Exploring Polish-Jewish distrust

Andrzej Folwarczny, founder of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations. (Dinah A. Spritzer)

Andrzej Folwarczny, founder of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations. (Dinah A. Spritzer)

WARSAW (JTA) – Back in 1995, two young adults on an official mission of
multicultural tolerance get off a plane in Tel Aviv. One is German, one
is Polish.The Israeli host embraces the German with kisses and hugs.But
he stares coldly and suspiciously at the Pole, barely willing to shake
his hand, as if the elderly Israeli had come face to face with an
unrepentant pogromnik.To the Pole, Andrzej Folwarczny, the
gesture spoke volumes about the success of German-Jewish
reconciliation and the challenges that lay ahead for Polish-Jewish
relations.”I couldn’t understand why suddenly I was the enemy,” he recalls.During
the same visit, Folwarczny overhears a German-speaking tour guide at
the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial tell German visitors, “Auschwitz was
in Poland because the Germans knew that Poland was an anti-Semitic
country.”In fact, historians say the death camps were built in
Poland because of the country’s large Jewish population and because it
was an occupied country whose government had been deposed. The Nazi
regime wanted to commit mass murder outside of its own territory where
it sought popular support.Regarding Auschwitz specifically,
where most of the Jews killed were not from Poland, the location was
convenient for railroad connections, historians say.Such cross-cultural disconnects encouraged Folwarczny, now 37, to dedicate his life to Polish-Jewish relations. Three
years after the Israel experience he founded the Forum for Dialogue
Among Nations, a nonprofit that runs tolerance workshops in schools and
universities, meetings between Diaspora Jewish students and Polish
students, and an intensive education program on Jewish-Polish relations
that brings together young Poles and Americans. The American Jewish
Committee is a partner.”In my personal opinion, people’s
attitudes have not changed enough” since the end of communism,
Folwarczny said. “There is still Polish anti-Semitism, but also there
are also still problems with the Diaspora attitude toward Poles. The
only way to change this is education and interaction.”The culmination of the forum’s educational efforts is the recent release of “Difficult Questions in Polish-Jewish Dialogue.”The
260-page book, subtitled “How Poles and Jews See Each Other: A Dialogue
on Key Issues in Polish-Jewish Relations,” touches on probing doubts
and stereotypes that for decades have driven wedges between Poles and
Jews. Religious scholars, politicians, diplomats, historians
and journalists from around the world address questions about the
Polish pogroms during and after World War II, anti-Semitism in Poland
today, Poland’s relationship to Israel, why Jews don’t accept Jesus as
the messiah and the reasons Jews flocked to Poland 800 years ago.Stimulating counterpoints are featured on similar subjects.A
major contributor to the book is Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, twice
appointed Polish foreign minister in the post-Communist era and a
leading figure of Zegota, the underground army’s movement to save Jews
during World War II.In the chapter “How did Poles behave during
the Holocaust,” Bartoszewski wrote that “all the political and social
powers in occupied Poland similarly assessed German crimes against the
Jews to be a willful and planned genocide.”But in a chapter
titled “Why did Poles collaborate with Germans in persecuting Jews?”
Warsaw-born Israel Gutman, who survived the Majdanek concentration camp
to become chairman of Yad Vashem’s scientific council, sounded a
different note.”During the occupation there were no Jewish
citizens of Poland in the government-in-exile,” Gutman wrote. “In the
course of two years, when Jews were dying en masse from hunger and
illness in the cramped confines of the ghettos, no material aid, not
even a voice of solidarity, reached them from the ‘underground state.’
” “Difficult
Questions” is intended to combat the perception that Poles are a
monolithic entity which should be held responsible for the Holocaust
and pogroms, just as the large proportion of Jews in the Communist
leadership after World War II is probed but then dismissed as a
justification for anti-Semitism.The book is based on questions
that have been asked repeatedly in meetings between young Diaspora Jews
and Poles organized by the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations.Released
in Polish at the end of 2006, the book is now available in
English. It can be ordered through the AJCommittee. Folwarczny is working on a Hebrew version as well.Along
with the AJCommittee, which is also responsible for the book’s content
and financing, sponsors of the book include the Taube Foundation for
Jewish Life and Culture; The Task Force for International Cooperation
on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research; and American
philanthropist Sigmund Rolat, a native Pole.Folwarczny’s
initial immersion in Jewish topics came in the early 1990s when he was
a young campaigner for Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who was running against Lech
Walesa for the Polish presidency.Some of Mazowiecki’s opponents
were trying to smear him by spreading the rumor that the candidate was
Jewish. His shock turned to disgust when a crucial backer of Mazowiecki
started a campaign to prove the candidate was not Jewish. “I thought, what difference does that make?” Folwarczny said.Folwarczny
may be sympathetic to the outsider status of Jews because as a
Lutheran, he is an outsider in a mostly Catholic country. He comes from
Gliwice, a city in the Silesia region of southern Poland, and loathes
what he says is a Polish stereotype of Lutherans as all having a
connection to Germans. During his time as a deputy in the
lower house of the Polish Parliament, Folwarczny served as chairman of
the Polish-Israeli group. Before becoming a deputy in 1997, he spent
time in Washington as part of an AJCommittee young leaders program.Although
excited about publishing “Difficult Questions,” Folwarczny is
disappointed by the lack of interest in meeting Poles by those who
organize visits of American and Israeli youth groups to Nazi-run
concentration camps that were built on Polish soil.”In the
majority of cases they don’t want to show anything positive about
Poland because it reduces the effect of their programs, which is to
show that Israel or the U.S. are the only safe place for Jews,” he said.”Very
often kids who finish these concentration camp tours think the Poles
were murderers. They go home and say grandma, grandpa, you were right.”

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