by George J Elbaum
Zespol Szkol No. 2, Gimnazjum No. 3 (ZSG) is a high school located in Swidnik, a town approximately 10 km. from Lublin, Poland. In 1997 the school launched its international student exchange program with several European high schools and in 2007 it broadened it to include the Charles Wright Academy (CWA) in Tacoma, WA. The program at ZSG is one week long, with focus on the students’ social and cultural interaction in joint (hosts + visitors) activities and projects in art, music, dance and drama. ZSG has also invited speakers on important issues of human rights, tolerance and justice, including Carl Wilkens on the Rwanda genocide (he was the only American to remain in Rwanda after the genocide began) and this year my talk on the Holocaust. Visiting groups usually consist of a dozen students with one or two teachers, and they are housed by families of students in the host school. The Swidnik event this year included 15 students from the Netherlands, 15 from Belgium, 6 from Germany, 8 from the US (CWA), and 44 from ZSG. It was organized by ZSG teacher Ula Burda with support from teacher Marcin Pasnikowski and several others (see below) , and active involvement by ZSG Principal Ewa Darwicz.
During CWA’s Global Teen Summit in September 2012 I met the ZSG students and teachers Marcin Pasnikowski and Anna Szewczyk, and I was asked if I had been back to Poland and/or was I planning to do so. These were the same questions I had been asked after my talks at many other schools, and my answer has always been that I do not revisit the past, physically or mentally, a habit which I might have learned for emotional survival during the Holocaust (thus “Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows”), and therefore I do not plan to return to Poland. After my talk, Anna Szewczyk privately asked if, despite my negative answer, I would consider coming to Poland to speak at the ZSG event being planned for mid-May 2013. I thanked her for the invitation but I still declined as it would be revisiting the past. She understood my feeling, but nevertheless asked gently if we could maintain contact by email, and I agreed. Several weeks later she emailed me that she hoped it was not an intrusion on my privacy, but she had found on the web an archived 1939 Warsaw phone book, and in it a page with my father’s name, profession, address and phone number, and was attaching that page to her email. When I opened the attachment and saw my father’s name in a mundane phone book page, it suddenly made him much more a real person than he had ever been for me, and I choked up! After staring at his name a few minutes, I answered Anna’s email that I would come to the ZSG event.
….. And I am very glad that I did – the response, both from the students and the teachers was very, very gratifying!