One could not be unmoved when a group of young clerics from the local Catholic seminary sang a popular Israeli song in Hebrew, “Hevenu Shalom Aleikhem” (“We Brought Peace”), during a Catholic service in a small (and in January very sleepy) town in southeastern Poland. The Israeli ambassador to Poland, Zvi Rav Ner, could be seen singing along with a smile. And this was the second song sung in Hebrew by the young men; the first was a beautiful performance of Shema Yisrael.
What was even more remarkable was the fact that the service was taking place in the Sandomierz Cathedral, known in Poland and the West more for its notorious 18th-century painting depicting Jews killing Christian children than for its historical beauty and unique medieval frescoes. The service by the local bishop with other prominent church dignitaries, was the culmination of the Day of Judaism, observed each year by the Catholic Church in Poland with the aim of fostering a dialogue with Judaism and the Jewish community. Among the goals of the day, celebrated in Poland since 1997, is to “propagate exposition” of biblical texts, “which in the past may have been interpreted in an anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic way” in the spirit of the legacy of the Second Vatican Council and Nostra Aetate, “to explain to the faithful the tragedy of the Jewish extermination,” and “to present anti-Semitism as a sin.”
This year, the Day of Judaism was celebrated in Poland on January 16. Typically, it is celebrated on January 17, which this year fell on Friday and would have conflicted with the Sabbath, which in the winter in Poland begins very early. It capped a week of events, including exhibitions of Judaica in the local museum highlighting the devastation brought by the Shoah, and most importantly, events organized by students from local high schools, among them workshops about Jews in Polish and Sandomierz history, art and literature.
Schools around Poland organize exhibits, plays and other events, competing for the title “The School of Dialogue,” a reward for their efforts to explore the Christian and Jewish shared past in Poland, and to learn about each others’ cultures. This year, one of the high schools in Sandomierz earned the title for their work on the history of the Jews in their town. The local students’ accomplishments demonstrated that the Day of Judaism was not just a staged event facilitated by high-profile officials of the Catholic Church and the Jewish community, but that it represented a wider effort to engage with the history and culture of the people who had shared the town’s and the country’s history for long centuries.
The week-long celebrations in Sandomierz and the high-profile Day of Judaism seemed to mark the end of longstanding hostility between Jews and the local Catholic Diocese and town, caused by the explicitly anti-Jewish painting from the 18th-century. As a result of the flare-up of controversy, since 2006 the painting had languished behind a plywood cover and fabric scrim.. But by the time participants arrived in Sandomierz for the 17th annual Day of Judaism, the painting was visible to visitors along with a new plaque, the fruit of long years of difficult negotiations between the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, the Committee for Dialogue with Judaism at the Conference of the Polish Bishops, and the Jewish community. The newly mounted plaque explicitly states that what the painting depicts is not “historically true” and “could never have happened because Jewish law prohibits the consumption of blood, and thus Jews could not and did not commit ritual murder. Because of such accusations [Jews] were often persecuted and murdered, as it happened also in Sandomierz. Since the thirteenth century popes prohibited the spread of such false accusations and sought to protect Jews from them.”
Seen in isolation, outside of its broader historical and artistic context, the nearly 300-year-old painting under the choir of the Sandomierz Cathedral had become a lieu de mémoire, a site of memory, which crystallized in one image the memory of Jewish-Christian relations in Poland. As French historian Pierre Nora argued, lieux de mémoire exist because the milieux de mémoire, which had been part of everyday life, disappeared.