Polish president made historic synagogue visit

Other News Materials 22 December 2008 03:03 (UTC +04:00)

Poland's president celebrated the start of Hanukkah by visiting Warsaw's main synagogue Sunday, a gesture the city's Jewish community greeted as a historic step in its revival, AP reported.

Lech Kaczynski's visit marked the first time the head of state has attended a religious service at a synagogue in Poland, whose Jewish population was nearly wiped out in the Holocaust and later suffered from communist-era repression.

The visit "means we're in a normal country ... a country that treasures that it has citizens of different religions and of different backgrounds," said Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich.

As Kaczynski entered Warsaw's century-old Nozyk synagogue just after sundown, the congregation rose and a group of Jewish children sang "Shalom Aleichem" - "peace be upon you."

Wearing a yarmulke, Kaczynski strode to the front of the synagogue, where he sat as a choir sang the Polish national anthem and a song in Yiddish - the language spoken by many of the nearly 3.5 million Jews who lived in Poland before World War II.

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Poland was a haven for Jews for nearly 1,000 years, and was home to Europe's largest community before the war. Most were killed in the ghettos and death camps that Nazi Germany set up after it invaded Poland in 1939, at the war's start.

In the nearly 20 years since communism fell, the community has enjoyed new vitality, with Jews returning to their roots and shaking off old fears of anti-Semitism.

A prayer for the Polish nation, written for the occasion of the president's visit, was also read.

Kaczynski then lit a cream-colored candle that was placed on a silver menorah.

Piotr Kadlcik, the head of the country's Jewish community, said a pre-World War II president, Ignacy Moscicki, visited a synagogue in the 1920s - but that was not for a religious ceremony and he did not spend time with the congregation.

Kaczynski, himself a devout Roman Catholic, has long been a friend to the Jewish community.

He visited the synagogue in his former role as mayor of Warsaw; he promoted a planned museum on Jewish history by donating city land to the project; and for the past two years he has marked Hanukkah with candle-lighting celebrations at the presidential palace.

But his appearance in the house of worship - amid those who had survived the Holocaust and children with no memory of it - was greeted as even more meaningful.

"This time the president came to visit us," said Rabbi Mati Pawlak, the first native Pole to serve as a rabbi in Poland since the fall of communism. "It shows that relations are getting closer."

Moshe Hayman, 47, an Israeli who moved to Poland 15 years ago, said he saw the visit as a historic moment.

"For Jews, it symbolizes victory," he said. "I see his presence here as a miracle."

Kaczynski mingled with members of the community, drinking red wine and eating latkes, potato pancakes that are a tradition during the eight-day festival of lights.

"I would dare to say that he really enjoyed it," said Kadlcik. "He was talking to people, he was really very open, very friendly."

Pawlak, who is the principal of Warsaw's only Jewish school, credits Kaczynski's support for the Jewish community with creating a spirit of tolerance that has spread to other authorities nationwide.

That has brought more support for projects such as the restoration of old Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, and educational programs, he said.

"This is a very important visit for the Jewish community of Poland," Pawlak said.

Elsewhere, Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz joined a candle-lighting Hanukkah ceremony in front of the Palace of Culture, the city's landmark skyscraper.