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January 22, 2017 / 24 Tevet, 5777
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Difficult Questions In Polish-Jewish Dialogue

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       Whenever I meet people, and they find out I write about Jewish life in Poland, invariably they have questions. They ask about the Jewish community that was, the Shoah, or the present situation. On the other hand, whenever I travel to Poland, I meet a certain curiosity from the local population. They ask why I don’t eat their food, can’t do certain things on Saturday, why I wear a yarmulke, and very often the topic of discussion leads to Israel and its politics. This a phenomenon that anyone going to Poland might experience either from friends before and after the trip, and from Poles throughout the country.


         There are many other questions that are asked on a regular basis. Then there are silent questions, not brought into the open, but thought about. People are apprehensive that, possibly, the answers might be embarrassing or very obvious. Many times the quiet questions are the hardest, and a person will get different responses depending on whom s/he asks.


         The Forum for Dialogue Among the Nations and the American Jewish Congress recently published a new book, entitled Difficult Questions in Polish Jewish Dialogue. The book is in question-and-answer format, with questions taken from surveys of young Poles and Jews who have visited Poland. Historians, rabbis, community leaders and people involved in Polish-Jewish relations, give the answers. Among the contributors are Wladyslaw Bartoszeski, founder of Zegota, Council for Aid to Jews, a Holocaus-era organization set up to save as many Jews as possible from the Germans, and Israel Guttman, born in Warsaw, who survived the Warsaw Ghetto and is now one of the heads of Yad Vashem.


         The questions from the Polish side of the coin start with, “Where did the Jews come from in Poland? How did they get there?” They also ask why the Jews did not fight the Germans in World War II. Issues regarding Israeli politics are very much on the minds of young Poles. Because much of the news media in Europe is slanted towards the Palestinians, they ask about treatment of the Arabs by Israel as human rights issues, and naively compare the situation to the Jews under the Germans.


         The book also asks about Jewish life in Poland today. “Is it safe to be Jewish in Poland? What about anti-Semitism? How can Jews live in a country where their ancestors were murdered?”


         The editors note that young American and Israeli Jews are taught history entirely differently from how the young Poles are taught. The chasm between the two narratives about the past is impossible to bridge without each side understanding the perspectives and concerns of the other.


         It is extremely difficult to give complete answers to all the questions, and this book should be looked at as a portal into the arena, a starting point for further exploration and dialogue, at least debate, between two peoples, whose pasts have so much in common.


         “Today, Poles and Jews living in Poland, under conditions of freedom and democracy, have the right to expect answers to many apparently straightforward questions about their history,” writes Professor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, former foreign minister of Poland, in the book’s preface.


         David A Harris, director of the American Jewish Congress, said, “It is our earnest hope that this unique volume will contribute to enhanced understanding and thereby strengthen the foundation of friendship and shared commitment between Poland and world Jewry for generations to come.” 


         Difficult Questions was made possible with the support of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture; the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Memory, and Research; and the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


         The book is available in English from AJC; in Polish from the Forum for Dialogue; and a Hebrew edition is expected later this year.

Shmuel Ben Eliezer

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