March of the Living
Every spring an event known as the March of the Living brings together young Jews and Poles at the sites of the former Nazi death camps in Poland. For the past few years, an effort has been made to bring Poles and Jews closer together by combining the event with exchange schemes involving Poland, Israel and Jewish communities in North America.
Jewish high school students from Canada have been participating in encounter groups with Polish high school students. The idea is to dispel anti-Semitic stereotypes and misconceptions about Poles and Jews. Bodgan Zaryn reports:
It's not the first time that Polish and Canadian youth have met to take part in cultural exchange encounters. Every spring Poland sees a March of the Living where thousands of Jewish youth and hundreds of Poles converge on the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz - Birkenau.
They are there to pay tribute to the millions of Jews who perished during the Holocaust. Some of the Jewish participants decide to extend their stay in Poland to get to know their Polish counterparts a bit better.
But the encounters aren't just about the Holocaust. For Simon, a Jewish high school student from Toronto, mingling with his Polish peers is an experience that has cleared up some misconceptions about Poland.
"I have been learning some Polish words so that I can start a conversation, they just seem genuine. The Polish Jewry and the non-Jewry they all have mutual ancestors, I might have had a misconception that they were completely different. ...I believe its one nation and a nice country."
Molly, a Jewish high school student from Toronto, feels pretty much at home in Poland.
"Now coming here I haven't felt any anti-Semitism towards the group or me. I have felt included and there are no 'looks' being cast on us."
Michal, a Polish high school student, met his Jewish guests earlier this week. He really enjoyed meeting young Jews he'd never had a chance to meet before.
"I have met those people and they are the same age as we are. I have found that they are the same people like us. I have found that the stereotype about Jews in our country has been broken."
Polish organizer Alicja Szczesnowicz from the Forum for Dialogue among Nations says that such meetings act as real eye openers for all concerned.
"Those meetings that we organize are the only chance for them to get to know each other better. To talk about everything they want to. To exchange their opinions, their impressions they have from Poland. It's something new for them."
It's estimated that close to five hundred high school students from Canada and the US are taking part in encounter groups with their Polish counterparts. Those who are involved with the Polish-Jewish exchanges think that Poles and Jews may not have always seen eye to eye, but the cross-cultural encounters go a long way toward dispelling stereotypes and prejudice.