For nearly ten years, I have been involved with Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) founded by Andrzej Folwarczny, a former member of the Polish parliament, to promote Polish-Jewish relations.
Andrzej, who is not Jewish, is painfully aware that many Jews blame Poland more than Germany for the Holocaust. Much of his adult life has been devoted not only to demonstrating this blame is not justified, but also to encouraging both Jews and Poles to understand that the histories of the two peoples are inextricably intertwined. This is my belief: that contemporary and recent Jewish history cannot be understood without an understanding of the history of the Polish people, and vice versa.
My involvement enabled me this month to spend a full week in Poland as a guest of the Forum and Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While I went knowing that my personal narrative had shaped my positive feelings, I wanted also to understand the negative feelings on both sides as well as what I could do about them.
I was not disappointed. Our six days were packed with presentations by government officials and academics; we met over lunch and dinner with young Poles – Jews and non-Jews – who have chosen to make their lives in Poland. We examined the history – what several scholars referred to as “the two narratives” – and we looked to the future.
One of the high points of my week in Poland was a visit to the regional high school in Chęciny, a participant in the Forum’s impressive “School of Dialogue” program.
Chęciny was a shtetl town before World War II: in 1939 Jews represented about 60% of the population, but now there are no more. As a School of Dialogue, administrators and a team of teachers from the school – as well as the regional officer responsible for education – have made a commitment to educate their students about Jewish life in Chęciny. The implications of this commitment are wide and deep.
The Forum initiated its program in Warsaw schools and selected university students to be prepared as trainers. The trainers go to cooperating schools to work with teachers and one class of teenagers who explore the Jewish roots of their town. A school must agree to devote four full days of classroom time to research and study; at the end, students make a presentation to their families, classmates, and town officials.
In Chęciny, as in most towns, the students have produced a “walking tour” of the former Jewish sites in the town as well as profiles of people who lived there. Reality demands that they also research what happened to the Jews of their community in the 20th century and before. In the cemetery, they found a 13th-century stone that predates the earliest records of Jews in the town.
Chęciny has gone beyond that: in addition to an annual three-day festival of Jewish culture, the high school has a relationship with a high school in Israel and students and teachers had visited two weeks earlier, so the Israeli flag still was flying.
Town leaders want to turn the former synagogue, used by the Russians as a stable but now a community center, into a Jewish museum and cultural center.
“Propaganda,” you may be saying. Nevertheless, the evidence is that dialogue is always more effective than no dialogue!
The required research includes asking one’s parents and grandparents about their personal histories relative to the Jewish community. Parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents of today’s 16-year-olds were born during the 1945-1989 period of Soviet rule of Poland, an era marked by official anti-Semitic policies.
This 44-year Russian occupation of Poland is just one of the facts that shape the Polish narrative.
- Another is that when the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939 they captured and killed 20,000 Polish intellectuals.
- The Soviets “finished” the job at Katyn, a massacre for which the Russian parliament just took responsibility a few days ago.
- Hitler’s plan for the Polish non-Jews – leaderless and mostly uneducated peasants – was to create a slave labor force of untermenschen (sub-humans).
- More officially designated “Righteous Gentiles” are from Poland than any other country in Europe.
While Jews were killed primarily by the Germans, the Polish people accept and share responsibility. Their atonement has taken many forms over the years, both public and private. Studying the Holocaust is part of the required curriculum; cities and towns have given land and erected memorials; countless exchange programs, including the Forum, have been funded by the government.
The issue of reparations remains unresolved largely, the Poles maintain, because decisions made by the post-War Soviet government complicated the issue.
The implications of the School of Dialogue program are huge. As Polish students learn about the contribution of Jews to their own communities, their participation reshapes their communities for now and for tomorrow. “Never again” is not an abstract promise. School of Dialogue – with the Forum’s ambitious goal of expanding the program throughout the country – will ensure a future of mutual understanding.
Are there Jews in Poland to benefit? Read my next installment!