• What’s New

    at Forum for Dialogue?

Forum has introduced new funding opportunities for Leaders of Dialogue to pursue projects either aimed at establishing relations with descendants of Jews from their towns. One of the projects made possible thanks to the funding is “Zbąszyń’s Days of Open Arms”, led by Anita Rucioch-Gołek, a Leader of Dialogue from Zbąszyń. Last summer Anita conducted the first part of her project, and organized a visit of Isabella Webber, a German-born Polish Jew transported to Zbąszyń as part of Polenaktion.

When Anita learned that Berlin’s Centrum Judaicum is organizing the commemoration of Polenaktion – the very first German official ceremony marking the anniversary of those tragic events – and that Wojciech Olejniczak of Zbąszyń’s Fundacja Tres is already involved in the making of Centrum’s exhibition about the Polenaktion, she decided to broaden the scope of her project. She invited a group of the descendants of families expelled from Nazi Germany to Zbąszyń from Great Britain, Australia, and Israel to visit the town and meet the incredible group of dedicated people she collected around herself in her engagement of protecting and popularising the local Jewish heritage.

What followed that decision was a really intense day in Zbąszyń. The descendants of Zbąszyń’s refugee families arrived to see the temporary exhibition depicting the events of 1938 that was arranged in the very symbolical space of town’s railroad station. Then Wojciech Olejniczak, a real expert in town’s Jewish history and topography guided a tour of all important places connected to Polenaktion history. Among them were the houses where the refugees were temporarily placed, the post office building (one of the most important places for people stranded in town and trying to make contact with relatives), and house where Emanuel Ringelblum (a renowned Polish-Jewish historian, politician and social worker, known for his Notes from the Warsaw GhettoNotes on the Refugees in Zbąszyn chronicling the deportation, and the so-called Ringelblum’s Archives of the Warsaw Ghetto) stayed during his coordination of the relief efforts he conducted in Zbąszyń on the behalf of  the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

After the trip Anita invited her guests for a commemorative ceremony at the Zbąszyń’s concert hall. Representatives of the local government spoke about the importance of remembering the tragic events their town witnessed, while Wojciech Olejniczak gave a powerful speech urging the audience to not forgot the ambiguous stance taken by the Polish authorities during the crisis of 1938, while remembering and acknowledging the effort of many of Zbąszyń’s residents, both Polish and Jewish, who showed bravery, compassion, and humanity in those difficult times and were providing help at sometimes great personal expenses. After the speeches, local students performed an artistic program depicting the odyssey of the refugees. And that was a real highlight of the visit – as one of the participants summarized it, he wasn’t totally convinced that coming to a town where his ancestors suffered such tragic events was a good idea, but seeing the involvement and enthusiasm of the young generation, working towards the preservation of their town’s Jewish memory, totally convinced him that it was exactly the right time and place to be.

It is worth expressing that Anita’s projects truly contribute towards a real, meaningful dialogue and establishing new connections. Her former students, alumni of the School of Dialogue program at the local school and Zbąszyń’s residents who participated in the events had an unique opportunity to interact with the descendants, share their knowledge of the historical events, and hear their heart-moving stories. Among them was a very emotional testimony of one of the Australian guests, who told a story how his father won a place on a ship bound for Australia in a lottery organized at the refugee camp, while his cousin did not, and later died in the Holocaust. We are sure that many lasting connections were forged during that amazing day!

photo: J.Szkarłat, M.Dziurdzik

On the second day of the commemorations, Polish delegation – consisting of representatives of local government, members of Zbąszyń’s social and cultural organizations, and Anita Rucioch-Gołek along with her former students of Zbąszyński Balagan, alumni of the School of Dialogue program – went to Berlin to participate in the official opening of Expelled! Berlin, 28 October 1938. The history of the “Polenaktion” temporary exhibition. It was created by Centrum Judaicum based in Berlin’s New Synagogue and tells the story of six Jewish Berlin families – immigrants with Polish citizenship – who were arrested by the Nazis in their flats or on the streets and transported to the German-Polish border to be forcefully deported to Poland. The exhibition’s powerful impact comes from this curatorial decision of telling this tragic story, one of the first preludes to the Holocaust, through the very personal stories of those families. Students of the Free University of Berlin assisted in the research of the family biographies presented on the exhibition, developing strong bonds with the descendants in the process.

The exhibition’s opening importance was recognized by representatives of German government Petra Pau, the vice-president of German Bundestag, and minister of state Michelle Müntefering, members of Berlin’s Jewish community, and, most importantly, the descendants of the families deported in 1938. The ceremony was moderated by Peter Frey, editor-in-chief of the ZDF, one of the main German public-service television broadcasters. ZDF published the relation from the exhibition’s opening in one of their prime-time programs that usually gathers an audience of approximately 2.5 million viewers.

photo: J.Szkarłat, M.Dziurdzik

Polenaktion, “Polish Action,” refers to arrests and expulsion of Polish Jews living in Nazi Germany. In October 1938, Polish Ministry of Interior Affairs announced an ordinance requiring that Polish citizens living outside Poland obtain an endorsement stamp on their passports before October 30. Any passport without the stamp would become void and the owners of the passport would have their citizenship rights revoked. When Polish Jews living in Germany tried to fulfill this requirement, they were denied for various reasons. Fearing the prospect of thousands of Polish Jews unable to legally emigrate, Nazi government decided that Polish Jews were to be expelled from the country. From October 27 until October 29, the day before the Polish decree regarding the eligibility of passports was set to take effect, Nazi authorities arrested approximately 17,000 Polish Jews, cancelled their German permits of residence, and forcefully transported them to the German-Polish border. Most of them were then forced to march across the border to the town of Zbąszyń.

Fragments of “Next year in Jerusalem!”, a film commemorating the deportations of Polish Jews from Germany to Poland in 1938 (in Polish).

The Polish border authorities were overwhelmed at first by the unexpected influx of people and during the first day of expulsions they allowed thousands of Polish Jews entry into the country, but soon responded by closing the border down. As a result, in the end of October thousands of homeless Jews resided in no-man’s land along the border. Most of them ended up in Zbąszyń, where a refugee camp was established, living conditions were severe, and various relief efforts were conducted by Polish Jewish organizations and some of the Zbąszyń’s residents, Jewish as well as Polish Catholic. Some of them were able to immigrate to other countries or were allowed to travel to relatives living elsewhere in Poland, but most of the expelled remained in a camp for almost a year.

It was not until just prior to the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 that the refugees of the Polenaktion gained access to Poland’s interior – many of them were later murdered in the ghettos and camps during the Holocaust.

For German-speakers we recommend watching two materials made by the ZDF about the Polenaktion and Centrum Judaicum’s exhibition – shorter one, made as a part of “heute – in Europa” series, and a longer one with the moving testimony of Rita Adler, a witness of tragic events of 1938.

Project financed by the Ledor Wador Foundation.