JERUSALEM -- In an attempt to reconcile Jews with a country where millions of them were killed by the Nazis, Polish President Lech Walesa asked Israel yesterday to forgive Poland for centuries of anti-Semitism and for the wrongs done to its Jewish population during World War II.
"I am a Christian, and I cannot weigh with a human scale 20 centuries of evil for both peoples," Mr. Walesa told a special session of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. "Here in Israel, in the cradle of our culture and your revival, I am asking your forgiveness."
Mr. Walesa addressed the parliament shortly at the beginning of the first visit to Israel by a Polish president, an occasion for Israelis to renew their debate over whether enough time has passed for normal relations to exist between the two countries.
Mr. Walesa's audience included Israel's Polish-born prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, and the Polish-born parliament speaker, Dov Shilansky. In a few brief, moving phrases, Mr. Shilansky described his surviving a Nazi concentration camp in Poland and the harrowing tales of survival of other parliament members.
"The person who was imprisoned together with the rest of his family in the Stutthof Camp, beside Gdansk, previously Danzig, which you as a Gdansker will know -- this man today presides as the chairman of the parliament of the Jewish state, which sprang from the ashes of the Holocaust," Mr. Shilansky said.
Mr. Shamir, whose family was killed in Poland, listened to Mr. Walesa's speech in Polish. He did not offer forgiveness when it was his turn to speak:
"All these things I shall remember from the days of my youth in Poland in the '20s and '30s: the magnificence, the colorfulness, the rich Jewish culture, the emotions which beat in our hearts, and also the disfiguring poverty and the degrading anti-Semitism," Mr. Shamir said.
He continued, "What happened on Polish soil for 5 1/2 years in the middle of this century will remain with the history of Poland and the history of mankind to the end of all generations.
"There were Poles who were educated to inhuman hatred toward the Jews, and these collaborated in the working of exterminating Jews," said Mr. Shamir.
He added that there also were thousands of Poles who "extended a hand" to save Jews.
Mr. Walesa is the third East European leader to visit Israel within the last year -- the others being President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia and Hungarian Prime Minister Jozsef Antall -- but Poland's central role in the long and often tragic history of European Jewry gives his trip extra importance.
Before World War II, Poland's 3.5 million Jews were that country's largest minority and accounted for one-third of the world's Jewish population of that time.
More than 3 million of them died during the years of Nazi occupation. Thousands of the survivors later fled to escape anti-Semitism, some of it sponsored by postwar Communist governments.
Mr. Walesa, the former head of the Solidarity trade union, had publicly denounced anti-Semitism but then enraged many Israelis during his 1990 campaign for president. He failed to denounce anti-Semitic remarks by some of his supporters and maintained that anti-Semitism did not exist within Poland.
Mr. Walesa's four-day visit to Israel was intended to mark a new beginning. Poland's government restored diplomatic relations with Israel in 1989, after severing them during the 1967 Six Day War.
Mr. Walesa invited Mr. Shamir to visit Poland, an invitation Mr. Shamir said he would accept.