Shimon Peres and the Polish Connection

Shimon Peres

Right: Shimon Peres in his youth, from the Shimon Peres Archives at the Peres Peace House in Israel.

The death of Shimon Peres on September 28 marks the end of an era, the era in which the nation of Israel was established. He was the last of its founders. Peres is revered, at least in the West, as a peacemaker and a moral optimist. While people all over the world mourn his death and praise his legacy in tributes and memorials, his faith in peace is on shaky ground for many Jews and Muslims, Americans and Europeans alike. For Poles around the world, Peres’s death is a reminder that so many Polish Jews were instrumental in the creation of Israel that Polish was often the one language the founders, including David Ben-Gurion, had in common. Peres spoke with a Polish accent.

Shimon Peres was born Szymon Perski, on August 2, 1923, in Wiszniew, Poland (now Vishnyeva, Belarus). His father was a wealthy timber merchant, his mother a librarian. The family spoke Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian at home, and Peres learned Polish at school. He later learned to speak English and French. In 1932, Peres’s father immigrated to Palestine and settled in Tel Aviv; the family followed in 1934. In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Shimon Peres went to Belarus to visit the place of his birth and look for the tombstones of his relatives.

The relationship between Catholic Poles and Polish Jews is a thousand years long and filled with periods when Poland was a haven for Jews who were being forced out of other countries in Europe, and filled with pogroms and religious and political conflict. Yet Poland was, until the rise of Facism in 20th-century Europe, a land–even though often wiped off the political map of Europe–where Jewish culture flourished. That endlessly complicated history has been examined (although I would argue not enough) in many excellent books, a list of which is available on the website of the Polish American Librarians Association. Check it out.

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