Saved by Keeping Sabbath: Interview with Poland's Chief Rabbi
"It's very hard to describe the feeling of a person who realizes they could have been on a flight that crashed."
Rabbi Michael Schudrich, who was spared almost certain death four days ago by refusing to violate the Sabbath and fly with President Lech Kaczynski, discusses his feelings on Israel National Radio. He spoke to Tovia Singer about the legacy and tragic death of Poland’s leader.
Tovia Singer: Last Saturday you were spared being on a flight to a memorial commemorating the massacre of Poles by the Soviets. You were invited to join the President of Poland to attend that memorial, but because the flight was on Shabbat, you were not on it when it crashed. When you heard about the crash, what went through your mind?
Rabbi Schudrich: I knew the president well, and his wife, Maria, and had about another fifteen or so other friends on the flight. My first thought was disbelief and shock. A little bit later, it sunk in that I could have been on that flight.
It's very hard to describe the feeling of a person who realizes they could have been on a flight that crashed. On the one hand, I felt tremendous sorrow for the loss of my friends. On the other hand, there is a sense of tremendous relief and gratitude. The president always made a point of inviting me to accompany him to places of massacre during the [Second World] War, as part of the clergy of the people of Poland; especially to Katyn, where about ten percent of the soldiers murdered were Jewish. This is a fact that has been remembered and emphasized by Presidents and Prime Ministers of Poland over the last 15 years.
The last time I was there with the president, I remember that he insisted that we had to fly together. One of the soldiers who was killed in Katyn was the chief rabbi of the Polish armed forces, Rabbi Baruch Sternberg. Kaczynski made a point of finding his plaque together with me. He said it was a Polish obligation to remember how Jews fought and died for Poland.
Tovia Singer: President Kaczynski was a conservative Catholic. Yet he had a legacy of someone who wanted to repair wounds with the Jewish community. What was the driving force behind President Kaczynski's good relationship with the Jewish community?
"Grandma liked to play cards, and whenever she would get a bad hand, she would say, 'Oy vey' – do you know what that means?"
Rabbi Schudrich: In many ways it was from his mother. His mother, who is now very ill, always taught her sons that Jews were always part of Poland. She had a lot of Jewish friends before and even after the war. Somebody told me that President Kaczynski's godmother was Jewish, which was very unusual at the time, and that must have had a huge impact on him as well.
While in general, people think that being farther to the right makes people more xenophobic and antisemitic, in his case, it was the opposite. He was a devout "John Paul the Second Catholic." The late Polish Pope, in his 27 year papacy, did more to fight antisemtism than anyone else in 2000 years. He was the first pope to state clearly that antisemtism is a sin. Part of Kaczynski's patriotism and part of his Catholicism was due to John Paul the Second's influence.
Tovia Singer: Poland, to many Jews, is one big Jewish cemetery. Yitzchak Shamir referred to the Poles as very antisemitic. You personally have been attacked in Poland. Many people would say to you, "Rabbi, what are you doing in Poland, building Jewish life? Poland is the past." What do you say to them?
Rabbi Schudrich: Before World War Two, there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland. By the end of 1944, over 90% of those Jews had been murdered in the Holocaust, still leaving approximately 350,000 Jews alive. After the war, Poland was immediately occupied by Soviet Communists. Many Jews realized that to feel safe saying the statement, "I am a Jew", they would have to leave Soviet-occupied Poland. So most Jews left. But some remained, many of whom gave up their Jewish identity. But since the fall of Communism, thousands and thousands of Poles have discovered that they really have Jewish roots.
Tovia Singer: There must be thousands of Poles who think they are Catholic, but are actually Jewish. Are you involved in trying to find the hidden Jews of Poland?
Rabbi Schudrich: That's what I'm doing here. I'm here because of them. I'm here to give them the chance to come back to the Jewish people. I'm here to give them a chance to learn about Yiddishkeit. There was one man, a little older than myself, who was invited to a memorial organized by the Israeli embassy for a Polish woman who saved two Jewish women during the war. He was told by a representative of the embassy that his mother was saved by this woman. He then understood that he himself was Jewish. That was nine months ago. A few months ago, he had his circumcision, and now he is a proud and active member of one of our Jewish communities.
One woman in her mid-forties told me that her grandmother used to make these strange pancakes, and then she met some Israelis a few years ago and understood that what her grandmother made was matzah. The woman said, "When little children used to misbehave, Grandma would say this strange word, 'Meshigeh' ['crazy person' in Yiddish - ed.] – do you know what that means? Grandma liked to play cards, and whenever she would get a bad hand, she would say, 'Oy vey' – do you know what that means? When we had meat (and we never really had pork in the house), she would never let us have milk afterwards."
So, did she know she was Jewish? Didn't she know she was Jewish? What her pushed her to see me, was that her son said, "We're Jewish. I want to be Jewish." He was at our Friday night Shabbat dinner last week. And now, their 15-year-old wants to go to a Jewish summer camp. Other grandchildren of "hidden" Jews I have met are slowly becoming part of the community, coming to our lectures, and learning about what it means to be Jewish.
"There is no question that both the left of center and right of center parties here are very pro-Israel."
These are just two of many stories. That's what I'm doing here.
Tovia Singer: You've held pulpits in very unusual places, such as Japan and now Poland. Japan saved thousands of Jews, including the Mir Yeshiva, during World War Two, which was strange given their relations with Germany. Why did the Japanese save Jews during World War Two?
Rabbi Schudrich: One possibility is that once you come into their country, they feel responsible for you. Another theory is that the Japanese bought into the protocols of the Elders of Zion, but they came to a type of belief that, "if the Jews control the world, then it makes sense to do something good for them, and they'll do something good for us". A third idea, which is the most difficult to prove, is that it was simply the will of G-d.
Tovia Singer: Are you optimistic that the future leaders of Poland will be as friendly to Israel and Jews as Lech Kaczynski was?
Rabbi Schudrich: I have no concerns. There is no question that both the left of center and right of center parties here are very pro-Israel. There is one far right wing party called the League of Polish Families, that is antisemitic, but they are now out of parliament.
The acting president (and leading candidate for president for some time), Bronislaw Komorovsky, told a story about Jews who tried to save a Pole. His uncle, who lived in Vilna, was a Polish Catholic who fought the Nazis, and he was imprisoned by Nazis. Some of his Jewish friends, from within the ghetto, sent out money and tried to bribe the Nazis to save him from prison. They failed, and he was killed. But Komorovsky will always remember that there were also Jews who saved Poles.