'Let Us Find the Courage to Ask': 70 Years On, Poland Takes a New Look at Its Past

Poland is not just the Holocaust and Warsaw is not just the ghetto, yet more and more young Poles seem intrigued to learn about their country's Jewish past.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

WARSAW - On Friday two weeks ago, a group of journalists from different countries gathered in the media room of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in this city. Photographers, reporters, radio people and television crews crowded into the cutting-edge, well-equipped room to broadcast live to the world their impressions of the official ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski made a speech in Polish, and Israeli Minister of Education Shay Piron spoke Hebrew. The only person in the room who understood both speeches was Israeli-born Hagay Hacohen, 31, who works at Kol Polin ‏(the Voice of Poland‏), the Hebrew-language service of Polish Radio. This young station, only six years old, operates within the foreign broadcast department of Polish Radio, which also has stations broadcasting 24 hours a day in such other languages as German, Russian and English.

“We open a window on the radio for listeners and on our Internet site for readers of Hebrew who are interested in relations between Jews and Poles and between Israel and Poland,” explains Hacohen, the moving spirit behind the Hebrew service. “However, our mandate is broader: We report in Hebrew on everything that happens in Poland: politics, economics, culture and sports.”

When asked who the target for Polish Radio in Hebrew is, Hacohen replies: “Our aim is to reach everyone who knows Hebrew - in Israel, of course, but not only there. We also get contacted by people in Latin America and Australia.”

At the station, they say its broadcasts are becoming increasingly popular among the many Polish students who are studying Hebrew at universities here. These students are exactly the sort who have of late studied and worked with Israeli-born Nili Amit, who teaches Israel studies at Warsaw University.

“They love Israel and they see it a as Polish colony in the Middle East,” she explained, as she greeted the journalists at the new Jewish museum. Amit, who in recent years has been dividing her time between Poland and Israel, has become the museum’s “Israel affairs coordinator,” and is working hard these days to fill it with exhibits and other content connected with the theme of 1,000 years of Polish Jewry.

From conversations with young, middle-class Poles both in Warsaw and in Krakow, the impression one gets is that “Jewish” and “Israeli” have in recent years become positive, intriguing and sometimes even exotic adjectives. Young people like Karolina Przewrocka are living evidence of this. A 26-year-old journalist who is not Jewish, she was born in Krakow and now resides in the Muranow neighborhood of Warsaw, built on the ruins of the ghetto. After spending half a year in Israel on a scholarship, she is continuing to practice her Hebrew with a private teacher in Warsaw.

Recently Przewrocka has been devoting much time and energy to an innovative and exciting project, which aims to make Muranow an attractive neighborhood for young Poles who willingly confront their country’s past by living in the one-time ghetto area. Some of them, she says, say they feel as if they are confronting “ghosts” in the houses where they are living.

“There was a cultural vacuum here,” says the Internet site of the Muranow Station Project, “but something has begun to change in recent months. If more people join us, we will be able to revive this area.”

A fancy brochure the Project issued recently shows a sample of the “new Poles” in the neighborhood - young, energetic and good-looking, representing a broad spectrum of professions and vocations. They include artists, managerial types, and proprietors of cafes and restaurants. They have chosen to open their new businesses or to move into homes in the neighborhood that once was a ghetto. “Muranow is the past on which we will build the future,” the brochure declares: “Muranow is a new movement in the center of Warsaw;” “Muranow is my mother and my grandfathers and grandmothers”; “Muranow is a special neighborhood, which requires special care.”

‘Courage to ask’

The opening of the new Jewish museum, also located in Muranow, testifies to the fact that an increasing number of Poles are taking an interest in the city’s Jewish past. Moreover, even though the exhibitions aren’t ready for visitors yet, the museum has already launched some educational and cultural activities, and is offering discussions, films and other events to the general public.

“Let us find the courage to ask, to confront and to change. Let us create a sympathetic space for exchanging ideas,” wrote Andrzej Cudak, the museum’s director, in the flyer distributed to its very first visitors. “In many conferences and discussions we will grapple with difficult questions, and together seek answers to them. Who are the Jews? What does it mean to be a Jew in Poland? Can Jews live in a land where so many of their ancestors perished?”

A few minutes’ walk from the museum is Krakowskie Przedmiescie, the most prestigious street in Warsaw, which some call “the Champs Elysees of Poland.” At No. 6 is the office of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, an organization of young Poles active in promoting rapprochement between Jews and Poles. Their main project, which has been underway since 2008, is called the School for Dialogue. As part of it, youngsters ages 14-16 enrolled in about 40 schools throughout the country study the Jewish past of the place where they live. They are taught by academics and others, visit deserted cemeteries and endeavor in general to reconstruct Jewish aspects of local history, which over many years has been forgotten.

“I saw Sosnowiec from a different perspective. Nameless places, streets that used to go from point A to B, old rundown buildings - all these places received a voice. They became a testament to history. They have created a bridge between the past and the ‘here and now.’ I think that now I know more and understand better,” wrote a young man of 17 from Sosnowiec, in the country’s south, whose school participated in the project.

“The youngsters don’t only learn about their local Jewish history, but also share their knowledge with other residents of their city, and become goodwill ambassadors of the project,” says Andrzej Folwarczny, president of Dialogue Among Nations. “They develop a sense of responsibility vis-a-vis the memory of the Jewish communities and their contribution to the local heritage. We aren’t acting only to teach history, rather also to stimulate dialogue and reconciliation.”

Thus far that process has apparently been more successful between American Jews and Poles: It has been difficult to interest the school groups that come from Israel to Poland to participate in meetings with Polish youth.

The forum has also published a booklet of 50 questions and answers on the topic of the Jewish-Polish dialogue. No topic is swept under the carpet. Some examples: How did Poles behave during the Holocaust? Why did Poles collaborate with the Germans in persecuting Jews? Did Poles save Jews during the Holocaust? Why is there so much anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls of Polish cities?

Of course, Poland is not just the Holocaust and Warsaw is not just the ghetto. At the Polish Embassy in Israel, for example, staffers are trying to market their country as a “normal” tourist destination and to entice Israelis with weekend package deals in Warsaw.

For their part, young Poles find it hard to understand how Berlin has become such a popular and beloved destination for tens of thousands of Israelis, while Warsaw’s lively streets, cafes and restaurants, all of which teem with foreign visitors, are still relatively empty of Israelis.

There is also one thing that Israeli and other visitors to Poland must be wary of: It is forbidden, even if it is due to a slip of the tongue, to say to locals that concentration camps - Auschwitz, for example - were “Polish.”

“They were German camps,” declares Jacek Olejnik, the first secretary at the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv. “We are very sensitive to this.”

Commemorating 70 years to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, on April 19, 2013.Credit: AP

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