Eye witness

March 26, 1999

Although Poland's Jewish community, three million before the second world war, has fallen to about 30,000, anti-Semitism remains. Religious symbols at concentration camp memorials have led to rows with anti-Semitic overtones and, despite official denials, feelings run high.

Israel honoured many Poles for their efforts to save Jews, but Rafael Scharf, of the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies in Oxford, says the Jewish perception is that "as a whole the Poles had behaved badly" under Nazi occupation. But there is also a perception that Jews worldwide do everything to "bad-mouth Poland".

The IPJS celebrated its 15th anniversary this month with a conference hosted by the Polish embassy in London. It aims to counter these prejudices through academic dialogue, largely through its journal, Polin, the Yiddish name for the medieval Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.

John Klier, of University College London, said: "Our aim is the normalisation of Polish-Jewish studies, not just the Holocaust but the centuries before."

In 1989, the teaching of Jewish history in Polish state education became possible. The Jagellonian University in Krakow offers courses on Polish-Jewish history and has an Institute of Holocaust Studies. An Israeli-Polish textbook commission has been established to endorse suitable texts for school and university use.

Bishop Stanislaw Gadecki, chairman of the Polish Episcopal Commission for Dialogue with Judaism, said that Catholic seminaries have revised their syllabuses in line with Vatican directives, taking a more positive attitude to Judaism and the shared heritage.

Jonathan Webber, fellow in Jewish social studies at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish studies, said: "This area has been subject to stereotyping by people who, for good reason, are ignorant of the complexities. We have witnessed the recent politicisation of entrenched positions, for example Jewish objections to seeing crosses at Auschwitz, which need to be placed in wider scholarly context, so that everyone understands the limitations of over-simplifying history."

Vera Rich

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