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Last weekend, September 15-17, Forum for Dialogue organized the third Local Leaders of Dialogue Conference. These annual meetings – added to the Leaders of Dialogue program in 2015 – are aimed at creating a convenient space in which Leaders could interact and integrate, share experiences and strengthen mutual bonds in a group supportive of each other. It is an opportunity to present their work to others, and exchange ideas, solutions and experiences on the ground.

This year the event was held in Podkarpackie province and hosted by Leaders active in that region: Adam, Joanna and Michał Lorenc and Magdalena Zykiert in Rymanów, Jacek Koszczan in Dukla and Jerzy Dębiec in Nowy Żmigród. The three locations and the sheer number of hosts provided a unique insight into different challenges and approaches to commemoration of Jewish past, and reconnecting ties between descendants of Polish Jews abroad and contemporary Poland.

In Rymanów, the main focus of the team of activists affiliated with “Spotkanie Rymanów” Association is to facilitate the dialogue between the descendants of Rymanów’s Jews and contemporary residents of the town. They hold gatherings which give participants an opportunity to learn about each other and share stories. Members of “Spotkanie Rymanów” team not only managed to create a wide network of contacts, but also secured support for their activities from local authorities and the parish priest. During the Rymanów section of the Conference program, the participants had a chance to familiarize themselves with preserved material heritage of the Rymanów’s Jewish community: cemetery with ohalim of famous Rymanów’s tzadikim, synagogue and remaining unique urban layout of the typical Galician shtetl. They also saw the effects of the association’s international cooperation. One such example is the Malka’s House, which became a museum of Rymanów’s Jewish community. It was renovated thanks to the generous support of Malka Shacham Doron, granddaughter of the former owner of the house. Leaving Rymanów, one of the participants remarked jokingly that it seems that the Rymanów Leaders know all the descendants of Rymanów Jews.

photo J.Szkarłat

In Dukla, the local Leader of Dialogue, Jacek Koszczan shared with the group the details of the prolonged formal process involved in obtaining permits and funding to erect a monument commemorating the town’s Jewish population. This was incredibly useful for those among the Leaders, who themselves are planning their own remembrance projects. In Dukla, the group visited the ruined synagogue, and heard about the plans for its restoration, which date back as far as the 1950s and 1960s.

photo J.Szkarłat

Finally, in Nowy Żmigród, the local Leader of Dialogue, Jerzy Dębiec talked about the challenges faced by a Leader of Dialogue working alone, as his only associate recently decided to move to another town. Everyone was deeply impressed by the dedication and amount of hard work that Jerzy Dębiec puts into taking care of the Nowy Żmigród’s Jewish cemetery. One of the participants even commented in appreciation that the grass on the cemetery resembles that of a golf course. In turn, Jerzy Dębiec could hear from Leaders more experienced in international projects, as he is currently planning to establish connections with descendants of Nowy Żmigród’s Jews. The group then went to Hałbowska mountain pass, where they paid their respects at the site of a mass grave making a spot where over 1200 local Jews lost their lives during the war.

photo: J.Szkarłat

Project co-financed by the Ledor Wador Foundation.

In appreciation to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) for supporting this educator training program. Through recovering the assets of the victims of the Holocaust, the Claims Conference enables organizations around the world to provide education about the Shoah and to preserve the memory of those who perished.

claims-conference

September 21st, 2017

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Leo Wolinsky, a descendant of Polish Jews with roots in Gródek and a participant of Forum’s 2015 Study Visit to Poland, returned to his father’s town to meet with School of Dialogue students working on commemorating Gródek Jewish community. Leo Wolinsky is a veteran journalist who spent the first half of his career as a writer and reporter and the second as a news executive. That includes more than three decades at the Los Angeles Times, where he lead an editorial staff of more than 1,000 and directed coverage that won the paper two Pulitzer Prizes. On September 8th, 2017, when he visited Gródek, he said : “I came here because my father and two generations of his family were born here. I hope that pupils from Gródek’s school will help me in researching those roots, discovering my family’s history.”

His hopes were met, as the 2016 School of Dialogue alumni have become, during the program, real experts in local Jewish history. The effects of their work included in Places that are no more, a state-of-the-art compendium of knowledge about pre-war history and topography of Gródek, created by the Friends of Gródek Region Society and funded by the local authorities.

Gródek has a rich and diverse history. At the beginning of the 20th century, nearly 80% of Gródek inhabitants were Jewish, mainly small-scale craftsmen, business owners and traders. The social, religious, cultural and political life of the community was abundant. There were five synagogues and two Hasidic shtiebels, a cemetery, numerous schools, kosher restaurants, a pharmacy and a photo studio. Pre-war memoirs and diaries all mention how fierce the competition was between the local branches of political movements, from Betar zionists to Bundists and Communists. Having discovered this vibrant history of her hometown, one of the School of Dialogue students commented: “Gródek, which seemed to be this small village, now seems a great one to me.” Her friend added: “I wasn’t interested in those things before; now, as I know who lived in Gródek before, it all seems very interesting to me.”

Leo Wolinsky’s visit begun with a meeting at the school, where students and their guest had a chance to get to know each other. He told them how his interest in his family’s history was sparked  by a detective who called him up one day and asked if he was that Leo Wolinsky. What followed would merit an international spy thriller! He also shared his discoveries with the students. They, in turn, had a chance to ask many questions regarding contemporary Jewish life in the U.S. Afterwards, together they attended the unveiling ceremony of a plaque in honor of Lew Cukierman, a pre-war Jewish physician and a popular Gródek figure tragically murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

From the ceremony, the students took their guest, as well as other tour participants, including others students, local journalists, and a famous Polish painter and local activist, Leon Tarasewicz, on a tour of Jewish Gródek that they prepared themselves. The students were very well-prepared, and the tour featured a snack stop with challah at the site of a prewar kosher restaurant, and a mock photo studio and hair salon, next to the building in which they were once located. These representations were done sensitively and appealed to the younger members of the audience.

The students personalized the tour for their guest. The greatest surprise came when they showed him a photograph of his aunt who, as it turned out, was one of the most active members of the local Jewish drama group. The group specialized in Yiddish theater classics, and was so successful, it received official patronage of the local firefighters and recognition of the authorities. Another heart-warming moment was when the students helped Leo Wolinsky identify the house that belonged to his family’s friends.

The visit was an incredible example on how sharing stories lead to reconnecting ties. To get a glimpse of the tour check out the photos and watch a short TV material prepared by the local branch of Polish National Television (the material is available in Polish only, starts at 12:12 and ends on 15:00).

September 13th, 2017

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From August 7th-11th, 2017, Forum for Dialogue’s representatives participated in the Powell Holocaust Summer Institute, made possible by the vision and investment of the Powell Family Foundation, at the Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle WA, USA. Julia Machnowska, the coordinator of Forum’s flagship project School of Dialogue, and Katarzyna Łaziuk, a Leader of Dialogue from Mińsk Mazowiecki, took part in a seminar focused on exchanging experiences and knowledge concerning the methodology of teaching about the Holocaust as means of fighting against prejudice and discrimination.

The program included a variety of excellent lectures, workshops, discussions and site visits, including, among others, an inspiring conversation with Alexandra Zapruder, author of Salvaged Pages, about using diaries and personal narratives in the classroom, as well as a great lecture by Tatyana Tsyrlina-Spady about Janusz Korczak and his legacy today. Another highlight of the Summer Institute was the meeting with Tom Ikeda from Densho, a grassroots organization educating about the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.

For their part, Forum’s delegates had an opportunity to share their unique experiences and highlight the Polish perspective on the program’s main topics. Katarzyna Łaziuk gave an account of the projects created by her students and residents of Mińsk Mazowiecki. Julia Machnowska presented the School of Dialogue program, focusing on its impact on social change in Poland.

Both participants from Poland feel that the seminar was an amazing opportunity for mutual learning, sharing experiences and broadening one’s horizon thanks to the global context of the program.

Julia Machnowska and Katarzyna Łaziuk’s participation in Powell Holocaust Summer Institute was enabled by the generous support of Nancy Powell and Carol Heller.

photo: K.Łaziuk, J.Machnowska

August 22nd, 2017

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Israeli Rabbis Visit Wąchock

2011

In 2011, two Israeli rabbis with family roots in Wąchock visited Poland. The two guests first met with Forum for Dialogue’s President Andrzej Folwarczny to learn about the foundation’s mission and educational activities. Next, they headed to Wąchock to explore their ancestry and meet with the local middle school students who had participated in the School of Dialogue program in 2009.

In the course of the meeting, the rabbis told the youth about Wąchock’s former Jewish residents. They were then taken on a walking tour of the town by the students, who showed them the sites of the synagogue and mikveh as well the rabbi’s house. The tour ended in the town’s Jewish cemetery, where rabbis recited psalms and explained to students the significance of remembering the dead in Judaism. Students and teachers assured them that they would be taking care for the site.

On July 20, 2011 Israeli Hebrew-language newspaper Hamodia with readership among mostly the ultra-Orthodox published an article about Forum for Dialogue and School of Dialogue program under the title: “Poland: Polish youth care for Jewish cemeteries”. Writing about the meeting with School of Dialogue participants, the author stated: “This interest yields to hope that the new generations will set example for other towns and villages in Poland.”

August 18th, 2017

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Meeting with US study tour to Poland participants

December 2012

Among activities planned in the course of Forum for Dialogue-organized study tour to Poland for Jewish community leaders from the United States in December 2012 was a meeting with School of Dialogue participants. On December 6, study tour participants visited graduates of the School of Dialogue program from School Complex no.1 in Wadowice. The meeting was not only an opportunity for guests to see a School of Dialogue program in practice, but also a chance for local students to meet many interesting people participating in the study tour.

The meeting began with St.Nicholas Day sweet souvenirs, which surprised the guests, who learned about this December 6 tradition from the students. After introductory workshops, the group was joined by guests from the local authorities – a deputy district head and a representative from the district Superintendent of Schools Office. While  listening to their presentations, guests were served the famous Wadowice cream cake.

After the workshops, students took their guests on a walking tour of Jewish Wadowice. The group also visited the Jewish cemetery, where they met pro-bono caretakers of the site – volunteers conducting the necessary maintenance of the cemetery. This meeting had a great impact on study tour participants. Thanks to a kantor who was among the US study tour group, the cemetery visit ended with a kaddish prayer.

At the end of the study tour, its participants deemed the trip to Wadowice one of the highlights of their stay in Poland. To quote one of the guests: “This is what it’s all about. This was engagement. This was dialogue. This was exchange. This was at the very least, but I suspect much more, the beginning of understanding.”

August 18th, 2017

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Sokołów Podlaski

May 2014

On May 12, 2014, students from Salesian Middle School and Henryk Sienkiewicz High School in Sokołów Podlaski once again had the opportunity to lead international guests through their town’s Jewish history. This time the students were paid a visit by board members and employees of Facing History and Ourselves – an international organization bringing together almost 30 thousand educators. Main mission of the organization is to combat racism, anti-Semitism and prejudice in favor of education in the democratic spirit.

The atmosphere of the meeting between Sokołów School of Dialogue graduates and their guests was extremely positive. The group of educators was curious to hear about students’ experience as regards the workshops they had participated in. Young guides led their guests on a tour through Sokołów’s Jewish sites – the informational route of which was prepared during School of Dialogue workshops. Enthusiasm on the side of the students, but also their guests, shined through the informal conversations struck also in the course of the walking tour.

Visit of US Ambassador Stephen Mull in Sokołów Podlaski

September 2013

On September 18, 2013 US Ambassador to Poland Stephen Mull met with student groups from Salesian Middle School and Henryk Sienkiewicz High School in Sokołów Podlaski who had participated in the School of Dialogue program. The meeting was also attended by representatives of local authorities and the Forum for Dialogue.

After the welcome session held at the school and a few short presentations, students invited ambassador Mull to join them for a walking tour through Jewish sites in Sokołów that they had developed in the course of School of Dialogue program. Among the sites visited by the group were the Jewish cemetery, buildings of former Jewish schools and the ghetto area from World War II era.

After the tour, all guests were invited for snacks and refreshments prepared by the students while listening to a presentation about the School of Dialogue workshops held in their town. This was also a moment for students and local media to conduct interviews, especially with the Ambassador. Before his departure, the Ambassador thanked individually every single student and left the following entry in the school’s memorial book: “After my visit in this wonderful school I leave extremely impressed. Congratulations on your hard in the field of Jewish history of Sokołów!”

Visit of guests from Australia

June 2013

In the summer of 2013 roku a 3-person group from Australia paid a study visit to Poland. One of the guests was Ms.Fay Sussman, a Jewish artist and activist born in Wałbrzych after World War II, who left Poland at the age of 4 to move to Israel and later Australia. For the past few years, Ms.Sussman has been working towards Polish-Jewish reconciliation, dialogue and improvement of mutual relations. The other two guests – Judy Menczel and Paul Green – are currently working on a documentary film about Ms.Sussman and her personal story.

The three Australian guests met with students from Henryk Sienkiewicz Salesian Middle School and High School in Sokołów Podlaski, who had participated in the School of Dialogue program earlier that year. They joined the walking tour organized by the students for residents of Sokołów and the nearby area. As many people showed up for the walking tour, its participants were divided into two groups. Guests from Sydney joined one of the groups along with an interpreter. The tour route included visits to the site of the Jewish cemetery, rabbis’ houses, sites of the former synagogue and mikveh, ghetto area and the market square where many of Sokołów’s Jews had once lived. Students also discussed the issue of Jewish headstones being reused for secular purposes. In the course of the tour, students were also able to find a house with a trace of the mezuzah still visible in its doorframe. The tour was preceded by a screening of a video poll conducted among students on their knowledge about and attitudes toward Jews.

The tour concluded in the school with snacks and a screening of the film documenting the whole School of Dialogue project. This was also the time to conduct interviews with the Australian guests. Students were surprised to hear Mrs.Sussman answer their questions in Polish. Here is what the artist had to say about her visit in Sokołów Podlaski: “The best part of the trip for me is anything that has to do with young people. So for me out of all my trip I have to say that this was the most special. And I’m not saying this to make you happy but because I really feel in my heart so happy with what you are doing.”

August 18th, 2017

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Visit of a group of Facing History and Ourselves members

July 2014

In the summer of 2014, a group of US American educators affiliated with Facing History and Ourselves – an international organization bringing together teachers to combat racism, anti-Semitism and prejudice and to foster democratic values education – came to Poland on a study visit. On July 31, the group visited students from John Paul II Middle School in Pruszków, who had participated that year in School of Dialogue program.

The guests were welcomed by school’s principals and town mayor, while the meet&greet session was also attended by Mr.Marian Skwara, author of a number of historical books about Pruszków and its Jewish residents. After introductory workshops that helped students and their guests establish common ground, local youth took on the role of tour guides and led the US educators on a walking tour through Pruszków’s Jewish sites.

The tour had been prepared for the Spring edition of School of Dialogue program and led through a number of prewar Jewish sites in the town as well as presented local events from World War II-era. Two students would discuss the history behind each site, which was then supplemented by Mr.Skwara’s stories. The final stop on the tour was the Jewish cemetery. There, the group met with Mr.Eugeniusz Kuteń, a local volunteer who takes care of the site. Mr.Kuteń encouraged the guests to return to Pruszków and assured them he would be very happy to host them also in the future.

After the visit’s end, participants admitted that meeting school students in Pruszków was one of the highlights of their study trip to Poland. To quote one of the participants: “meeting Polish school students and seeing the town with their eyes was an eye-opening and empowering experience, my personal favorite on this whole trip.” A fragment of the article published on Facing History and Ourselves blog may be a good summary of the visit: “Perhaps more importantly than the history that the students are exploring in the present, is what aspect(s) of this experience they take with them into their future.”

August 17th, 2017

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Robert Potoker’s Visit to Międzyrzec Podlaski

July 2014

Robert Potoker became involved with Forum of Dialouge by sponsoring a 2012 School of Dialogue program in Międzyrzec Podlaski – a town his grandparents had been born in. In late 2012, Mr.Potoker participated in a Forum-organized study tour to Poland. In the summer of 2014, he returned, this time to visit Międzyrzec Podlaski with his wife. This was Mr.Potoker’s first visit in the town since 1995.

In Międzyrzec, the Potokers met with history teacher Artur Domański, who had assisted School of Dialogue students in their project work, and students from the local School Complex no.3 who shared their impressions from the School of Dialogue program. Guests were taken on a walking tour through the town by Mateusz Borysiuk, an expert on local Jewish history who also showed the Potokers Tykocin, Białystok and WWII-era fortifications that the guests were particularly interested in.

August 17th, 2017

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Margolis family’s visit to Łomża

October 2012

In the Fall of 2012, seven members of the Margolis family from Chicago visited Łomża, their ancestor’s hometown. Four years earlier, Samantha Margolis participated in a study tour to Poland organized by Forum for Dialogue. The first trip to Poland kindled Mrs.Margolis’ sense of affinity with family history that she wished to pass on to her relatives. In 2012, the family decided to pay a group visit to Łomża’s School of Dialogue participants.

Guests were received by participants of two Schools of Dialogue – from Economic High School Complex No. 6 in Łomża and Łomża District Home Army Soldiers High School No.3. Students from the latter school prepared snacks and a presentation on Łomża’s Jewish history in English. To prepare for the visit, they also paid a visit to the Municipal Archives, where they found prewar maps of the town and precious information about the Margolises that their Chicago guests had not known about before. With the assistance of an archivist, students were able to translate the documents from Russian to Polish and then to English. Students had the documents framed and presented them to guests as a souvenir of the visit. Already in the course of the meeting at the school, students immediately struck a rapport with the family.

After welcoming the Margolis family, students took their guests on walking tour through Jewish Łomża. The family received a city guide “Retracing Jewish History of Łomża” in the form of a booklet that was put together and printed by the students with the support of their teacher and local Leader of Dialogue, Mr.Marcin Mikołajczyk. Young guides pointed out the site of the former synagogue and the ruins of the Jewish cemetery where Sara Golding, one of the great grandmothers of the family, was most likely buried. Students were also able to locate and visit the site where the family’s grandfather, Saul Margolis, had lived prior to departing for the United States, as well as find the names of Łomża’s prewar shopkeepers – among them their guests’ great grandfather, Arjer Lejbe Margolis. In the course of the walk, the group encountered an Israeli couple on their own search for their roots, who joined them for the tour.

Reflecting on the visit, Samantha Margolis said: “It’s hard to put into words how important this day in Łomża was for us all. Not only did we experience the spirit of the former Jewish life our grandfather had lived, but we felt connected to Łomża’s and Poland’s future through the hope and warmth demonstrated by the students, who on that particular day became our teachers”.

August 17th, 2017

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Scott Saunders and rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand visit Ciechanów

April 2014

On April 9, 2014, students from School Complex no.2 in Ciechanów were visited by two guests from London – Scott Saunders, founder of March of the Living in the United Kingdom and rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, director of JHub, an initiative launched by Pears Foundation. Rabbi Boyd Gelfand had visited Poland before to attend a study tour organized by Forum for Dialogue. She was greatly impressed with School of Dialogue participants from Sienna , whom she was then introduced to. After returning home, she decided to employ her experience in the March of the Living organization, so that it would truly provide a Polish-Jewish dialogue. Thus, she took Scott Saunders on a trip to Poland to meet School of Dialogue participants from Ciechanów.

The meeting began with an introductory workshop that led to a free-flowing conversation between participants in English. Students were asked about their experience with School of Dialogue program, what searching for information about prewar Jewish life in Ciechanów meant to them, and how other residents reacted when learning about students’ pursuits. The students, on the other hand, were interested in their guests’ personal stories. They asked about the guests’ professions, what it is like to be a female rabbi, and what life in Israel, New York and Hong Kong is like. After the meeting, students took their guests on a walking tour through Ciechanów sites connected with the life of Róża Robota and other Jewish residents – the route had  beencreated in December of the previous year for School of Dialogue program’s final project.

August 16th, 2017

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