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On The Borderland: Big Ideas In A Little Polish Town

The scene: a bright red porch in the northeast corner of Poland, close to the borders of Lithuania, Belarus, and Russian Kaliningrad. I’m holding a steaming cup of tea, brewed from local herbs and sweetened with local honey. I’m talking with a cultural activist named Krzysztof Czyzewski (k-SHISH-toff chi-ZEF-ski).

Our topic: the agora.

Agora is Greek for “gathering place.” Czyzewski’s goal is to use his non-governmental organization, the Borderland Foundation (Fundacja Pogranicze) to revive and nurture the agora. He aims to “create open communities in areas where different nationalities, religions and cultures co-exist” and to “preserve tradition as an instrument for establishing a modern identity.”

In this sleepy rural area, people of many cultures have long lived side by side, sometimes peaceably, sometimes not. In 1990, Czyzewski, his wife Malgorzata, and two colleagues arrived here from Warsaw. At that time, the Soviet Union was collapsing and Poland was awakening to questions about its past and its identity. The four newcomers settled in and began listening to the locals, gathering stories of what it’s like to live in a place where people of many heritages rub elbows.

The group’s first project was to restore the Jewish quarter in the small town of Sejny. Jews had been an important part of the community. During World War II, Jews were driven away and murdered. Czyzewski believed it was vitally important to build “a bridge between today’s population and the Jewish past.”

Through his efforts, the former yeshiva became the home of a theatre and a klezmer band. The former synagogue was refurbished as a place to honor the traditions of local cultures in all their variety – not only Jewish but also Polish, Lithuanian, Roma, Russian, and Belarusian.

“In the past, there was no common space in Sejny,” Czyzewski says. “We’ve made a common space.”

Why a multicultural place rather than an explicitly Jewish one? The decision was carefully made. Here in a place that has seen bloody ethnic conflict, Czyzewski believes, the best route to remembering the lost Jewish world is to establish a place where people can explore the challenges of living alongside the Other, wrestling with the complexities of belonging to one’s own tradition while embracing the traditions of others.

Indeed, as visitors enter the former synagogue to view the beautifully curated exhibits, many can be seen crossing themselves. It feels like a holy space – sacred to all.

The Borderland Foundation’s activities extend beyond Jewish remembrance. In 2000, the foundation published Neighbors, a historical account by Jan T. Gross that ignited a fiery conversation about the Holocaust throughout Poland.

Six years ago, in the town of Krasnogruda, not far from Sejny, the foundation opened an international center for dialogue on the grounds of an estate once owned by the family of Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel-prizewinning poet.

Scholars, musicians, writers, and philosophers come to Krasnogruda from around the world to interact with one another and with local people. The old manor hosts birdwatching classes, art projects for children, and workshops that explore thorny concepts of home and identity, openness and community.

“We aim to build a language of coexistence,” Czyzewski says. “People used to be pushed to belong to a single tradition, to choose – Polish, Lithuanian, or Jewish.” But as the people in this border region explore their family stories, “they discover that they had a Jewish grandmother.” Czyzewski coaxes people to “have the courage to say our cultures are interconnected, and to make this into something positive. To say proudly, ‘I am a person of the borderland.’”

A recent workshop at the center began with the question, “What does it take to break a bridge?” Participants jotted answers on slips of paper: inattention, ignorance, forgetfulness, lack of understanding, omission, exclusion, distrust, a sense of superiority.

Answers to the next question – “What does it take to make a bridge?” – included risk, courage, pain, rebellion, generosity, crossing over, empathy, trust, longing, love.

As I sip my tea in this idyllic spot, the conflicts boiling over in Europe and the Middle East and my own United States seem far away. Yet for Czyzewski, this region of varied traditions – this borderland – is the ideal place to take up the challenges facing the modern world. As he sees it, the work of bridge-building – creating the agora – is both never-ending and richly rewarding.

“Making it to the other side,” Czyzewski maintains, “is only half of the bridge – because what the bridge really enables is the return, the return to ourselves.”

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