The American Jewish Committee’s new office in Poland has vast windows that illuminate every inch of its sleek, modern interior.
It just happens to also occupy the same place in which Soviet propaganda was produced decades ago.
That juxtaposition – of modernity and hope built upon a history of oppression – is one of many ways the pro-Israel advocacy group pays homage to the area’s dark past.
But it looks to the here and now to make life better for Eastern European Jews, democratic values and the region’s relations with Israel.
“AJC is committed to enhancing the transatlantic relationship between Eastern Europe and Israel and enhancing democratic values,” AJC president John Shapiro said during last month’s opening gala at the new POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. “We believe this support is essential to AJC’s abiding commitments, as well as a promise to support the Jewish past and Jewish future of this region.”
More than 500 people attended the ceremony celebrating the new facility and its support of communities in both eastern and central Europe the Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia and Hungary. AJC’s decision to establish an Eastern European presence is not random. The AJC has been a staunch advocate of Polish independence and bringing the nation closer to the West for more than 20 years, as evidenced in testimony supporting Poland’s entry into NATO given by the AJC CEO David Harris before the US Senate to its Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, an exchange program for Polish and American Jews.
“I learned in my home the gift of democracy, something that perhaps can only be truly understood by those who have been denied its blessings,” Harris wrote in an editorial explaining his reasoning in opening the Warsaw office. “As Poland emerged from the darkness of Soviet control, I was rooting for its success – as a nation finally able to chart its own destiny, reassert the primacy of the individual, reconnect with its European and transatlantic impulses, and rediscover its Jewish past.”
The new office comes as Europe enters a crisis made up, in part, of: radical terrorism; Russian election meddling; uncertainty over the future of a Trump administration; and the precarious nature of Brexit.
But the AJC sees hope, despite the grim situation.
“There are also some potentials,” AJC Europe director Simone Rodan-Benzaquen said. “At a time when Europe is facing terrorism, this is an opportunity for Europe. At a time when there is so much crisis, having liberal democracy is a safeguard. Coming together to combat the same enemy is absolutely crucial.”
As Harris said at the gala, the goal is to “not be prisoners of history, but authors of history.” As such, the organization hopes to help that be done by those Eastern European countries – ones generally friendly toward Israel – in multilateral forums like the UN. On the diplomatic front, Rodan-Benzaquen added: “We want our advocacy to translate on the multilateral field. Because often, a country’s relationship with Israel is strong on the diplomatic level, but it doesn’t always translate on the multilateral sphere.”
As an example, she cited the November 2015 UN guidelines on labeling settlement goods, where the AJC might have blocked such action had it been more active in Eastern Europe. Just months after that initiative, the Czech Parliament passed a resolution against it.
That is the kind of vocal, pro-Israel support which the organization hopes to accomplish.
But walking through the POLIN – with its impressive postmodern architecture and an entrance that looks like a gorge, whose cracks symbolize the voids of Polish Jewish history – one cannot ignore that there were nearly three million Jews in Poland before the Holocaust nearly destroyed all of Jewish life there.
For Harriet Schleifer, chair of the AJC board of governors, the Shapiro- Silverberg office holds personal significance. She recalls her parents harrowing life in Czestochowa, Poland, and their miraculous survival. Her mother twice suffered the heartache of love lost.
After her fiancé was killed, she married his fraternal twin – who was murdered – before eventually marrying Schleifer’s father and migrating through Europe, until finally the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society brought them to the United States.
“I heard stories my entire life. Everybody who survived ended up in tighter communities in the United States. I only heard Polish names growing up: Manyag, Silvan, Estusha. My world was Polish,” she said of growing up in New York. Schleifer was a major benefactor of the new office. Now she finds a source of pride in the photographs of her parents on its conference room walls.
“I think my parents probably are looking down. They left under terrible circumstances, but they are back in Poland in perpetuity,” she said. For Schleifer, as with many descendants of Holocaust survivors, Poland is a visceral experience.
“For me, coming here is a statement,that bears memory of their childhood and their parents and the people they left behind. They’re still alive for me. If I go to Treblinka, I can tell you my relatives are underneath my feet. My family is under my feet. So I come here so they’ll be more than under my feet. They’ll be in my heart. They’ll stay in my heart,” she said mournfully.
“They instilled in us identity, memory and remembrance, resilience of the human spirit, coping with tragedy but having to live a life and still remember,” Schleifer said. “We have to find the common humanity so we can do good things going forward, we can heal each other in the past and make the future together.”
From the ashes, a more vibrant future for the Jews of Poland has begun to emerge. The president of the Jewish community in Poland, Anna Chipczynska, who attended the gala, is in awe of the Jewish revival quietly developing there.
Thanks to the Internet and open borders, young adults born in the 1980s to families who kept their Jewish identity secret have begun to embrace what was once forbidden.
“The fact that we’re here today is really a tribute to the last 25 years of what Poland was going through,” Chipczynska said.