WARSAW — Poland is one of Britain’s closest European Union allies, but when David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, was recently in the Polish capital for the first time, the main focus of his trip was not meetings with officials, but visiting a graveyard.
The Warsaw Jewish Cemetery, 83 acres of trees and undergrowth that houses more than 250,000 graves, is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe. That is where Miliband’s ancestors are buried, as he is descended from Polish Jews on both sides of his family.
“I am one of the million Britons who have Polish blood,” he said in a Warsaw speech.
The often difficult relationship between Poland and its now largely extinct Jewish minority also weighs on Miliband, 44, who is seen as a potential Labour Party leader following the party’s expected defeat in parliamentary elections due in 2010.
“This was my first visit to Poland. There must have been a deep ambivalence at the heart of this delay. Poland is my roots. But Poland is the scene of terrible tragedy — mass murder on an unimaginable scale,” Miliband wrote in Britain’s Jewish Chronicle after returning from Poland.
The cemetery, now largely neglected, was used heavily until World War II, when the Germans eliminated the Warsaw Ghetto, killing hundreds of thousands. Now only a small corner is still in use by Warsaw’s tiny Jewish community. As part of their bid to wipe Jews from European history, the Germans also destroyed much of the cemetery as well as its burial records.
“One of the most poignant parts of the cemetery is that containing the mass graves of those who died in the ghetto,” wrote Miliband. “And of course the dates on all the gravestones stop in 1942. A thousand years of history brought to a crashing halt with the mass deportation of Warsaw’s Jews to their deaths.”
Despite the destruction inflicted on the graveyard, which is being slowly restored, Miliband was able to point to 16 family graves there dating back to the early 19th century.
Most of his father’s family left Poland after the First World War, ending up in Britain by way of Belgium. His mother’s family, the Kozaks, was exposed to the full force of the Holocaust. They lived in Czestochowa, a city in western Poland that houses the country’s holiest icon, the Black Madonna, but was also home for centuries to a large Jewish community. That is where his mother, Marion, was born in 1934, and where the invading Germans penned up the Jewish population in a ghetto starting in 1941.
Miliband's great-grandparents — Maurycy and Adela — were murdered in Czestochowa in 1943, and his grandfather, David, died shortly after the end of the war. Just how his mother survived the Holocaust is unclear, although Miliband credits Poles with helping to save her life. Poles helped many of the 250,000 Jews who survived the war — about 10 percent of Poland’s pre-war Jewish population — although sometimes other Poles would denounce those hiding Jews to the Germans.
“My mother was born here, her life was saved by those who risked theirs sheltering her from Nazi oppression,” Miliband said on a sunny day outside the Jewish cemetery.
Miliband’s grandmother and her two daughters left Poland in 1946, part of a massive migration as the country’s surviving Jews left the country that had been the site of their extermination.
Immediately after the war, Poland was convulsed by several waves of anti-Semitic pogroms, fueled by Poles who were worried about having to give back property to surviving Jews. Also, the country was poor, ruined by the war, and under a Soviet-imposed Communist government. Many Jews made the choice to leave.
Although Poland’s official Jewish community numbers about 20,000, the country is reviving memories of its Jewish past. The government is paying for the construction of a museum of Jewish history to be built in Warsaw, which will explore the millennium they spent in Poland.
“The Milibands are not a big part of that story,” wrote the foreign secretary. “But, like so many Britons of Polish Jewish origin, it is an important and unforgettable part of us.”
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