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The Warsaw Voice » Society » March 27, 2013
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Promoting Polish-Jewish Dialogue
March 27, 2013   
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The Forum for Dialogue Among Nations is a nongovernmental organization established in 1998 to preserve Jewish culture and heritage in Poland and promote understanding between Poles and Jews. Through its educational projects for schools, the organization works to overthrow stereotypes and prejudice.

Aiming to highlight similarities rather than differences, the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations fosters closer relations between Poles and Jews and combats xenophobia and anti-Semitism. These goals are achieved through a variety of exhibitions, seminars, get-togethers, festivals, classes, symposiums and student exchange programs.

Former Polish foreign minister Władysław Bartoszewski, who is an honorary citizen of Israel and one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a title given to those who helped Jews during the Holocaust, is quoted on the organization’s website as saying that “the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations has been concentrating its efforts on encouraging contacts between Poles and Jews, so that they could relate well to each other despite their differences. Only through this kind of activity can we open a new chapter in our relations.”

The organization’s primary aim is to teach people tolerance, which is probably the most important lesson to be learned, the Forum says. Education needs to begin at a young age and the Forum has an educational program called School of Dialogue; it is designed for children and adolescents. This is one of the most important projects carried out by the organization.

According to theologian Zuzanna Radzik, a member of the management board at the Forum, Polish schools seldom teach local history, which is why the organization concentrates on locations where the Jewish aspect of Poland’s history seems to be particularly overlooked. “When young people have any knowledge of it, it is usually facts they learn from their parents and grandparents,” says Radzik. “One of our goals is to show young people that Jews contributed to the development of a specific town or city. [The School of Dialogue] helps children in small towns discover that Jewish history is an integral part of the history of the places they live in.”

The School of Dialogue project comprises meetings with instructors, during which students are introduced to Jewish history and culture, learn new facts and are provided with answers to some of their questions. “We come to schools and work to capture the young people’s interest,” says Radzik. “Together with them, we draw maps of the neighborhood—as it looks today and as it did before the war—so we can find out what the students know about history. Our instructors team up with the students to establish who used to live in the area. That is an opportunity for the young people to learn the meaning of words such as synagogue and mikveh and get to know what a Jewish cemetery looks like. In other words, they learn about the social and religious life of Jews. After the classes, the students can come up with their own projects to help commemorate Jewish history.”

The Forum for Dialogue Among Nations encourages student activity and involvement. For example, during field trips, students take a tour in the footsteps of Jews who used to live in their hometown, says Radzik. “The young people need to decide themselves who to take on the tour and who could take the biggest interest in it,” Radzik says. “They seek information about the local synagogue, search through archives, interview senior citizens and then put together a documentary film.”

The School of Dialogue teaches young people about Jewish history which is part of their own heritage. By learning to overcome stereotypes and aversion, which usually stem from ignorance, students also learn tolerance. Newly acquired knowledge encourages a dialogue and makes students keen to understand more. “They become very empathetic and start asking questions,” says Radzik. “For example, in Mr±gowo they went to a site where they expected to find a Jewish cemetery. What they found was nothing, not even an information board. That prompted them to petition the mayor.”

School of Dialogue students get many opportunities to talk to descendants of Jews who used to live in their towns. As part of the project, students from Piotrków Trybunalski, Radom and Łomża played host to Jewish Americans, showing their guests around their hometowns, talking to them and sharing stories. “Sometimes, people whose parents were born in a town in Poland come to visit and happen to meet School of Dialogue students who instantly take them on a tour,” says Radzik. “During one such visit, the local school principal found a class register from decades ago and showed the guests their parents’ grades. It was a touching moment.”

School of Dialogue classes, organized under the auspices of the Polish Ministry of Education, have so far been held in 47 towns and cities; since 2008, they have also been held in Warsaw. Schools which have joined the project receive the honorary title of School of Dialogue and projects carried out by students can be submitted for a competition with prizes handed out during an award ceremony.

During the most recent award ceremony Jan. 9, Israeli Ambassador Zvi Rav-Ner said, “One cannot overrate what you are doing for dialogue.”

Bartoszewski had sent in a letter which was read out during the ceremony. “It is remarkable that the next generations of young people are finding the curiosity in themselves to learn about the history of their towns and are able to ensure that former Jewish citizens are remembered and tell their forgotten stories to their teachers and parents,” Bartoszewski wrote.

The School of Dialogue underscores the fact that education enables dialogue. “When our classes are over, we tell the students: you are the leading experts on Jews in your hometown now; what are you going to do about it?” Radzik says. “We encourage them to further explore the subject by, for example, organizing tours for other students. We tell them: you take it from here, this is your history.”

Katarzyna Kaczmarek
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