by George J Elbaum
Zespol Szkol No. 2, Gimnazjum No. 3 (ZSG) is a public high school located in Swidnik, near 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 week-long program at ZSG focuses 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, and both last year (May 16, 2013) and this year I was invited to speak on my childhood experiences in the Holocaust. The Swidnik event this year included 14 students from Belgium, 9 from France, 17 from Germany, 8 from USA (CWA), and 50 from ZSG. It was organized again by teacher Ula Burda with support from others, and with active involvement by principal Ewa Darwicz.
I had not expected to participate in the ZSG event last year as I had no desire to visit Poland after leaving it in 1949. However, in late 2012 ZSG teacher Anna Szewczyk (whom I had met at CWA’s Global Teen Summit a few months earlier) emailed me a page from the 1939 Warsaw phone book with my father’s name, profession, address and phone number. When I saw my father’s name in a mundane phone book page, it suddenly made him a real person for me for the first time (I have no memory of him as I was only one year old when he was killed at the start of WWII) and I choked up! After staring at his name a few minutes, I answered Anna’s email that I would come and speak at ZSG’s May 2013 event. Afterwards I was invited by Ula Burda to speak again at the May 2014 event, and I agreed to do it providing she would arrange for me to also speak at 2 schools in Warsaw and 2 in Lublin. The reason for my request was the survey conducted that spring of 1250 high school students in Warsaw which revealed an amazingly high degree of anti-Semitism. Since the surveyed students probably never met a Jew as there are now only a few thousand in Poland, I wanted to speak to such students and show them that we are absolutely normal and nothing to fear or hate. Arranging these talks, especially in Warsaw, was not an easy task, but Ms. Burda did it splendidly and therefore I came to Poland and Swidnik once again.
One surprising difference between last year’s visit to Swidnik and this year’s was that now both Ms. Burda and Ms. Szewczyk seemed like old friends, and since my wife Mimi’s birthday occurred while we were in Swidnik, it was a genuine pleasure to share the event with them.