The Australian Jewish News (Melbourne) (February 22, 1985)

A small "window of opportunity" may be opening up in Eastern Europe which could lead to better conditions for local Jewish communities and improved relations between World Jewry and the Communist bloc.

This was one of the main impressions gained by Mr. Isi Leibler, E.C.A.J. President, during an eight-day visit to Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia as a member of a World Jewish Congress mission.

"The signs are tentative, and we must avoid over-optimism or exaggeration," Mr. Leibler said.

"Furthermore, what may happen in some of the East European States may not necessarily be accompanied by similar improvements in the Soviet Union.

"But the reception accorded the W.J.C. delegations in the capitals of Bucharest, Budapest, and Prague taken together with the overall improvement in East-West relations, however small, suggests there are possibilities for further contacts which can be pursued!"

The mission was an initiative of the North American Section of the W.J.C. and led by Frieda Lewis, section chairman.

Mr. Leibler accompanied Mrs. Lewis, a former national Hadassah president, on all delegations which met government officials and was one of three mission members who participated in all other official meetings in the three capitals.

The first capital visited, Bucharest, showed the signs of a bad winter and the severe economic problems Romania has encountered in recent years. Internal security had also been stepped up.

But despite these difficulties, the Jewish community remained united and active with its many institutions continuing to function.


Mr. Leibler, who first visited Bucharest seven years ago, said the continuity of the Jewish community was a tribute to the impressive efforts of Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen.

The Romanian government had continued to allow the community to maintain its religious and social welfare institutions. At the same time, Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel were allowed to do so. The Romanian Jewish community now numbered only 16,000, and many of its remaining younger members were preparing for Aliyah to Israel, Mr. Leibler said.

In a meeting between the Romanian Foreign Minister, Stefan Andrei, and a four-person W.J.C. delegation, Mr. Leibler said that although Romania may express regret at the loss of many of its young and talented Jewish citizens, history would judge Romania's flexibility on this issue favorably.

The meeting with Foreign Minister Andrei was the first of its kind at such a senior level with a representative delegation of international Jewry.

Mr. Leibler said the Romanian Foreign Minister was preparing for the visit of Israel's Prime Minister Shimon Peres but would not predict possible breakthroughs for the Middle East.

In response to a question from Mr. Leibler, the Romanian Foreign Minister emphasized the relationship of the forthcoming disarmament talks between Washington and Moscow with wide issues, including the resumption of the emigration of Soviet Jewry, which would be placed on the agenda if East-West negotiations showed progress and if there was a return to détente (Continued on page 12)


Like conditions between the superpowers. In a meeting between the W.J.C. delegation and Minister Campanescu, the Minister for Cults (Religions), Mr. Leibler asked for, and received, assurances that the Romanian government would deal strongly with recent manifestations of anti-Semitism in the form of racist articles that had appeared in sections of the Romanian press.

On the final night of the mission's stay in Bucharest, the Jewish community's youth groups presented a farewell concert that "surprised and moved" the visitors with the high standard of musical talent, Hebrew and Yiddish language skills, and enthusiasm. NUMBERS "I doubt very much if our communities with three or four times the numbers and the combined resources of Sydney and Melbourne could do as well!" Mr. Leibler said.

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By contrast to Romania, Hungary presents a prosperous picture to the Western visitor, and its Jewish community of over 80,000 is by far the largest in Eastern Europe. But it lacks the vitality, Zionist tradition, and religious leadership of Romanian Jewry, Mr. Leibler said. "Although the Hungarian community has capable organizational leadership in the person of Mrs. Ilona Seifert (general secretary), young Hungarian Jews could benefit enormously from a more energetic and purposeful spiritual and cultural focus in their communal lives. "This was especially noticeable at the Friday night and Shabbat services and activities the mission attended. A feature of the W.J.C. delegation who met with Barna Sarkadi-Nagy, Hungarian Vice-President of the Church Affairs Office, was the presence of Moshe Gilboa. (Israel Ambassador). Ambassador Gilboa, who heads the desk dealing with Jewish communities in the Israel Foreign Office, was the first Israel Ambassador to enter Hungary on a diplomatic passport. His participation in a delegation to see a Hungarian Minister of State was seen as further evidence that some States in the Eastern bloc were prepared to make concessions in their dealings with Israel and World Jewry.

Mr. Sarkadi-Nagy showed interest in suggestions for expansion of tourism between Hungary and Israel and welcomed Mr. Leibier's proposals to encourage Australian Jews of Hungarian origin to visit Hungary and make contact with the Jewish community. The Minister also responded positively to Mr. Leibler's inquiries concerning the possibility of holding a W.J.C. conference in Budapest and suggested further discussions on the subject.

Of the three cities visited, Prague had the smallest Jewish community — 4,000-6,000 — but, as its leader Dr. Desider Gaisky pointed out, it had the most tangible and visible Jewish historical flavor. "I was not prepared for the way in which such features as the ancient Jewish cemetery, the Altneuschul, the statue of Rabbi Low, the Jewish museums, the Jewish community center, and the traditional Jewish residential quarter all form an integral part of Prague's history and are very much part of the city today.

"They are major tourist attractions, and the government promotes them as such!" The Prague Jewish community has been able to preserve large quantities of Jewish artifacts, ceremonial objets d'art, and valuable manuscripts. Mr. Leibler said he hoped it might be possible for some of these treasures to be seen in Australia in the future. It was significant that the W.J.C. mission was invited to send a delegation to meet Jan Pudlak, head of the Czechoslovakian Institute of Foreign Relations.


Mr. Leibler said it was the first time the Czech Government had shown itself wishing to talk directly and openly with such a group. Since the Communist leadership in Prague was known to be particularly close to Moscow, this took on ever greater significance. Furthermore, the wider-ranging discussion with Dr. Pudlak included prospects for peace in the Middle East, the future of Soviet Jewry, recurrent expressions of extremely hostile anti-Zionism by the Czech press, and the possibility of an academic conference in Prague on the contribution of Czech Jewry to Jewish history.

Significantly in all three capitals, while officials talked of the Palestinians when referring to the Middle East, they did not mention the PLO. "The meetings and the signs of flexibility may only be straws in the wind, and too much should not be made of them," Mr. Leibler said. "But if the differences in attitude towards their Jewish communities between East European States and the Soviet Union provide a basis for pursuing avenues of further contact with Israel and world Jewry, they should be followed up."

His final hours in Czechoslovakia were perhaps the most moving of all. Visiting Terezin, the site of the infamous Theresienstadt concentration camp during World War II, he was accompanied by two survivors who had been held there by the Nazis. "They told me how, of 15,000 Jewish children who went into Terezin, only 93 came out alive.

"When you consider such horror, it is even more saddening to see how the Czech government has allowed some elements to play down the extent of Jewish martyrdom."