Painting Inspires Dialogue Between Jews and Catholics in Poland

Small Town of Sandomierz Celebrates Day of Judaism

A New Dialogue: The bishop of Sandomierz and the chief rabbi of Poland pray together at a Jewish cemetery.
Courtesy of Magda Teter
A New Dialogue: The bishop of Sandomierz and the chief rabbi of Poland pray together at a Jewish cemetery.

By Magda Teter

Published March 07, 2014, issue of March 07, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.

Wikimedia Commons

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.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.