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Journey to Poland: An Opportunity for an Encounter Between Israeli and Polish Youth

During the month of September, guides from the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum accompanied students from Haifa’s Leo Baeck High School on a journey to Poland. The Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum has had a longstanding connection with the school, including a range of projects during which the students take an active part in the moral-educational work of our institution.

This year, for the first time, we accompanied 100 12th graders on their journey to Poland. We decided to include in the program a meeting with Polish youth. We believed that such a meeting would enrich the students’ journey and their encounter with Polish culture.  This encounter would greatly contribute to creating a mutual framework consisting of a complex past, a relevant present and, in particular, a meaningful future.  We contacted Zevig Starotsky, an educator and history teacher at a Warsaw high school. Zevig, who had visited Israel in the past and even volunteered at Kibbutz Beit Oren, was happy to collaborate with us. A few weeks before the group left for Poland, initial contacts were made between the Israeli and Polish students: email addresses were exchanged and the students were instructed to introduce themselves and to try and find common areas of interest. We were pleased to see that the initial reactions were positive and that the students on both sides began to correspond with each other.

On a chilly, rainy Saturday morning, we all met in Krashinsky Park, in the center of Warsaw. The educational team was apprehensive as to how the two sides would relate to each other. What would they have to talk about? How would they deal with the story of the Holocaust which was at the core of the journey to Poland? And would the students understand why we came all the way from Israel to Poland?

 


The team of guides led the opening activity. We decided to use a collection of postcards bequeathed to us by a young boy who was in Janusz Korczak's orphanage (that was located in Warsaw). Each group was given an assortment of cards – these represented “prizes” awarded by Korczak to the children in the orphanage when they achieved the goals they had set for themselves, behaved well, or had completed various chores in the orphanage. The magic took hold of the group right away – the Israeli and Polish students stood in a circle, speaking English and where necessary Hebrew and Polish, swapping postcards and explaining to whom they were awarding the postcards and what actions merited, in their eyes, the cherished prize.   

From the moment the ice broke, we went on to spend the whole day together – we showed the Polish students areas in their city that they did not know about. For example, for most of them, this was the first time they had seen the remains of the walls of the Jewish Ghetto, which still stand today on Zluta Street. It should be noted that the students were fully acquainted with the historical story. For their part, the Polish students accompanied us to the Polish Resistance memorial which stands close to the Supreme Court in Warsaw. The memorial constitutes a special symbol of pride for Poles in general and for the residents of Warsaw in particular: it is a symbol of democratic Poland which fought for its freedom under the Nazi regime and, later, under the Communists.

 

To our surprise and, despite the fact that we met on a Saturday, which meant that the Polish students had joined us on their own free time and not as part of their studies, a large percentage of the students stayed with us till the end of the day and even took part in the ceremony we conducted near Rapoport's Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, The Last March, and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

 

Throughout the day (and I hope that the photographs do this justice) the students could be seen walking in pairs or threesomes – whispering, laughing and exchanging thoughts (apparently also film clips on Facebook). When they came to part, many promised to stay in touch.

We are already planning the next encounter and hope that we will be able to play a part in building a bridge between our two nations, based on a background of a brutal, painful past but also on a future that these youth will be able to shape as they choose.

The Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum would like to thank the J.H.F – Dutch Jewish Humanitarian Fund for their generous support which made this encounter possible. 

  

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