Football: 0, Auschwitz: 1

by Sally Berkovic

Jewish football fans are in a bit of a quandary. Should we visit Poland or the Ukraine just to watch football? The scenes of blatant racism, xenophobia and Nazi-style salutes during the Euro 2012 championship send shivers up our collective spine. Yet, emotional visits by football stars to Auschwitz have arguably done more for raising an awareness of the Holocaust amongst teenagers than tedious hours spent in history lessons at school.

How does a Jewish communal professional respond? When I joined the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe four years ago, my view of European Jewry had been influenced by my own father’s experiences in Auschwitz and a barrage of reports about on-going anti-Semitism. The revival of Jewish life in Europe was something I had yet to discover. Working with Jewish organisations in Poland and Ukraine, albeit complex and confusing, challenged my ignorance and prejudices. I am constantly trying to learn from these communities and consider how philanthropic monies can make a difference. However, many look askance at my work: ‘There’s no future for those Jews,’ says the American, ‘Jews who stay in Europe (implicitly excluding the UK) are just asking for trouble,’ comments the Israeli, or ‘how you can be sure that they’re even Jewish?,’ asks the rabbi.

Staff from a small number of other grant-making foundations travel throughout Europe to research current needs, assess grant applications and look for ways to support and nurture young leadership for the future. Amongst others, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) has remained steadfast in their commitment to the material needs of Jews and has expanded into cultural activities, Chabad has an extensive network of religious programmes, the Lauder Foundation established schools throughout Central and Eastern Europe and the Taube Foundation has focussed specifically on the renewal of Jewish life in Poland. All of us recognise that Jewish life in Europe (not just Poland and Ukraine) is challenging and oftentimes, difficult decisions have to be made where there are not enough resources. But I can’t imagine that any of us have ever thought of walking away.

The football hooligans are giving their countries a bad name, and I know this because I have met many people in Poland and Ukraine who understand that Jews contributed to the intellectual, cultural and economic life of their country and that the murder of the Jews was indeed a loss for the country as a whole. Our Foundation has an active Jewish heritage programme, and I have been humbled by many of the non-Jewish staff at museums, city archives and research centres who are documenting and preserving Jewish history. For example in Lviv, Ukraine the Foundation is providing extensive training and support for museum curators with responsibility for Jewish collections. Their diligence and commitment is impressive. We also support an academic Jewish studies programme, and in Poland alone, universities in Krakow, Warsaw and Wroclaw have active departments of Jewish studies with barely any Jewish students. Over half the students applying to the Foundation for language grants to improve their Hebrew come from Poland. Granted, I am always meeting a self-selecting audience, but I do believe that there is a genuine interest and respect for Jewish heritage in many parts of Europe.

Of course, there are difficult political issues going on in Poland and Ukraine – you can read about them every day in the newspapers. Foundations must be mindful of them, but we must remain above politics. Our focus must remain the Jewish community and whatever the Trustees of our respective foundations determine as long-term priorities.

Someone will win the Euro 2012 and the football fans will go home. And when they all go home, when the TV cameras have left, for the Jewish communities of Odessa, Kiev and Kharkiv in the Ukraine or in Warsaw, Krakow and Lodz in Poland, it will just be business as usual.

Sally Berkovic is Chief Executive, Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe.