Infuriated by the politics being played around the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the most influential Jewish group attending the commemoration announced today it was withdrawing from the concluding official event, a memorial wreath-laying at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
But senior representatives of the World Jewish Congress later reversed the decision and chose on their own to participate in the ceremony after receiving a public apology from a senior Polish organizer of the commemoration program.
Coming on top of yesterday's angry pullout of four Israeli officials over Tuesday's wreath-laying at the ghetto memorial by a Palestine Liberation Organization representative, the WJC's withdrawal threatened to be an acute embarrassment for the government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski.
"We took the decision this morning not to participate in any more official events as a result of a series of provocations and manipulations of events this week," said Mark Friedman, WJC program director and acting spokesman here for the delegation. Friedman objected when he learned that top WJC officials had ended up joining the program at Auschwitz.
He told reporters earlier in the day that the WJC's anger with the politically tinged climate in which the anniversary was being observed had boiled over last night when Polish television aired a program that reportedly juxtaposed pictures of the Holocaust with photos of the massacres last year at the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.
Friedman also cited the PLO wreath-laying, which a number of Jews felt Polish authorities should have blocked, and the "absence of Jewish content" in the official program during Wednesday's visit to the Treblinka death camp where most of the ghetto inhabitants were shipped and murdered.
"There was no mention of the fact while we were there that 800,000, or 95 percent, of those who died there were Jewish," he stated.
"This anniversary has become an issue in Polish politics and for the PLO. But it is a Jewish event. We feel this fact has been overwhelmed," Friedman declared.
But not all WJC ranking delegates had been in accord with the initial pullout decision. Among those opposing a walkout was Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, who heads the WJC's East-West Commission. Schindler had not been present at the early morning meeting that voted to withdraw.
Before the Auschwitz ceremony began, Schindler, according to his own account later, prevailed upon Wlodzimierz Sokorski, president of the Polish War Veterans' Union and a main organizer of the anniversary, to make a statement that would allow the WJC to participate after all.
Witnesses at Auschwitz reported that Sokorski did issue a public apology on behalf of the anniversary's organizers for the PLO wreath-laying and last night's television program. With that, Schindler and Gerhart M. Riegner, WJC secretary general and the most senior member of the congress attending the commemoration here, agreed to take part in the ceremony.
Contacted by phone tonight after his return to Warsaw, Riegner said Sokorski's statement had "created a new situation" that allowed for a reversal of the morning's withdrawal decision.
From the start, Poland's decision to make a big production of this year's ghetto uprising anniversary--the most extensive program ever prepared to mark the ill-fated Jewish struggle in Poland--has produced controversy. It drew attacks from critics of the Communist government, who said the government was using the occasion to curry favor in the West for its own political and financial ends.
Marek Edelman, the only ghetto survivor still in Poland and the only leader of the uprising against the Germans still alive, issued an impassioned appeal to boycott the ceremonies rather than dignify the current Polish leadership by attending. Some U.S. Jewish groups also urged nonattendance.
Those Jews who came did so primarily, they said, out of a sense of duty to honor the ghetto heroes and those relatives and friends who perished under the Nazis. The commemoration afforded Israeli Jews, in particular, a rare opportunity to get tourist visas, which has been difficult since Poland broke diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967.
But only about 750 foreign Jews took up the Polish invitation to observe the anniversary here, far fewer than initial estimates had projected. Once here, they found themselves caught in a political swirl that was making disturbing headlines back home in the United States, Western Europe and Israel.
Polish security forces kept Edelman from leaving his home in Lodz to honor the anniversary in his own way in Warsaw, and Lech Walesa, former chairman of the banned Solidarity union, also was turned back when he tried to drive here from Gdansk with a similar purpose.
Police broke up a peaceful attempt last weekend by 1,000 people to stage their own commemoration ceremony at the ghetto memorial. And a group of 100 former resistance fighters and Solidarity advisers was blocked from laying a wreath at Warsaw's old Jewish cemetery.