Forbes Poland has published an investigation in to the sale and proceeds from Pre-World War II Jewish Communal property. This ground breaking article is having reverberations in Poland and in Jewish communal agencies such as Federations, synagogues, and foundations in America.
Dr. Joanna Auron, a board member of Beit Polska, wrote a response to the investigation in English and Polish. We bring you both. Menachem Daum made a short You Tube film about this issue but it was largely ignored.
Investigation into Jewish Community Financial Irregularities. A Response to Forbes’s “Kaddish for a million bucks”.
Joanna Auron-Górska, PhD. Beit Polska
Each day now brings us closer to Yom Kippur. Into our cheshbon nefesh, soul-searching, there intrudes a disturbing sound: the low humming of numerous small voices hurt by poverty, by neglect, by exclusion. Who is to blame? Not me! We recoil, lazy and disgusted. But there is not, there never has been, a “not me” to other people’s suffering. That is why nearly all of our prayers are in the plural. We only exist through a community. Although the Forbes’ publication of Wojciech Surmacz and Nissan Tzur’s article “Kaddish for a million bucks”, revealing the irregularities concerning the restitution of Jewish property by the Warsaw Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, commonly known as Twarda, has forced the majority of Polish Jews to confront questions they cannot answer, let us not immediately say: Not me! At least let’s not say so in our hearts. Instead, let us wholeheartedly accept the first person plural suffix of the Ashamnu, and say: We are guilty. By passivity, by helplessness, or by indifference we have betrayed the trust of our brothers and sisters, neglecting to care for their needs and allowing that which is rightfully theirs to be taken from them.
The Forbes article has received responses ranging from accusations of antisemitism aimed at Forbes itself, to praise for its journalists’ integrity, to comments that point at the Jews as “milking” the Polish nation. From an internal Polish-Jewish perspective, the article in Forbes brings to light the painful split between the Twarda community and all non-orthodox Jews, whom the policies of the Warsaw Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, known as Twarda, relegate to the status of at best lesser Jews, at worst outright goyim. My own congregation Beit Polska, in no way related to the Twarda gmina and its leaders but rather an entity that the latter have been trying for years to sue out of existence, is open to people seeking contact with Judaism and entirely transparent in its finances. Since we were never confronted with the kinds of temptations faced by the Twarda leaders, it may be easy for us to distance ourselves from those other Jews whom the Polish government enabled to so freely dispose of pre-war Jewish property. Even so, let us say: we, too, have stolen.
As certain as we may feel that had we had a say in the distribution of the wealth that came with the oh-so-sellable synagogues, houses, and mikvehs, we would have used it to make sure that all Polish Jews have Jewish schooling, old-age homes, hospices and hospitals, let us say Ashamnu. And we would also have taken care of the Righteous Poles who risked their lives to help us during the war, and may now be living in poverty and loneliness. Bagadnu. So, comfortably assured in our innocence, let us say: where fellow Jews have done wrong, we have done wrong. Gazalnu.
Responsibility does not equal guilt. We are not guilty of other Jews’ misdeeds, but we are all responsible for each other. It is the still small voice from the book of Kings that prompts us to accept this responsibility. Let us heed it regardless of whether they include us within their definitions of responsibility. Jews may differ in our self-definitions, ritual and creed, but the demand for responsibility is categorical for us all. And, while we are not responsible for other Jews’ souls, we must warn each other against committing evil, prevent each other from hurting others and ourselves, and oppose injustice to both our own people and to strangers. Hats off therefore to Forbes for helping us do so.
I had heard of the expropriation racket described in “Kaddish for a million bucks” during private conversations on international flights, in the lobbies of Polish and foreign synagogues, and in various settings all over Poland; I had listened to the cataloguing of losses that came from both religious and secular Jews and non-Jews; I had been powerless to explain the continuing perpetration of those misdeeds; I had been unable to justify them; finally, I had also been unable to deny them. That is why I have read the results of the Forbes investigation with trepidation, but I also read them with a sigh of relief. Let the courts clear this up. And let us no more hear on our travels of Polish Jews taking the property of Polish Jews.
I hail the courage and the integrity of the Forbes in exposing the touchy issue of misspent Jewish money. “Kaddish for a million bucks” quotes verifiable facts and varied sources; it lists confirmable data, provable numbers, and exact dates. All can be checked and corroborated. Or proven false. Polish antisemites have already picked up the scent of the wounded and are overjoyed to cry: Guilty! All Jews are to blame. Never mind that we may so lack spending money that we squabble over every zloty. Antisemites will blame me for the errors committed by those very same people who exclude my community from the sphere of their responsibility.
That is why Forbes should pay no heed to accusations of antisemitism. These are nonsense. Antisemites have no use for facts. To them, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew, each Jew equally guilty regardless of what the Jew does or does not do. So let us never point to the people who help Polish Jewry return to loyalty, justice and its good name as antisemites. Antisemites are, rather, the few Jews who dispossess our poor and our children, and the many Jews and non-Jews who could have spoken out against the dispossessing but, instead, careful of their own prosperity and comfort, chose to allow the shame to go on. These people are surely not friends of Polish Jews.
Yes, there are assertions in the Forbes article that I find offensive. Saying that converts to Judaism are not “real” Jews contradicts Jewish law. Although I understand that the intention may have been to prevent blanket accusations being thrown at all Jews in general (or maybe it was to suggest that the motivations for conversions may have been mercantile), it is not for me or Forbes to question the validity of the Beit Din’s decision. Also the article’s final sentence, saying that Polish Jewry have American and Israeli bosses whom they fear does nothing but feed the stereotype of American-Jewish conspiracy; there is no need to foster it further. Those are, however, tiny glitches, and those who trumpet those up are trying to divert our focus from the main issue: expropriating the property of all Polish Jews by a few other Jews.
Neither I personally nor my gmina Beit Polska can rectify the injustices done to the poor among the Polish Jewry and to the Righteous Poles. That is why I applaud Forbes’s decision to publish the results of their investigation into the fate of the sold-out Jewish property. I hope that the article results in a legal enquiry that will stir the people who can help us into realizing that we are, indeed, responsible for one another. That it was necessary to make public the shame that such brazen theft places on all Jews fills me with profound sorrow. But evil is like a snowball; once set in motion, it carries us down ever faster, and we cannot get out even if we would. It requires a shock, be it a shock of exposure, of punishment, or of recognition, for one so entrapped, to return to the top of the mountain with Abraham and lift his/her eyes to see beyond her/himself. Thinking about our families and about strangers – be it the strangers among whom we live or the strangers who live among us – about the people whom we have hurt and whom we have not hurt, about our own people and about other peoples, we repeat, as we do every year, our tribal, our human, our religious, irreligious, or a merely metaphorical “we have sinned”.
What we can do to make it better now is open up an enquiry into the matter of Jewish property that had been returned to the legal bodies enumerated in the Forbes’ article. Accountancy books and ledgers of the institutions of the “Kaddish for a million bucks” must be opened to an independent and objective legal scrutiny. Let the guilty, if they be found guilty, be brought to an understanding of their guilt; let the innocent, if they be innocent, be freed from all blame and all suspicion forever. So we may be free to trust each other again, and become, again, fully areivim – not merely responsible for, but also sweet to each other.
The unaccounted for funds may make the scoop of news stories outside Poland, but the real loss to the Polish Jewish community are Jewish lives distorted by communal fights engineered to cover up abuses of power. The Twarda policy of rejecting as many as possible from exploring Judaism and their own Jewishness resulted in many Poles with Jewish ancestry rejecting Judaism altogether. After the Shoah, there is only one way to be Jewish — non-practicing Orthodoxy? Those who approach the rabbi, could they please produce the requisite documentation of their mothers’ Jewishness? Shande. We have lost so many Jews to this fight. People who brought their sons into the covenant of the Jewish people were refused and thrown out of their synagogues. Young women and men who had taken their first steps in Judaism were told that they would never be able to marry in the Jewish community or bury their dead in any of Poland’s numerous Jewish cemeteries. When the use of underused or vacant communal buildings was requested, access was denied. When elderly pensioners attended Jewish events seeking to connect with Jewish life, who was it that threatened to report them as practitioners of another faith and take away their tiny Holocaust pensions? And when tourists groups came, they were told there is no Jewish life and please give money to repair buildings.
A thorough analysis of the accounts under suspicion will surely clear up the good name of Polish Jewry. For now, the shame that seeps from those unaudited accounts affects our relations with those around us. Those of us who refuse to feel responsible for the deeds of those other Jews delude themselves if they think they will not be considered responsible. There are people who wish there were no Jews in Poland. They will blame us equally. There are people who are unaware that the Twarda community is by no means the only Jewish community in Poland, and that our two communities are not only separate in religious and public life but also in their accounting. In other words, you are mistaken if you think Jews in Poland are no longer perceived as the Jews. In the face of the revelations of the “Kaddish for a Million Bucks”, let us not beat our chests and cry: Not me! Instead, let us ask Polish courts for an audit of Twarda accounts, and go on to all together pronounce our million dollar Vidui.
Glossary of terms:
Vidui – a confession of sins
Yom Kippur – Day of Atonement, when Jews seek to atone for their sins
cheshbon nefesh – examining one’s conscience, an “accounting of the soul”
Twarda – a colloquial name for a Jewish umbrella establishment in Warsaw
gmina– a derivation of the German word word “Gemeinde”, meaning “community”
goyim – (Hebrew, pl) – an offensive term describing non-Jews
Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu: the beginning verses of the Vidui confessional
Kaddish – a prayer for the dead
Beit Din – a Jewish court which, among its other tasks, accepts converts into the Jewish people
areivim – Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, All of Israel are responsible for each other/sweet to each other; from: Talmud (Shevuot 39a)
Shande – (yiddish) – shame
Rabbi Beliak’s Initial Response
For those of us who had such high hopes for a renewal of Jewish cultural and religious life, the strong questions raised by the Forbes articles comes as confirmation of a sad reality. Where has the patrimony of our people gone? It could have served as a basis for senior homes, hospitals, schools, museums, and the general purposes of building Jewish life for our Progressive movement and other parts of the great palace that is Judaism. We could have aided those Poles who aided us. We could have given dignity to those who survived. We could have restored dignity to our own people!
It is not only a case of unaccounted for funds but also an ignorance that allowed for a third stage of destruction after the Nazi Germans and Soviet Russians came the liquidators with no Jewish knowledge or conscience!
From the perspective of our movement — Progressive Judaism — the current regime of “Twarda” managed to obliterate what remained of the great diversity of tradition of of pre-World War II Polish Jewry. The 100,000 strong Polish Progressive Jewish community produced Rabbis like Ozjasz Thon who served from 1897 to 1936 in Krakow’s Tempel Synagogue. Thon also was the leader of the Jewish delegation in the Sejm from 1919 to 1935. He spoke and wrote fluent Polish, German, Russian, and Hebrew. Thon was a Progressive rabbi along side of Rabbi Nahum Asz in Chestochowa and Rabbis Abraham Poznanski and Mojzesz Schorr in Warsaw. They were part of a diverse community that included Orthodox, Hassidic, Zionist, and Yiddishist strains.
Now Progressive Jews cannot even use their synagogues because of an pseudo-orthodox monopoly that seeks to turn everything in to museums instead of living communities!! Instead of teaching, learning and encouragement — embracing people seeking Judaism — we have suspicion. A cadre of teachers mostly orthodox or serving under the rules of the orthodox seeks to stifle Jewish life. There is no welcome and no planning for the future. There will be a small community of Jews in Poland but let it be free and diverse!
When the 100 Cantors visited Poland a few years back the Chief Rabbi greeted them in Rabbi Thon’s Tempel Synagogue by demanding separate seating for men and women! A practice foreign to most Jews and unacceptable through out most of Jewish history for a simple meeting! No plea for these Cantors to return to teach and inspire only to conform to anachronisms.
As these financial revelations are clarified and investigated my focus will be on the future of Jewish life renewed despite apparent theft. What a shame! What a shande!
Shande is for term ignominy, humiliation, embarrassment. Many have turned to me to ask about this shande. I feel pain at these revelations. The real humiliation (shande) will be if there is no proper accounting and matters are allowed to continue in this terrible way. Thank you to Forbes for its courage!
Please click here to read the Polish version of Investigation into Jewish Community Financial Irregularities. A Response to Forbes’s “Kaddish for a million bucks”.