Warsaw — Every Polish town and village had its own Holocaust. That’s what Zuzanna Radzik wants Polish children to learn.
Her task is not easy. Although Polish children are taught about the Holocaust, they don’t learn what happened in their own towns.
The killing did not just happen in the death camps that they are taught about, such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. It also took place in little known towns like Stoczek Wegrowski where 188 Jews were shot to death on Yom Kippur of 1942, September 22.
Jews comprised as much as 70% of the population in some towns and villages in prewar Poland.
“We bring history to children in towns and villages who have never met a Jew or seen a synagogue,” Radzik said in a telephone interview with the Forward. “When we show them where the ghetto was in their town and that Jews were killed there, it all becomes real.”
Radzik represents a vanguard of Poles who believe that the Jewish heritage in Poland is an integral part of Polish history and that Poles must learn about it to understand contemporary Poland. In Poland today, she is far from alone.
Another Pole in search of Poland’s lost Jewish history, Beata Chomatowska, is restoring the memory of the Warsaw ghetto in the city’s Muranow neighborhood, which is built on the rubble of the former Jewish quarter.
Yet another Pole memorializing the country’s lost Jews is Zbigniew Nizinski, who bicycles through flat, pine-covered eastern Poland looking for the unmarked graves of those murdered in the Holocaust. He is motivated by his Baptist faith.
Faith also motivates Radzik, a 28-year-old theologian and devout Catholic. “We have a long history of Christian anti-Judaism,” she told the Forward. “We should do our repentance for that and be strong about fighting anti-Semitism.”
Radzik supervises a program known as the School of Dialogue, intended to recapture the lost history of the Jewish presence in Poland. The program is under the auspices of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, a Polish not-for-profit organization that fights anti-Semitism and works to foster better relations between Poles and Jews. Radzik is a member of the forum’s board of directors.
Under her direction, the School of Dialogue deploys educators throughout Poland to make students aware of the places in their towns where Jews once lived and worked, and where there were synagogues and mikvehs. They also teach young Poles about Judaism.
The educators highlight the shared religious truths of both faiths. To illustrate the point, they show Catholic and Jewish calendars to the students to make them aware of the holidays in both religions.
In April 2011, two School of Dialogue educators visited Kielce, where 24,000 Jews lived before the war, about one-third of the city’s population. Almost all of Kielce’s Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.
Ania, one of the teenage participants in the School of Dialogue program in Kielce, wrote, “I’ve been living here since I was a baby, and I did not know the meaning of the monuments for Holocaust victims I passed by every day and where the Jewish cemetery is.” As a result of the program, she now does.
Like Radzik, Beata Chomatowska, seeks to bring to life Poland’s Jewish past. The 34-year-old journalist, who lives in Muranow, where the Warsaw ghetto stood, has created the website Stacja Muranow (Muranow Station) to educate residents about the history of the place in which they live.