Rebecca Golbert and I participated in a Polish Foreign Ministry “study tour” May 20 - 26. The Polish Foreign Ministry contracted with the Polish Associated Press agency to set up meetings with people who could inform us of their work on Polish-Jewish relations, broadly understood, because this included museum directors and historians. All expenses were covered. It is understood that upon our return, we will write and speak about what we learned.
We each had our own room and breakfast in a posh hotel and lunch and dinner in well-reputed restaurants while meeting with our contacts. We were scheduled from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. with brief “down times” in there for driving from place to place, perhaps a city tour, and here and there we got some free time for a nap.
We were accompanied at all times by Anna, a professional translator hired by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to keep us on schedule and get us to our next place, to modify the arrangements, and to keep us safe and comfortable. After our meetings with people, the three of us would have great fun analyzing what had occurred. She was loving and warm, fussing over our comfort like a Polish yiddishe mama – this is how she put it. This particular mama also smokes like a stove and complains that the no smoking rule in most buildings makes her a member of the most discriminated minority in Poland today.
Reporting on all of our visits day to day would be boring, and perhaps even my summaries will not interest you because I have to be diplomatic. I will only report selectively, and here is a bit from our meetings with Warsaw contacts.
I found a photo of Ministry of Foreign Affairs specialist for Polish-Jewish Affairs, Sebastian Rejak, Ph.D., with whom we had a stimulating and very enjoyable dinner meeting. I was trying to impress him with my intellectual acuity and sophistication, so I did not pull out my Canon and ask him to say cheese, although I did photograph the awesome desserts we were served (already on another blog post). He is a scholar with an expertise in post-Holocaust theology and the role of the Holocaust in shaping American Jewish and Polish identity, and it was great fun to talk about those issues and the faults in the latest Jan Gross book Golden Harvest. We made plans for future academic programs that could receive support from the Ministry, and with a guy like this helping out, we can't go wrong.
Foundation Shalom is an important Jewish educational organization, and we learned of their classes for the over-50 set – they call it Third Age University. “Third Age” is a term for the underemployed types who elsewhere are described as “seniors” or “old geezers” (others, however, associate the term with the era described by J.R.R. Tolkien that began when Sauron was defeated by the Last Alliance of Elves and Men following the downfall of Númenor). I’m sorry I will not be around to enjoy Foundation Shalom’s week long Festival of Jewish Culture "Singer's Warsaw," which attempts to liven up Warsaw with music, drama, and courses, and to preserve the happy memories of prewar Jewish Warsaw depicted by I.B. Singer, which I hope means lots of spinach-filled pastries for all.
We had a meeting with a representative of an excellent Polish-Jewish magazine that’s been around since the early 1990s, but now it’s published on a bi-monthly basis because the foundation supporting it is losing interest, no one else is taking over, and readers look for free copies instead of paying the subscription. Whereas the previous night’s discussion about mass murder and grave robbing was upbeat and stimulating, this one was so depressing that after twenty minutes I blinked twice at Anna and we were out of there two minutes later, searching for uppers. It's hard to find a visual image for this, so I'll just put in one of my favorites that has not yet been used.
The organization Forum for Dialogue Between the Nations is quite interesting and produced this terrific book which, in its first printing, had been distributed by the American Jewish Committee. The Forum is run by Poles (that means they are not Jewish, like just about everyone we were talking with) who are trying to improve Polish-Jewish relations. But they have to concentrate their efforts on educating Polish youth about Polish antisemitism because they cannot find enough Diaspora or Israeli Jews who care to learn about and talk with real, live Poles. This does not surprise me a bit because I’ve experienced this and heard it over and over again, and I think it is nuts. But I guess if you’re reading my blog, you are the choir I don’t need to preach to.