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I am ... a countryman of Jan Karski
President Kwaśniewski at Georgetown University
July 17, 2002

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to meet today representatives of Jewish and Polish-Jewish community in the United States. I am coming here to you first of all as a countryman of Jan Karski, professor of Georgetown University. A man, who as one of the first brought to the allies the shocking news about extermination of Jews in Poland occupied by the Nazis. A man, who was once referred to by Elie Wiesel, as not only a brave man, but better: a just man. The Polish citizen, the honorary citizen of Israel, he was a living bridge between our nations. In his memoirs he wrote once about his mother: "She believed that there was one God, but differently revealed to people. She took enormous tolerance from that and she was fervently convincing us that God required it in our relations to others".

Tolerant upbringing of Jan Karski, was rooted in beautiful traditions of ethnically and culturally diverse Polish Republic. Respect for other cultures and openness caused that in the 14th and 15th centuries Poland became a shelter for Jews persecuted in other European countries. It was in Polish land where the Jewish religious and philosophical thought developed throughout the centuries, where magnificent synagogues were built and where the modern Jewish nation was shaping. In the land on the Vistula river the unique Jewish parliament was debating - Vaad of the Four Lands (Waad Arba Aratzot). Talmudic schools functioned, religious currents, of which the leading was chassidism, were created, Haskala - Jewish enlightenment found it supporters, literature in jidish was born. At the same time Polish Jews co-created our identity and culture for hundreds of years - from the hero of our struggle for freedom fighting arm-in-arm with Kos´ciuszko - Berek Joselewicz, through great artists Izaak Beszewis Singer, Szolem Asz, Julian Tuwim, to a very special teacher - Janusz Korczak. Among outstanding Jewish minds formed by the Second Polish Republic we find also brothers Ulam, Stanis?aw and Adam, who managed to escape Holocaust and find shelter in the United States. The first one - an eminent mathematician and physicists contributed to strengthening the American defense potential, the other one - a great historian - by his works greatly contributed to the knowledge about the mechanisms of power of the Soviet Union. There are many more such examples - in nearly every branch of science and arts we would encounter important names of Polish Jews.

The Nazi murdered millions of Jews on our soil, but they also terribly mutilated our country and its culture. Only today, in free Poland, we are fully aware of the magnitude of our loss. More and more Poles are ready to repeat the words of Karski that all people murdered in concentration camps and ghettos have become our family. Not without reason the last wish of Karski was to be buried with a Jewish patch - the star of David that Jews were forced to wear during the war.

We, Poles, have a special duty to care for the memory of the Jewish people tragedy, and about an extraordinary heritage of Jews living in Poland. Together with regaining freedom we started a difficult process of clearing our conscience and learning full, sometimes bitter, truth. A strong testimony of this was a discussion about a crime of Jedwabne, that shattered our conscience, but that also helped us realize that we can begin to build the future only if we base ourselves on complete historic truth. During the ceremonies commemorating the victims of the murder in Jedwabne I asked for forgiveness on behalf of those who understand well one cannot be proud with Polish history if one does not express regret for the evil Poles did to the others. I am saying it after the completion of the investigation conducted by appropriate judicial authorities in Poland. Despite a long time that has past since that moment, few witnesses and little evidence, the findings unequivocally state that the people from Jedwabne were murdered by their Polish neighbors. The confession of guilt and words of apology were very important to us. We remember about the victims and we feel shame for those who failed in the most trying moment - failed as humans and Poles. These painful experiences should not lead, however, to falsifying the history, or questioning Polish suffering. Let us remember that every third tree in Yad Vashem Institute has a Polish name, and a nightmare of the war was tragically experienced by the whole Polish Republic. The Nazi murdered nearly six million of Polish citizens, half of whom were Polish Jews.

Ladies and Gentlemen!

In the result of the 2nd World War and the changes that cataclysm brought, Poland was brutally deprived of its hundreds years old multicultural character and color. The German plan of the "final solution", change of the borders and resettlement caused that our country for the first time in its long history has become a nearly single-nation state. The post-war Polish authorities strengthened the new image of the Polish society making it one of the most important dogmas of their internal policy. Policy that reached all the national minorities of Jews, Ukrainians, Germans, Belarussians, Lithuanians and others. The post-war generations of Poles did not know the question of minorities. Jews were a taboo subject, they practically did not exist in the political discourse or broader social awareness. The infamous events of 1946 and 1968 were part of this atmosphere. Forty five years of Polish-Jewish relations in the People's Republic of Poland were characterized by the conspiracy of silence. Today, in free Poland, we are restoring our knowledge and sensitivity, our remembrance and respect for historical heritage of the multicultural Polish Republic.

Thanks to the chance of discussing history publicly in an unrestricted way awareness of Poles has gone through enormous changes in recent years. We feel heirs of Jan Karski and we want to remain ones working on Polish-Jewish reconciliation and understanding. We wish to do it basing ourselves upon education of young people. We have to tell them everything about the Holocaust and sources of anti-Semitism. At the same time we have to remember that hereditary anti-Semitism does not exist. Anti-Semitism has always been a conscious violation of ethical norms. And everybody is individually responsible for it. Teaching and attitude of our great countryman, John Paul II, play a very big role in recognizing that. He was the first pope in history who prayed in synagogue and he did not leave the trace of doubt that anti-Semitism is not only shameful, but also - from the Church perspective - sinful. Uncompromising censure of anti-Semitism was of a great help to all men of good will who fervently wish to complete Polish-Jewish reconciliation in Poland.

For over ten years we have been able to do very much for the reconciliation. The dialogue between our nations has taken place on various platforms. Democracy and freedom have been conducive for the establishment and functioning of numerous foundations, associations and spontaneous initiatives. An important job is done by organizations working in Poland for years, such as the Roland S. Lauder Foundation or the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

As President I try to support all the undertakings serving the cause of the reconciliation between Jews and Poles. For these reasons I have assumed the patronage over the construction of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Its task will be to promote the knowledge of the history, customs and traditions of Jewish community in the territory of Poland. I also strongly support the organization of meetings and discussions such as, for example the recent Forum of Polish-German-Jewish Dialogue, whose participants I hosted in the Presidential Palace. For reasons already mentioned the competitions for young people about the history and culture of Polish Jews and knowledge about Israel today have a special role to play. This year nearly a thousand schools have applied to participate in this voluntary competition. About ten thousand of students took part in the previous editions of this race for knowledge! Polish youngsters are looking spontaneously for what their parents were deprived of for years. The numbers speak for themselves. They are a testimony that Polish-Jewish dialogue does not limit itself to lofty declarations, but is full of life, and concrete initiatives.

I would like to emphasize that the Polish authorities have been making every effort to compensate all the citizens of the Polish Republic for material losses they suffered. The restitution of communal property has already been regulated in the law. Jewish religious communes are gradually getting back their former property - first of all synagogues, houses of prayer, schools and cemeteries. The Polish authorities are going to postpone the deadline for filing the applications for the restitution of property to churches, including the Union of Jewish Religious Communes in Poland. I welcomed with satisfaction the establishment of foundations of Polish and foreign self-governmental and social organizations that are to care for the property of Polish Jews.

The problem that remains to be solved in Poland is the restitution, or rather compensation for the lost private property of all people who had Polish citizenship in 1939 no matter what their religion and nationality. At the moment the re-privatization law is being prepared. This law is meant to compensate everybody illegally deprived of their property in the spirit of equality before the law. Redressing the historic wrong is a long-term process. So far we have not been able to prepare a good law on re-privatization because of the magnitude of the problem and numerous objective difficulties. This is why the solutions that are being prepared will be a compromise. I will support the law that will be just but also realistic - so that it does not impose on the state the commitments that cannot be met, but only those that can be fulfilled. It will not be easy. But I do believe that we will be able to find the right way to solve this problem.

Since 1989 Polish foreign policy has been based upon the strive for understanding and agreement. Despite all harms and tragedies of the past the Polish-German reconciliation has become a fact to the surprise of the whole world. We have been developing harmonious relations with all the neighbors - including Ukraine, Russia and Lithuania. We have based our relations with Israel upon the same ethical principles. It is geographically distant, but so close to us, still today one can hear the Polish language in the streets of Israel. We, Poles, feel friends of Jewish people. Today, at the time of unceasing terror attacks on the citizens of Israel we strongly support this state in its right to peaceful existence. Because of our historic experiences we want to carry out a mission of bringing peace and reconciliation between the people. This process is difficult but viable. We know this since frequently in the past Poles, despite pain and suffering that they had inflicted upon one another, could bring themselves to understanding. We wish the same to Israelis and Palestinians. We wish the establishment of just peace in the Middle East as soon as possible. That will give Palestinians a chance for the creation of a democratic state, free from fundamentalism, terror and crime. A special responsibility for this process is borne by international community, first of all the United States but also by the states of Europe. However, above all, the Arab countries that after the end of wars could enjoy fruits of peace in that region. Poland, as it has done so far by deploying our soldiers to the Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese border in the frames of the UN-led operations, will continue to support actively all international efforts to solve the Middle-East conflict in such a manner. Because there is no other way to the lasing peace.

Ladies and Gentlemen!

Jan Karski, a Polish soldier and hero, brought to America Job's news about Nazi crimes conducted on helpless Jewish people. His example allows us to see that so very often what our nations have in common is connected with suffering and grief. But today we can start showing optimism and look boldly into the future. Europe has changed. Poland has changed, too. Today we are one of few countries where the number of members of a Jewish commune is steadily growing. It is a great joy for me that news that is brought today from Poland is news about life - Jewish life being restored in my country. Schools are being founded, kindergartens, youth clubs and Jewish educational institutions. Many people discover their Jewish roots, others become fascinated in Jewish history and culture, reading numerous publications on this subject that have filled in the shelves of Polish bookstores. Thanks to that after years of dull and gray monotony a beautiful tradition of culturally and ethnically diverse Poland is reviving. All of this is the reason for our pride and joy.

To conclude I have to sadden you a little. You will not manage to come to the Festival of Jewish Culture in Cracow's Kazimierz this year - and it is something you should regret! If you find time next year, please, do come. When you see the pre-war architecture of that district, its narrow streets, full of corners and yards where Polish Jews who have come to this event from all over the world walk, your hearts will beat faster of emotion. The Festival in Kazimierz brings back to that place its old, unrepeatable climate and a great atmosphere at least for a couple of days. You will see also Szeroka street, full of Polish and Jewish young people who holding their hands dance to the rhythm of Klezmer music. It is worth coming to Kazimierz to see this and to witness the birth of common Polish-Jewish future already today. Future that will be determined by wise, open and tolerant people - such as Jan Karski.


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