Library at Ayalon prison Alex Levac 2007
A Library at the Ayalon prison, Israel, 2007. Photo by Alex Levac
Text size

WARSAW – An unusual initiative to teach Jewish studies at some 50 Polish prisons has resulted, according to prison psychologists, in very positive results in rehabilitation efforts. According to numerous senior officers who initiated the project, "Recognizing the Jewish Nation, its Customs and World" substantially reduces the level of hostility felt by inmates toward strangers, and restrains their violent impulses.

Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Shudrich was incorporated into the program and has so far presented lectures at ten prisons. The rabbi, who is of American origin and does not yet speak Polish perfectly, says he enjoys the attentive audience which shows interest in recognizing a world that until now had not only been foreign, but at times hated.

The rabbi expressed hope that following their release from prison, participants in the course would take this new understanding of the other to their natural environment.

Participation in the lectures in not compulsory, but, according to organizers, the meetings have attracted so much interest that it was decided to expand the activities of the course and include outside work, whereby inmates clean and renovate tombstones at abandoned Jewish cemeteries. In many remote Polish villages, whose entire Jewish populations perished in the Holocaust, inmates search for tombstones that were used by farmers for construction, and return them to their original location. All volunteers carry out the work without payment and do not enjoy any relief or benefits in prison in return for their efforts. Often, the outdoor work is done in harsh winter weather.

Only a few months ago, a memorial was destroyed in Jedwabne, where in 1941 residents burned their Jewish neighbors alive in a granary and stole their belongings. This site is being rehabilitated by inmates serving time at nearby prisons.