Educators Revive History of Poland's Jews

Article excerpt

WARSAW, POUND Every Polish town and village had its Holocaust. That's what Zuzanna Radzik wants Polish children to learn.

Her task is not easy. Although Polish children are taught about the Holocaust, they don't learn what happened in their own towns.

The killing did not just happen in the death camps that they are taught about, such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. It also took place in little-known towns like Stoczek Wegrowski, where 188 Jews were shot to death on Yom Kippur, Sept. 22,1942.

Jews made up as much as 70 percent of the population in some towns and villages in prewar Poland.

"We bring history to children in towns and villages who have never met a Jew or seen a synagogue," Radzik said in a phone interview. "When we show them where the ghetto was in their town and that Jews were killed there, it all becomes real."

Radzik represents a vanguard of Poles who believe that the Jewish heritage in Poland is an integral part of Polish history and that Poles must learn about it to understand contemporary Poland. This legacy gives scholars access to aspects of Polish history that have yet to be researched, according to Konstanty Gebert, author and columnist for Gazeta Wyborcza.

Another Pole in search of Poland's. lost Jewish history is Beata Choma-towska, who is restoring the memory of the Warsaw Ghetto in the city's Mura-now neighborhood, which is built on the rubble of the former Jewish quarter.

Yet another Pole to memorialize the country's lost Jews is Zbigniew Nizinski, who bicycles through flat, pinecovered eastern Poland looking for the unmarked graves of those murdered in the Holocaust. His Baptist faith motivates him.

Faith also motivates Radzik, a 28-year-old theologian and devout Catholic. "We have a long history of Christian anti-Judaism," she told me. "We should do our repentance for that and be strong about fighting antiSemitism."

Radzik supervises the School of Dialogue, a program intended to recapture the lost history of the Jewish presence in Poland. The program is under the auspices of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, a Polish nonprofit organization that fights anti-Semitism and works to foster better relations between Poles and Jews. Radzik is a member of the forum's board of directors.

Under her direction, the School of Dialogue deploys educators throughout Poland to make students aware of the places in their towns where Jews once lived and worked, where there were synagogues and mikvehs, and to teach the young Poles about Judaism.

In April 2010, two School of Dialogue educators visited Kielce, where 24,000 Jews lived before the war, approximately a third of the city's population. Almost all of Kielce's Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.

Ania, a teenage participant in the dialogue program in Kielce, wrote: "I've been living here since I was a baby and I did not know the meaning of the monuments for Holocaust victims I passed by every day and where the Jewish cemetery is." Now she does.

Like Radzik, Beata Chomatowska seeks to bring to life Poland's Jewish past. The 34-year-old journalist, who lives in Muranow where the Warsaw Ghetto stood, has created the website Stacja Muranow ("Muranow Station," to educate residents about the history of the place where they live.

From this place, 300,000 Jews were sent to death camps, and countless others are buried in the ruins. The Germans leveled the Warsaw Ghetto after the uprising in April 1943.

"This area is still dead 68 years after the Germans destroyed it," Chomatowska said. "It is my obligation to remember the people and the place that was here before."

With no physical reminders of the former Jewish neighborhood, it is difficult to visualize its former appearance and recapture its history. Its hilly terrain in some places results from the fact that much of the rubble could not be cleared, so the new housing was often built on mounds of ruins. …