Apr 2009 Journal

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An important and welcome beginning (book review)

edited by Zbigniew Nosowski
Warsaw: Wiez Laboratory, Institute for Social Analysis and Dialogue ( ul. Trebacka 3, 00-074 Warsaw, Poland), 2008, 64 pp.

This slender, illustrated volume, sponsored by the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, is worth its weight in gold given that it provides incontrovertible evidence of the sea change that is in progress in Poland in defining the relationship between the Polish church and the Jewish minority. It is essential reading for those who remain in denial about change in Poland. Whilst there is still a long way to go towards reaching the Polish population at large, there can be no doubt that the Catholic Church and others are making great and successful efforts to purge Poland of its anti-Semitic past and to build a society that embraces and values its Jewish heritage and present citizens.

The monograph opens with contributions by the Chief Rabbi of Poland, the Polish Ambassador to Israel, and the Jewish Co-chairman of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews. I could do worse than quote these three key players. The Chief Rabbi writes: ‘Travelling throughout Poland I have found, in almost every city, town and village, a group or sometimes individuals who are restoring their local Jewish cemetery or synagogue. Why are they doing it?’ He believes that it was John Paul II, the ‘Polish Pope’, who began and encouraged the fight against anti-Semitism and that the Jewish presence, reduced by 90 per cent since before the war, is missed by many, if not all, Poles.

The Ambassador asserts that ‘Many Poles, looking around, perceive this man-made emptiness, this absence in the Polish landscape, which hurts to this day like an open wound.’ ‘We cannot bring back the murdered Jewish world,’ she writes, ‘but we can, and should, bring back the memory. This living memory gives birth to new bonds between us.’

The Jewish Co-chairman of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews declares: ‘I can understand the misgivings of foreign visitors who are puzzled by the presence of Jewish themes in the absence of Jews. Nevertheless, the challenge we face is very simple: we have a choice between oblivion or remembrance. Can anyone have any doubts about which is preferable?’

The monograph consists of a series of essays, some more general such as a description of the Day of Judaism in the Catholic Church, or a discourse on ‘Solidarity with the People of Israel’. Most of the essays cover local initiatives in ten cities across Poland – from Lublin to Warsaw and Wroclaw – discussing what is being done to remember the past and to forge bonds with the remaining or reconstituted Jewish communities. I was happy to see that in Koszalin, the town in which I was born when it was still the German Köslin, the two activists who have energetically and with a sense of mission revived the memory of the Jewish community before the war in a variety of ways have credited me for having acted as a catalyst.

It is possible that this preoccupation is at present largely confined to members of the Catholic Church and to a minority of the Polish population. But it is an important and welcome beginning which augurs well for the future.


Leslie Baruch Brent

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