Thirty years in the civil rights field can make one jaded. You meet folks who purport to care about humanity, who are lionized for their virtues but turn out to be, at least on a personal level, less than exemplary human beings. They may talk the talk, but disappointingly, too often don’t walk the walk.
It is particularly striking then when you meet an individual who not only talks and walks the walk but does so with honesty, integrity, deep commitment and offers meaningful insights to boot.
Recently, I had the pleasure of spending several days with Andrzej Folwarczny, founder and president of the Poland-based Forum for Dialogue Among Nations; a group which he founded in 1998. The purpose of the non-governmental group is to promote conversations between Poles and Jews in order to foster understanding and to help eradicate anti-Semitism.
I first met Andrzej two years ago when he visited Los Angeles to promote the missions that his group organizes for American Jews to spend a week in Poland. The trips explore the complex, nuanced and 800 year old relationship between Poles and Jews. He convinced me and several others, including Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, that the trip would be worthwhile.
We went on the trip in November, 2007.
Admittedly, I was ambivalent, if not skeptical, about how seriously to take this effort. The issue had always seemed rather clear to me, Poland, the site of all the Nazis’ extermination camps, was the home to millions of “willing collaborators” who facilitated (with some glee) the Germans’ Final Solution. I had seen Claude Lanzmann’s epic Shoah (and even arranged for him to be honored by ADL in Los Angeles in 1986) with its unforgettable images of Poles who lived near Auschwitz half smiling as they described the cattle cars full of people that passed their farms day in and day out during the Holocaust.
Despite my misgivings, the trip was, literally, life changing. Andrzej’s honesty and commitment were and are inspiring. From Krakow to Lodz to Warsaw, Andrzej and his Forum for Dialogue demonstrated the complexity of dealing with different narratives of history and how the commonly held perception of Polish attitudes towards Jews is often unfair, simplistic and a-historical.
There was and is no shortage of anti-Semites in Poland, but to ascribe to all the Polish people that most enduring of diseases is unfair. Especially when the authors of the Final Solution, Germans, are often given a free pass.
Andrzej has recounted the reasons why he does what he does:
After the collapse of Communism in Poland in 1989, Andrzej became involved in politics. He soon noticed that the first non-Communist political campaigns were marked by strong anti-Semitism: One party would accuse the other’s candidate of secretly being Jewish, while the accused party would trace their candidate’s roots to prove that he was not. The fact that accusations of being Jewish were being used in a derogatory way bothered Andrzej. “Something is wrong,” he remembers feeling, “when people are thinking in anti-Semitic patterns.”
He next recounts an incident during a trip to Israel with a group of Polish students. Their group happened to be on the same flight as a German group. At one point, the Israeli flight sponsor embraced the German guide. “He then turned to me,” recounts Andrzej, “and I could see that he had a problem shaking my hand.” He initially believed that the two must have known each other previously, until another guide told him: “You must forgive this man, but he remembers the Holocaust.”
Andrzej had trouble understanding this reasoning, but further experiences on the trip only confirmed that initial incident. Israeli teenagers, he says, showed markedly more respect towards the German group than to the Poles. But what upset him most was overhearing a guide in Yad Vashem explain to German students that the reason Nazis had organized their camps in Poland was because of traditional Polish anti-Semitism. “That was very frustrating for me and the entire Polish group,” states Andrzej.
After experiencing anti-Semitism in Poland and anti-Polonism in Israel, he went through a third experience that cemented his dedication to Polish-Jewish dialogue. This time, however, he saw opportunities and reasons for hope. In 1997, Andrzej was elected to the Polish Parliament (he served through 2001). On his first official visit to Israel, he asked to arrange a meeting for groups dealing with Polish-Jewish dialogue. He was told that there were none.
The Polish Embassy instead arranged a meeting with 10 Holocaust survivors. “I told them that I was there to promote Polish-Jewish dialogue,” says Andrzej, “but they had nothing positive to say about Poland,” recalling only firsthand stories from family or friends who had returned from concentration camps to find strangers living in their former homes.
After an hour, Andrzej felt that there was “no chance for reconciliation… I couldn’t understand why there was such a gap between how this group and Polish [non-Jewish] Holocaust survivors remember their history.”
Andrzej persisted. After four hours of discussion and dialogue, the survivors “had tears in their eyes,” asking Andrzej what Krakow, Lodz, Warsaw were like now. “I saw,” he says, “that they hate Poland, and on the other hand—they love it. I thought that, because of their age, the time of working with these people as ambassadors of Polish-Jewish reconciliation was limited.”
It was at that moment that he decided to devote himself to Polish-Jewish dialogue. “And that’s why I’m here today,” he smiles. (Journal of Polish American Affairs)
There are countless missions to Poland—-many involving young American Jews. More often than not, the trips go to Auschwitz and Krakow and the kids end up with the impression that Poland was strictly a cemetery for Jews. There is rarely even a few minutes spent discussing the fact that for 0ver 800 years Jews and Poles shared the same land and, for much of that time, Poland was the center of the Jewish world.
The relationship of Jews and Poles is far more complex, nuanced and important (Poland is among the most supportive countries of Israel in all of Europe). Andrzej not only focuses on Jewish attitudes towards Poland, he also has over 200 Polish schools learning about their neighbors who aren’t there. The Forum’s curriculum and projects are slowly impacting the attitudes of young Poles.
I accompanied Andrzej on several of his visits with local Jewish leaders last week. It was inspiring to witness the impact he had on rabbis, community leaders and hosts of others as his genuineness and commitment and serious good works became apparent.
It’s worth checking out the Forum’s website and reading the Forum’s book, Difficult Questions in Polish Jewish Dialogue.
Andrzej will be back next March; I’ll blog about his itinerary as we get closer.