• Forum for Dialogue

    Rediscovering lost connections

Forum for Dialogue foundation has worked in the field of Polish-Jewish dialogue since 1998. It was established by Andrzej Folwarczny, who at the time was a member of Sejm (lower chamber of the Polish Parliament) from Gliwice and chairman of the Polish-Israeli Parliamentary Group. Observing the good relations between diplomats and politicians, he noticed the lack of opportunities for building personal connections that would put fates and emotions of the people rather than state interest in the foreground. For this reason, from the outset, Forum has been providing space for Poles and Jews to meet and to get to know one another despite historical divisions.
The foundation was established in Gliwice as Forum for Dialogue Among Nations. It was from Gliwice and its sourroundings that the first board members — Anna Malec, Michał Głąbik, Aleksander Kamiński and Piotr Turecki — came from. First actions of the Forum aimed to restore the memory of Gliwice’s Jews.

We became interested in the dilapidated beit tahara (pre-funeral house) at the local Jewish cemetery and took the first steps towards restoring its memory among the local population. Many years later, thanks to joint efforts of municipal authorities and local activists, Upper Silesian Jews House of Remembrance museum and educational center were established in the building.

Forum’s local activism led to unveiling of a plaque commemorating the city’s Jewish residents and organization of a meeting between their descendants with present-day Gliwice residents in 2003. We managed to locate and invite thirty Gliwice Holocaust survivors and their descendants and invite them to the ceremony. The whole endeavor and all collected documents and photos were posted online.

In that same year, the foundation moved to Warsaw, yet we have not forgotten about our Gliwice experience. Today, we try to arrange similar meetings all around Poland. More and more often students who participated in our School of Dialogue program host descendants of Jews from their towns. Such encounters are much more than just a conversation about the past. We want them to lay the foundations for close Polish-Jewish ties. We were successful in doing so in Zamość, where Eva and Robert Wisnik decided to hold their son’s bar mitzvah following their participation in study tours organized by the Forum. In the synagogue where his grandfather could not have a bar mitzvah because of the war, Jake read “parshat Balak”. Guests at the ceremony included School of Dialogue students from Zamość, Hrubieszów and Szczebrzeszyn as well as local Leaders of Dialogue – Forum’s extended family.

Moving the organization to Warsaw allowed us to develop new projects. From a local organization Forum transformed into an institution with national – and even international – range.

We create space for the meeting and dialogue
The first potential space for meetings and dialogue that we identified was in the course of visits to Poland of young Jews. We had our own experiences with such trips, but it was clear to us that there should be more of these encounters and that they have to be well prepared. A group of researchers affiliated with the Forum observed the consequences of these interactions and assessed what worked and what did not. We were the first in Poland to organize Polish-Jewish Youth Meetings and did so for many years, following dedicated, well-crafted and evaluable scenarios.

We answer difficult questions
From the outset we knew that we would actively engage in education combating prejudice and anti-Semitism. Already the first presidential campaign in free Poland was marred with anti-Semitism; to us it was indubitably clear that eradicating it was an important and relevant task. Seeing the amount of misperceptions and ignorance that were difficult to discuss, we published a book that was to help dispel them. Over a thousand young Poles and Jews from the US, Israel, Canada and Australia listed questions that they considered to be the most sensitive and that they would be afraid to ask each other in fear of offending the other side. This is how “Difficult Questions in Polish-Jewish Dialogue” were born. The book was published in 2007 as a joint project of Forum for Dialogue and American Jewish Committee. We selected fifty most important questions and asked specialists from Israel, Poland and the United States to address them. Today, the book is used by us as well as by Polish diplomatic institutions.

Thanks to our efforts, the Jewish history becomes part of the local history
Currently our most important project is School of Dialogue, an educational project aimed first at foremost at smaller towns with rich Jewish heritage. Every year, our educators visit almost fifty different schools throughout the country to help young people discover local Jewish history. Most of the time, we go to places where no-one has done anything for the Jewish heritage and no-one seems to remember it. Thanks to our efforts, the Jewish history becomes part of the local history, which is a breakthrough realization for many of local residents. Then other activities follow: cemetery cleaning, commemoration of local Jewish community and then the final project, which requires students to organize a Jewish walking tour open to all those who are interested. School of Dialogue participants are aware that with knowledge comes responsibility for how Jewish residents will be remembered in their towns. Thanks to this program, a change occurs in the students’ hearts and minds; a change also occurs in their families and communities. Each year, we visit another batch fifty schools. We continue our work towards gradually changing Poland.

We support leaders in their local communities
We started out in Gliwice as a local organization. Over time, on many occasions we collaborated with local community leaders and activists involved in Polish-Jewish dialogue and working to preserve Jewish heritage in their towns. Seeing that even though they do great things, they feel alone in their activism, in 2013 we decided to inaugurate a program called Leaders of Dialogue to create a community that would be a source of support, a platform for seeking collaborators, a forum for best practices for those involved in building Polish-Jewish dialogue; a dialogue of people of dialogue.

We show how Poland has changed
Over the past quarter of the century Poland has changed and so has the landscape of Polish-Jewish relations. We try to show these transformations during our study tours, for which each year we invite Jewish community leaders from around the world. We show them contemporary Poland honestly, competently and thoroughly – without embellishments, but also without overusing dark tones. We introduce them to specialists, politicians as well as School of Dialogue students and local activists. The study tour to Poland lasts one week that changes the lives of many.

We have partners
Forum for Dialogue is also the long-standing partnerships with other organizations. Our cooperation with the American Jewish Committee, spanning over a decade, is a result of a unique partnership between a Polish and an American non-governmental organization. Apart from a joint book publication, the best manifestation of this partnership is the Polish-Jewish Exchange Program conducted by both organizations with the support of Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The bilateral exchange of opinion leaders is the only such program between a Polish non-governmental organization and a prominent Jewish organization in the United States. The recently established partnership with Facing History and Ourselves, a US-based educational organization, is no less important. Our missions are similar, so it comes as no surprise that our teams as well as schools and teachers involved in our educational initiatives get along so well. We are convinced that the friendship between our organizations will bring astonishing results.

15 years behind us! What’s next?
Forum for Dialogue – using the shortened name since 2013 – is the largest and oldest Polish non-governmental organization involved in Polish-Jewish dialogue. We grow, making wise choices as regards our new areas of activity. We focus on working with youth and public opinion leaders. We built a network of people both in Poland as well as among Jewish communities of the United States, Israel, Canada and Australia who understand our mission and wish have their share in it. We bring a few dozen Jewish opinion leaders to Poland each year. Each year, our educational project School of Dialogue attracts ca.1200 participants from middle and high school across the country.
Aside from working with school youth, we aim to build and support those who work to preserve local Jewish heritage. We act locally and globally. So what are our plans? To keep growing and to continue our mission!