world council of churches

Poland - the Lost Plurality: Some personal remarks on the religious plurality in Poland
Krzysztof Skuza

Why do you learn Hebrew and Yiddish? Are you Jewish? - I have been asked these questions many times by friends and others who got to know I was learning Jewish languages and tradition. Someone who does not know the Polish reality probably hears in this question only simple demonstration of curiosity, without any pejorative shade of meaning. My experience of living in Polish society does not allow me to forget about the context, which always follows the words 'Jew' and 'Jewish'. What to answer then? "No, I am not a Jew. I learn Hebrew and Yiddish just because I find the Hebrew alphabet the most beautiful in the world, and such is to me the sound of Hebrew words". Although to most of my interlocutors this answer should explain more or less the reason for learning two of the most useless languages in Poland, in most cases, they go on their way deeply convinced that I am indeed a Jew but I simply hide myself behind such a strange response.

The word 'Jew' is commonly used to insult someone. This word is used as universal invective which meaning varies according to the needs. Not only the language of political hate acquired this shameful habit. Also so-called 'people of the Church', often very prominent persons of the Polish Roman Catholic Church feel free to use those words, even during their sermons, in order to point out the model enemy of a "good Pole"... Who serves as a perfect enemy? Primarily the Jewish Communist who are suspected of belonging to the world plot that acts against Christianity and sovereignty of Poland: Secondly, also the rest of the Jewish minority, including those, who are not able to accept the crosses in Auschwitz, etc. One could say that the above doesn't show the whole truth about the situation in Poland. Perhaps not, but where else nowadays can you buy strictly anti-Semitic publications just in front of the church stairs in the very centre of the capital city?

"I guess I have a Jewish background". This is what I learned to answer when anyone asks me the question about my "strange hobby". But there is one exception: to the anti-Semites I always reply, that I am a Jew and there is no doubt about it.

Pope John Paul II said during his pilgrimage to Germany that the one who meets Jesus meets Judaism. For me, this sentence has a very specific meaning. I could say that through Judaism I met Jesus. My fascination for Jewish music and literature led me to courses in Jewish religion and tradition. My intention was very simple: to learn as much as possible in order to be able to enter fully the world described by Singer, Perez, Alechem, Ash and other great writers of Yiddish literature. The world of Hassidim, Dibbuks - this whole world that is gone, has been magnetic to me, although not very comprehensible at the same time. Then I decided to learn languages used by the inhabitants of this mysterious world, to express their feelings and faith. As a logical consequence of learning Hebrew, I started to study the Bible. During those unforgettable lessons our teacher, an old man, who grew up in the world that was known to me only from the books of the Yiddish writers, used to tell us wonderful stories about the Talmud and persons from the Bible. We were reading in Yiddish and Hebrew about Jewish holidays. Not only the world of Singer became comprehensible to me but also the world of the Bible and the Jewish tradition.

After becoming Christian, I grew up in the secular family, I realised how helpful, maybe even essential, is to know Judaism in order to fully understand the New Testament and the person of Jesus. I built my Christian identity with the help of Judaism. Indeed, without Judaism, Christianity is incomprehensible. What would Christ mean if we didn't know the meaning of the word Messiah and the messianic promise given to Israel? The essence of my faith is inseparably linked with this great testimony.

Therefore, one of my biggest concerns is the reconciliation between Judaism and Christianity, both carrying the heritage of two thousand years of enmity and violence, mainly from the Christian side. I do believe that the time, when Christians and Jews will regard themselves as the equal partners, is no longer a dream of idealists. For several years we have been experiencing an unusual event in Warsaw, which takes place every year during the Jewish holiday, Simkhat Torah (the Joy of Torah). This is the common Christian-Jewish celebration in the synagogue and in the church. According to the words of the Psalm 133,1: How very good and pleasant is when the kindred live together in unity), we, the Christians and our elder brothers gather together to sing the Psalms and to give thanks to our Lord for giving the Law to the people. During the last year's service on the occasion of Simchat Torah, I was asked to give a commentary on the reading from the Bible. The tradition of these encounters is to have two preachers, one Jewish and one Christian. The fact that I, a Reformed theology student, was invited to preach during the Christian-Jewish service in the Roman Catholic church encourages me to be very optimistic regarding the future.

The presence of religious Jews in a Christian church during the worship is not impossible anymore and doesn't shock. Also Catholic nuns sitting in the synagogue or a Catholic bishop speaking from bimah have already become quite a normal sight in the Polish interreligious "landscape". The first step has been taken; Jewish religion has finally been recognised as the partner in theological dialogue and is no longer treated as a potential field for Christian mission. A great deal of work still has to be done at the grassroots level. A society that claims to be Roman Catholic should know what the pope is teaching on Jews and Judaism. There are still very few priests who are ready to include this teaching in their pastoral work. Those who are not afraid of fighting against the sin of anti-Semitism are doing a titanic job. It is enough to say that there are quite a few ready to believe in the superstition of the Middle Ages, that the Jews kidnap Christian children in order to bake "matzah" using their pure blood, free from sin.

In the Polish Council of Christians and Jews we are very aware of the power of prejudices. Prejudice is a 'dislike of the un-like'1 which means that you do not like someone just because he or she is different from you, whoever you are. The lack of tolerance and aggression are nothing else but a demonstration of fear of the unknown. Our priority is to promote a better mutual understanding between Christians and Jews. We learn each other's sensibility, way of thinking, fears and frustrations. Reading from the Psalms in Hebrew and Polish and listening to reflections given by Christians of different denominations and Jews, is a new and unique experience every time. In this way we pray together and praise our Lord, respecting our diversity.

During its history of over one thousand years, Poland used to be a home for many refugees from the East (Karaites, Muslims) and Western Europe (Jews, Huguenots, Anabaptists, etc.). Unfortunately the present society is now very homogenous which is mainly due to the tragedy of the Shoah and the changes in the political map of this part of Europe. However, there are still very small religious and ethnic minorities present in Poland: Jews, Muslims, Karaites, Protestants who are not very numerous and remain unknown to the Polish society.

To remain unknown means to be the aim of attacks and object of prejudice from the side of those who are the majority. This refers to almost every minority in the Polish society: Muslims ("they are all dangerous extremists and terrorists"), Karaites ("they are all hidden Jews"), Protestants ("they play the role of the 5th column in the Polish society", "they are Germans") etc. Of course all these examples are true "only" for the masses, not to the intellectual elite, but if we remember that only some 7% of the population have completed academic studies and have a Master's degree, then we can see the proportions. One could ask why we encounter such a terrifying lack of orientation in the religious issues within the Polish society? One of the possible answers could be that within the 50 years of Communism in Poland, one could officially teach Religion only from a Marxist understanding, as a tool used in the fight between social classes. The prejudices from the past going back to the beginnings of the 19th century survived Communism in hibernation and begun their new life in the daylight almost unchanged, only when this became possible. All this "thanks" to the intergeneration transfer and "popular wisdom". Even the language may play an important role in transferring the stereotypical models of understanding the reality. Polish has a wide selection of words and idioms that constitute good proof of how successfully may the stereotypes be acquired by a language. Idiomatic expressions or specific words, having an evaluative meaning, may strongly influence the process of building the inner representation of a reality. This refers also to the image of the 'stranger' that every one of us has. Why make an effort, while there is already an easily accessible pattern functioning in the language? This would speak in favour of the political correctness language policy, which has not so far been implemented efficiently in Poland.

The Polish national context of religious plurality is very strongly influenced by the political history of Poland, glorifying the unity of the nation as the main factor of survival. During centuries neighbouring countries have dominated Poland. Unfortunately, unity is too often commonly identified with uniformity. The latter is seen as the major strength of a nation whereas the confessional divisions within the society are traditionally regarded as a kind of political diversion. Examples of this are to be found even in recently published handbooks of history for school use. Belonging to a confessional minority, which is my experience, can mean that you are not regarded as fully 'Polish' as your Roman Catholic co-citizens. If this is the case for Christians of other confessions, how much more would this not apply to those who are not Christians?

In 1998, I participated in the initiative of my friends from "Yidele"1, which was the preparation and publication of a calendar on religious holidays of all the minorities living in Poland. The calendar included also an educational booklet providing information on the history and doctrine of each minority. We were also meeting in a television studio where, as young people representing different religions, we were talking about our differences and discussing problems linked to living in multi-religious society from different points of view. For many spectators, it was the first opportunity to see a young Jewish girl sitting next to a young Muslim or a young Protestant sitting next to a young Catholic and discussing with a smile in a very good, friendly atmosphere. As people of faith, we were all unified by one hope. The hope for the future. In this way we gave our witness to the Polish society. This is how I understand my role - giving witness to all those who have not yet experienced God's gift of diversity. Witness of friendship, peace and love.


  1. Definition proposed by Gordon Allport.
  2. title of a Jewish newspaper for young people. In Yiddish language yidele means 'small Jew'.
Krzysztof Skuza is a student of theology, vice-chairperson of the Ecumenical Youth council in Europe, in Warsaw, Poland.

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