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Jewish, Polish teens try to overcome stereotypes

ROME, April 17 (JTA) – Do Poles have the right to commemorate the Nazi murders of Polish gentiles at the Auschwitz death camp?

To whom does this site of martyrdom belong?

How are these events relevant to Jewish-Catholic relations today?

These are some of the difficult and emotional questions a group of young American Jews and Polish Catholics are confronting this week in Warsaw.

The Americans are a group of 200 high school students from Florida and New Jersey who are in Poland for the annual March of the Living Holocaust commemoration.

Like other march participants, they visit death camps and other sites of Holocaust tragedy and pay homage to the 6 million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.

But they also are taking part in a project aimed at fostering dialogue between Jewish and Polish teens.

Called “The Next Generation: Strengthening Ties between Polish Society and the American Jewish Community,” the project was devised by the American Jewish Committee in cooperation with the Polish Embassy in Washington and the International March of the Living.

Its goal is to open contacts, break down stereotypes and enable young Jews and Poles to commemorate the Shoah together – and move forward toward a future built on mutual understanding and respect.

“There is a Poland today that is open and willing to dialogue with Jews,” said Deborah Sklar, director of international affairs for the AJCommittee’s New York chapter.

“In order to break down stereotypes, we want to expose the American Jewish youth to modern-day Poland and to join with Poles also committed to understanding the past,” she said.

Founded in 1988, the March of the Living is an annual program that brings thousands of Jewish high school students from all over the world to Poland for commemorations culminating with a mass march and ceremony at Auschwitz on Holocaust Memorial Day, which falls this year on April 19.

In a sequence symbolizing the redemption that followed the Nazi destruction, the young people then go to Israel to celebrate the Jewish state’s Independence Day, which takes place this year on April 26.

While March of the Living participants consider it an important, enriching experience, the marchers rarely have contact with locals or learn about the changes that have taken place in Poland since the fall of communism more than a decade ago.

“The Next Generation project aims at expanding the perspective of March of the Living and to educate the American-Jewish participants about modern day Poland, as well as to educate young Poles about Jews, Judaism and the Shoah,” Sklar said.

The AJCommittee launched the project last year with a pilot program in which Polish high school students joined New York March of the Living participants in dialogue and a joint visit to death-camp sites.

This year, Sklar prepared a detailed, 11-page curriculum for young Poles and Jews to use as the basis for two dialogue forums in Warsaw about the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, contemporary Poland and the ways in which Jews and Catholic Poles think about each other.

The curriculum stresses that “a struggle over the symbols, over the history, over the events of the war exists between Poles and Jews today.”

It highlights this struggle by raising controversial questions and throwing them out as discussion points for the teen-agers.

Such questions include:

* Who suffered more, Poles or Jews? Is this the right question to ask? How do we even begin to address this question?

* How does anti-Semitism affect our lives today?

* What stereotypes do American Jews have of Poles? What stereotypes do Poles have of American Jews?

The American teens are meeting with Polish high school students, young Catholic Poles involved in Polish-Jewish dialogue and young members of today’s tiny Polish Jewish community, which has undergone dramatic efforts at revival since the fall of communism.

“If we want to change anything in Polish-Jewish dialogue, we have to work with young people,” said Andrzej Folwarczny, a Polish member of Parliament in his early 30s who is taking part in the sessions. “We have to educate them and get them to meet one another. It’s the only way to overcome stereotypes.”

Folwarczny, who is president of an organization called the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, said it is important to bridge the gap between the way Catholics Poles and Jews look at history.

It was only with the fall of communism that Poles could begin to discuss their past openly and learn about the realities of the Shoah. Previously, for example, Poles had been taught that Polish Catholics, not Jews, were the main victims at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Folwarczny recalled that when he was in high school during the communist period, “We were taught about the Holocaust as part of the martyrology of the Polish nation. This version taught that we Poles were the victims, and perhaps the biggest victims, of the Nazis and also that all Poles helped Jews.”

The perception of many Jews is just the opposite – that there was widespread Polish collaboration with the Nazis. Many Jews are unaware, however, of the extent to which Catholic Poles also suffered.

In fact, some 3 million Polish Jews died in the Nazi genocide, and a similar number of non-Jewish Poles were killed by the Nazis.

This year’s March of the Living takes place against the background of a wrenching national debate in Poland about the Polish role in the Holocaust.

The debate was sparked by a book by New York University professor Jan Gross that detailed how Polish Catholics in the village of Jedwabne massacred their Jewish neighbors in 1941 by burning them to death in a barn.

“When I first read this, I absolutely could not believe it,” said Joanna, a 51-year-old architect in Warsaw. “It took me a week before I could even consider the possibility that it could be true. But now I recognize that this did take place. It really shook me.”

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