Growing number of Israelis hoping to make Poland a second homeland

17-12-2004

Much of Israel's population has roots in Poland. Some Polish Jews who emigrated to Israel were driven by the dream of a new homeland, others escaped persecution. But whether they left of their own accord or were expelled, they were stripped of Polish passports by the country's communist authorities. It wasn't until a few years ago that the newly democratic Poland restored its citizenship to all those kicked out in anti-Jewish purges in the late 1960s. But those who had left earlier were not included. Since Poland became a new European Union member last May, growing numbers of Israelis have been asking for Polish passports.

Every Monday morning, a quiet side street in a residential district of downtown Tel Aviv becomes very busy. It's filled with young and elderly Israelis, queuing up in front of the Polish embassy. Just a few years ago, Polish citizens used to knock on the doors of foreign embassies back home, including the Israeli embassy, hoping to get a visa that for them meant a better life in the West. Now, with Poland a new European Union member, the tables have turned.

More and more Israeli citizens are digging into their past to discover Polish roots, to ask for a Polish passport. The families of many of those who are now standing in line here left Poland because of anti-Jewish purges under communism. On departure, they were routinely stripped of their Polish passports, which probably explains why many of the applicants are reluctant to talk about their motives.

Q: Are you asking for Polish citizenship?
YOUNG ISRAELI MAN: Yes.
Q: Can you explain why?
A: No.
Q: Are you here for the first time?
A: Yes.
Q: Do you like the fact that there are so many people here and that you have to wait in front of the embassy?
A: Doesn't bother me.
Q: Is this the first time you're here?
WOMAN: No, it's not, but I'd like not to talk about it right now.'

But even though the irony is not lost on the applicants that they are now asking for the citizenship of a country that once didn't necessarily want them, pragmatic reasons seem to prevail.

'My name is Michael Kerner. I'm an Israeli citizen. I'm 43 years old, married, two kids. I would like to have a Polish passport as insurance for my future. My mother and my father were born and grew up in Poland and moved to Israel in 1957. The Jews were not comfortable living in Poland at the time, and once they had the chance they left.

Q: You said that you're treating Polish citizenship as insurance. Can you explain that?

Though my roots are in Poland, I see myself as an Israeli. I was born here, I grew up here, my wife was born here, I speak the language. Nevertheless, Israel is not the most stable place. I want to have a place to go to, which will be easier.'

A couple in heir eighties are explaining to a consulate official in Hebrew that they represent an organization of Jews who once emigrated from the southern Polish region of Zaglebie. They regularly visit the local Polish communities they came from, and they think that a Polish passport would make their contacts even easier. For thousands of Polish Jews now living in Israel, the question of identity if a complex one. Until the 1970s, they recall, top Israeli parliamentarians and politicians, used to argue in Polish, and not in Hebrew, in the Knesset. Thirty-something arts impresario Yosi Notkowitz, who brings Israeli musicians in Poland, says that for him, his new Polish passport is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that his feet are really in both countries.

'My parents always told me stories about the past, the Holocaust, the ghetto, but also how nice was Poland, poems, compositions, literature. And when I thought about it, I knew that my family history is from Poland, so I want to be part of it. I remember the bad things, but I am as a bridge from the past to the future. That's the reason why I wanted to get a Polish passport.'

For novelist Miriam Akavia, who writes in Polish and Hebrew, and who arrived in Israel in the late 1940s, this new phenomenon marks a clear reversal of the patterns followed by her generation of European Jews, who came to Israel in search of a dream. For the new generation, she thinks, being European means more than being Jewish.

'I think that most are practical reasons. Young people know that Poland is now in Europe, in the new Europe. They want to be also free when they go to Europe, they like to travel, not to be pressed to show the Israeli passport which always can be attacked with the war, the conflict. Another reason maybe there are people who try to go back there to get houses and what their parents had. It's also easier when you have Polish citizenship. Yet another reason maybe it's maybe not for citizenship, but to travel to Poland to see the places where we had the roots. People are coming back very, very touched, and very open-eyed, they imagine one way, and they find another way.'

For the Polish embassy staff in Tel Aviv, the new wave of applicants is a challenge. Consul Edward Dobrowolski admits the embassy is ill equipped to cope with the workload. What is more, local administration officials in Poland that approve individual claims often drag their feet. One reason is that the status of property left behind by Polish Jews is unclear, while the Polish state has so far only agreed to return the property of Jewish organizations, not individual applicants.

'We have many people here and we arrange everything for them. We can accept about 100 applications a month, we arrange about two hundred two hundred applications per year. Approximately half of the applicants get a positive answer from Poland. You know, many different people and many different reasons standing behind their decisions.'

As many of the Israeli seekers of Polish passports are second and third generation Polish Jews, a whole new business has grown around them. Margaret Rok, who runs a law firm in Tel Aviv, says she's earning good money helping to process the applications that need to be filled out in Polish.

'I was working in the tourist business, but because of the situation for a few years I found myself out of this business, and I started to work with my language, Polish language. I find myself working now in a law office in Tel Aviv. I'm helping the people to fill in those documents, because many people can't speak Polish, can't read the documents properly. Sometimes they come back several times with the document, because they are wrong. They start some business in Poland and they think it will help them with all this property in Poland. We're opening a new business for Israeli people and I see it's more and more and more.'

But how ready is Poland for its new Jewish passport holders? Marcel Goldman is a retired top Israeli banker who left Poland in 1949. His entire family recently obtained Polish citizenship.

'I think that we now have the best relationship between the two governments, because both are pro-American. There's a period of close relations, I know that Poland bought some Israeli weapons. What is of much more interest to me is the relationship between the people. From time to time, many young Israelis are sent to Poland to see the martyrdom of Jewish people in places like Auschwitz like the Germans said the final solution. These young people come to Poland and they don't have any opportunity to meet Polish youth. It's a lot to do.

'There are still in Poland some people who are anti-Semites, we cannot hide it. That is their upbringing, that is maybe the people of the older generation. But I must say in a positive way, I used to lecture in Polish schools. And what I found is a lot of intelligent young people who want to know more and more about the Jews, history and culture, also about Israel. If we develop this segment, we shall have a very good relationship between the people.'

It will be interesting to see how many of the Israelis now seeking a Polish passport are actually asking themselves these questions. According to observers, for the time being the vast majority of them are treating Polish citizenship as little more than a flag of convenience.

17-12-2004