Poland has become a new land of possibility for many IsraelisImage: AP
Israelis Eager to Get Polish Passports
Rafal Kiepuszewski (jam)
November 28, 2004
A large number of Israelis have roots in Poland, having either emigrated during the communist era or been forced out by anti-Jewish purges. Now many are reapplying for Polish passports, largely for pragmatic reasons.
Every Monday morning, a normally quiet side street in a residential area of Tel Aviv bustles with activity. Israelis, young and old, line up in front of the Polish embassy there, digging deep into their pasts in an attempt to prove to authorities that they are entitled to a Polish passport.
It is an ironic reversal, since many of these same people, or their parents, once lined up in Poland knocking on the doors of foreign embassies trying to get a visa to would enable to escape anti-Semitic persecution or simply make their way toward a better life.
Today, that better life might be back in Poland.
"I would like to have a Polish passport as insurance for my future," said Michael Kerner, 43, an Israeli with two children. His father and mother were born in and grew up in Poland, leaving in 1957 when anti-Jewish sentiment made life there too difficult for them. Although he has Polish roots, Kerner considers himself an Israeli, since he was born in Israel, speaks Hebrew and is married to an Israeli woman.
"Nevertheless, Israel is not the most stable place," he said. "I want to have a place to go to which will be easier."
Options for the future
The dream of a Jewish homeland is still strong is Israel, but the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has led some to question whether that dream is an impossible one. Suicide attacks, the Palestinian Intifada, and a nation in an almost continual state of siege have many looking for other options for themselves and their children.
Poland, once the country they and their families turned the backs on, is beginning to look more attractive, particularly after it joined the EU on May 1. While many countries, including Germany, still have restrictions in place that prevent new EU citizens from coming to work there for years, Britain and Ireland have already opened their borders.
"Young people know that Poland is now in Europe and they want to be free to travel, not to be pressed to show the Israeli passport which always can be attacked because of the conflict," said Miriam Akavia, a novelist who arrived in Israel from Poland in the late 1940s.
Back to the roots
But besides having more freedom to travel or looking for a possible new home should the Israel-Palestinian conflict spin out of control, others seeking Polish passports do so to get closer to their Jewish roots. For thousands of Polish Jews now living in Israel, the question of identity is a complex one. Until the 1970s, leading politicians in the Israeli parliament used to argue in Polish.
For some, like arts manager Yosi Notkowitz, his new Polish passport is an acknowledgement of the fact that his feet are really in both countries. He remembers the stories his parents told him about life in Poland -- his family history, the Holocaust and Polish art, music and literature.
"I want to be a part of it," he said. "I'm like a bridge from the past to the future."
Challenge for embassy
For the Polish embassy in Tel Aviv, the wave of applicants is proving a challenge, since the staff is ill equipped to cope with the added workload.
"We can accept about 100 applications a month, approximately half of the applicants get a positive answer from Poland," he said.
The situation is made all the more complicated since local administration officials in Poland often drag their feet when processing individual claims. Polish law is not clear regarding the status of property left behind by individual Jews, and up to now, Warsaw has only agreed to return the property of Jewish organizations, not individuals.
The rush for passports helped some start up lucrative business sidelines processing applications and helping with translations.
Margaret Rok used to work in the tourist industry, but a flare-up of conflict in the region kept travellers away and drove her to look for a new business opportunity. Since she speaks Polish, she was hired by a law firm to help Israelis fill out documents required by Polish authorities or provide information about setting up a business in Poland.
"We have more and more Israeli people coming to us and we're opening a new service especially for them," she said.