[ An End to Intolerance (Volume 5 -- June 1997) ]


Teaching About the
Holocaust in Poland


By Robert Szuchta
History Teacher
S.I. Witkiewicz 64th Secondary School
Warsaw, Poland

[ Robert Szuchta ]
Robert Szuchta,
History Teacher, Warsaw

The situation of the teacher in Poland intending to teach about the Holocaust is a very specific one. From one side, he has a large quantity (permanently increasing) of documents and materials in the form of memories, diaries, and films. He has also the possibility to teach people directly in the places of extermination. He may look forward to the assistance and support of many scientific organizations which are professionally studying, not only the Holocaust problem, but 1,000 years of the history of the Jewish population in Poland.

On the other hand, the Holocaust is not specified in the Polish program of teaching history as an autonomic subject. Until quite lately, the Holocaust was not reflected in the dialectic activity of Polish teachers of history. One must note that the subject of the extermination of Jews in the period of WW II was not present in the years 1945-1989, as a taboo, in Polish schools. After the war, Poland was not a sovereign state but depended in many aspects on the Soviet Union.

The Communist authority in Poland for many years promoted the thesis about the homogeneous ethnic of the Polish population, that is why speaking and writing (not to mention teaching) about Jews or the Holocaust was not possible or at least difficult to do.

Meanwhile, Poland was -- until the beginning of the war -- the biggest house of Jewish Diaspora in Europe. Jews covered ten percent of the total Polish population (about 3.2 million). The Holocaust, as it was proved, has taken 6 million toll of Jewish human life in all Europe, and it was all done on the Polish soil and in the presence of Polish people, but officially, however, nobody discussed it.

After 1989, the situation definitely changed. In the circumstances of full sovereignty and construction of democratic order, the problem of the extermination of Jews was given its proper place in the considerations and discussions (some times very stormy) of the Polish people. It is worthy to note that these discussions are not easy. Consciousness that the history of Polish-Jewish relations is painful for both sides, makes it difficult.

Both partners feel strongly about their own image and both sides formulate accusations against each other, and both of them create defensive reactions. To study the past and to discuss it is not easy because of stereotypes created throughout the centuries. They are reflected in historical and political journalism, in the means of public relations, and even in school books.

However, in spite of difficulties, convictions predominate about the necessity of the transmission of reliable knowledge concerning the Polish-Jewish past, including the Holocaust. We are going to educate people to be open-minded, tolerant, and equipped with knowledge and skill. It may enable them to understand and create a contemporary world. As a result of the changes, there are consequences of the Polish-Israeli Commission of Books, that settled, in 1995, a common canon of historical knowledge (about Poland in Israel and about Jews in Poland) to be taken into account in books of the history in both countries.

[ Old Town -- Warsaw, Poland ]
Old Town
Warsaw, Poland

Political changes, described above, have fundamentally changed the conditions of teachers' activities. The reform of the Polish educational system that started in the early 1990s intends, among other things, to give Polish teachers more freedom in the selection of the substance of education. Many of us, teachers of history, give in our schools, lessons about the Holocaust.

Many of us, collecting the materials about the Holocaust, take advantage of the assistance of scientific institutions, e.g., the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland. The witnesses of the Holocaust are being invited to schools to transmit directly their own experience of the Holocaust. More often we meet young people from Israel, and we discuss together about the difficult past. It is a remarkable way to get acquainted with each other, to overcome prejudice and stereotypes, and to understand each other.

The students from Polish schools are strongly represented in a contest organized every two years by the Polish-Israeli-American Foundation SHALOM entitled "History and Culture of Polish Jews".

Among several hundred compositions, there are many from the side of young Poles covering the subject of the Holocaust of Jewish society in their native cities. One must state that the standard of the compositions, in the opinion of experts, is very high.

I experienced this myself in 1995, when traveling with the winners of the contest to Israel. Knowledge and understanding of Jewish problems among the Polish young people created admiration and appreciation from the side of the Israeli people professionally involved in the subject.

A preliminary survey indicates that the subject of the Holocaust is more and more present in the Polish education of history. It appears that further efforts of teachers and students will bring more understanding of this unprecedented event in the modern history of the world. In many expressions about the Holocaust, you may find interpretations as a warning for future generations, warning against the possibility of the creation of a new Holocaust. Current events, such as the war in former Yugoslavia or ethnic purges in Rwanda and Zaire, do not create an optimistic atmosphere.

We must take steps in order to safeguard future generations against a Holocaust. By giving young people all possible knowledge about the tragic events that took place fifty years ago, we are making them more sensitive to the menaces coming out of intolerance, xenophobia, nationalism, and totalitarianism. This benefit is most probably the biggest advantage of knowledge about the Holocaust. Let us learn tolerance; let us be open for any dissimilarity; let us respect others' beliefs; let us discuss our future in order to acquaint and understand each other -- so that the Holocaust never possible again!

Special thanks to Marek Sawicki,
I*EARN Coordinator, Poland



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