You recently spoke with the Israeli ambassador to Poland. What was the subject of these conversations?
Minister Przemysław Czarnek: I had a very long and substantive meeting with the Israeli ambassador to Poland Yacov Livne at the Academy of Social and Media Culture (AKSiM) in Toruń. First, there were two-hour talks, then a two-hour debate with students. All topics concerning, first of all, contacts between young Israelis and young Poles were discussed. Mr. Ambassador is absolutely open to our suggestions, to our possible remarks as to what used to be and what it should look like now. We want to present Poland with its history, culture, tradition, economic achievements, next to, of course, the most dramatic events in the history of Poland, the Polish nation and the Jewish nation from the mid-twentieth century – the Holocaust, Auschwitz, Majdanek, or Sobibór prepared for us by the Germans. We do not want the memory of young Jews in Israel to perpetuate the image of Poland only as the place where the Germans built concentration and death camps. And the ambassador accepts this with great appreciation – he states that we need mutual understanding and mutual cooperation in this regard. This youth exchange is absolutely necessary for the future. The ambassador himself emphasizes that it is difficult to imagine today’s Israel and today’s Judaism without reaching back to Polish roots. After all, two-thirds of the Jewish people lived in Poland for centuries, and even today many people in Israel speak Polish, especially the elderly. Therefore, these relations must be mutually understanding, subject to what we have been talking about. Of course, Poland must be shown here as it really is, and yet Auschwitz or Majdanek are not Polish culture, but German culture, and this must be emphasized. That is why we use Polish state money to maintain museums in the places of concentration camps and death camps, to show all nations in the world what German Nazism and hatred between people led to.
A program of Israeli youth visits to Poland is to be created. Could you tell us about the program of these visits?
I told the ambassador about what happened several days ago, when we had the pleasure to host in Cracow the Italian Minister of Education and young people from an Italian high school, who were joined by representatives of Jewish religious communities. The visit of the Italian youth to the Cracow Ghetto and Auschwitz was preceded by a visit to the beautiful Voivodeship Office, a joint meeting, a storytelling about Poland and its history. We also preceded this visit with the screening of our modern film “A Card from the Uprising”, in which, for fifteen minutes, using technologies available in Google VR, students (including Polish students from High School No. 4) moved to the Warsaw Uprising as part of an innovative story. Later they were in the Czartoryski Museum, and then did they go to the Cracow Ghetto and Auschwitz. We want the places and destinations of foreign trips – in particular from Israel – not only to be places related to German crimes against the Polish nation, the Jewish nation, the Holocaust, but also – if they are already in Poland – we want to show Poland, its culture, history, because it is the country of their ancestors. Many of their great-grandparents came from our country. The ambassador accepted our suggestions with understanding, as well as the announcement of a proposal to contribute to the program of the visit of Israeli youth to Poland in the near future.
What role does education play in building relationships, in building the image of Poland? It seems that this is the key without which we are doomed to fail, right?
Absolutely yes. The mistakes that the Polish state – deliberately at times as I also think – made over several dozen years, led to great anti-Polonism also in the state of Israel. We saw this anti-Polonism on the occasion of the act on the Institute of National Remembrance, which was passed a few years ago. You could say that he poured out then and opened our eyes. These are the mistakes that result from the lack of interest in how the visits of foreign tours to Poland take place in German concentration camps. I repeat, Poles maintain these state museums to show the crimes of the German Nazis, not just to be the only place for foreign tourists to visit. If, for example, Israeli youth come to Lublin, it is not only to see Majdanek, but also to see the beautiful, centuries-old culture of this city and the entire region. It is similar with Cracow or Warsaw. We want to show Poland from its most beautiful sides and not allow any bad emotions from a visit to Poland. History is what it is, no one can change it, even if someone wanted to. The history of the life of the Jewish nation here in Poland for centuries is beautiful. Also when it comes to the joint struggle for the independence of the Polish state of Poles and many Jews who were also in the Polish army and fought in it. This is the story we want to show, and not just leave the trauma of the Holocaust, which was organized and carried out with German consistency by the German Nazis, which the ambassador also spoke about.
Will the Ministry of Education and Science prepare educational materials relating to the history of Poland and common Polish-Jewish history? Is there a chance that those tours that come to Poland will receive such materials?
This is why I met with the ambassador, for which I would like to thank the Toruń Redemptorists for this meeting, with Father Dr. T. Rydzyk – very long and substantive – to propose a contribution to the program of these visits, and this is our contribution to the program of visits to Israeli youth. For example, what I have just mentioned, we have really excellent, short, but extremely moving films in the latest VR technology, which take viewers straight to the Warsaw Uprising for 15-20 minutes, to show what the ambassador also emphasized, for which I thank you that Poles, next to the Jewish nation, were – in terms of personal victims and population – the greatest victims of World War II and German Nazism, the German Nazis’ attack on the free world.
During the conversation with the Israeli ambassador to Poland, you raised the issue of what has been achieved in Polish-Israeli relations in the last decade. What achievements do you consider the most important?
For example, the ones from last year, which really inspire optimism, because we also talked about what we had already started during the first year of the ambassador’s work in Poland. For example, the opening of the Center for Research on Catholic-Jewish Relations named after Abraham Heschel in Lublin (that is at the Catholic University of Lublin), which was financed by the Ministry of Education and Science. We want to invest in this Center, expand its work and research. As the ambassador put it when he was in Lublin at the opening of this Center in December, this is a scientific service to study these Catholic-Jewish relations here in Poland. After all, it was from them that the relations that led the Polish Pope to his first visit to the Jewish synagogue in Rome and later interreligious meetings were born. We also want to jointly, and from the scientific point of view, most likely within the framework of the national program for the development of the humanities, study the great effort of the Polish nation, which was also unequivocally and clearly stated by the ambassador. The great effort of the Polish nation, many of its representatives, in helping Jews and saving them from extermination, despite the death penalty, which was immediately carried out on Poles who saved Jews. There are really hundreds of thousands of Poles saving Jews, and even millions, because entire communities were involved in it. It’s not scientifically explored in one solid program. We also want to invite scientists from Israel to participate in this program. I think it will be a very good foundation for future Polish-Israeli relations.
You said in AKSiM in Toruń that emotions are – apart from historical facts – very important in building mutual relations. How should both parties act to make these emotions positive?
Exactly as I said before. Showing the truth about history, but also showing history as broadly and multi-threaded as possible, and not only or exclusively a narrative about German death camps built and run by German Nazis on Polish soil. Just as Lublin cannot be associated by foreign guests only with Majdanek, which inevitably builds negative emotions, so the whole of Poland, beautiful and rich in culture and history, cannot be associated only with German war crimes, including the German holocaust. We have to take care of that.
Interview by Anna Wiejak