Teaching for Reconciliation: Can Tolerance Towards Former Enemies Be Taught?

Jun 20, 2001

Report on an International Faculty Development Seminar held From June 3-5, 2001, in Lublin, Poland, sponsored by the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, Jagiellonian University, and Brama Grodzka.


Within the deep, winding chambers built into Lublin's old city walls and eastern gate, the voices and faces of one of Poland's vanished minorities can still be heard and seen. The 14th century, so-called Jewish Gate used to be a passageway between the Christian and Jewish quarters of Lublin, an ancient city in eastern Poland near the borders with Lithuania and Belarus. Brama Grodzka ("City Gates"), a locally- and privately-funded non-governmental organization, was founded in 1990 by anti-communist activists with a background in theater, who renovated the space inside the massive archway over the gate and in the walls on either side. Its three-fold mandate is to establish a dialogue between and among cultural activists from Central and Western Europe; to protect the cultural heritage of the region, and especially to uncover and salvage what it can of the local heritage destroyed by World War II; and to promote education leading to civil society and local democracy.

Located in the region known in Polish as the kresy, or borderlands, Lublin, like much of Poland, was once part of an area rich in diversity and influenced by its inclusion in several different empires over the last three centuries. Until the Second World War, the city of Lublin was one-third Jewish and the area outside the Jewish Gate was home to a dense mosaic of Jewish shops, synagogues, religious schools and local organizations. Today, were it not for the activities of Brama Grodzka, most local people would not know that the grassy area which lies between the Jewish Gate and the old castle was once home to a large Jewish community. Every physical trace of the Jewish community in this area has disappeared, although there are a few synagogues and cemeteries which can still be seen in the part of the city which lies to the north. The city, like most of Poland, is now largely ethnically homogenous.

Today Lublin, an impoverished but darkly beautiful city with traces of frescos on the peeling walls of mediaeval houses, is known for its proximity to Majdanek concentration camp, where between 170,000 and 235,000 people, about 48% Jews, were killed its other, more positive claim to international fame is the tiny 14th century Holy Trinity chapel inside the castle, covered from floor to ceiling in Byzantine-style frescos which were recently restored after decades of neglect and defacement by various conquerors of Poland, Russians, Nazis, Soviet communists [for information in English on the chapel and a picture, click here.]

Here in this jewel-like room on a late-afternoon workshop break, I studied the trompe-l'oeil fluttering white curtains which surround the room to waist-height and mark the separation of the secular earth from the sacred realm of long-eyed Byzantine saints and Biblical figures, their heads encircled in gold. The trusting castle guard left me alone with this priceless sweep of color; the folds of the white curtains remind me of the laundry hung to dry in the halls of their 17th century Franciscan convent by the nuns who run the guesthouse just outside the walls, below Brama Grodzka, where I and other workshop organizers stayed for a few days before the workshop opened. But the voices in my inner ear come from another miraculously salvaged record of time, place and mentality, the oral history project of Brama Grodzka, just across the castle bridge and the site of the Carnegie Council's International Faculty Development Workshop on history education and reconciliation in post-communist Poland.

Brama Grodzka is a particularly fitting setting for this workshop, the issues it aims to explore and the unusual group of people drawn together by the combined efforts of the Council and 2001-2 History and the Politics of Reconciliation Fellow Jolanta Ambrosewicz-Jacobs, a specialist in tolerance education at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, one of the oldest universities in Europe. Brama's creative efforts to celebrate the lost historical diversity of the region and mourn the violence that accompanied this loss include a massive "happening" in September 2000, which brought together thousands people to witness the local archbishop, Józef Zycinski, and the Chief Rabbi of Poland, American Michael Schudrich, mix together earth taken from the sites of a synagogue and a church destroyed by the Nazis and plant a Polish tree and a grape-vine from Israel to symbolize historical ethnic and religious reconciliation. [Click here to read a description of the event, "One Land Two Holy Places," in Polish.] Brama has also sponsored a Day of Prayer in Majdanek, which also draws thousands of people from all over Poland.

But the Brama Grodzka project which shaped the mood of the workshop is the oral history project, a combination of exhibition and recordings of the collected memories of older local Poles of their vanished Jewish neighbors. On the first evening of the workshop, the participants were led through the maze of rooms by curator Beata Markiewicz. We heard the history of the project, turned montages of old photos trembling on locally designed steel mobiles, peered into peep-holes which revealed more photos mounted inside the walls, so that we had to strain to look back into time as well as deep into space, saw a miniature wooden mock-up of the old Jewish town, recreated from Nazi-era records of destroyed buildings and accurate down to the last small hovel. And we heard the voices of Poles who recalled the smell of apples sold by Jewish fruit-sellers, recordings from the period, and memories of Jewish survivors now scattered around the world. "Being in Brama Grodzka was an event in itself. Listening to the voices of the Jews in those walls was like a miracle or mirage. Evidence of mysticism," wrote Peter Cheremushkin, a Russian journalist and Carnegie Council Fellow who specializes in Poland and attended the meeting to speak on Russian-Polish reconciliation, in a post-workshop evaluation.

In Poland, a post-communist country with a developing democracy and one of the strongest civil societies in Eastern Europe, the challenges of reconciliation with neighbors (who are often still represented inside Poland by small minority populations) extend beyond Polish-Jewish relations to Polish-German, Polish-Ukrainian, Polish-Russian and Polish-Lithuanian relations. At the elite political and diplomatic level, relations with Germany, Ukraine, Russia, Lithuania and the State of Israel are good and civil; business is conducted, treaties have been signed with these countries, and some historical and history textbook commissions have been held to try to illuminate the "blank spots" left from what Carnegie Council Fellow Dovile Budryte, who presented a paper at the workshop, calls the "organized oblivion" of communism.1

But the challenge of reconciliation is to institutionalize it beyond the elite level, to make reconciliation a lived reality at the level of local and grassroots organizations. Ultimately, the goal is to reach the individual level, although, as Budryte pointed out at the workshop, we must recognize that reconciliation may never be internalized by many individuals. Unless it is institutionalized, however, the virulent conflicts of the past will continue to haunt and undermine crucial contemporary and future relations between and within states.

Clearly, crucial institutions for the embodiment of reconciliation are educational institutions. If changes in national identity are to take place which would internalize the imagination of "peaceful, cooperative links with former enemy nations"1 changes must take place in history textbooks, curricula and teaching practices in schools of all levels, as well as in non-academic places of learning such as museums, monuments, memorials and non-governmental centers and initiatives.

In Poland, this need to assess and promote the level of tolerance toward and reconciliation with former enemies currently being taught extends as well to a crucial institution: the churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church. Religious instruction carried out by priests and nuns is mandatory in Polish secondary schools. (Although non-Catholic children may skip the classes or in some cases, where their numbers make it feasible, receive instruction in their own traditions, the vast majority of Poles are now Roman Catholic, making the Church a major player in secondary school education.) Also, the moral and intellectual influence of the Church in Poland makes it an important actor as well in extracurricular forms of education, from pulpits to important liberal Catholic publications like Tygodnik Powsechny and Wiez and arch-conservative and nationalistic media like the radio station Radio Maria and newspaper Nasz Dziennik.

To study how tolerance and reconciliation towards historical enemies are taught in Poland, and even if it can be taught, the workshop organizers chose to do something which is still unusual in Poland. They provided a rare opportunity for mixing not only of different disciplines and professions but also of different levels of educators, from university through primary school. As co-organizer Ambrosewicz-Jacobs said in an interview with a local radio station before the workshop, it has not been a custom in Poland for individuals from such diverse institutions to come together to discuss problems of common interest.

This mixing extends to the unusual partnership of an American nongovernmental research and educational institution, a Polish university and a local Polish NGO, and the inclusion of religious leaders like Lublin Archbishop Józef Zycinski, Fr. Stanislaw Obirek, Vice-Rector of the Jesuit Seminary and College in Kraków, and Fr. Michal Czajkowski, Professor of Ecumenical Theology at the Academy of Catholic Theology in Warsaw and member of the Bishops' Committee on Catholic-Jewish Dialogue. In order to extend the discussions of the workshop topic to the local public, these three religious leaders spoke at a public evening panel on religious instruction and reconciliation at the Catholic University of Lublin (KUL), where they were joined by two more important figures in Polish religious reconciliation. Fr. Manfred Deselaers is a German priest and theologian who has dedicated his life to working and living in Oswiecim at the Center for Dialogue and Prayer and Fr. Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel is a professor at KUL who discovered only when he decided to join the priesthood that he was born to a Jewish mother. She had persuaded a Polish woman to risk her life to save him during the war "in the name of the Jew in whom you believe," adding, prophetically, "If you can save my child, he will grow up to be a priest serving your God." This discovery led to an epistolary exchange between Fr. Weksler-Waszkinel and Pope John Paul II on Christian-Jewish reconciliation which became famous in Poland.

Besides the religious educators, participants in the workshop included a museum curator, the young local director of a new American-Polish Jewish Center in the town of Oswiecim, where the Auschilz-Birkenau concentration camp is located, university-based teachers of history and pedagogy, the vice-principle of a small-town elementary school, a textbook publisher, two advisors to the Polish Ministry of Education on history textbooks, two directors of new Polish-Ukrainian educational centers, high school history teachers and several non-Polish educators and historians from the United States, England, Switzerland, and Russia. These educators, thirty-four in all, spent three days trying to identify the main challenges to teaching tolerance towards historical enemies in contemporary Poland and assess the progress that had been made so far.

Challenges to Teaching Tolerance Towards Historical Enemies Reconciliation - When?

The workshop was officially opened by a man with a special history and a special position. Wojciech Adamiecki, the former Polish ambassador to Israel and the current Special Representative of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Jewish Diaspora, personifies some of the paradoxes of reconciliation: Ambassador Adamiecki's unusual position—Poland is probably the only country that has an ambassador to a diaspora people—is a sign of Poland's official commitment to Polish-Jewish reconciliation. Yet there are a set of extremely contentious historical issues which continue to haunt the relationship between these two peoples, whose cultures coexisted for centuries on Polish soil before the Holocaust decimated Poland's Jewish population. (The very painful Jedwabne affair, which has unfolded over the last two years, is only the most recent and public of these issues.) Ignorance about Jews and their place in Polish history, as well as popular anti-Semitism, are still wide-spread in Poland, despite the rising popularity of Jewish Studies programs in universities. And, on the other side, many Jews frequently refer to Poland as a country of unrelieved anti-Semitism: few Jews abroad know about the existence of a position like Ambassador Adamiecki's, nor do many Jews know that Poles are some of the best-represented people among the Righteous Gentiles in Yad Vashem, where trees are planted in honor of those who risked or gave their lives to save Jews during World War II.

Ambassador Adamiecki acknowledged the difficulties faced by reconciliation when he began to set forth crucial questions for educators to consider. What are the limits of tolerance and reconciliation, he asked? What is the range of relationships implied by these words? When can reconciliation be pursued? With whom is reconciliation to be pursued - between historical enemies only?

The answer to "when" was clear to him in the Polish context: reconciliation can only begin under conditions of freedom. Only since the end of the Cold War, when Poland regained her independence and began to build a democracy and an open civil society, could the process of reconciliation take place, not only with the Jews but with other historical enemies as well, Germans, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Russians.

Reconciliation With Whom? The Question of Generations and Families

But, Ambassador Adamiecki pointed out, we can see from this list of ethnic groups that the question of "with whom" is rather more difficult. Jews and Poles were never enemies in the sense that Germans and Russians, who at times occupied the country, were for the Poles. The relationship between Jews and Poles is long and complex, and involved friendship and interchange as well as violence, mutual misunderstanding and stereotypes. Reconciliation is not just a simple matter of overcoming enmity to forge new relationships, but frequently must involve a new approach to a long history which for decades was distorted or shrouded in silence.

The question of "when" is closely related to the questions of "whom" and "with whom." Which groups can be involved in reconciliation implies, for educators, which generations? Dr. Barbara £uczynska teaches pedagogy at Jagiellonian University, particularly for future history teachers, and focuses on Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation. (Her family history inspires this interest in reconciliation: her family was from the eastern region of Poland which is now part of Ukraine, but she was born in Siberia, where her family was deported during World War II.) She posed the question of how educators should approach difficult historical issues when they are dealing with the first generation, that of victims, perpetrators and witnesses, the second, which still has direct contact with the events through their parents' experiences and memories, or third and later generations.

For £uczynska, the answer is clear: teaching history can only be used to affect reconciliation when educators are working with third and later generations, those who are removed in time and direct experience from events earlier generations are often unwilling or unable to face. Ambrosewicz-Jacobs, who has done extensive research on how to measure prejudice and levels of tolerance, including the assessment of tolerance education programs, agreed. The goal of teaching for tolerance and reconciliation is preventative, undertaken in the interest of preventing future conflict, and should focus on later generations, which in Poland means young people.

However, Alicja Bialecka, an experienced educator from the Auschwitz Memorial-Museum, disagreed. Educators cannot limit their work to the "third generation." They must work to include those from older generations, not just young people and not just traditional students, because of the influence of home and family on the young.

For example, in their work to preserve the memory of the World War II and promote historical reconciliation, educators from the Memorial-Museum cannot ignore the tensions in the town of Oswiecim itself over the questions of the "Zone," the politics of protecting the area around Auschwitz-Birkenau. Foreign Jews and many Polish camp survivors have fought bitterly to restrict commercial and recreational activities near the camp, but local residents feel they are being deprived of a normal life in order to maintain the camp's near-sacred nature. The stigma of being a resident of Oswiecim is difficult for the old, with their own memories of the war, and the young, with no memories, alike, and the town has recently gained a reputation for hostility to outsiders and anti-Semitism. The Memorial-Museum has made some efforts to promote discussions on the history of the camp, where both Poles and Jews died, among older town residents, "grandmothers and grandfathers" who are the most defensive because they feel they are being blamed for a death-camp set up and administered by foreign invaders. Educational activities like this, however, are still so rare and limited in scope that it is nearly impossible to assess their impact.

Aleksandra £ojek, a young Kraków-based teacher and journalist, agreed with Bialecka. In addition to classroom experience with Janina Górz's famous experimental high school "Hebrew Profile" class [see below], £ojek works with a community-oriented NGO, the Kraków 'Bernard Offen' Dialogue Club. This group was founded by a U.S.-based Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivor to further local knowledge and dialogue about the Holocaust through activities such as preserving and learning about Plaszów, the concentration camp located near Kraków which was depicted in Schindler's List, and Kazimierz, the old Jewish section of Kraków. The group works with members of the Kraków community of all different ages. Until recently, said £ojek, many residents of Kraków did not know that the green space where they took their children to play was the site of the former, still largely unmarked, concentration camp. She has found a moral need to learn about this period of the local history among Kraków residents, despite the fact that it does not have happy or heroic associations.

Finally, Bozena Gruszka, the vice-principle of an elementary school in Tarnów, a small town in Southern Poland which once had a large Jewish population and today has a large Roma population, gave an example which illustrated the need to involve parents in history education for reconciliation. Her students come from homes that are generally poor, frequently rural, and their parents do not tend to be highly educated. Gruszka designed classes on minorities, particularly Jews and Roma, as part of a Polish history course, but found that to overcome the resistance of parents who had many stereotypes about both groups, she had to invite the parents to a sample class on the Roma. After teaching the evening class for the parents, she was able to persuade them to accept a classroom module on the Jews. Without the education of the parents, the education of the students could not have proceeded.

This led naturally to the question of how to weigh influence of home, family, community and peers on students and their attitudes to historical enemies, as opposed to the degree of influence exercised by teachers and schools. Robert Szuchta, an experienced history teacher who has advised the Ministry of Education on history books and designed Poland's first curriculum on the Holocaust, cited studies which show that very few young Polish people rank school as the main source of their attitudes towards Jews and other minorities. They tend to have the highest regard for the opinions of friends and their priests. Within the Polish family, Szuchta estimates that, based on his own experience and that of his children, the most influential figures in shaping young people's attitudes towards history are grandparents, who are often directly involved in the care of young children and are the source for the earliest remembered stories about the national past.

However, Elzbieta Mach, a dynamic expert in multicultural elementary education in Poland and Europe who works on the process of Polish educational integration with Western Europe in the preparations for European Union membership, challenged her colleague. Is questioning the power of classroom-based education an effort to shift educational responsibilities away from professional educators to parents, peers and society? Studies have shown that young children trust teachers. She believes that for this reason educational efforts to teach about history should begin earlier, in elementary school, in order to lay the groundwork for classroom-based teaching about history for reconciliation in middle and high school.

This led to the key questions of what is to be taught, and how, and on to a more detailed discussion of the key challenges facing history educators as they ponder the ethical implications of teaching difficult histories between states and peoples.

Key Problems and Challenges for History Educators

Content in Secular Instruction

These problems and challenges fall into two categories, that of content and that of practice or pedagogy. In the area of content, one of the first challenges is how Self and Other are presented in history programs in Polish schools (as well as related disciplines such as geography and literature.) In the words of Ambrosewicz-Jacobs, despite countervailing tendencies in Western Europe and Poland's history as an ethnically and religiously heterogeneous state, "the identity of most young Poles is still built around traditional 'national' values such as the Roman Catholic Church, victories over traditional enemies of the state, and national heroes. A national identity with a multicultural background remains a remote possibility. This requires attention from educational policy makers, particularly now when the Polish educational system is undergoing reform."3 Gruszka, the elementary school vice-principle, pointed out that material on Europe is scarcely provided for elementary school children; it is only introduced in middle school, which again contributes to creating a vision of an identity which is purely Polish at a very young age. She added that educational material on the historical presence of Jews in Poland is also completely absent at the elementary school level. It is present in some teaching material introducing the history of the region for young students but most teachers, in her experience, avoid the topic, possibly out of discomfort, prejudice, or ignorance.

This kind of traditional, patriotically oriented program does not encourage historic reconciliation: not only does it produce citizens whose circle of moral responsibility is delimited and ethnically homogenous, but it also shapes a world-view in which those who are Other, or different, are identified as enemies. It also promotes social consensus and cohesion in a difficult time of political and economic transition and nation-building, which is why this kind of history program is difficult to change. However, Poland has made E.U. integration a priority, and this means that inevitably history education must be transformed so that young Poles begin to see themselves as part of a wider, more heterogeneous region, learn to see neighbors as more than just traditional enemies (particularly important for Poland's relationship with Germany, to the west, but also with Lithuania and Ukraine, to the East, as well), and overcome historically based prejudices such as anti-Semitism.

Chris Hann, a British cultural anthropologist who has done extensive fieldwork studying the relations between Roman Catholic Poles and minority Greek Catholic Ukrainians in southwestern Poland since the end of communism, described some of the alternatives that are being tried in history programs in others countries, and their costs. Sweden's secondary school history program, for example, strongly deemphasizes the history of Swedes and Sweden as a nation-state, rather presenting Sweden and the Swedes as only one state and people in a region—Europe—of many states and peoples. This has led to a backlash, as anxiety about loss of identity in a European future is growing, accompanied by nationalist chauvinism and xenophobia. Nor is Sweden alone in these tendencies.

On the other hand, Ukraine, also an ethnically and religiously diverse new state, would seem to be attempting a middle road between a regionally-oriented Swedish history program and a Polish history program that is still nationally and ethnically focused. With assistance from U.S.-based historians of Ukraine, Ukraine's new history education program focuses on "the history of the territory called Ukraine," rather than on a single people defined as Ukrainian by language or religion, by historic victories or victimhood. It is too early to try to assess the program's achievements and weaknesses in terms of how young Ukrainian citizens see themselves in relation to those with whom there were historic conflicts, including the Poles, Jews, Tatars and the old Soviet Union itself.

Strongly connected to this traditional presentation of a history divided into a homogenous "us" versus "them" is the problem of a history which stresses the suffering of one's own group. Not only does this create an identity based on victimhood (much has been written, for example, on the tensions created by the tendency of Poles and Jews to see themselves each as the "suffering nation") but it also creates a focus on the negative aspects of history, both of the histories of individual groups but also of the histories of interactions between groups.

Ambassador Adamiecki pointed out that among non-Polish Jews, for example, knowledge about World War II in Poland, as distinct from the Holocaust, is weak, which means that Jews tend not to know the extent of Polish suffering during the war and the extremely harsh sanctions for Poles who came to the assistance of Jews (collective punishment in the form of executions not only of the helpers but their extended families as well). There is a similar gap in knowledge on the Polish side about the Jewish Holocaust. This skewed knowledge about the war is a symptom of a larger problem: in general, the fact that Jews, for example, lived in Poland and were part of Polish life for centuries has not been "internalized" by most Polish historians—much less the general public—and the same is true for other minorities, such as Ukrainians and Germans. The result is not only ignorance but, when knowledge does exist, a narrow focus on negative and violent events, the Holocaust, for example, or Polish violence against Jews in places such as Jedwabne and Kielce, or the ethnic cleansing of Germans from western Poland and Ukrainians from Eastern Poland at the end of the war.

The problem of how to teach about the "difficult" parts of history—violence and suffering, one's own and that of others, both caused by others as well as by one's own national group—is an acute challenge for history teachers when there are implications for contemporary interethnic and international relations. Hanna Wegrzynek is a historian and educator at the Jewish Historical Institute (ZIH) in Warsaw who recently authored a major study on how Jews are portrayed in Polish secondary school textbooks for the American Jewish Committee. She feels strongly that history education about Jews today discusses more difficult topics, such as the Holocaust, first and too early, and should rather promote knowledge of more positive elements of interethnic and international relations before the negative ones, and at an earlier age than is now common in Poland.

Because these issues are anything but academic in Poland today, participants frequently mentioned their own educational experiences in learning about Poland's minorities and the negative parts of the past. These personal interventions give a sense of the obstacles educators face in teaching for reconciliation, the problems created by the recent history of Polish history education itself. Wegrzynek's first knowledge about Jews came only at university; she learned nothing about this important minority either at home or in secondary school. Fr. Obirek first learned about the Holocaust in the last year of secondary school, which was when he first became aware of a group which had been part of Poland but had differed in significant ways from Christian Poles. The level of his interest in Judaism today stems from his realization that half the population of his native city disappeared during the war years, and his subsequent need to discover how it could be that neither his parents, nor his neighbors, nor most of his teachers ever talked about it.

Bialecka gave an example of the dangers of focusing too much on negative history based on her work at Auschwitz Memorial-Museum, the most paradigmatic death-camp in the memory of both Poles and Jews. First of all, there is the issue of "horror fatigue," similar to the problem of "compassion fatigue," when media coverage exhausts viewers' abilities to internalize and respond to humanitarian crises.

Second, there is the problem of historical suffering which is associated too closely with one ethnic group. It is only in recent years that the general numbers of those killed at Auschwitz have been revised (downward) by careful scholarly research and made much more accurate than the numbers associated with the camp during the Soviet period. And until recently Poles believed they were the largest group among the camp's victims. The educational staff at Auschwitz has worked conscientiously to educate both Polish students, who generally have a field trip to Auschwitz during their high school years, and the public, about the numbers and proportions of victims. However, the unanticipated results of the educational campaign have been a drastic drop in the number of Poles visiting the camp recently: Polish students have gone from thinking that the camp is important as a place of nearly exclusive Polish martyrdom, and therefore a very meaningful site of Polish memory, to indifference, as the fact has become widely known that the majority of those killed there were Jews. Clearly, an approach must be found which allows students a new way to relate to the suffering of self and others, so that both kinds of suffering are acknowledged to have existed but also to have moral importance and a relationship to ethical issues Polish young people face today.

Cheremushkin raised the issue of social indifference. What can history educators do when reconciliation is not perceived by the public to be important? For Poles who are active as opinion-makers, and therefore at least a part of the public, several kinds of reconciliation are generally accepted as important and valuable: with Germany, for European integration and economic development; with the Jews, because Poles do not want to retain their image, common in Europe and especially in the U.S., as a chauvinistic, anti-Semitic country; with Russia, because it remains a major power to the east, and also because Poles still want answers about the fates of family members who perished in Siberian exile and camps and in massacres like the one at Katyn, and apologies and reparations from the successor government to the USSR.

But on the Russian side there is growing indifference to the suffering of the Soviet period, including that of Russians, which in sheer numbers of dead and displaced people far outweighs the suffering of Poles at Soviet hands. The explanation for this indifference is complex and forms part of Cheremushkin's current area of research. But Cheremushkin's difficult question for the Polish educators was what happens when the need of one side for reconciliation is not met on the other, either in the public sphere (official discourse, monuments, museums, etc.) or in the priorities of the classroom? How can reconciliation between two groups be promoted when efforts are not mutual?

Szuchta pointed out that the issue is not entirely confined to Russia. Despite the Polish awareness—perhaps even hyperawareness—of national history and suffering over the centuries, a challenge he encounters in his teaching is the remoteness of the events of World War II for many of his students. Even the struggle to end communist rule in Poland is beyond the memory of today's students: an educator recently reported that her senior high school students asked what a "dissident" was. And all the teachers agreed that history in general is simply not a favorite subject for many students. In Poland, where teachers must teach for very rigorous yearly tests culminating in the extremely demanding matura (which determines university admission) history lessons are associated with a rigid framework of facts, figures, historical personalities, battles, etc, which must be committed to memory. Even when teachers have the skills to make history come alive and seem relevant for young people, the demands of tests lessen the flexibility they have with their time in the classroom.

Content in Religious Instruction

Finally, the public forum on religious instruction and reconciliation revealed that content also presents significant challenges for interfaith reconciliation. Archbishop Zycinski pointed out that the teachings of the Catholic Church are still not reflected in religious instruction textbooks. Fr. Weksler-Waszkinel regretted that the Church's post-Vatican II teachings on Judaism and anti-Semitism still do not have enough material on the Jewish roots of Christianity recognized by Pope John Paul II (who has called the Jews the "elder brothers" of Christians), nor has there been a sufficient repudiation of the anti-Judaic teachings of some prominent Church fathers. Bialecka, in a public comment on the forum, noted that Auschwitz Memorial-Museum has invited seminary students to take part in educational activities but the response has been minimal, indicating either a low level of interest in recent history or official Church reluctance to make historical consciousness part of seminarians' training, or both.


In terms of practice, or pedagogy, an impediment to encouraging young Poles to make the connection between history and contemporary reconciliation lies in the "authoritarian" style of teaching which is still prevalent in Poland. August Zemo, a former teacher and school headmaster, is now the director of the European office of Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO), whose work he presented at the workshop. FHAO is an innovative Boston-based educational program which uses the history of the Holocaust and other incidents of collective violence to inspire young people to "find meaning in the past and recognize the need for participation and responsible decision making." FHAO's philosophy of teaching, which is based on decades of experience, holds that "the medium is the message," meaning that how teachers make learning happen is crucial in teaching for moral development. Equality cannot be taught when teachers lecture and students are expected to passively receive material. Education should strive to create a community of learners, for whom reflection is a critical part of learning. This is why FHAO's techniques include asking students to keep journals as well as participate in other projects which stimulate the imagination visually, tactically and kinesthetically, designing their own monuments and memorials out of clay, for example, during the module which focuses on how societies remember and memorialize past violence and persecution.

Many of the educators at the workshop know FHAO's work: Szuchta had studied FHAO's materials in designing his Holocaust curriculum and Bialecka took part in a FHAO training workshop in Berlin. Janina Górz, a Kraków-based educator, is familiar with the educational trends abroad which shaped FHAO's work, and the same philosophy inspired her design of two programs for high school students, the "Hebrew Profile" class, which made teaching about Jewish history and culture a theme for the four-year high school education of one cohort and the "Multicultural Profile," which used the history and culture of Poland's minorities as the four-year theme for the next cohort. [More information on the Hebrew Profile class is available here].

Nonetheless, these programs and methods of teaching are still very unusual in Poland, which is only one decade into its society-wide transition and reform of all institutions. Many teachers were trained in the older pedagogical methods which were common throughout the Soviet bloc and were abandoned years ago in Western Europe and North America. Polish history teachers still emphasize learning of facts and rote memorization rather than reflection on how moral choices were made by historical actors. Szuchta pointed out that the lecture style of teaching is still widely used, despite the fact that educators already know well that "after fifteen minutes a lecture is a waste." Drama, for example, which FHAO uses, is a well-developed field in education in Poland but is still not used in history teaching. If history is to be made interesting, engaging and relevant for Polish students and their relations to other peoples, teachers must be encouraged to try new teaching methods as well as contents.

History Education and Reconciliation: Progress and Solutions Content

While there have not been a huge number of changes in Polish secondary school history textbooks, observed Wegrzynek, there is a much greater freedom for teachers to choose the materials they will use in the classroom today. Teachers are able to select among a number of different books which have been approved by the Ministry of Education. However, in her opinion, all the approved textbooks continue to reflect "the painful history of our contacts with neighboring countries." The models of the 19th century—history as political history only—still dominate in Polish history textbooks which hence focus on conflicts and wars. If Polish history teachers are looking to change attitudes towards other ethnic groups, especially former enemies, they should teach social history, the history of societies, and the positive aspects of shared histories should be given at least as much weight as negative aspects, and perhaps more, especially for younger students.

For Szuchta, the key experience he has gained from teaching about the many ethnic groups who shaped the modern country called Poland is the importance of teaching about individual people or families with names and life stories through diaries, letters and biographies. Teaching must move away from a model based on the transmission of facts towards an infusion of knowledge with empathy, which will make history come alive and become relevant for young people. For example, for his Holocaust curriculum, "A Multiplicity of Worlds, A Multiplicity of Realities: Poles, Jews and the Memory of Generations at the End of the 20th Century," Szuchta used primary materials on the lives of two Jewish boys during the war, the diary of one and the letters of another, who died in Trzeblinka with his mother. To teach about Polish Jewish culture and the Holocaust, for example, Szuchta had his students write on the theme of why a nine-year-old Jewish boy in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 read books. This is an approach to gaining knowledge which involves empathy and emotions as well as facts.

Teaching about the Holocaust in Polish secondary schools is still a pioneering enterprise. Szuchta and others question whether knowledge about the facts of the Holocaust will reduce anti-Semitic attitudes and contribute to Polish-Jewish reconciliation, or promote any kind of tolerance, for that matter. Szuchta feels it is of value only if the Holocaust is given a context, for example, if the Holocaust is taught against a background of discussing the origins and dangers of prejudice, which is his approach to the topic. Szuchta's goals in teaching the Holocaust very much resemble those of Facing History and Ourselves, which also seeks to put the Holocaust into the context of such ethical topics as "The Individual and Society," "We and They," "Conformity and Obedience," "Bystanders and Rescuers," "Judgment," "Survivors" and "Choosing to Participate." (FHAO's resource book, Holocaust and Human Behavior, is based on these topics and others. Ambrosewicz-Jacobs added that using cases of how others reckon with their difficult pasts can help us overcome the "cognitive dissonance" produced by the effort to recognize the negative parts of our own pasts, an effort which challenges our own most deeply held beliefs about our group identities.

International Institutions: Textbook Commissions

Ambrosewicz-Jacobs has recently completed a survey of international textbooks commissions involving Poland, of which there have been many since 1972, when the first one, a Polish-German Commission, was established. Polish-Israeli, Polish-Ukrainian and Polish-Lithuanian Commissions exist as vehicles for representatives of the two nations involved to examine one another's textbooks and make recommendations to increase the accuracy of historical teaching and reduce stereotypes. The fact that these bodies exist show that there is interest and support at the official level in furthering reconciliation, and also that history education and textbooks are recognized to be important factors in the state of interethnic and international reconciliation. On the Polish side, at least, the historians involved are leading scholars.

Yet, surprisingly, these commissions have thus far proved to be relatively unimportant for the work of history teachers. The findings of the commissions are not binding, and, whether the commissions produced written findings (Polish-German,—Israeli,—Ukrainian) or not (Polish-Belarussian), they tend not to have much influence on historians and textbook writers. The longest-running and most successful commission is thought to be the Polish-German one, yet, as Wegrzynek pointed out, the current Polish history textbooks still have very negative images of Germans (more negative than those of Russians and Russian high culture, which, again surprisingly, are presented as independent from the overwhelmingly negative treatment of Poland's painful experiences with the Russian state and the USSR.) It remains to be seen whether the collaborative effort that has gone into the commissions could somehow be used in new ways to enrich the resources available to history teachers and textbook writers as they struggle to reform the teaching of historical contacts with those who were at some point enemies.

Teacher Training

Gruszka, despite her relatively high position in local school administration, is commuting to the university city of Kraków to pursue post-graduate studies in identity, tolerance and ethno-religious minorities through a part-time educational program offered by Jagiellonian University. For her, the best news in recent years is in the area of post-graduate enrichment studies for educators. Many opportunities now exist but still relatively few teachers take advantage of them. The need is obvious, though: in a recent class on the Holocaust that she attended, out of thirteen teachers enrolled only three had studied the history and culture of Poland's minorities.

Bialecka described a new initiative of the Auschwitz State Memorial-Museum, a workshop on the Holocaust for Polish history teachers, organized jointly with the Provincial Center for Methodological Training of Teachers. Ongoing activities include the organization of exhibitions, the current one being a photo exhibition showing everyday pre-war Jewish life in the cities of Sosnowiec and Bedzin, publications and education at the camp itself for visitors from all over the world.


The most striking conclusion to result from the workshop is the importance and promise of new, non-school-centered methods of history education. In the opinion of the school-based history teachers, textbook-oriented learning must be mixed with other forms of education, particularly direct contact with the peoples and cultures who are being studied, whether through face-to-face meetings, international exchanges, field trips to sites of memory, or the establishment of pen-pal programs. Janina Górz's two experimental "Profile Classes" exemplify this approach, with their mix of these elements. (Ambrosewicz-Jacobs included the students from the "Hebrew Profile" class in her comparative study of prejudices and acceptance of anti-Semitic stereotypes in Polish secondary school students, and found that Janina Górz's students rated low in level of prejudices in comparison with other samples of Polish students.)

Szuchta also uses a mix of textbook—and non-textbook-based teaching for his history courses. For a course focusing on Germans as a minority in Poland and the history of Poland's relations with Germany, he began to organize class trips to Köln and Hannover (sister-school programs between German and Polish schools have become common in recent years, with trips arranged for young Germans and their teachers to Germany and vice-versa.) However, he found, as did other teachers, that it is not enough simply to have the trips: lack of preparation on each side can result in pure tourism, or, worse, in unpleasant experiences which exacerbate, rather than lessen, stereotypes - Ambrosewicz-Jacobs, for example, told of a school where negative stereotypes of Germans increased among Polish students she surveyed after a school trip to Germany; interviews with the teacher revealed that the Polish students found suspicions among the German students they stayed with that the "poorer," "more dishonest" Poles, whom the German students associated with illegal laborers and car thieves, might steal their things. Now Szuchta prepares for his students' school trips abroad very carefully, using theatrical and artistic activities, among others. Face-to-face contact and dialogue among young people whose countries had earlier relations of enmity can be very helpful but the contacts by themselves are not enough to contribute to social reconciliation.

Despite his commitment to the production of history textbooks, Wlodzimierz Filipek, an editor and publisher of history textbooks as well as a scholar of cultural history, feels that centers of education are shifting from the classroom to non-governmental institutions like Brama Grodzka. Speaking from his experience as a father whose daughter had just finished her secondary school studies and passed her matura, he said that students see that their teachers do not believe students learn outside their schools, which is increasingly untrue and causes skepticism towards the authority of teachers. People learn through what Zemo calls "active participation in society": FHAO's philosophy derives from the belief that "people can only be educated into a life of virtue through active participation in the life of a society, just as people can only be educated musically in music, not by being told about music."

The presentations by history educators who work outside the traditional classroom setting demonstrated both this tendency and the increasingly rich resources available for educating about history and for reconciliation through "active participation in the life of society." Martyna Jezierska teaches in a high school in the western Polish town of Kolobrzeg, near Germany, while completing a PhD in law. She is the organizer of Kolobrzeg's Days of Tolerance, yearly program of meetings between young people from Poland, Israel, Ukraine, Lithuania and Germany. Katarzyna Sztop, a PhD candidate writing a dissertation on Polish-Jewish relations in the eastern Polish city of Bialystok between the world wars, works closely with the Sejny-based NGO Pogranicze ["Borderlands"], on its Borderlands School program for young people from multicultural regions of Eastern and Central Europe, as well as the "Golden Matzeva" program which promotes knowledge of Bialystok's Jewish heritage in local schools [This active and creative Polish NGO, also founded by activists from the theater, published Jan Gross's groundbreaking study on Jedwabne, Neighbors, in the first, Polish-language version.] .

Tomasz Kuncewicz, a Poznan native and PhD candidate in Jewish studies at Brandeis University, directs the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oswiecim, a center for education and prayer developed around the core of an old Jewish prayer-house, the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot. The Center teaches both Poles and visiting Jews that Polish Jewish history is not only its final moments in the nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp but centuries of Jewish life and culture in Poland. Its mandate is to provide "all visitors with an opportunity to memorialize victims of the Holocaust through the study of the life and culture of a former Jewish town. The Auschwitz Jewish Center is a place of understanding, education, memory and prayer for all people, regardless of race, creed or religion." [from the Center's brochure: read more at www.ajcf.org and see pictures of the renovated prayer-house, which was used during the war as a munitions storehouse, then briefly as a prayer-house after the war until the emigration of the remaining Jewish community, and finally as a storehouse again until its renovation by the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation.]

The education programs he oversees stress active participation and discussions involving Polish and German young people as well as Jewish youngsters who visit Poland through their own educational programs, the most famous of which are the yearly Marches of the Living, when young Israelis, North American and European Jews commemorate the Holocaust through visits to the main concentration camps. In the past, these Marches were focused solely on the Holocaust and were carried out in deliberate isolation from Poles; increasingly, through the activities of teachers like Górz and NGOs like the Center, efforts are being made to bring the visiting Jewish students into contact with their Polish peers, and to encourage participation in the marches by Polish students as joint acts of commemoration. The changes in the atmosphere of the controversial Marches have been one of the most explicit manifestations of the slow but visible progress of Polish-Jewish reconciliation at the level of ordinary young people. Kuncewicz says, despite the ongoing tensions in the relationship and the setbacks suffered from revelations like that of the Jedwabne massacre, these meetings and activities "would not have been even thinkable ten years ago."

Stanislaw Stepien is a member of Ukrainian minority based in Przemysl and a scholar of the history of Ukrainians and their social and cultural lives in Poland from 1918-1939. He has recently founded an academic and research center, the Southeastern Institute of Education, which focuses on Polish-Ukrainian relations. However, as a sobering reminder to the workshop that reconciliation does not follow a straight or easy path, he and Chris Hann described the local Polish hostility to Ukrainian efforts to maintain their culture, including practice of their Greek Catholic faith, the manifestations of worrisome local chauvinism, which often borders on violence, and the lack of local support for Stepien's lonely efforts to develop his Institute intellectually and financially. Hann pointed out that much of the anti-Ukrainian activity in the southwest of Poland comes, ironically, from the independent local civil society organizations which have sprung up in the region since the end of communism and which have a strongly nationalistic orientation. Civil society, warned Hann, is not necessarily a force for historical reconciliation. Stepien has found more intellectual support for his work at the national level, though, and he said he "only continues to act because he sees hope for the future of local Polish-Ukrainian relations."

Finally, presentations by religious leaders made it clear that education through participation in socially-based religious events, beyond the scope of religious lessons in the classroom, is also where learning for reconciliation increasingly takes place. Despite the disappointing lack of influence of new Church teachings on interfaith reconciliation, repentance and forgiveness in religious instruction textbooks, hope lies in the massive participation of Poles, especially young people, in such events as the ecumenical prayer meeting conducted for 4000 young believers from four faiths (Catholics, Jews, Orthodox Christians and Protestants) in Majdanek, Church-led commemorations of Jews from various small shtetl towns who died in the Holocaust, and gatherings to clean and maintain abandoned Jewish cemeteries (these last have been popular since the period of Martial Law, when Catholic solidarity with Jews was part a movement of anti-Communist defiance and an active search for humanistic and spiritual traditions to counter the Soviet-enforced culture of atheism and materialism.)

The teachings of Pope John Paul II on Judaism and reconciliation are well-known in Poland despite the lack of religious textbooks on the subjects, and deeply influential because of the first Polish Pope's revered status in the country. The Polish Bishops' letter of forgiveness to the German people of 1966 ("We forgive and ask to be forgiven…"), which was understood by only a few people at the time and was condemned by the communist government, expressed a philosophy that is now much more widely accepted. Archbishop Zycinski's sermon on the sixtieth anniversary (2000) of the massacre of 22,000 Polish officers by the Soviets in the forests of Katyn, which expressed the feeling of religious Poles that the NKVD, and not the Russian people, were responsible for the atrocity, was widely publicized and did not meet with public disagreement. Despite such lingering tendencies as Roman Catholic-Greek Catholic tensions; the anti-Semitic statements from a segment of conservative Polish Catholics, which Abp. Zycinski called a persistent "Catholic folklore that shames us;" the anti-Semitic literature still on sale in bookstores in major Warsaw churches; and the lack of interest from the Russian Orthodox Church in any kind of dialogue or contact, Frs. Obirek, Czajkowski, Waskinel-Wechsler and Zycinski see the above developments as reasons for hope, and the sources of inspiration for more creative, courageous and persistent Church-based work to promote reconciliation.


In his opening remarks, Ambassador Adamiecki said that Polish-Jewish reconciliation has reached the phase where it needs to move "from beautiful words to action." In his own experience a "wall in the search for understanding with Jewish interlocutors" has been reached. The issue of one devastating period, the Holocaust, still dominates the discourse: the history of the Holocaust in Poland as presented in Israel is devoid of context, so that crucial sections of Polish-Jewish history are missing. All the contemporary questions of reconciliation for Poland are the legacy of the grim twentieth century, as well as of the earlier imperial system. But he sees such events as the founding of Brama Grodzka and the yearly Festival of Jewish Culture in Kraków (it started as an unofficial, semi-underground event in the late communist period - read about the June 2002 Festival here), exchanges of Polish and Israeli students and faculty - all educational activities which go beyond traditional classroom-based learning - as the "beginning of a new age."

Although the overall picture of new methods and topics in teaching for historical reconciliation is not encouraging, Mach, a specialist in pedagogy at the international level, finds reason for hope in the fact that this workshop could not have taken place five years ago. A process of change in Polish education has begun, she said, which allows educators from different levels, from both secular and religious traditions, from both school-based and non-school-based program and from different countries to cooperate, share their ideas and develop collaborative programs. This is only the beginning, and much more is needed.

Many problems and obstacles exist for the promotion of historical reconciliation in Poland today. Yet Budryte's opening definition of reconciliation, as a process that must be institutionalized at different social levels if it is to progress beyond the official treaties and declarations, in many ways is demonstrated by Poland's development over the last ten years. To be sure, individuals and some politically and religiously based groups express hostility towards Poland's historical "enemies," yet the number of education for reconciliation activities taking place in Polish classrooms, school-based programs, museums, clubs, festivals of remembrance, religious events and non-governmental organizations gives reason for hope, and shows the path that reconciliation can take in a new democracy, in which the past both menaces and inspires.

1 Dovile Budryte, "Reconciliation in the Baltic States," p. 1, unpublished ms. [Back]

2 Laura Hein and Mark Selden, Censoring History: Citizenship and Memory in Japan, Germany, and the United States (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2000), p. 43. Dr. Hein gave a presentation which drew on her introduction to this edited volume at the workshop. [Back]

3 Dr. Ambrosewicz-Jacob's recent research was co-sponsored by the Open Society Foundation, grant RSS 122/98. [Back]

Additional Resources Internet

Selected Bibliography

Note: I have chosen to focus here on more popular books on Poland's relations with neighbors and minorities, and the comparatively enormous amount of attention paid to Polish relations with just one minority, the Jews, is evident from this list. There are scholarly books and especially articles on Polish-German, Polish-Russian, Polish-Lithuanian and Polish-Ukrainian relations as they relate to contemporary reconciliation, especially in Polish, German, Russian, Ukrainian and Lithuanian, but little or nothing in English. The huge interest in Polish-Jewish issues, especially in the wake of the Jedwabne affair from 2000 to the present, was reflected in the workshop: we tried very hard not to make it a workshop on Polish-Jewish reconciliation only, as the issues extend well beyond relations between those two groups and the other areas of reconciliation are important and compelling, but nonetheless Polish-Jewish reconciliation dominated the discussions and far more applicants to the workshop were interested in this one dimension of Polish reconciliation than the others.

  • Baum, Gregory. "The Role of the Churches in Polish-German Reconciliation," in Gregory Baum and Harold Wells, The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to the Churches. (Geneva, Switzerland, WCC/Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1997). Thanks to Dr. Baum for bringing this resource on religious contributions to international reconciliation to my attention at a conference at McGill University and sending me a copy.
  • Consulate of Poland, in collaboration with Wiez. Am I My Brother's Keeper? Essays on Jedwabne (Warsaw: Wiez, 2001). A selection in English of the articles which appeared in newspapers and journals in the year and a half since Neighbors (see below) was first published in Polish by the NGO Pogranicze. Free and available only from the Polish Consulate. A more scholarly study of the public debate on Jedwabne is currently being prepared by Brandeis University scholar Antony Polonsky.
  • Dwyer, Susan. "Reconciliation for Realists," Ethics & International Affairs 13 (1999): 81-98. Helpful introduction to the difficult term "reconciliation," its different manifestations, and the hard ethical choices associated with it.
  • Gardner Feldman, Lily. "The Principle and Practice of 'Reconciliation' in German Foreign Policy: Relations with France, Israel, Poland and the Czech Republic," International Affairs 75:2 (1999): 333-356. Good introduction to the different levels and forms of political reconciliation.
  • Gross, Jan. Neighbors (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000). The book which ignited the Polish firestorm of memory and introspection about this brutal massacre in the eastern Polish, once half-Jewish town of Jedwabne.
  • Hein, Laura and Selden, Mark, eds. Censuring History: Citizenship and Memory in Japan, Germany and the United States (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2000). Excellent collection on history textbooks, national identity, and the portrayal of war. The introduction to this collection, Hein and Selden's "The Lessons of War, Global Power and Social Change," was translated into Polish and distributed as a reading for the workshop.
  • Hoffman, Eva. Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (New York: Dutton, 1989). Personal memoir about growing up in post-war Poland as a Polish Jew and leaving Poland behind for Canada.
  • ___________. Shtetl. The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997). Journalistic account of the small Jewish towns, or shtetlich, of pre-war Poland.
  • Polin. A major annual scholarly journal on Polish-Jewish history, under the editorial direction of Brandeis University historian Antony Polonsky. The growth of this field and the journal through the 1990s is itself a sign of reconciliation, as collaboration between Polish scholars of Jewish history and Jewish scholars of Polish-Jewish history was almost unknown before the end of communism.
  • Powers, Charles. In the Memory of the Forest (New York: Scribners and Sons, 1997). An excellent novel about how memory returns to a small Polish village during the early days of post-Communism, and with it the awareness of the loss of a distinct part of its prewar citizenry.
  • Redlich, Shimon. Together and Apart in Brzezany: Poles, Jews and Ukrainians, 1919-1945. (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2002). An extraordinary book, this is a combination of personal memoir and a study of interethnic relations before and during World War II, based on interviews. Redlich himself survived the Holocaust due to the courage of Polish and Ukrainian rescuers. This is a paradigmatic account of how three different ethnic groups, whose lives were closely intertwined before the forces of nationalism, communism, fascism and war divided them, hold contrasting memories of crucial events in their common history.
  • Steinlauf, Michael. Bondage to the Dead. Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1997). A study of the close, complex and painful relations of Poles and Jews over the centuries.
  • Tec, Nechama. Dry Tears. The Story of a Lost Childhood. (Nashville, Tenn.: Everest Publishers, 1982). Memoir of her experiences as a saved child hidden by a sometimes reluctant, sometimes hostile, sometimes loving Polish family during the Holocaust.
  • ____________. When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland (New York: Oxford, 1986). Classic study of the mentality of "rescuers," who come to the aid of strangers despite danger and lack of approbation from the society at large.
  • Walzer, Michael. On Toleration (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997). The Polish edition of this book was distributed to the workshop. Walzer's five stages of toleration, from "resigned acceptance of difference for the sake of peace" to "the enthusiastic endorsement of difference," are useful for efforts to conceptualize the different stages of reconciliation.

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