It took two young men who believe in the power of brotherhood and solidarity.
A little over a year ago I posted a story called, “Poland, America, Racism and Anti-Semitism” (here’s the link: Poland, America, Racism and Anti-Semitism). The story centered on Sharon and my relationship with Poland, Sharon’s Polish familial roots and our many visits over the past 30+ years. Regarding anti-Semitism, I sub-headed the story, “Systemic? Individual actions? When it comes to prejudices, it is, indeed, a small world, after all.”
I concluded my story with an article my young Polish friend, Kamila, sent me. The article was called, “For the repair of tombstones at the Jewish Cemetery in Bielsko-Biała, devastated during an act of vandalism,” written by a young Polish man, Jakub Nowak. Jakub’s article told of a break-in and vandalism in a Jewish cemetery in the Polish city of Bielsko-Biała; in all, 67 monuments desecrated. When I learned that the crime was perpetrated 12 and 13 years old kids, I wondered,
“Think about that. Where are these kids getting their hate from? Some might say that this was just prankish behavior on their part. Ok. But, why not the parish graveyard? Why the Jewish cemetery? More than pranks, I think. Despite some gains, Poland has been, and probably always will be, anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitic parents (like racist parents here) raise like-minded kids. Governments and religious organizations, here and there, that won’t cotton to truth in education but dictate curriculum supporting miseducation to further political goals, take over where the parents leave off.“
But Jakub didn’t simply write about the incident. His article was a plea for action:
“This is not only an unacceptable desecration of the place, but also a blow to the history and spirit of the city and its inhabitants. Bielsko and Biała are the cities where we lived and where we still live together; cities that border, not only of Silesia and Lesser Poland, inhabited by not only of Catholics and Evangelicals, but also Poles, Germans and Jews. Multiculturalism is with us even after death, and evidence can be found at the Jewish cemetery in Bielsko, where Muslims who died during World War I are buried. It was, is, and will be.
“Therefore, I am asking for your support. Let us show our brotherhood and solidarity. Bielsko and Biała were famous for their tolerance and respect for other people, regardless of age, sex, nationality or religion. Always walking shoulder to shoulder together. This is our inheritance and intangible heritage. These are qualities we have grown up with and are proud of.”
Last month, Sharon and I traveled to Bielsko-Biała. We visited the cemetery and met Jakub and his partner, Darek Gajny. They are gay – not a great lifestyle in Poland. Neither is Jewish. Yet, Jakub and Darek were so hurt by the violation of this historic, sacred place, they spearheaded the campaign to repair and restore it. And one year later, they succeeded. Not only were the damaged monuments repaired, the rest of the the cemetery was cleaned and renewed.
Anti-semitism is not going away. Not here. Not in Poland. Nor is racism or anti-gay sentiment. But, as was the case in Bielsko-Biała, sometimes bad can spawn good.
On a side note, I recently received correspondence about a project Friends of Jewish Heritage in Poland is embarking on to raise funds for the restoration of the Jewish cemetery in Nowogród. Nowogród is the town in which Sharon’s paternal grandparents lived and where her father was born. I’ve been in touch with the organization to see, beyond money, what we can do to help. More to come.
One thought on “Can racism and anti-Semitism ever spawn goodness? In the Polish city of Bielsko-Biała, the answer is yes!”
Very moving. I would love to speak with you about how we can work together on the Nowogrod Jewish Cemetery restoration and also combat anti-semitism thoruhg education of Polish youth in the culture and history of Polish Jews over the past 1,000 years.