Of the 3.3 million Jews who lived in pre-war Poland, a little more than ten percent remained in the country after the war. Most died in the firebox of the Holocaust. But with the end of the war, anti-Semitic sentiments did not disappear. The peak of hatred fell on the pogroms of 1946; the flow of Polish Jews who wanted to repatriate to Palestine and then to young Israel did not diminish.
The air smelled like a thunderstorm once again. On December 24, 1952, the Israeli newspaper Maariv reported on its pages about an unpleasant incident, hinting that this case would result in a loud international scandal: the Polish authorities arrested an employee of the consular department of the Israeli embassy in Warsaw ARIE LERNER (1918-2002).
Arie Leib Lerner was born on June 18, 1918 in the city of Miechów, Poland, studied there at a Jewish school. Lerner's father Isaac was a “sergeant” of the Jewish community in Zamość near Lublin. In 1939, Arie, a young communist who worked as a plumber in his hometown, fled to the USSR to work in the mines of Donbass, where he suddenly became convinced that "communism is a deception." In 1941 he was evacuated from Ukraine to Siberia. There he spent five long years with a break from serving in the Red Army, in the ranks of which he was from January 1942 to early 1943.
In the spring of 1946, Lerner returned to Poland, already a staunch supporter of the construction of a Jewish home in Palestine. Soon he began to work in one of the Zionist organizations – “Ha-histadrut ha-zionit-Ikhud” (United Trade Union Zionist Organization), which was not yet banned by the new “people's” government.
Lerner was planning to immigrate to Israel in 1947, but his wife’s health problems prevented these plans from being realized. When her condition stabilized, the “gates” from Poland were already practically closed, and Lerner, in his own words, “got stuck”. In 1951, he began working at the Israeli embassy and hoped that in this way, sooner or later, he would receive the long-awaited permission to leave.
A streak of suffering began again for Polish Jews. This was especially the case for separated families who could not secure the right to reunification. Israeli diplomats did their best, but the Stalinist order was forcibly imposed in Poland, and relations between this country and Israel were very tense. The Polish government has made every effort to isolate Israeli diplomats. Eventually, the time came when every visitor to the Israeli embassy began to be detained by the authorities for questioning. The Polish Foreign Ministry, obviously, hoped in this way to completely stop the departure of its citizens to the Middle East.
Every day it became clearer that the ring of Polish special services around the embassy was steadily shrinking. Lerner was summoned for questioning. The authorities were particularly interested in the fact that he accompanied Ambassador Kubowy during the latter's visits to Jewish communities, Jewish cemeteries and to the sites of former extermination camps.
Shortly after interrogation, Arie Lerner received a summons to the recruiting station. He was informed that some data was lacking in his personal file. But at the meeting, they asked only about the reasons for working in the Israeli embassy and strongly recommended resigning.
In the second half of November 1952, Arie Lerner was with his wife at a hotel at the mineral water resort in Krinitsa. Then, in neighboring Czechoslovakia, the Slanskiy trial was in full swing. The General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia Rudolf Slanskiy and 13 high-ranking party and state leaders, 11 of whom were Jews, were arrested and charged with the “Trotskyi-Zionist-Tito conspiracy”. A variety of rumors spread throughout Poland, anti-Semitic sentiments were stirred up with renewed vigor.
On November 26, 1952, after mud baths, the attending physician showed him a newspaper with information about Slanskiy's arrest. Right after, two young men appeared in the corridor of the procedure room and politely asked Lerner to follow them. He was only allowed to warn his wife.
Lerner was taken to the local police station, and then to Warsaw, where he was greeted by a Citroën with a Jewish investigator from the Ministry of Public Security that he already knew, who had previously summoned Lerner for interrogation, and a Pole, Lieutenant Jerzy Waliczak. Arie Leib, of course, understood where the road leads, and dared to ask: “Are we going straight to Mokotów?” In this area of Warsaw there was a terrible political prison, opened by the tsarist authorities in 1904, an analogue of the Moscow Lubyanka.
The heavy cell door closed behind Lerner. At night he was summoned for interrogation, which, together with the Pole Waliczak, was conducted by the same acquaintance. From that night, a whole series of constant inquiries began: from early morning to 4 pm, then a break, and again from 5 pm to midnight. One single question was constantly repeated: why were you interested in the economic, social and cultural life of Polish citizens of Jewish origin? In addition, there is only a stream of selective abuse and insults. Over time, however, other questions arose. For example: “What did Ambassador Kubowy mean in his speech in the Krakow synagogue (Lerner accompanied Kubowy on that trip) when he quoted “Al tira avdi Yaakov” – “Do not be afraid, my servant Yaakov”? What letters did the Israeli embassy send to Polish citizens? Who exactly received them?” The investigation was also interested in the content of the conversations with the Jews who visited the embassy.
Investigators argued that the line “Do not be afraid, my servant Yaakov” was a call for the overthrow of communism in Poland by the hands of the Zionists. This is how the Bible verse was interpreted by a Jew, a Hebraist who worked in the Security Service.
For several months, day after day, Arie Lerner was taken for interrogations. But in “the longest month”, as he put it, they were not summoned for interrogations at all. As if they had forgotten about his existence for a while. At the end of February 1953, interrogations were resumed with even greater intensity. Lerner realized that the Ministry of Public Security had been following every single step of the embassy for all the previous year. If he could not remember something from the route of his movement, he was reminded. The details are essentially insignificant, but the aim of the investigators was to show their complete knowledge. In fact, the investigation was interested in the answers to the three most important questions: What do you know about the espionage activities of Ambassador Kubowy? What can you tell us about Ambassador Kubowy's contacts with Jewish communists and their connections with the Anglo-American-French imperialists? What do you know about the espionage activities of the Jewish organization “Joint”?
As the questions became more complex, the methods of interrogation also changed. The usual office chair, on which Lerner sat in front of the investigators, was changed to a very high, uncomfortable one, welded from iron rods. The legs dangled from such a chair without touching the floor, and after a few hours of interrogation they began to swell, the reinforcement stuck into the body. Investigators changed in shifts so that the interrogation was carried out without interruption.
1918 - 2002
Some information sometimes leaked into the cell from the outside, and Lerner eventually realized that his case in a certain way echoed the case of Slanskiy. Lerner could not communicate what he did not know: “Kubowy did not do anything forbidden”. Investigators continued to waste their efforts.
One day something like negotiations happened between Lerner and the investigators. The conversation took place after four days of continuous interrogation. “I no longer have the strength to hold on, – said Lerner, – you will still rip out the signature anyway. I'll sign, but let me sleep a little”. It was necessary to sign perjury that Ambassador Kubowy had collaborated with the intelligence centers of the imperialist powers that had taken part in the conspiracy against Poland. Investigators again and again returned to the same questions about the airfield, bridges, his role in mediation between Kubowy and the Jewish communists.
Lerner later admitted that there was no particular heroism in his behavior. Refusal to confess was a necessary measure: by confessing, you immediately became an accomplice. And how could one speak of any connections with Jewish communists if Lerner himself treated them extremely negatively and did not know anyone personally. But the main reason was still Kubowy. The boss made a strong impression on Lerner, both as a person and as a Jew. Lerner could not imagine staining the honest name of a worthy person.
But a miracle happened. Returning from another interrogation to his cell, Lerner heard something incredible from other prisoners: Stalin died. Everyone discussed how this would affect their fate. Lerner's interrogation was again abruptly stopped. He just sat behind bars - that's all. Cases proceeded slowly. With the death of the Kremlin tyrant, the need to organize the Polish version of the trial of “Slanskiy and his gang” disappeared, although the authorities did not want to admit their mistakes.
Only a year and a half later, charges were brought against the secretary of the Israeli embassy. Article 7 - espionage. The wife hired a lawyer for Arie. It was a villain named Rosenblit, with whom Lerner was forced to talk through the bars. The main goal of the lawyer, who apparently received instructions directly from a well-known organization, was not to mitigate the client's fate, but to force him to confess. But Lerner continued to deny all the charges brought against him, speaking of the envoy Kubowy in an exclusively positive manner.
The military trial of Arie Lerner took place in September 1954. The verdict is 10 years in prison. He was transferred from Mokotów to a regular prison. After the trial, Lerner's wife hired another lawyer who filed a cassation appeal. In his request, he pointed to “mitigating circumstances” and asked to reduce Lerner's sentence to 5 years in prison.
Quite unexpectedly, the appellate court decided to overturn the ruling of the first instance and sent the case back for retrial. Lerner was returned to the terrible Mokotów again. On the advice of a lawyer, Lerner wrote a letter to the Supreme Military Court of Poland, in which he pointed out that some interrogation protocols, in particular one of the protocols for December 1952, which dealt with Kubowy, were signed under pressure and did not correspond to reality.
After a retrial in February 1955, Lerner was released. At the end of the court session, the plaintiff got up and announced the rejection of the claim. The judge had no choice but to announce the release of the defendant from custody.
In 1956, Lerner and his wife left for Israel, where he realized his dream – he participated in the construction of a city in the desert. In his first elections in Israel, he recognized in a member of the electoral commission the same lawyer Rosenblit, who extorted from him a frank confession. Having moved to work in Yad Vashem, Lerner became a colleague of that Hebraic expert from the Polish Security Council, who in 1951 gave an opinion on the “anti-Polish character” of the weekly Torah chapter read by Ambassador Kubowy.
In 1990, Arie Lerner decided to return to Poland. He worked for a while at the Israeli embassy, then retired and taught Hebrew. He cooled to Zionism, emphasizing in every possible way: “We are all brothers, and we can no longer be divided either by nationality or by religion”.
During his time in Mokotów, Lerner spent a whole year in the same cell with the priest Vladislav Stefanski, a defendant in the case of Bishop Kaczmarek, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison for “collaborating with the Germans and attempting to overthrow the communist system”. A cordial friendship was established between the two prisoners.
For many years Lerner thought that Stefanski was dead, so he considered it a miracle when he found him in Israel. On April 29, 1992, Lerner, for the first time in history, initiated a unique ecumenical prayer meeting of Jews and Catholics, held in Warsaw at the monument to the heroes of the ghetto and participants in the Warsaw Uprising. A similar ceremony took place on the same day in Israel. Representatives of the government, the diplomatic corps, churches, religious associations and organizations, victims of the war and everyone who helped the persecuted were invited to participate in the ceremony.
Until the end of his days, Arie Lerner tried to build bridges between the two peoples, actively working in the Polish-Israeli Friendship Society, the Polish Council of Christians and Jews. He was listed as the only Polish member of the Russian section of the International Association of Prisoners of Zion and in 2000 starred in the documentary film Grzegorz Linkowski, where he spoke about his fate. The Polish prisoner of Zion died on April 2, 2002 and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.