A Polish Catholic theologian and editor who did not meet a Jew until he was well into adulthood is now playing a major role in building consciousness about Poland’s Jewish past and present and fostering Jewish-Christian dialogue in Poland.
“I knew nothing about Jews, nothing,” acknowledged Zbigniew Nosowski, a resident of Otwock, a town near Warsaw, and editor-in-chief of Wiez, a leading Roman Catholic intellectual monthly.
“It took me 20 years to realize that Jews are not just historical figures, but living people,” added Nosowski, who was in Toronto recently at the invitation of the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada and the consulate general of Poland.
He spoke at St. Michael’s College, at one of the final events of Holocaust Education Week.
Nosowski, 50, was born in Otwock, which was 60 per cent Jewish on the eve of World War II. In the summer of 1942, the Nazis liquidated the ghetto and deported its Jewish inhabitants to the Treblinka extermination camp.
Nosowski was raised in a traditional and insular Catholic family whose home was across the street from the house of Irena Sendler, a social worker who helped save about 2,000 Polish Jews during the Nazi occupation and was later recognized as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem.
Despite the long Jewish presence in Otwock, Nosowski was taught to believe that Poland had always been ethnically and religiously homogeneous, and that “others” had been responsible for its problems.
He began to reassess his views in the late 1980s, following a visit to Otwock’s neglected Jewish cemetery and a reading of the biblical Book of Exodus, which opened his eyes to Christianity’s Jewish roots.
Since then, Nosowski, a graduate of the Theological Academy in Warsaw, has been actively involved in Polish-Jewish affairs. Today, he is deputy chair of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, chair of the Citizens’ Committee for Remembrance of the Jews of Otwock and Karczew and a member of the Council of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation.
Having been converted to ecumenism, he said, “Without understanding the Jewish roots of Christianity, I can’t understand my Catholic faith.”
Nor can he truly understand the history of Otwock without taking its Jewish dimension into account, he noted.
Poland is a good place for interfaith dialogue because of its importance in Polish and Jewish history and its past as a multicultural haven of toleration and peaceful coexistence, he said, equating Polishness with pluralism.
The growing interest among Catholics in Jews is not merely a passing fad, he claimed, likening the death of three million Polish Jews during the Holocaust to the amputation of a limb.
In a reference to contemporary Poland, he said, “We, as Catholics, should be more supportive of the Jewish community and its revival.”
Claiming that memory can be harnessed as a bond between Jews and Catholics, Nosowski talked about initiatives he and colleagues have taken in recent years to memorialize the loss of some three million Jews in Poland.
Since 1998, the Catholic Church has annually observed the Day of Judaism on Jan. 17 in churches throughout the country.
The church also marks the holiday of Simchat Torah.
In 2002, on the 60th anniversary of the deportation of its Jewish population, Otwock held its first annual remembrance march.
A website (www.guardians of memory.com) promotes Polish-Jewish remembrance, which includes the restoration of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues.
Since Polish-Jewish dialogue in Poland is only two generations old and thus still “something new,” it will require further effort and patience in the future, he said.
According to Nosowski, Jews and Catholics have yet to resolve what he described as “difficult and painful issues.” He did not elaborate.