J-Wire – November 25, 2015
Polish political leader and trailblazer in Polish-Jewish dialogue Andrzej Folwarczny visited Australia this week to share his experiences in raising awareness of the Jewish heritage of Polish towns, cities, and communities.
Folwarczny’s visit, which commenced in Sydney on 20 November, included two days in Canberra and a week in Melbourne. Folwarczny came to Australia as a guest of the Australian Institute of Polish Affairs (AIPA), a voluntary non-political association entirely funded by membership fees. His visit to Australia was funded by AIPA as part of the Institute’s involvement with, and commitment to, Polish-Jewish dialogue.
In Sydney, his meetings included two dialogues co-hosted by the AIPA and the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), which involved participants from Religions for Peace (NSW), academics, arts, cultural and education workers and children of Holocaust survivors.
Folwarczny, the grandson of a Lutheran Minister, is a former Polish parliamentarian and Vice-President of the Israel-Poland Friendship Association. Following the expiry of his parliamentary term he wanted to continue his work, founding the Forum for Dialogue, the largest Polish non-governmental organisation engaging in Polish-Jewish dialogue, of which he is the President, he said during two meetings in Sydney.
“The word Jew was taboo in Poland,” explained Folwarczny, outlining the years leading up to the fall of the Berlin wall, where he and his schoolmates were taught a “very different” history to what is widely known now, focusing on Polish suffering during the war but not the experiences of Poland’s Jewish citizens, nor their contributions to the country.
The Forum for Dialogue collaborates with youth throughout Poland to help them discover the Jewish heritages of their towns and preserve the memories of those communities, additionally facilitating study trips for Jewish leaders worldwide to visit Poland, learn about the history of Poland and engage in dialogue with Polish communities.
Folwarczny, who in 2015 was awarded the prestigious Order of Rebirth of Poland by the state, identified small towns in rural areas of Poland, now largely without Jewish communities, as the biggest challenge when confronting lack of knowledge about Jewish communities. Forum participants from these areas learnt in some cases that more than half of their hometown’s local population once consisted of Polish Jews; having been invested by the Forum with the responsibility and skills to research Poland’s historical Jewish communities.
“This personal contact is so important so the students can confront their prejudice,” explained Folwarczny, who outlined how many Polish citizens only found out about their Jewish heritage later in life and sometimes only upon the death of a grandparent, instilling them with a desire to learn about their history and that of Polish Jewry.
“It is they (the students) who decide what they want to do,” continued Folwarczny, outlining how this year’s program, consisting of 1,200 students, came up with different ways to research and engage with local populations.
“The students are very creative, said Folwarczny. “In each place they have a different program, target a different group.”
Upon conclusion of the program, some of the participants will be selected to visit Auschwitz.
“For them, the meaning of the term Auschwitz or Treblinka takes on a very different meaning, it’s not just something they learn from the history books, it’s something that’s deeply connected to their personal local history… it’s a very difficult thing for a young person to hear and to comprehend the size of the loss.”
Discussions at the dialogues turned to some of the participant’s personal experiences in Poland and that of their families, with one attendee praising the program and labelling the participating students “custodians of history.”
Folwarczny has co-edited a book about the challenges faced in Poland entitled ‘Difficult Questions in Polish-Jewish Dialogue’ which was published in 2006.
The dialogues, held at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) were chaired by Jeremy Jones AM, AIJAC’s Director of International and of Community Affairs together with Aleksandra Hadzelek of AIPA.