by George J Elbaum
The Forum for Dialogue is a Polish nonprofit organization established 20 years ago to promote and enhance the dialogue and understanding between modern day Poland and the Jewish community abroad, and thus to help heal the consequences of the Holocaust. The Forum’s primary focus is Poland’s youth, its high school students, because they are “old enough to understand and young enough to have an open mind,” the key guideline which I learned before my very first talk 8 years ago and have followed since. Toward this goal the Forum’s specific approach is to focus on schools in the many small towns throughout Poland which had a significant Jewish population (25-50%) before WWII but which was annihilated by the Nazis, to teach volunteering students their town’s Jewish history, and train them to guide visiting groups of Jews from English-speaking countries through the remnants of their town’s Jewish sites, such as the cemeteries, synagogues, schools, etc. Polish schools which participate in this program to earn the title Schools of Dialogue, and the Gala is an annual event to honor those schools and their students which earned that title in the preceding year.
The Schools of Dialogue Gala is a big, festive event held in Warsaw’s National Opera, an audience of 1200, and this year it honored 40 new Schools of Dialogue and their 1000 students. The Gala included an artistic performances by students (including a truly talented, soulful singer), special awards to schools for Diversity, for Impact on Local Community, for Innovation, etc, and speeches by the Forum’s President Andrzej Folwarczny, Poland’s Speaker of the Senate Bogdan Borusewicz, Israel’s Deputy Chief of Mission Ruth Cohen-Dar, Deputy Commissioner for Human Rights Sylwia Spurek, the Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schurich, and Deputy Mayor of Warsaw Wlodzimierz Paszynski. The Gala’s last speaker has traditionally been its Special Guest, a Holocaust survivor, and this year I was this Special Guest. Last year the Forum translated Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows into Polish and arranged talks for me in 6 Schools of Dialogue and another 6 schools after this year’s Gala, so I felt quite honored.
Organizing and managing the Gala’s smooth operation is a major and demanding effort, and this year it was ably led by the Forum’s Project Coordinator Jagoda Szkarłat and assisted by the Forum team: Maria Piekarska, Julia Machnowska, Marta Rauk, Marta Usiekniewicz, Maria Sokołowska, Marcin Dziurdzik, Anna Barańska, Anna Leszczyńska-Stecka, Izabela Meyza, Jakub Petelewicz, Zuzanna Radzik, and a very dedicated group of over 40 volunteers.
Ordinarily my speech would have been a much shorter version of my usual talk in schools. However, in recent weeks the Polish government criminalized even words or erroneous phrasing that might suggest some involvement or collaboration of Poles in the Holocaust, and to the international outrage for such Draconian excess the government responded by “doubling down” and adding that Jews might have also done the same. In this situation I felt that I could not remain silent, and ended my presentation to the Gala’s audience with 6 sentences:
“America was born and Poland was reborn in a struggle, so both countries exist now only because of the strength and heroism of its people.
Both countries have the right to be very proud of their histories, though each country’s history also has dark times during which there was not only heroism but also dark actions which we regret, because they are shameful.
As an American, I know our history, and you in the audience know yours.
But we also know that only by facing our dark actions, our social sins as countries or our personal sins as individuals, is there any hope for improvement and redemption.
For any country’s government or any individual, hiding painful truth is moral failure. Both of our governments are now struggling to face past sins, but with mixed success.
For the sake of our two democracies and our peoples, I very much hope that truth will prevail.”