The Australian Jewish Times (March 21, 1985)

By Isi Leibler, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), who participated in a World Jewish Congress (WJC) fact-finding mission to Eastern Europe. He was also part of a small delegation which met with senior Government and Communist Party officials in Bucharest, Budapest and Prague.

NO MATTER what one may have read or heard, the echoes of Jewish history still reverberating through the streets of Prague today come as a surprise. In the ancient Jewish cemetery, where the tombstones tell of a thousand years of continuous history, and where the grave of the illustrious Rabbi Low (the Maharal) attracts busloads of tourists, those echoes are loudest. Yet, sadly, the cemetery in Prague, as with the cemeteries, memorials, and museums elsewhere in Eastern Europe, are dedicated to the vibrant past brought to an end by the tragedy of the Holocaust. 

The contrast between the glories of the past and the uncertain hopes for the future strikes any visitor sensitive to the Jewish condition. Indeed, if we look only backwards, then the cemeteries and memorials could be considered all too appropriate a metaphor for East European Jewry. 

But Jews have always looked forward and Jews in Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Hungary, three communities I visited last month as a member of a World Jewish Congress delegation, are not without hope. Far from it. 

The surviving remnants, although mere shadows of their former great communities, are still very much part of Klal Yisroel demanding, of our concern, our encouragement, and our intelligent assistance. 

Any discussion of Jewish life in Eastern Europe today must begin with a paradox. There are differences within the Eastern bloc and these affect not only the prospects of their Jewish communities but their attitudes towards Israel. 

On the other hand, the differences do not extend to fundamentals. All three governments, even Romania, which is the most independent of Moscow in foreign policy, remain Marxist regimes.

 They are contemptuous of dissent at home and for the most part adhere rigidly to the Warsaw Pact line in international affairs. 

Yet the three nations are not a monolith. Their differences in style, economic policy, political and cultural history are significant for Jewish life and must be borne in mind at all times. 

The first point to emphasize is that, relatively speaking, Jews in Prague, Budapest, and Bucharest, whatever differences may exist between them, are all better off in a Jewish sense than their counterparts in Moscow.

 Our delegation began its journey in Romania and there the differences are most striking. Ironically, Bucharest, especially in winter, is a grim and depressing capital. 

There are queues everywhere; for food, public transport, and fuel. The stalls in the produce markets are virtually empty.

 Private cars are banned from the streets to save petrol. At night the streets are unlit to save electricity. 

As in Moscow, the police, militia, and security patrols are ubiquitous and, to a Western visitor, the atmosphere is depressing and restrictive.

 Yet despite this internal rigidity Romania, alone in the Eastern bloc, maintains diplomatic relations with Jerusalem, allows her Jewish citizens to leave for Israel, and, to a surprising degree, assists the Jewish community to practice its religious and cultural life. Now down to 26,000 from the high of over 400,000 after World War II, Romanian Jewry retains an impressive range of social welfare services, and a well-organized Jewish communal structure. From the deeply moving concert — in Hebrew and Yiddish — staged by the youth of the community, we saw that it has been able to keep its Jewish spirit alive.

 While it was sad to note that the community is aged, that the numbers of its rabbis, cantors, teachers, and shochtim are dwindling, and that the best of its young people are emigrating, the knowledge that they are leaving on aliyah and integrating well into Jewish life was profoundly reassuring.

 As I found when I first visited Romania in the mid-'70s, a major part of the explanation for what has happened there lies in the extraordinary personal role played by Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen over the years. 

For the rest, Romania is determined, even at the risk of Moscow’s displeasure, to maintain its status and credit ranking as a “Most Favored Nation” with the United States Congress and the Department of Commerce in Washington. President Ceaucescu and his government believe (and rightly so) that a more enlightened treatment of Jews and other religious minorities helps to maintain a favorable public opinion in the United States.

 Hungary presents a quite different picture. Economically speaking, to the visitor who has just come from Bucharest, Budapest seems a world away. 

The introduction over recent years of some free enterprise, especially in agriculture and in small business, has been widely welcomed by the people of Hungary and puts Budapest not far behind some West European capitals in its array of widely available food and consumer goods. 

Hungarian Jews have shared in this increase in prosperity and have more opportunities to travel to the West than any of their East European counterparts.

 But aliyah is virtually nonexistent and although it is the largest Jewish population — 80,000-100,000 — in the Eastern bloc outside the Soviet Union, the Hungarian community seems less committed to maintaining a viable Jewish community than Romania. 

This is no doubt due in part to limitations imposed by the regime. But in part, it also reflects the distinctive religious and cultural differences in Hungarian Jewry and the assimilationist pressures which, traditionally, have been influential there. In our brief encounters with young Hungarian Jews, we nevertheless sensed a deep hunger for greater contact with their traditions and the Jewish world than is currently available to them. Providing such opportunities is a challenge for those of us in international Jewish organizations who must be concerned with maintaining Jewish identity. 

It may have been only a matter of nuance, but in our meeting with the Hungarian Minister responsible for Religious Affairs, Barna Jarkadi-Nagy, I detected the possibility that in the future such opportunities could be explored. 

Again, more paradox. Although moving much closer to the West in economic matters, the government of Janos Kada remains politically unyielding.

 It does not allow any real dissent at home and it faithfully duplicates the Moscow line in international affairs. But there are some areas of flexibility.

 For example, tourism is now a vital feature of the Hungarian economy. Last year, 13 million tourists visited a country of only 10 million in population. Of those, there were four million visitors from the West. 

Upgrading its international image, which may include greater concessions to its religious minorities, is, therefore, likely to become increasingly important to the Budapest leadership.

 Czechoslovakia is the smallest community of the three we visited. Some 6000 Jews are affiliated with the organized Jewish community, although the total number of Czech Jews is estimated at 20,000.

 Here, too, we were told of revival amongst the youth of the community who were searching for their Jewish identity. The search goes beyond the efforts of the organized leadership to care and maintain the remarkable variety of synagogues, monuments, and museums, which are so strong a feature of Prague’s impression on the visitor. 

Once again, it is difficult to know how much scope there is for a qualitative change in the contact these younger Jews might be able to establish with such networks as the international Jewish student movement. But, again, in our meetings with a senior Czech government official, our tentative enquiries about future contacts were not completely rejected. What, then, can we conclude from an admittedly limited impression-crowded visit to these three Jewish communities?

 First, the generally positive reception we received, as a WJC delegation in all capitals, especially in Prague, which since 1968 has been the most pro-Soviet of regimes, suggests some policy shifts in Moscow. 

The Soviets, apparently, are willing to allow their East European associates to act as ambassadors of goodwill at a time when the superpowers are preparing for the resumption of high-level negotiations on disarmament.

 The objective is to encourage any differences between Western Europe and the US and to try to persuade groups which may have influence in the West to put pressure on Washington. 

The emphasis on nuclear disarmament in all our meetings was no accident and clearly part of a concerted strategy. 

But without in any way lending ourselves to any of Moscow’s strategic objectives, the changing international situation does open some opportunities for world Jewry at various levels. 

An improvement in relationships between such organizations as the WJC and the governments of Eastern Europe might, in the long run, be extended to a dialogue with the Soviets. 

We await the outcome of WJC president Edgar Bronfman’s visit to Moscow to see what the prospects might be for such an extension. 

There are, of course, dangers if we become too embroiled in the issue of nuclear disarmament. 

We cannot have any real impact on the complexities of the superpower negotiations and we have no moral justification even to pretend to be trading on issues affecting the defense of the West in relation to our interests.

 But if there is a return to something approaching détente, we may well find there will be opportunities, in the context of an improved East-West relationship, to put Soviet Jewry on the agenda in a serious way. 

In those circumstances, contacts with East European capitals could be particularly helpful.

 Secondly, the references by Communist officials at most of our meetings to the importance of involving the Soviet Union in any Middle East settlement confirms that Moscow now regards such involvement as a major objective.

 If it becomes clear that the US is willing to compromise on this issue and allow the Soviets some role, then Israel and its friends should be looking at such a contingency now, not after the event. 

It would be unfortunate for Israel if, in its readiness to accept current assessments and reassurances from Washington, it would be taken by surprise should international pressures push the US into conceding Moscow a role in any Middle East settlement. 

Israel, of course, must resist such participation because it would not be in the interests of either Israel or peace in the region. But if it appears that it is inevitable, then some advance planning now might extract the best possible bargaining position for Jerusalem. 

Finally, if the WJC or any international Jewish representatives do enter into any serious discussions with the governments of Eastern Europe, we must do so without illusions. 

If the international situation reverts to the tensions of recent years, or does not advance too far beyond the present stalemate, then the “window of opportunity” which I believe does exist, may shut overnight. But, equally, let us not ignore even the slightest chance to take advantage of any changes in the Eastern bloc which can improve the situation of Jews in those countries and indirectly raise hope for the future of Soviet Jewry.