Toronto man honoured for fostering Polish-Jewish ties

TORONTO — A Toronto man has been awarded a Polish medal for building bridges between Jews and Poles.

Peter Jassem is the chair of the Toronto chapter of the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada.

Peter Jassem, chair of the Toronto chapter of the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada, received the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland in a ceremony at the Polish consulate last month.

The medal, which is given to Poles or foreigners who have rendered great service to Poland, was presented to Jassem by Marek Ciesielczuk, the Polish consul general in Toronto.

Jassem, a 56-year-old architect who immigrated to Canada 21 years ago from  his native Poland, said he accepted the Knight’s Cross in the spirit of advancing “dialogue and reconciliation,” promoting better Polish-Jewish understanding and preserving “the unique and rich heritage of Polish Jewry.”

In an interview, Jassem said that members of the foundation consist of persons of Jewish and Christian descent.

“This is a forum where can can jointly educate ourselves and each other, and discuss the complex issues of Polish-Jewish relations.”

The foundation was established in 1988, shortly after Jassem arrived in Canada.

The founders of the Toronto branch were, among others, Rabbi Dow Marmur, Frank Bialystok, Louis Lenkinski, Henry Dasko and Sharon Weintraub.

Jassem joined the organization and became its chair about seven years ago.

He said it has helped him explore his Jewish roots.

Born near Poznan, and a resident of Szczecin prior to immigrating to Canada, Jassem is of mixed descent.

“My father’s roots are Jewish and my mother’s Christian,” said Jassem, who discovered that his surname was shared by Polish Jews in the United States.

The discovery had a profound effect on him. “It was an emotional moment and a milestone in my own self-definition. All of a sudden, I had a feeling of reaching a resting point in my journey. I had a feeling of harmony and relaxation. I felt much richer. Now I could relate to a double heritage.”

Jassem said his late father was of indispensable assistance in his genealogical search for his Jewish identity.

“My mother also provided enriching facts of how her Catholic parents harboured a Jewish girl during [the Holocaust], or how they embraced a Jewish son-in-law. She keeps sending me articles on Polish-Jewish issues.”

The fraught relationship between Jews and Poles has improved against the backdrop of a Jewish revival in Poland and a surge of interest in Jews among Poles, he noted.

“More than a 100 books on Jewish history and tradition are published annually in Poland. Hundreds of articles appear in the press. Cultural and research centres have been opened. Associations have been formed. Exhibitions, festivals and cultural events take place. Public debates and kitchen table conversations on many complex issues are commonplace.”

And Poland’s relations with Israel are exemplary, he added.

But outside Poland, Polish-Jewish relations are in need of improvement. “There are many stereotypes on both sides of the divide,” said Jassem. “This is where our role begins as an educator and bridge builder. Progress is slow but noticeable.”

Fond of speaking of Jews and Poles’ “millennium-long common  history,” he said that the foundation has worked hard to promote its objectives.

Jassem, a member of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Canada, said that the foundation marked the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, promoted the première of Roman Polanski’s film, The Pianist, and presented an exhibition of prewar photographs of Polish Jews preserved by Polish Christians.

In addition, the foundation participates in Holocaust Education Week and book promotions.

“We’ve also created an annual award for the best student paper on the history of Polish Jewry and on Polish-Jewish relations.

“As well, we co-sponsored the first English translation of Yehiel Trunk’s Poyln: My Life within Jewish Life in Poland, Sketches and Images, published by the University of Toronto Press.”

Jassem, too, is the Canadian representative of the North American Council of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, set to be built in Warsaw on the grounds of the former ghetto.

According to Jassem, the museum will be the most important institution of its kind, on a par with the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C ., and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

“No visit to Poland will be complete without a visit to the museum. It will be a place to begin an exploration of the lost world of Polish Jews, and a place of dialogue and civic engagement.”

Jassem said that Poland’s current president, Lech Kaczynski, initiated the project when he was mayor of Warsaw.

“He has also introduced a number of initiatives that have placed Polish-Jewish relations on a new level. He was the first postwar Polish president to celebrate the start of Chanukah in a Polish synagogue, and the first to light Chanukah candles in the presidential palace.”

Kaczynski also changed the status of Polish Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust, recognizing them as the equals of Polish soldiers and insurgents who battled the Nazis.

Apart from his role at the foundation, Jassem is on the executive of Jewish Records Indexing-Poland, an international organization that has created a database on Polish Jews and is dedicated to improving state-of-the-art Jewish genealogical research.