For close to 30 years, Holocaust education and Jewish history have been increasingly incorporated into curricula in Polish schools, and diplomatic relations between Poland and Israel have improved.
These milestones are important, says Andrzej Folwarczny, a former Polish politician and the founder and president of Forum for Dialogue, a Warsaw-based non-profit dedicated to fostering Polish-Jewish dialogue, eradicating anti-Semitism and educating Polish students about the once thriving Jewish communities in their towns.
He stressed, however, that the work of bringing Jewish memory back to Poland isn’t done.
“I think one of the biggest issues in Poland in terms of Polish-Jewish relations is that, in Communist Poland, history was taught very differently from the way it is today. Holocaust education wasn’t present in Polish schools [before]; the focus was on Polish suffering and martyrdom [during World War II]…That’s been changing, but there’s still a lot to be done in terms of getting younger generations of Polish people to understand how important the contributions of the Jewish people were, how Jewish people lived and how they were killed, Folwarczny explained.
The major goal, he noted, is for Polish students to understand that the history of the Jews in the country is also their history.
A member of the Polish National Parliament between 1997 and 2001 and the former chairman of the Polish-Israeli Parliamentary Group, Folwarczny founded the Forum for Dialogue in 1998 to help fill what he referred to as, “the gap between how Poles and Jews remember the history [of the World War II period]” and address some of the stereotypes and prejudices that still existed in Poland.
Folwarczny and Olga Kaczmarek, the Forum’s director of international relations, were at Toronto’s Beth Radom Synagogue on May 3 speaking to roughly 60 people about the organization’s work.
They also spoke about a communal seder held this past Passover in Radom, Poland. The seder was co-organized by Hilda Chazanovitz and Sharon Grosfeld, two American daughters of Holocaust survivors from Radom, and Zbigniew Wieczorek, a local Polish activist who’s been working for years to commemorate the city’s destroyed Jewish community. The three met year last at an educational event hosted by the Forum.
Held at a local cultural centre, the 50 or so attendees were mostly non-Jewish Poles and included teachers, high school students, activists and local authorities, in addition to Chazanovitz and Grosfeld and their families.
“It was a real case of dialogue,” Kaczmarek said, noting that Chazanovitz and Grosfeld prepared a special Haggadah for the occasion, explained with the help of an interpreter, to convey the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt and the symbolism behind the items on the seder plate.
The experience was especially powerful, said Kaczmarek, as it gave the students present, many of them participants in one of the Forum’s key educational projects, the School of Dialogue, the opportunity to actually meet descendants of Holocaust survivors.
The Forum’s School of Dialogue involves going into public and private schools in Polish cities, towns and villages that had a significant Jewish population prior to World War II. Through intensive workshops, they guide junior and high school students in discovering the history of these lost communities.
The program culminates with the students sharing their knowledge by leading community members in guided tours of former Jewish sites.
Since 2008, the School of Dialogue program has reached more than 250 schools in 161 cities, towns and villages across Poland.
Marilyn Sinclair, chair of the Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre in Toronto, went on a trip to Poland run by the Forum last year for North American Jewish community leaders of Polish descent to see how Poland has changed in the post-Communism years and what this has meant for Polish-Jewish relations.
Speaking with The CJN, Sinclair recalled meeting some School of Dialogue participants in a town called Opoczno and seeing how engaged they were.
“Some of the students told me they had previously felt a sense of loss in their town but hadn’t known before the project what that loss was about,” she said.
Of the work the Forum does, Folwarczny said that some Poles are receptive; some are not.
“We try to focus on those who express interest and also motivate those who aren’t to learn about the [lost Jewish] stories. This is our mission.”