by George J Elbaum
Gimnazjum No. 3, named for Marshall Jozef Pilsudski, is located in Mokotow on the southern edge of central Warsaw, only a few blocks from the primary school that I attended before leaving for the U.S. in 1949, so going there for my presentation felt a bit like homecoming. The event was organized by Violetta Tarnowska, the energetic and idealistic teacher of Polish and English. She has noticed that students are becoming less and less aware and interested in Warsaw’s history before and during WWII and she earnestly wants to ensure that they learn and remember it, including that of its pre-war Jewish community (which was 1/3 of Warsaw’s total population) and of the Holocaust. She therefore wholeheartedly welcomed my presentation and even invited students from other gimnazjums plus representatives of Warsaw school authorities, resulting in an audience of approximately 180 in total. Since my presentation was entirely in English, I was concerned about the need for translation, but Ms. Tarnowska assured me that most of the students were sufficiently competent in English so only unique words or terms would need translation and she would provide for it. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised with the students’ competence in English: during my presentation only words such as “barbed wire”, “stuttering” or “sawmill” needed translation, and in my brief one-to-one conversations during book-signing I was especially surprised at most students’ comfort in speaking with me.
My strong desire to speak to high schools in Warsaw (and Lublin also) was precipitated by a professional survey of approximately 1500 Warsaw high school students a year ago that revealed an amazingly high degree of anti-Semitism. Since the surveyed students probably never met a Jew as there remain only several thousand in all of Poland, I wanted to speak to such students and show them that Jews are absolutely normal and nothing to fear or hate. A few days after my talk at Gimnazjum No. 3 I was very gratified by an email from Ms. Tarnowska, as follows:
“There was one thing that impressed me most. Before your arrival a 15-year old student told my colleague-teacher that he was not going to take part in an event in which a Jewish-origin person would be addressing him. The teacher talked with this boy and asked him about the roots of his attitude. He was so nervous and answered that he strongly disliked Jews because of what his grandfather told him about them. The teacher made an effort to calm him down, asked some detailed questions and explained things, but after that she told him it would probably be better if he didn’t participate in this meeting. However, the boy did attend it, and something unusual happened: the boy probably understood the simple truth that he was brought up in hate and hostility by his family, that there are good and bad Jews, just like there are good and bad Poles, Americans, etc. I saw this boy smiling after your speech and queuing for nearly an hour for your autograph in his copy of your book. That is why I believe it is worth talking to people, especially the youth because they are so open-minded, unspoiled. If you had not come to visit us, this young boy would probably be prejudiced against all the Jews till the end of his life and would bring up his children in hate. You know, it hurts me that there is still this kind of prejudice in my country.”
I could not have wished for anything more, and I thank Ms. Tarnowska for sending this email to me! I feel that this one vocal boy was surely not the only one in the audience with an anti-Semitic attitude (as shown by last year’s survey), only the others did not face their teachers with it. However, as in his case, their prejudice is probably only on the surface, caused by what their parents or grandparents have said rather than anything they’ve witnessed themselves, so perhaps some of them also had a change of heart, as he has, and I helped to make it happen. This is what is important, and this is what makes me continue doing these talks, though it still involves some emotional discomfort.
In addition to Ms. Tarnowska, attending my presentation were the Gimnazjum’s headmaster Katarzyna Hampel and English teacher Magdalena Cieslik, my wife Mimi (who took these photographs), our son Jordan and our friends Richard & Evelyn Gumpert.