armed struggle, and the traditions of our joint fight for Poland’s independence date back to the 18th century. Let me quote a few examples:
During the Kosciuszko Insurrection in 1794, when Poland opposed the aggression of the tsarist Russia, an Orthodox Jewish Light Cavalry Regiment was formed, consisting of 500 cavalrymen under the command of Colonel Berek Joselewicz. He defended the Praga district of Warsaw against the Russian army and suffered heavy losses in combat. The commander himself - like many other Jews - later fought in the Polish Legions of General Jan Henryk Dabrowski in Italy and in the army of the Duchy of Warsaw, and died in 1809 in a battle with the Austrians near Kock. He fell for Poland.
A symbolic figure for Polish-Jewish fraternity in the struggle for the freedom of the Home Country is also Michał Landy: 17-year-old student of the Warsaw School of Rabbis, who died from a gunshot, wounded by Russian soldiers, who were quelling a patriotic demonstration on the Warsaw Castle Square in 1861. Like many contemporary Polish Jews, he considered himself a Pole of Jewish faith. At the moment when he suffered a fatal wound, he was heading the demonstration and carrying a crucifix, taken from the hands of an earlier wounded Catholic monk.
Poles and Jews fought together for freedom of the Republic of Poland in the national uprisings: the November Uprising of 1830, in the January Uprising of 1863, during World War I in the Polish Legions of Jozef Pilsudski. In 1918, the independent and democratic Poland, as soon as it gained independence, immediately recognized Jews as rightful citizens of the country. Hand in hand with Poles and representatives of other nationalities, they served in the Polish Army, defending the reborn Home Country against the Soviets in the war of 1920 and the Germans in 1939. The names of the Polish soldiers of Jewish nationality appear on the lists of those killed in the Battle of Bzura against the Wehrmacht, and those murdered by the NKVD in Katyn.
When on April 19, 1943, the Uprising in the Warsaw ghetto broke out, as Mr President has pointed it out already, two flags were flown over the Muranowski Square, with the headquarters and stronghold of the Jewish Military Union, composed of Jews, the pre-war Polish Army soldiers: the blue-white flag and the white and red one. These two flags - Jewish and Polish - were visible from afar. They aroused particular fury of the part of the Nazis because they were a symbol of our common resistance against the murderers, against the invaders. Survivors of the ghetto continued to fight later along with the Poles in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Again, they were fighting and dying - for the freedom of Polish, for his freedom as citizens
Jews fought together with Poles for freedom, territorial integrity and security of the Republic of Poland, for they defended the country that gave them ample opportunities and prospects. In the Polin land for centuries Jewish identity was taking shape, Jewish culture and spiritual life were developing.
It was in Poland that Europe-wide famous rabbis worked, like Elijah Zalman - the Gaon of Vilna, which was called after the Jerusalem of the North. Here a great, mystical Jewish renewal movement: Hasidism was formed. Here famous tsaddiks worked miracles, like Elimelech of Lezajsk, whose grave attracts every year Jews making pilgrimages from around the world. In the Republic of Poland, Jewish religious life flourished with great intensity. Even much discussed heretical sects, ushered in by statements of Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank, had their root here.
Liberties enjoyed by Polish Jews were unprecedented. Local government, made up religious communities existed since the Middle Ages, enjoying royal protection and autonomy visa vis municipal authorities. From the 16th to the 18th century, it has also its supreme authority: the Sejm of the Four Lands for Jews from the Polish Kingdom, holding sessions in Yaroslavl and Lublin, as well as a separate Sejm for Lithuanian Jews convened in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Such a broad autonomy, with its own treasury and tax administration and the judiciary, was a unique phenomenon all across Europe. These institutions have been considered to be the nucleus of parliamentary system of the Israeli nation up until today.
In the Polin land, Jews participated actively in economic life, they ran their own trade and financial activity in cooperation with partners from other countries east and west of Poland. Economic contacts made by Jewish entrepreneurs, merchants and bankers reached far beyond the borders of the Republic of Poland. The evidence of broad prospects and the great momentum exemplified by the activities of Polish Jews is, for example, Gaspar from Poznan, who in the 15th century, travelled to Palestine, Egypt and India, where he met Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama and since then cooperated with him. In modern times, the Polish Jewish community had to its credit a whole number of prominent men of science and culture, who greatly contributed to the whole of humanity, for the development of the world.
Ladies and Gentlemen!
We, Poles and Jews, we are the heirs of our long and rich Polish-Jewish common history. We have had unique experiences, equally and beautiful, and dramatic ones. We are jointly the heirs of the Republic of friends, which saw the birth of many prominent representatives of the Jewish people, including the founders and leaders of the State of Israel, such as David Ben Gurion, and Menachem Begin himself.
Finally, we are witnesses responsible for memory and truth, especially the truth about what happened in Poland, occupied by the Germans, during World War II. I am confident that adhering to our shared values we will together build good future to both our nations and states, working together in various fields.
Thank you very much.