WARSAW, Poland (JTA) Marek Tuszewicki is doing doctoral work at the Institute of Jewish Studies at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, teaches Yiddish at the Krakow JCC and leads a club that brings together those who like to sing Chasidic songs and read Yiddish literature. He also co-founded a Jewish literature and art quarterly called Cwiszn and publishes articles and poems in Yiddish.
There's just one thing: Tuszewicki is not himself Jewish.
"There is the whole Polish background with the ruins of cemeteries and synagogues from which there is no escape," Tuszewicki told JTA.
"There are more and more people interested in Yiddish and opportunities to learn," he said. “What are the proportions of Jews and non-Jews I cannot say exactly, but I'm sure at the university there are more students from non-Jewish backgrounds."
Tuszewicki is among the growing number of non-Jewish Poles who are immersing themselves in Jewish culture. They organize Jewish events or ceremonies commemorating the Jews who lived in their cities. They are building monuments and teaching others about the history of their Jewish neighbors. They write in Yiddish.
Many Poles have begin to look at Polish Jewish history as part of their own cultural heritage -- something to be appreciated and remembered, not cast aside.
"I know that many Poles are interested in Yiddish because it is the heritage of Poland,” Tuszewicki said. “Yiddish developed here and great Yiddish literature has been written here. Besides, it not only coexisted with Polish, but it also entered with it into intensive contact. Forgetting Yiddish we would forget an important part of our culture.”
Martyna Majewska is another of the many Polish gentiles to have charted a Jewish path. She was granted a scholarship from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous to teach about the Holocaust and Jewish history. She took part in education courses organized by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum.
Majewska also co-authored a book called "Warsaw: City of many cultures" that helps educators teach about Poland’s minority communities.
Now Majewska, along with Marcin Kozlinski, a fellow Polish gentile, is preparing the first postwar Polish animated fairy tale in Yiddish. It’s part of the Multicultural Mosaic of Tales and Legends project funded by the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw. The Jewish story is titled "Happy Man" and will be a short animated film in three languages: Polish, English and Yiddish.
"We decided to create a series of stories so children could learn more about the fairy tales in different cultures and see that they have universal appeal,” Majewska said. “And another advantage of every fairy tale is that it can be seen in its original language, giving the opportunity to familiarize children with an unknown language.”
Bogdan Bialek does not speak Yiddish. He grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Bialystok, where he had Jewish friends. One was a neighbor who was a survivor of Auschwitz from whom he learned about the Holocaust.
Poland’s anti-Zionist campaign of 1968 decimated what Jewish life remained in Bialystok, and Bialek eventually moved away, marrying a girl from Kielce, the site of a 1946 pogrom resulting from a blood libel.
In Kielce, Bialek wanted to learn more about the massacre, in which 37 Jews and three non-Jewish Poles were killed. The locals, however, were reluctant to talk about it.
"In 1982, one of the priests warned me to not talk about this because Jews kidnapped children and made them into matzah,” he said. “I met with a Poland which I did not know before. Thus began my stubbornness confronting the city with the pogrom."
Even in the 1990s, with Poland emerging from its communist shell, it wasn't easy to talk openly about Jewish history. Bialek endured several attacks for delving into Jewish history. Perpetrators threw grenades into the newspaper office where he worked.