(JHE) — We mourn the death of Krzysztof Śliwiński, a Polish diplomat and intellectual who was an early Catholic activist in Jewish heritage preservation and in fostering Polish-Jewish relations — in 1995 he was named post-Communist Poland’s first official roving ambassador to the Jewish diaspora. He died in Warsaw on January 7, a week before his 81st birthday.
As a young man, Śliwiński was a member of the Catholic Intelligentsia Clubs (KIK), which formed part of a network of Catholic groups and publications opposed to the strictures of the Communist regime.
From the late 1960s/early 1970s he organized Jewish Culture Days and other pro-Jewish initiatives at a time when the regime sought to suppress Jewish practice and culture.
These included regular clean-up sessions at Warsaw’s vast, neglected Okopowa street Jewish cemetery, which began in 1973 and went on for years.
“Part of the cemetery was covered with a forest; a dense forest of trees of equal height, which began to grow out of the stones, from seedlings no-one had not torn out,” he recalled in an article called “Our Jewish Cemetery” published in the independent Catholic journal Więź, in 1983.
These trees could not be even thirty years old. They indicated that the cataclysm that caused this great cemetery, where the dead were buried for a century and a half, to become an abandoned and forgotten place, happened not so long ago. We wanted to contribute to saving the memory of this cemetery.
We wanted the fate of people who buried their relatives in this cemetery. not to be forgotten too easily. […] For ten years, since 1973, we would come there every afternoon in the last week of June. Of those who pulled weeds from abandoned graves, or cut trees that burst stones, or found paths between the stones, only a very few could look for traces of their distant relatives there. For the vast majority [of us], mostly young, often students, members of the Catholic Intelligentsia Club in Warsaw or their friends, it was not a matter that could be explained by the ties of blood that usually motivate care for the dead.[…]
There were never very many people who came to work in the cemetery – sometimes a dozen, sometimes several dozen. However, there was no need to persuade anyone, or to announce anything more widely – it was enough that people found out about it and came.
Śliwiński became an activist in the Solidarnosc movement in 1980, and JHE director Ruth Ellen Gruber got to know him well when she was a correspondent in Poland at the time and he was a Warsaw spokesperson for the movement.
Following the fall of communism in 1989-90, the new Polish government opened an unprecedented policy of outreach to Jews worldwide, as an attempt to improve the often-troubled relations between Poland and the world’s Jewish community.
It was as part of this policy that then-Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski appointed Śliwiński as the country’s first official roving ambassador to the Jewish Diaspora. (Bartoszewski, who died in 2015, was an Auschwitz survivor himself who was also honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among Nations.)
During his diplomatic career, Śliwiński also served as Polish ambassador to Morocco from 1990-94, and from 2000 to 2004 he was the Polish ambassador to South Africa. He also served as a press spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and was deputy editor of the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper.