A Polish university student who spent the summer before college cleaning a destroyed Jewish cemetery in his town in eastern Poland was one of 10 Poles honored Sunday for commemorating Jewish heritage in Poland.
The non-Jewish recipients of the award, which was presented by Ambassador to Poland David Peleg, were honored at a modest ceremony held in a Krakow's Kupa synagogue on the last day of the annual Jewish cultural festival in Krakow.
The event comes at a time of ever-increasing Polish interest in past Jewish heritage and culture in Poland, as well as growing awareness about what happened to the Jews of Poland during the Holocaust. This follows decades when the subject was taboo during the Communist regime.
"On these eventful - and sometimes stormy - days on the political scene, it is important to pay as much attention as one can to what is being done all over Poland to commemorate Jewish heritage," Peleg said in his address at the ceremony.
"This is [ a face of ] Poland which should be known more both here in Poland and outside the country," he added.
Aleksander Stawnicki, 20, a freshman at Krakow's Jagellonian University was honored for cleaning the demolished Jewish cemetery in his hometown of Zielona Gora, which had been littered with garbage dating back to Communist time.
Stawnicki said that he became interested in Jewish culture just two years ago after a teacher in his school got him involved in the school project, and told him about the history and culture of the town's Jews.
Having never met a Jew in his life, the high school senior read up on the centuries of past Jewish history in Poland.
"It was this long past of Jewish history which moved my heart to begin this project," he recounted in an interview.
The group of five Polish high school students managed to uncover some 30 Jewish tombstones which had been displaced from the cemetery.
The rest of the cemetery's tombstones had been taken by the Communists and used for the Catholic cemetery, he added.
Stawnicki, a non-practicing Christian, said that he became more interested in the Bible after carrying out the project, and now dreams of visiting Israel one day.
The 16th annual Jewish cultural festival, which concluded Sunday, attracted tens of thousands of visitors throughout the nine-day event, which is the largest such festival in Europe.
"The main goal of the festival is not a random collection of cultural events but has become a never-ending educational process of Poles about Jewish culture and heritage," festival director Janusz Makuch said.
Makuch initiated the event in 1988, one year before the end of Communist rule in Poland.