Obama in Poland to honor history, boost ties

May 27, 2011 - 1:43 PM
Poland Obama

President Barack Obama meets with Jewish leaders and Holocaust survivors after laying a wreath at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial in Warsaw, Poland, Friday, May 27, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — President Barack Obama on Friday honored the memories of those slain in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against Nazis, telling one elderly man that the memorial was a "reminder of the nightmare" of the Holocaust in which six millions Jews were killed.

In the final phase of his European trip, the president greeted Holocaust survivors and leaders of Poland's Jewish community at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes. He smiled, shook hands and hugged those gathered under a light rain, including some who shared memories of having met Obama at earlier times.

"What a wonderful visit. I'll have to bring my daughters," Obama said as he exited the memorial. The monument in the former Jewish ghetto commemorates the tens of thousands of Jews killed in a 1943 uprising against the Nazis during Germany's brutal occupation of Poland during World War II.

Most of the insurgents in that uprising were killed, but the event bears great importance in Jewish history as an example of Jews bravely taking up arms to defend themselves against the Nazis. It's also a key memorial in a country that before the Holocaust was home to Europe's largest Jewish community.

Among those Obama met was Halina Szpilman, the widow of Wladyslaw Szpilman, the Holocaust survivor featured in Roman Polanski's Oscar-winning film "The Pianist." Obama kissed Szpilman, a retired doctor who lost her husband in 2000, on both cheeks. A leading member of the Jewish communist, Monika Krawczyk, was heard urging Obama to do all he can to support Israel, saying, "It's the only Jewish state we have." Obama assured her that the United States would be there for Israel.

Obama arrived in Warsaw on a cool and cloudy Friday evening, hoping to inject some vigor into a relationship with an ally that has sometimes felt slighted by Washington.

Upon arrival, Obama helped placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, dedicated to all unidentified soldiers who have given their lives to Poland in past wars. Obama shook hands and chatted warmly with elderly veterans in uniform who had fought Nazi Germany during World War II, including at least one woman. Several saluted him. He also greeted younger soldiers and veterans who served in NATO's mission in Afghanistan.

By paying homage to Poles who fell in World War II at two symbolically potent sites, his gestures were sure to carry great weight in a country whose identity is still profoundly shaped by the death and destruction inflicted on it by Nazi Germany.

The president's primary business of the night was a dinner with 17 Central and Eastern European Union leaders. The president intended to emphasize how their experiences with democracy could offer real-life lessons to those seeking freedoms across North Africa and the Middle East.

"We have taken great inspiration from the blossoming of freedom and economic growth in this region and we're confident that will continue," Obama said at the presidential palace, seated at a large round table with the other leaders. "We want to be a part of that process of strengthening your democracies, strengthening your economies and be a full partner, because we think that will be beneficial to the United States as well."

Obama was capping his four-country, six day trip on Saturday with meetings and a news conference before his return to Washington.

Obama did not come bearing the news Polish officials wanted: access to a visa waiver program for those traveling to the United States. Obama aides said he would provide officials a status update on the effort but was not in position yet to offer more.

Hours before Obama's arrival, Polish headlines were dominated by news that he was being snubbed by legendary Solidarity founder Lech Walesa, who said he was refusing to meet with Obama.

Solidarity was a national freedom movement under Walesa's leadership in the 1980s that helped bring down communism. His courage in defying communist authorities at the time earned him a Nobel peace prize. Walesa said in televised remarks that President Bronislaw Komorowski and the U.S. ambassador to Poland had called him hoping to persuade him to meet Obama. Walesa insisted, however, that he had no interest in a meeting that would amount to little more than a photo-op.

"This time a meeting does not suit me," the 67-year-old former president said in comments on news station TVN24. His office said he planned instead to attend a biblical festival in Italy.

Walesa refused to divulge more, but it seemed possible he was offended at not being offered a one-on-one meeting with Obama early on. Walesa had been invited to meet with Obama along with other former leaders of the anti-communist movement and current party leaders.

Obama's meetings here were to focus on security, energy and joint U.S.-Polish efforts to promote democracy in North Africa, Belarus and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

But unlike past U.S. presidents who visited this nation of 38 million, Obama will not meet or address the Polish public directly. That deprives him of the chance to connect directly — and emotionally — with Poles in the way former presidents such as George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton did on visits to the country.

The trip offers a chance for Washington to stress to Poles that it considers the relationship important — a message U.S. officials have made an effort to stress.

Poles have felt in past years that both the administrations of George W. Bush and of Obama have neglected their concerns, and traditionally strong pro-American sentiments are in decline compared with the early years after the fall of communism. At that time, Washington was seen as both a model of democracy that helped end the Cold War and as Poland's main guarantor of security in a region where Russia still throws its weight around.

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Associated Press writer Monika Scislowska contributed to this report.