June 7, 2007
Poland and the Jews:
Is it time to stop hating the country when positive changes are transforming it?
Web extras: Videos illuminate the paradoxical lives of today's Polish jews
(Page 3 - Previous Page)She is also a board member of Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, founded in 1998 by former Polish National Parliament member Andrzej Folwarczny, 37, who serves as president. The purpose of this not-for-profit, nongovernmental Polish organization is to promote conversations between Poles and Jews in order to foster understanding and to help eradicate anti-Semitism.
Folwarczny believes that the visits the 20,000 to 30,000 Israeli and American Jewish teenagers make to Poland every year on March of the Living and other organized trips present a "golden opportunity" for dialogue. "Many Polish students have never met Jews," he said, also pointing out that the Jewish teens, if they are denied personal contact with Poles, often return home with even deeper prejudices.
But some questions that arise between Polish and Jewish teens stifle dialogue.
Realizing this, Folwarczny's organization collected 50 of the most challenging topics -- questions such as "Are Poles anti-Semites?" and "Why don't Jews recognize Jesus Christ as the messiah?" -- and asked various Polish and Jewish scholars and religious leaders to provide answers. The result is the newly published book, "Difficult Questions in Polish-Jewish Dialogue," a joint project of the Forum and the American Jewish Committee. Folwarczny recently completed a tour of seven U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, to talk about his work and the book.
Folwarczny is attracted to this work for many reasons. For one, as a Lutheran in a country that is 95 percent to 98 percent Roman Catholic, he is a member of a minority. His grandfather, in fact, a Lutheran minister, was imprisoned in Dachau.
Also, during the 1990 Polish presidential election, he witnessed anti-Semitism when some right-wing extremists accused Lech Walesa's opponent, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, of having Jewish origins. And later, working with German Jewish and Polish Jewish student dialogue groups, he saw, to his amazement, that many Jews held the Poles more responsible for the Holocaust than the Germans.
It is exactly that belief -- that the Poles were worse than the Germans -- that typifies the challenge of breaking down stereotypes.
While Poland did not instigate World War II -- the country was invaded and occupied by the Germans and 3 million Poles were killed, rendering them victims also --many Jews believe that the Poles were complicit in the Holocaust, that they failed to come to the Jews' aid and that the Germans placed the camps in Poland because of the Poles' entrenched anti-Semitism.
In fact, the history is not so simple. The camps were placed on Polish soil, at least in part, out of efficiency, because that's where the Jews were. It was cost-effective, according to Maciej Kozlowski, a historian and ambassador-at-large for Polish-Jewish relations for Poland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Which doesn't excuse the Poles, either. "The vast majority of Poles were indifferent," Kozlowski said. He pointed out that the Poles themselves were coping with severe wartime conditions, immobilized by hunger, cold and fear, and, for some, even relocation and captivity. He also noted that the punishment for aiding Jews in Poland, unlike other Nazi-occupied countries, was death, as well as death for other family members.
On the other hand, about 6,000 Poles risked their lives and their families' lives to help Jews and are recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. This is the highest number in any one country and about one-third of the total.
Additionally, the Polish government in exile was the only such government that actually tried to assist the Jews, albeit unsuccessfully, and even alerted the Allies to the German's plan to exterminate the Jews by sending couriers, such as Jan Karski, from Warsaw to London armed with information and documents.
To help clarify Poland's role, David Peleg, Israel's ambassador to Poland since January 2004, is always careful to refer to the murdered Jews as "the millions killed by the Germans on Polish soil." And in July 2006, the United Nations agreed to rename the Auschwitz concentration camp, a U.N. heritage site where 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, died, "the former Nazi German concentration camp of Auschwitz."
"I think it's important to note that Poland today is not an anti-Semitic country," said Peleg. He explained that the government fights against anti-Semitism and that the kind of physical attacks on Jews that occur in countries such as France and Belgium aren't happening in Poland. Rather, Peleg sees Poland's anti-Semitism as rooted in stereotype, more than contemporary reality.
The Catholic Church historically has been guilty of perpetrating much of Poland's anti-Semitism. Jews were viewed as Jesus' killers, eternally damned and incapable of salvation.
It wasn't until Nostra Aetate ("in our time"), Vatican Council II's Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, was announced by Pope Paul VI in 1965 that the church's position on Jews was officially reversed by removing charges of deicide and deploring all forms of anti-Semitism, among other changes.
However in Poland, where the communists were in control, the first official Catholic Church document reflecting Nostra Aetate wasn't published until 1990, and its message didn't start spreading to the public until 1993, almost 30 years after Vatican Council II, according to Yale Reisner of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
"[The church] is moving in a positive direction, but it's going to take time," said Reisner, an American scholar who has lived in Poland since 1994. He noted that the Polish Catholic Church is the only Catholic institution, outside of Italy, that since 1998 has sponsored an official Day of Judaism. It takes place on Jan. 17, and its purpose is to foster interfaith dialogue and education.
Another huge issue is restitution for confiscated Jewish property.