A dark stain in the history of Warsaw University was the decision to follow a nationalist trend in the 1930s and mandate segregated seating for the university’s Jewish students. Over 80 years later, a student-initiated campaign resulted in a permanent, public acknowledgement of this institutionalized discrimination. On May 22, University Rector Alojzy Nowak and Israeli Ambassador Yacov Livne dedicated a commemorative plaque before a crowd of about 200. Dignitaries, scholars of Jewish history and culture, and prominent members of Warsaw’s Jewish community gathered behind a red retractable belt barrier under the watchful eye of an Israeli guard, while a younger crowd of students and onlookers looked on from the other side.
I learned about the event serendipitously, when fellow ADJCP board member Ken Drabinsky invited me to accompany him to the Warsaw University Department of History to donate a copy of the self-published autobiography of Henry Balaban, nephew of renowned historian Meir Bałaban. I accompanied Ken as he presented the book to Łukasz Niesiołowski and Marzena Zawanowska at the Department of History.
The commemorative ceremony began with songs in Yiddish performed by students from the Multicultural High School of Humanities named after Solidarity hero Jacek Kuroń, followed by predictable remarks by the rector and the Israeli ambassador about the need for unity across cultural and religious differences and the importance of remembering the dark as well as light moments in history. Both celebrated the university students who initiated the project.
The audience’s enthusiastic applause was reserved for the third speaker, Antonina Dukowicz from the Student Antifascist Committee. It didn’t come in response to her diplomatic discussion of the five years it took to persuade the administration and work out the appropriate language for the marker. Rather, the crowd responded to her expression of support for the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Science, which is under attack by the government because of the work scholars are doing there that highlights some of the less noble behavior of Polish people against Jews during the Nazi occupation. The specific trigger for the latest attack was a brief comment by Holocaust Scholar Barbara Engelking that “Jews were unbelievably disappointed with Poles during the war.” The remark caused such a strong reaction because it challenges the official narrative that Poles helped the Jews more than any other nation and that they couldn’t do more because they were under occupation and subject to persecution themselves.
The student speaker called the commemorative marker a symbol that sheds light on the current darkness in Poland, and urged viewers to let it be a model for remembering the difficult truth. She ended with a call to cut out all kinds of antisemitism and oppression, so that it is never repeated. The final applause erupted, falling into rhythm as it continued.
Some commentators criticized the university for failing to issue an apology, or for not making a bolder statement. I’m impressed by the way Antonina Dukowicz connected historical discrimination with contemporary political battles, and the way those in attendance affirmed those connections. Battles are being fought here to acknowledge the less noble moments in Polish Jewish history and to reaffirm values of unity and diversity.