A Polish Catholic strives to understand the Shoa
Ever since I was a child, I was always curious about the house in Staszow, Poland, where my grandparents lived. After all, it was where I spent my entire, and in my opinion, most beautiful childhood. I questioned a mark on the doorframe and a huge hole in the basement wall. It looked like somebody had been looking for a treasure. When I questioned these things, my grandfather simply told me, “The Jews used to live here.” He also showed me where the boznica (synagogue) once stood. My grandmother showed me where the kirkut (Jewish cemetery) was. I wondered for many years why Jews did not erect stones for their deceased.
To put it simply, my interest in Judaism and the Shoa started many years ago. Sometimes I think I was not even aware of it. After my second year of studies at the Catholic University of Lublin, I decided to approach one of the professors and inform him of my interest in studying “anything Jewish,” and see if he had any ideas of utilizing my interest. I was directed to do my research in the Yad Vashem archives in Jerusalem.
In 1990, I made my first trip to Israel. I found the country, people, and its history fascinating. After graduating, I went back to work and to live in Staszow. Still inspired by my travels to Israel, I organized a local chapter of The Society for Polish-Israeli Friendship. I was able to assist my good friend from New York, Jack Goldfarb, with the reconstruction of the kirkut. We put a bronze plaque on the building that stands on the site of the synagogue.
After settling down in the United States, an opportunity to enroll in the graduate program of Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange suddenly came my way. With great excitement, I entered the program. I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to study under wonderful teachers: Father Lawrence Frizzell, Father David Bossman, Rabbi Asher Finkel, and Rabbi Alan Brill. I also had the great fortune of meeting Sister Rose Thering, who died in 2006, in person.
For many years I dreamed of returning to Israel. I would often check the prices of airfares and keep current with the news. I was always worried about the situation there, and for many years took part in the Salute to Israel Parade on Fifth Avenue. Unfortunately, there was always something that prevented me from realizing my dream.
Last spring I was approached by Luna Kaufman, chair emerita of the Seton Hall’s Sister Rose Thering Endowment for Jewish-Christian and Holocaust Studies. She told me about the International Summer Seminar for Educators at Yad Vashem and that I had been chosen to receive a Sister Rose Thering Endowment scholarship to attend an event in Jerusalem. With much excitement, I sent my application to Yad Vashem and was accepted.
Among the 35 seminar participants were educators, principals, and museum employees from Canada, Serbia, Italy, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and the United States. The theme of the seminar was “Teaching about the Shoa and Anti-Semitism.” The 19 days were filled with lectures, discussions, meetings with survivors, and field trips. We had a chance to hear from such scholars as Dr. Pesach Schindler, Prof. Yehuda Bauer, and many others. We had guided tours of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Galilee, the Golan Heights, Masada, and the Dead Sea.
Based on my experiences at the seminar, I have come to realize that the role of every educator teaching history, especially the Holocaust, is not merely to teach the historical facts, but to give meaning to historical events they are teaching. History teachers need to present the subject matter as a human story, in a social context. Students need to understand that there was a Jewish life before World War II, and young people had the same problems and ambitions as youngsters today. The Jews believed that the young people could change the world. During the war they had their dilemmas; they were normal people trying to survive.
Students also need to learn about the meaning of life after the Shoa. Survivors have lived to build, not to destroy. We need to teach about the Holocaust for a better understanding among people, not for revenge or hate.
The month I spent in Israel helped me come back to my life in New York with great enthusiasm. I am full of gratitude to the Sister Rose Thering Endowment and especially to Luna Kaufman. It was because of her that I had the great opportunity of studying and traveling to Jerusalem.