H.E. Radosław Sikorski

Foreign Minister of Poland

With Great Freedom comes Great Responsibility

Address to the American Jewish Committee
June 2, 2013
Washington, DC

HE Mr Radek Sikorski
Foreign Minister of the Republic of Poland

The American Jewish Committee has been a huge friend of Poland.

You were right there with us, as we re-joined the West, institutionally NATO and then the European Union.

We noticed and we remember. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Now let's make things better for people. We appreciate your continuing support for Poland's membership in the US Visa Waiver Program.

Beyond that, Warsaw and Washington have plenty to do together, especially in three areas.

First, security.

Europe has unfinished business. Ideas and policies that won the Cold War are under pressure, especially to the East of our borders.

Dictatorship in Belarus. Corruption in Ukraine. Frozen conflicts in the southern Caucasus.

EU/US teamwork and leadership remain the only way to make a difference. We need to stand tall – to be proud of what makes us strong, prosperous and stable.

US-Poland security cooperation sends its own signal.

We were in command of an International Division in Iraq.

We've had a brigade in Ghazni, one of the tough provinces in southern Afghanistan.

We have welcomed a permanent aviation detachment of US air force. A missile defense SM-3 base in Poland will help secure the US, Poland and other European allies from any Iranian missile threat.

Second, economy.

US-Poland economic relations are growing fast. Over the last decade our trade grew almost three-fold.

The US is a major investor in Poland. What goes around, comes around. Polish companies are starting to invest here.

New opportunities will come with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Yes, Asia is booming. But let's keep an eye on the hard facts. Economic relations between the US and EU generate half of the planet's GDP. Between 2010 and 2012 US companies invested 6 times more in Ireland than in China.

Let's press home this global advantage, and take the relationship to a bold new level.

A new free trade space between Europe and the US will be a defining force in global trade and politics for the rest of this century.

Third, values.

Immediate political interests come and go. It's partnerships based on shared values and instincts that count.

That's why Poland has promoted the new European Endowment for Democracy, modeled on its highly successful US counterpart. Poland is the seat of the Permanent Secretariat of Community of Democracies. Later this year, I will also announce the first International Solidarity Prize.

Poland has transformed itself in the past 20 years. We know all about transitions. What works, and what doesn't.

I want to see Washington and Warsaw working closely together to export this dynamic ‘technology of transition' to Eastern Europe, North Africa and Central Asia.

Ladies and Gentlemen

Today I want to use this opportunity to talk today about what only seemingly is beyond big picture policy.

I want to talk about people. The Jewish community in Poland. First, it's past.

Let's jump in a time-machine, and go back 80 years.

Right back to early June 1933.

After 123 years of disastrous foreign rule, Poland is back on the map of Europe. We are reasserting ourselves as an independent country. We had won the 1920 war against Bolshevik Russia.

But we are now in the grip of the Great Depression. Our GDP has dropped by a staggering 50 %.

Worse. We live in a bad neighbourhood.

To the West there's Adolf Hitler, newly installed as Germany's Chancellor in Berlin.

After the Reichstag Fire in February, Hitler has rammed through the infamous Enabling Act. He has almost unlimited powers.

To the East there's Jozef Stalin.

Not far from Warsaw in neighbouring Ukraine, his insane collectivisation policies are starving millions of Europeans. Cases of cannibalism are reported.

My distinguished predecessor as Foreign Minister, August Zaleski, is President of the Polish-American Chamber of Commerce.

Let us imagine that the American Jewish Committee of 1933 kindly invites him to make a presentation on Poland and Europe.

If he were here instead of me in 1933, he might start by saying just how large and dynamic and successful the Jewish community has become.

For centuries the borders of the Polish political space have moved to and fro, but within those borders Jewish communities have flourished.

He would have reminded the AJC that Jewish soldiers fought for Poland's freedom.

Since 1918 tens of thousands of Jews had moved to the new Poland, to escape persecution in Soviet Russia.

Now, in 1933, he says, Poland has the largest Jewish community in Europe.

A tenth of Poland's population is Jewish – some 3 million people.

Warsaw is the world's second largest Jewish centre after New York.

Jewish schools are booming, many state-sponsored. There are 600 newspapers published in Hebrew and Yiddish. 15 Jewish theatres. Movies in Yiddish are part of our wider cultural life. Jewish political parties from right to left have their say in Polish political life.

In 1933, Zaleski could have said, Poland offers Jews hope of surviving both the Nazi and Soviet persecutions.

That's the good news.

But Zaleski is honest. He would have addressed uglier issues.

In 1933 the sheer success of the Jewish community and the prevalence of Yiddish is aroused noisy hostility. Anti-semitism is a widespread attitude all over Europe and Poland is not exempt.

But Zaleski would have assured the AJC, that Poland's leader Marshal Pilsudski may not be Jeffersonian democrat, but stands firm against this crass populism. Zaleski would have reassured the AJC that Poland's Jewish community is part of Poland's very identity. Like Poland itself, it will grow from strength to strength.

Pilsudski insists that what counts is loyalty to Poland, not a citizen's language or religion.

This strong, honourable stand resonates among Jews in Poland and elsewhere.

Polish and Jewish donors pool their money and buy a plot of land in the Holy Land for Pilsudski. The certificate is still on display in the President's palace in Warsaw.

The AJC are campaigning to stop anti-Semitic ideas getting a foothold here in America.

Together, minister Zaleski and AJC might have appealed against political extremism, for America's greater involvement on behalf of friends and allies and, last but not least, liberalizing travel restrictions from friendly countries.

Unfortunately, the appeals went unheeded. A few years later, Hitler and Stalin attacked Poland.

Jews and Poles fought side by side.

On September 2, 1939, the Rabbis of Poland made an appeal:

“Let us praise the name of the Eternal.

We Jews, children of this land since time immemorial, stand in battle array, ready and waiting for Mr. President of the Republic of Poland and Supreme Commander to call us to defend our beloved Homeland at our posts and, if necessary, sacrifice our lives and our worldly possessions unreservedly at the altar of our Homeland.”

Some 2000 Polish Jews were among 21,000 officers murdered by Stalin at Katyn.

Poland could not defend its citizens from foreign predators.

We have learned the hardest possible lesson from this disaster. Today we invest in our national defence a steady 1,95 % of GDP and work as closely as we can with our allies, above all the United States.

6 million Polish citizens died in WW2. What does that number mean?

Poland lost almost three thousand people, a 9/11, each day, for six years.

3 million Polish Catholics and 3 million Polish Jews, which means that 90 % of Catholics survived and 90 % of Jews perished. Because Polish Catholics were second in the line for extermination.

Poland's great, fine Jewish community was almost obliterated.

As they set about their ghastly work, the Nazis passed laws - laws unique to Poland - sentencing to death anyone who protected Jews. Thousands were executed for trying to save their Jewish compatriots.

The courage of people who defied this madness humbles us.

It is said that our part of the world produces more history than can be consumed locally. It also produces extraordinary biographies.

Kpt. Witold Pilecki's story deliberately got himself arrested in 1940 and sent to Auschwitz, to gather intelligence on what was happening there.

His reports were smuggled to the West by the underground and presented to Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt, but they would not believe them.

Pilecki was at Auschwitz for two years. He then escaped and joined the Warsaw Uprising. He survived, joined the Polish army in Italy and volunteered to go back to Communist-dominated Poland undercover.

Unbelievably, this hero was given a show trial and executed - let's say murdered - in 1947 by the Soviet-imposed communist authorities

As Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich has put it:

When God created the human being, God had in mind that we should all be like Captain Witold Pilecki

Pilecki was a Polish Catholic. But Polish-Jewish heroism could be equally astonishing.

A teenager from Łódź was sent on cattle cars to Treblinka in the last days of 1942.

He escaped from the train, and was helped by a Polish peasant.

In April 1943, in the Polish underground he attacked German troops from outside the Warsaw ghetto. Under the nom-de-guerre “Rysiek” he liquidated Nazi collaborators in the streets of Warsaw.

In August 1944 he again joined the fight, this time in the Warsaw Rising.

After the Soviets entered Poland in 1945 he left the country and joined the Polish Second Corps in Italy, which was part of allied forces”.

Demobilized in 1947, he left for Palestine. He fought for Israel in the 1948 war of independence. Mobilized several more times, he fought in the Yom Kippur.

Like Witold Pilecki, this man was a freedom fighter on an almost superhuman scale. “Rysiek” did not give up in that cattle truck, that would have taken him to Treblinka. He has not given up yet.

His real name is Stanislaw Aronson, Colonel of the Polish army, colonel of the Israeli army, and he has travelled from Tel Aviv especially to be with us tonight.

Let us celebrate a hero. From this platform let me say “thank you” to Stanisław Aronson.

Thank you for what you and so many others did to fight for Poland and for the cause of freedom.

Thank you for what you did to help us all be together, free, here today.

How about Poland's relations with Israel?

With the Cold War behind us, Poland and Israel are working out their own political, economic, cultural and let's even call them psychological relationships.

And I am pleased to tell you that on every count our bilateral relations are good and strong.

Israeli visits to Poland are shooting up.

Israeli citizens are regaining personal links with Poland and even Polish citizenship. Last year we issued 2000 new Polish passports in Tel Aviv.

Poland and Israel have good close military and intelligence cooperation. We Poles know that like Poland in the 1930s, Israel today lives in a difficult neighbourhood. We both learnt in the 20th century that when enemies say they want to exterminate you, they often mean it.

Egypt is struggling with its transition from dictatorship. Hamas is a terrorist organisation.

Syria is a humanitarian disaster. The motives and policies of Iran are dangerous.

Vile anti-semitic rantings from certain Islamic clerics are a special disgrace.

Western governments should be doing a lot more than they are doing, at the UN and elsewhere, to condemn them.

Working out when and how to manage these strategic threats in a way is a top priority for Israel's leaders.

It's one thing to face grave, even existential threats.

It's another thing to respond wisely and well, 100% of the time.

I am sure that within the AJC you have vigorous exchanges on Israel's policy dilemmas and operational choices.

Within the European Union, these debates can be tough.

Poland doesn't- and need not - support everything Israel does to maintain its security, or its handling of Palestinian issues.

We don't support the Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories.

However, we completely reject and resist Islamic extremism.

Polish soldiers continue their mission in Afghanistan, as proudly as they did in Iraq.

Our military trainers have helped stabilize the situation in Mali.

Poland's basic policy on Israel is principled and unambiguous.

Poland affirms Israel's right to exist within secure borders.

Poland affirms Israel's right to defend itself.

After what happened in WW2 to Poland and to the Jewish community in Poland and across Europe, no-one should expect today's Israel to sit meekly and wait to be attacked.

A wise Israel will think about helping the Palestinians achieve the same.

Let me conclude.

Poland today is free. Strong. And getting stronger.

With great freedom comes great responsibility.

Part of this responsibility lies in making sure that today's Jewish community in Poland is safe, welcome and respected.

Across Poland - most notably in Cracow but in other towns and cities too - Jewish festivals and events are establishing themselves.

We support today's Poland's Jewish community.

We honour Poland's historic Jewish community. Not just for how it died. But for how it lived, and how it is coming back to life.

In Warsaw in April a new museum opened its doors, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

This museum has been built in the heart of the former Warsaw Ghetto area on land donated by the city of Warsaw.

The building has been paid for from Polish public funds.

It's going to be a world-class centre for Jewish history and culture.

I expect that some of you here have generously supported this fine project. Thank you for that.

Today, the Jewish community in Poland is growing. It is welcome and requested.

We all draw new strength from their heroism. We accept the responsibility that our hard-won freedom gives us.

To remember, and to learn.

To build, and to look to a future.