Muszynski Emerging As Leader of Poland’s Dialogue with Jews

Archbishop Henryk Muszynski, who was instrumental in recently bringing over a prominent group of American Jews and Catholics for a series of talks, is seen by many here as a rising star in the Polish church hierarchy.

He is touted as a possible successor to the current primate of Poland, Cardinal Jozef Glemp.

One indication of this comes from a recent step taken by the Polish church: When the boundaries of Polish dioceses were redrawn earlier this year, Glemp was removed from his position as archbishop of Gniezno — the traditional seat of the primate — and Muszynski was appointed in his place.

While this is currently a matter of speculation, Muszynski has decidedly emerged as the point man for the Polish Episcopate in its efforts at bettering relations between Jews and Polish Catholics.

As leader of the Episcopate’s Commission for Dialogue with Jews for the past several years, Muszynski has been at the forefront of talks, exchanges, and various projects aimed at bridging the often bitter gap between the two communities.

Highly respected by his Jewish interlocutors, Muszynski’s role in trying to achieve interreligious understanding has nonetheless not gone without criticism from conservative elements in Poland.

Muszynski spoke last week with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency during the American delegation’s four-day visit to Poland.

PERCEPTIONS COMPLICATED BY STEREOTYPES

Muszynski, 59, said there were a number of levels of perceptions about Jews and Judaism in Poland, all of which were complicated by stereotypes, inherited memories and ideas distorted by four decades of Communist rule.

“Many people think, ‘we have no more Jews in Poland, so there is no Jewish problem here,’ ” he said. “We have to explain to them why there is Jewish interest in Poland. That’s a major problem here.

“We have to explain to Poles why they should be interested in Jewish things,” he said.

One problem that has divided Poles and Jews since World War II, he said, involved differing perceptions of the Holocaust and Nazi brutality.

He called it “the competition of suffering.”

Jews, he said, tend to emphasize the uniqueness of their suffering in the Holocaust. But the Poles, 3 million of whom were killed in the war, feel that this minimizes their own suffering.

As a result, he said, if the Poles say, “we suffered too,” Jews feel that this in turn is a belittling of their own suffering.

“So you have to explain to them, and it’s not easy to explain, because it’s not necessarily who suffered the most,” he said. “The difference, as I try to explain to everybody, is that all Jews had to die, but Poles could survive.”

He also targeted the commonly held stereotypes Jews and Poles have about one another.

In the 50 years since the war, he said, “we lived in perfect isolation, without any contact. And so we have fixed history, Polish history and Jewish history, and everyone takes into account only their own perspectives. So what we (in Poland) need the most is contact with living Jewish people — and from my point of view, living Jewish people who believe in God.”

Muszynski added that in Poland there is often a sharp difference between how the intelligentsia view the situation, and how it is seen on a popular, mass level.

“It’s not just a problem of mutual prejudices, but also generalizations — terrible generalizations. The ideas that Jews have about Poles and that Poles have about Jews, ” he said. “It’s because we don’t have contacts.”

He emphasized that negative stereotypes on both sides have to be overcome.

“We have to find a modus of intercommunications,” he said, adding that it was important to share experiences “of the others, not our own idea of the others.”

Muszynski noted that, for the task of getting Poles to know more about Jews, it was important to reach the broadest mass level of the population, through preaching and teaching.

He therefore underscores the need for improved training programs for Poland’s priests and teachers.

“We have to revive our own history and we have to teach history in the correct way, because until now, we were taught the history of totalitarian movements.

“We have a terrible heritage of communist mentality in all fields,” he said, adding that this has abetted the persistance of anti-Semitism through what he called the “scapegoat theory,” which makes enemies of imperialists, capitalists and Zionists.

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