Holocaust witnesses hold keys to Polish history, but stories need to be unlocked

On a warm afternoon this summer near Warsaw’s storied Nozyk Synagogue, 86-year-old Czeslawa Zak told me about the “secret years.”  These were the years that Czeslawa and her family hid three Jewish families who had escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto in a small, makeshift room built adjacent to her family’s apartment in central Warsaw.

One day the local police arrived.  “They hammered on the door at six in the morning,” she recalls. “My parents weren’t home. I was only 16. I threw off my nightgown, stark naked, and screamed out, ‘What right do you have to be here so early in the morning!’  The police, collaborating with Germans, were so shocked that their search was interrupted and our secret was safe for another day.”

She adds: “Even after the war, we didn’t tell anyone about hiding the Jews.”

Kasia, a teacher from Krakow, translated the details of Czeslawa’s story of heroism with sensitivity and compassion.  Over the course of an hour, I watched these two women laugh, cry, and hold hands for strength.

How does the Holocaust fit into the greater history of Poland? Is it approached differently in Europe than in California? Those questions came up again and again when 30 educators from North America and Poland met this summer at Warsaw’s new Museum of the History of Polish Jews for its Polin Academy Summer Institute.  The goal was for us to share our best techniques and expertise with the museum staff. We were to help shape the educational experience for future visitors — Jews and non-Jews alike — who will soon be entering the museum doors in the thousands.  I attended both as a representative of Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ Holocaust Center and as an educator hoping to bring a better understanding to the 20,000 students in Northern California whom we serve each year.

The museum itself made a great impression on me.  But what I won’t ever forget are the conversations I had with Polish colleagues about their post-communist education system, the experience of teaching about Jewish history in a Catholic country and the way the lessons of the Holocaust are received in classrooms just 50 miles from the former site of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

I learned from my Polish colleague, Piotr, that even though Poland is barely two decades into democratic rule, the public school system has incorporated Jewish history and the Holocaust into lessons of literature, civics, philosophy, ethics and religion. Some schools in Warsaw even host an annual Jewish culture day complete with Yiddish songs and Israeli dancing.  Yet despite their proximity to the sites of the former death camps (and their museums), many high school students do not visit as part of their curriculum. Will that change?

Each day at the institute, we pondered how the war’s different narratives are taught. I was shocked to learn that Czeslawa’s story had been shared only twice before in Polish schools. Coming from a community where the first-person narratives of survivors are the backbone of our Holocaust education, I saw how many missed opportunities there were for Polish students. During my afternoon with Czeslawa, I could see Kasia thinking about how to introduce Czeslawa’s story to her community.

I returned to San Francisco with a heart full of inspiration and notebooks overflowing with ideas. As I develop new curriculum and plan for the coming year at the JFCS Holocaust Center, I will include a discussion of the 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland, always bearing in mind how the modern glass structure of the new museum “symbolizes that there is nothing to be ashamed or afraid of,” in the words of Dr. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the director of the museum’s core exhibition.

On our next visit to Poland with the Holocaust Center’s Legacy Study Tour, my students will explore the outstanding museum and hear from the Righteous Among the Nations  — Czeslawa among them.  They will also meet their Polish peers and continue the conversations we have begun.


Morgan Blum is the director of education at Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ Holocaust Center. The Legacy Study Tour, offered in partnership with the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture and Lehrhaus Judaica, included 23 Bay Area high school and college students on its 2012 trip.