Holocaust studies is an integral part of the Israeli education system, and one educator, Dr. Sharon Azaria, has developed a unique program aimed at integrating these studies into the Polish education system.
The first-of-its-kind program, taught simultaneously to Polish and Israeli education students, aims to delve into the history of the Polish Jewish community during the Holocaust, while concurrently initiating collaborations with Israeli and Polish educators and a future generation of school children.
“Everyone always goes to Poland, all the school groups are always being sent to Poland, and there are a lot of different, mixed feelings and I felt that we need to learn the Polish story better – it is a different form of learning than learning the German narrative,” Azaria recently told The Jerusalem Post
Azaria, of the Givat Washington Academic College of Education and Talpiot College, developed the initiative together with Agnieszka Kania of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.
“After my father passed away, I became very involved in the Holocaust because suddenly there wasn’t anybody talking about it at family events,” she explained. “I wanted to do something more significant and I was focused on finding a person to work with in this personal manner – it was my personal goal.”
In 2015, Azaria was invited to Poland along with some 70 educators from 19 countries as part of an initiative organized by Centropa, which preserves 20th century Jewish family stories from Central and Eastern Europe, to prepare programs related to the Holocaust and Jews in Europe.
“I had wanted to work with someone from Poland and through this visit I met Agnieszka [Kania], this wonderful person, and I approached her about a collaboration,” Azaria said.
Kania invited Azaria to give a lecture at her university to a small group of students that she had formed who were interested in Holocaust studies.
“While in Krakow I met with students, and they had never met a Jew before – I was the first Jew they had met and the first Israeli,” Azaria recalled.
What initially began as an informal collaboration quickly turned into an official semester- long course on the Holocaust for Israeli and Polish education students based on a syllabus developed jointly by Azaria and Kania.
“We did a lot of back and forth on how to make the course comfortable for everyone,” Azaria explained. “Parts of it were very difficult for my group and parts were very difficult for her group.
“The most exciting thing about the program is we are learning both the good, about what the Poles did during the Holocaust, like some of the Righteous Gentiles, but we are also learning the very difficult parts of Polish history,” she added.
Azaria explained that the course syllabus offers materials that are not usually included in Holocaust studies in the Israeli or Polish school systems.
“The Israelis and Poles went through the exact same process – a project like this has never been done before – in which Israelis and Poles study but also interact,” she said.
The program, now in its second year, saw an exchange of Polish and Israeli students earlier this year as a delegation of eight Polish students visited Israel for the first time.
“Last year, the students interacted via email and this year was the first time students from Poland came for a one-week visit to Israel – we took them to Jerusalem, the Herzl Museum, to the Knesset and of course they toured Yad Vashem together,” Azaria explained.
“It is the work together and learning together and where they start off at the beginning of the semester and where they end up at the end that is the most meaningful – by the end they became very connected,” she said.
For the Polish students, most whom had never met a Jewish or Israeli person before, the program, culminating in a trip to Israel, was an eye-opening experience.
Malgorzata Kulik, one of the Polish students, told the Post
via email that participating in the program and visiting Israel was a “breakthrough.”
“Thanks the project, I saw with my own eyes how the Holocaust is still alive among Israelis. I read about the memory of the Shoah, but during the trip I could see how it really works,” she said. “From now on, my knowledge on this topic is not based solely on literature, but it is also based on words spoken by the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.”
Kulik added that she now feels she understands Jewish culture and “how Israel operates.”
“I realized how close we are to each other and how much we all have been hurt by the events of World War II. Sharing sorrow, and sometimes even crying allowed us to feel the community. I’ve understood that we – the young generation of Poles and Israelis, together – we can do more for our nations,” she said.
Katarzyna Stachura, another student, told the Post that the program has allowed her to gain a “wider perspective on the Polish-Jewish relations in the past, and how it has shaped our relations today.”
“I believe that if such projects could reach larger numbers of young Poles and Israelis, it could dramatically change our perception and understanding of each other – change it for the better. The Holocaust affected both our countries and such discussion is necessary to prevent any similar actions in the future,” she said.
As part of the program, the Polish educators, together with their Israeli counterparts, have formed friendships, broken stereotypes and developed lesson plans and curricula to teach the next generation of Polish students about the Holocaust.
“I would like to show, as a teacher, that the Holocaust is our mutual history and be able to highlight that Jewish culture had a big influence on Polish culture,” Anna Salatrarow, another Polish educator participating in the program, told the Post
. “I hope that with knowledge gained from this program I will be able to make my students interested in this part of history.”