Poland Re-Embraces Multiculturalism

A Nov. 9 event will analyze Poland's new fascination with its Jewish heritage

In Poland, a country that is 89 percent Catholic, multiculturalism is now being encouraged.

The heritage of Poland's significant Jewish minority was diminished by first the Holocaust and then a post-war exodus encouraged by the nation's Communist rulers.  But now, a Polish-Jewish revival is emerging that will be the subject of a Nov. 9 mini-conference at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life.

"From Rejection to Revival: The Jewish Experience in Poland 1968-2012" will highlight the nature of Polish Judaism and multiculturalism with presentations from Columbia professor and poet Anna Frajlich-Zajac, who emigrated from Poland in 1969, and University of Illinois at Chicago professor Karen Underhill, who organizes Jewish heritage tours in Poland.

The free, public event is from 2 to 4 p.m.

After a last Jewish exodus, when 13,000 Polish Jews emigrated from Poland in 1968 in response to the Polish socialist government's trumped up "Anti-Zionist" campaign, a new generation is searching for the country's Jewish past. Although Jews have lived in Poland for more than a millennium, the surge in interest in Jewish culture, music and history is a recent development.

Duke Slavic and Eurasian Studies professor Beth Holmgren, who is teaching a course on Polish-Jewish and Polish-Catholic relations this semester, said this is one of the few instances of a country wanting to be less homogenous in terms of religion and ethnicity.

"It's a story with happier developments where multiculturalism is now being actively encouraged and unearthed," Holmgren said. "They want to complicate what it meansto be a Pole and to get rid of the homogeneity imposed by the Holocaust."

Frajlich-Zajac, a Polish Jew who left during the 1968 "Jewish Exodus," will discuss her creative work as an exile in the United States and her new relationship with Poland over the last two decades, while Underhill will discuss what a Jewish revival in Poland means for Polish and Jewish communities there and in the United States.

"They round each other out in that [Frajlich-Zajac] is a Polish Jew who was exiled for her faith and [Underhill] has seen what it’s like for American Jews to go back to Poland to look for their ancestors," Holmgren said.

Laura Lieber, a professor of religion and Jewish Studies, said the event demonstrates an interdisciplinary approach to analyzing multiculturalism."This event brings together European Studies, Slavic Studies, film and visual culture, and Religion, as well as more ephemeral but vital concerns such as reconciliation," Lieber said. "I think it demonstrates the emotional and intellectual richness of multiple cultures and academic fields."