by George J Elbaum
Minsk Mazowiecki is a town 40 km. east of Warsaw with a population of approximately 40,000. Shortly before WW II its population was approximately 13,000, and it’s through meetings with Forum for Dialogue educators that the school’s students learned that Jews comprised 37% of the local population at that time. The Nazis occupied the city in September 1939, a year later they established a ghetto into which were squeezed 5,242 Jews, and all this came to an abrupt stop on August 22, 1942, when the Nazis crowded them all at the market square and then into railway cars which took them to Treblinka concentration camp. (Approximately 1,000 of the Jews were killed on the spot.) Today, only the Jewish cemetery and the former House of Study are sole testaments to the existence of a Jewish community in Mińsk.
In 2015 students of John Paul II Municipal Junior High School No. 2 volunteered to learn about the history of the town’s Jewish community via the Forum for Dialogue program. This led them to embark on a multidimensional project: to create a film, a walking tour and a tourist brochure, and also to organize a pantomime, refreshments and Jewish dance class. They cleaned up the Jewish cemetery for which they created and erected a memorial plaque. They rented Judaica for a temporary exhibition and rented a room for it. They skimmed many books, sought advice from the Forum’s local tutors, and took a tour of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Because of this serious effort the school was a finalist in the 2015 School of Dialogue Gala.
Today’s event was organized by local Leader of Dialogue, Katarzyna Łaziuk (who prepared a wonderful homemade cheesecake for me), and after my talk the school’s Principal, Grzegorz Wyszogrodzki, made a powerful and heartfelt speech, giving wonderful guidance to his students. (I’ve asked him to write it down, if possible, and I will add it to this post when received.) The audience of 200 included Vice Principal Izabela Saganowska, history teacher Ewa Borkowska (who introduced me and is also a guide in Warsaw’s POLIN Museum), English teacher Magdalena Zygnerska, and the school’s 7th grade students. Our guide and translator for this event was Forum for Dialogue’s Maria Piekarska.