Connect to share and comment

David Miliband visits his roots

Britain's foreign secretary makes his first trip to Poland.

British politician David Miliband visited this Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, Poland. In this photo Polish Holocaust survivor Miriam Schmetterling (R) walks in the historic Jewish cemetery in February 26, 2007. (Katarina Stoltz/Reuters)

WARSAW — Poland is one of Britain’s closest European Union allies, but when David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, was recently in the Polish capital for the first time, the main focus of his trip was not meetings with officials, but visiting a graveyard.

The Warsaw Jewish Cemetery, 83 acres of trees and undergrowth that houses more than 250,000 graves, is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe. That is where Miliband’s ancestors are buried, as he is descended from Polish Jews on both sides of his family.

“I am one of the million Britons who have Polish blood,” he said in a Warsaw speech.

The often difficult relationship between Poland and its now largely extinct Jewish minority also weighs on Miliband, 44, who is seen as a potential Labour Party leader following the party’s expected defeat in parliamentary elections due in 2010.

“This was my first visit to Poland. There must have been a deep ambivalence at the heart of this delay. Poland is my roots. But Poland is the scene of terrible tragedy — mass murder on an unimaginable scale,” Miliband wrote in Britain’s Jewish Chronicle after returning from Poland.

The cemetery, now largely neglected, was used heavily until World War II, when the Germans eliminated the Warsaw Ghetto, killing hundreds of thousands. Now only a small corner is still in use by Warsaw’s tiny Jewish community. As part of their bid to wipe Jews from European history, the Germans also destroyed much of the cemetery as well as its burial records.

“One of the most poignant parts of the cemetery is that containing the mass graves of those who died in the ghetto,” wrote Miliband. “And of course the dates on all the gravestones stop in 1942. A thousand years of history brought to a crashing halt with the mass deportation of Warsaw’s Jews to their deaths.”

Despite the destruction inflicted on the graveyard, which is being slowly restored, Miliband was able to point to 16 family graves there dating back to the early 19th century.