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Teaching Minority History in Present-Day Poland

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Helene J. Sinnreich
Youngstown State University

U. S. A.

ABSTRACT:  This is a short essay discussing the author’s  experience teaching Jewish Studies at University of Lodz in Lodz, Poland, and her encounter with anti-Roma (anti-Gypsy) sentiment.  She suggests the use of comparative minority studies as a means of overcoming prejudice.

Author’s  Biographical Sketch
Citing this Source in the APA Style

Before the Second World War, Lodz, Poland, contained over a quarter of a million Jews making it one of the world’s largest Jewish populations at that time.  The Second World War and its aftermath, however, dramatically reshaped the demographics of Europe.  In Poland, this dramatic demographic shift, particularly of minorities, was the starkest.  War losses, physical extermination, suppression of ethnic distinctiveness, territorial and population transfers during and shortly after World War II, and a post-war Communist homogenization policy transformed Poland from being one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the region, in which approximately one third of its pre-war population was non-Polish, to one of the most homogeneous where over 90% of the population is ethnically Polish.  Jews, Germans, Ukrainians, and other minorities who had been prominent fixtures of the Polish landscape disappeared.  Death, exile, and Communist-induced silence in the form of prohibiting distinctive dress and ethnic languages all played a role in clearing the landscape of cultural identity, in many cases within one generation.  The new post-war generation of Poles was raised in an ethnically cleansed country – a very different Poland from the one which existed before World War II.  The few ethnic minority groups which remained were suppressed by government policy as was teaching about them. 

It was during the 1980s, when Polish citizens worked to overthrow the Communist regime that a new interest in ethnic identities arose throughout Poland both among minority groups interested in their own particular identities and among ethnic Poles interested in the vanished multicultural Polish landscape.  Numerous people have commented on the new interest in the Jewish culture among younger generations in Poland.  Zvi Gittelman (2000) in his lecture on Post-Communist Communities in Central Europe at Central European University in Budapest explains that this interest stems from the fact that: 

Jews represent the outside group against which Poles define their ethnic boundaries. In talking about their relationship to Jews, Poles are really focusing on themselves…When confronting the place of Jews in Polish history, Poles invariably must deal with issues such as the relationship between Catholic religion and Polish ethnicity, whether Poland was and is a multinational state or not, [and] the place of tolerance and prejudice in Polish culture…. (p. 41) 

The study of Jews and Judaism and of Polish-Jewish relations continues to be of interest to young Poles.  The latter, Polish-Jewish relations, as a subject remains a very contentious issue.  Voices in Poland remain varied on the topic, especially in the wake of the publication of Jan Gross’ (2001) book Neighbors, which sparked a nation-wide debate in Poland about the role of Poles in the murder of Jews in the village of Jedwabne during World War II.1 It was just after the publication of Jan Gross’ Neighbors that I began teaching Jewish Studies in Poland, at the University of Lodz.   

My courses on Jewish Studies at the University attracted liberal-minded students with an interest in Jewish life and culture.  They arrived in the classroom open to understanding a foreign culture which was present in their country for 1000 years. Of the 300 students who took Judaic Studies courses, only three identified themselves as having any type of Jewish background.  Rather, the overwhelming majority of my students were Catholics, Protestants, or non-believers.  Their interest in Jewish Studies might be compared with students in the United States who might take a course on Native Americans.  For many Poles the Jew is an exotic being that once widely inhabited Poland and has now largely disappeared from the landscape leaving only the imprint of Jewish communal buildings and Hebrew-inscribed tombstones.  For them Polish-Jewish relations is a historical event far removed from their present lives except for their possible role as ambassadors for forging new relations between Poles and Jews in a world which is rapidly losing distinctive national character.  From the perspectives of most students, the poor relations between Poles and Jews are a product of ignorant masses, old ways of thinking which are no longer relevant to their lives.  The integration of Poland into the European Union seems to them an indication that the world is moving towards a global identity rather than clinging to old stereotypes.  They reject the old prejudices, whether developed by Polish nationalists or as part of the communist-era ideology.  Negative opinions about Jews or Jewish-Polish relations are unwrapped delicately and tentatively with an overwhelming belief that critique of and prejudice against the Jews and other persecuted minorities is not something done by the young and educated but rather by the old or ignorant masses.  It is usually with some embarrassment that a grandparent or other elderly relative is revealed to be anti-Semitic. As one student informed me, “There is no one here in the Master’s program with an anti-Jewish or anti-homosexual opinion or something like that.  People who think like that don’t attend University.”2 

This group was raised on the mantra that anti-Semitism and anti-ethnic, or anti-national group, sentiments are a product of ignorance and past propaganda.  The past, which remains so recent in the minds of their grandparents, is ancient history and can thus be confronted.  They are easily able to grapple with contentious issues; the lengthy dialogue of historians, scholars, intellectuals, clergy, politicians, and others is for them about a long-gone past.  They are able to address the important points of contention between the two groups including the extent of anti-Semitism in Poland in the past and present, the actions or inaction of Poles during the Second World War, the role of foreign powers, religion and economics in exacerbating Polish-Jewish relations, the stereotypes embedded in each culture, and the relationship between Jews and communism in the post-war period.  They even stand ready to confront the brutality of the expulsion of the German minority from post-war Poland—a topic that generally remains more controversial for the older generation.  These students staunchly believe that the past can be overcome by forging positive relations in the present, which look towards the future.   

I was therefore particularly shocked when I encountered widespread anti-Roma (or anti-Gypsy) sentiment among these otherwise scrupulously politically correct students.  Once I learned of the prejudice, I systematically began to ask questions aimed at ascertaining what student beliefs were about Roma and Sinti.3 The students employed stereotypes and prejudices to describe these people groups.  They offered descriptions which included: foreigners, the uneducated, thieves, beggars, wearing distinctive dress, and speaking a foreign language.  In addition to identifying Roma and Sinti as thieves and beggars, they identified all beggars and thieves as Roma.   

There was a widespread conception that no gainfully employed Roma could be found in professions requiring higher education because the students had no contact, at least no conscious contact, with such people.  In fact, the students often came in contact with individuals of Roma decent in professional occupations.  The students’ means of identifying Roma, however, was based on deeply ingrained prejudices of which they were not even conscious as they gave their description of Roma and Sinti.  They only recognized Romani as Roma when they were begging on street corners in distinctive dress and speaking in their own language.  Even beggars not wearing Roma clothing were identified by students as “gypsies.”  Students, however, were not able to identify assimilated Roma. Ideas such as all Roma being uneducated and illiterate persisted despite admissions of knowing Roma in school.  These educated Roma, the children of doctors and lawyers were perceived by the students as “not really Roma” as assimilated Jews had been dismissed in a previous era as evidence against the stereotypes about the OstJuden.   

After going around the room and eliciting the responses from the students, I asked the students to go to the library and research the history of Roma in Poland.  At the next class session, I asked the students to give oral reports.  The students had identified Roma as foreigners based on the fact that they spoke a language other than Polish.  Norman Davies (1990) writes in his article “Ethnic Diversity in Twentieth Century Poland” that “young Poles can grow up without ever hearing their neighbors speak a difference language or practice a different religion. Very few Poles under the age of 45 or 50…can ever remember having a German or Jewish or a Ukrainian classmate or neighbor…” (p. 235);, the students were surprised to learn that Roma had been present in Poland for over 500 years. 

After the students shared with each other the information they had discovered about Roma and Sinti, we compared present day anti-Roma and anti-Sinti sentiment with anti-Semitic sentiment of the 1930s.  The prejudices held by these modern-day students who rejected the anti-Semitism of earlier generations were similar in accusation; only the group being labeled was different.  Both Roma and Jews had histories of long-term settlement in Poland yet were perceived as foreigners.  Both groups had significant portions of their population speaking another language—other than Polish—despite long-term residence on Polish lands.  Both groups were perceived as thieves: the Roma as a petty thief and the Jew as a thief of the Polish capital.  Students claimed to identify Roma by the distinctiveness of their dress and stereotypical physical features just as Jews had been identified by stereotypical physical features and distinctive dress in the pre-war period. Pogroms against Jews in pre-war and post-war Poland could be compared with numerous anti-Roma actions in earlier times as well as the massive attack against the Roma population which took place in Mawa in 1991.  

In many respects, teaching about Roma in a Polish university is a case example of teaching about diversity in an ethnically homogeneous school.  The Eastern European School systems do not have diversity programs like those in the United States.  There is no effort to recruit diverse students or to require courses which address questions of diversity.  Most Eastern European universities incorporated socialist-era conceptions of national unification within their ideology as opposed to exploring the notions of ethnic or national diversity (Szepe, 1996).  Whereas the notions of minority rights are linked with human rights in the West, this conception is not standard in Eastern Europe (Deets, 2006).  There is no affirmative action movement.  Roma in Eastern Europe have long been a persecuted people.  They are almost entirely excluded from the universities as a result of a widespread practice of placing Roma children in remedial programs in elementary school, irregardless of intellectual ability (Torn 2001; Pogany, 2004). This practice, drawn from racism or the argument for the deficiency language skills of Roma children entering elementary school, results in the situation that university Polish students in or other Eastern European students are unlikely to have dialog with Roma as fellow students.   Research in Eastern Europe has indicated that lack of contact is related to negative attitudes (Evans & Need, 2002). 

The curriculum in Polish universities requires students to take a large number of prescribed courses in their field.  There is often not much opportunity to take elective courses or any courses outside of the field of specialization.  Therefore, unless students are specializing in an area like international relations, they are unlikely to be exposed to courses which incorporate issues of diversity.         

For Poles in Polish universities the discussion of the history of Jews in Poland presents an interesting opportunity.   Courses on Jews have success in drawing students, even students taking the course voluntarily on top of their normal course curriculum.  Once in the classroom, students can be exposed to other issues related to ethnic minorities in their own country.  By their very absence from Polish society, the lasting physical evidence of their previous residence, and their removal by a foreign enemy, Jews present a non-threatening opportunity to examine Poland’s minorities’ policies in the past and present.  Young Poles can accept that there are stereotypes surrounding Jews and are willing to be educated about their diversity.  They find it absurd that anti-Semitic pamphlets are available in kiosks around Poland that perpetuate the Elders-of-Zion myth or that claim that Germany and the Jews intend to divide Poland.  Yet more subtle ideas, such as that Jews control the US government, the World economy, or Hollywood, persist and appeared in papers written for my classes.  Jewish Studies classes can be useful in providing a more nuanced view of an ethnic minority.  They also present an opportunity to deal with ideas about minorities which are still present in Polish society and are not discussed as broadly.  The history of Jews in Poland can be used as a means to open the door to discussing less comfortable topics regarding prejudice which persists against populations which continue to live in Poland.    

This tactic of using one minority group to confront the difficulties of another group need not be limited to Poland.  I have also used discussions of Jews and Jewish history in American classrooms to open discussions about African Americans and their treatment.  The treatment of Jews as a minority group in Europe, including legislation aimed at limiting the citizenship and legal privileges of Jews, has parallels in that of African Americans who also suffered from legislation which excluded them from citizenship or curtailed their civil rights.  Stereotypes which were held about Jews in Europe are echoed in stereotypes of African Americans.  For example, Jews and African Americans were both stereotypically depicted as sexual predators, thieves, and inferior races.  Both groups were subjected to a variety of restrictions including where they could live and be educated, which professions and organizations they could belong to, whether or not they could vote, and who they could marry,  Both groups’ restrictions stem from discrimination.  In some settings, it is easier to explore one as a means of exploring the other.


1.      During the Second World War the Poles suffered humiliation, forced labor, starvation, and the constant threat of imprisonment and death for little or no cause other than their Polishness.  The reign of terror imposed upon Poles during the Second World War has been incorporated into national memory in a variety of ways including seeing the events as part of an ongoing Polish martyrdom.  Gross’s challenge of Polish identity solely as martyrs during the Second World War provoked reactions ranging from acceptance of his thesis to denial of the events.  For more on this controversy see The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland (Polonsky & Michlic, 2003.

2.      These students are exceptional even among the youth of Lodz, Poland.  The walls of the city are covered with anti-Semitic graffiti – a testament that this openmindness has not extended to the entire culture.  For more on anti-Semitic graffiti in Lodz, Poland, see Helene Sinnreich’s (2004) “Reading the Writing on the Wall: A Textual Analysis of Lodz Graffiti” published in Religion, State and Society.

3.      There is a long standing prejudice against Gypsies, or as they call themselves Roma and Sinti, across most of Central Europe.  This group, historically a nomadic group, has been at various times subjected to violence.  During the Holocaust, for example, they were targeted by the Nazis for extermination.  Today, they still suffer from discrimination. 


Davies, N. (1990). Ethnic diversity in twentieth century Poland.  Polin, 4, 235-250.

Deets, S. (2006). Reimaginging the boundaries of the nation: Politics and development of ideas on minority rights. East European Politics and Societies, 20(3), 419-446.

Evans, G., & Need, A. (2002). Explaining ethnic polarization over attitudes towards minority rights in Eastern Europe: A multilevel analysis. Social Science Research,  31(4) 653-680.

Gitelman, Z. (2000). Reconstructing Jewish communities and Jewish identities in post-communist East Central Europe.  In Jewish Studies at the Central European University, Public Lectures, 1996-1999 (pp. 31-46).  Budapest, Hungary: Central European University.

Gross, J. (2001). Neighbors: The destruction of the Jewish community in Jedwabne, Poland. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Pogany, I. (2004). Refashioning rights in Central and Eastern Europe: Some implications for the region’s Roma.  European Public Law, 10(1-4), 85-106.

Polansky, A., & J. B. (Eds.). (2003). The Neighbors respond: The controversy over the Jedwabne massacre in Poland. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sinnreich, H.  (2004). Reading the writing on the wall: A textual analysis of Lodz graffiti. Religion, State and Society, 32(1), 53-58.

Szepe, G. (1996). Some remarks on the education rights of national minorities in Central and Eastern Europe. International Journal on Minority and Group Rights. 4(2), 105-113.

Torn, E. (2001). Roma-Slovak children’s right to education: Problems and solutions. International Children’s Rights Monitor, 14(3), 26-27.

Helene J. Sinnreich, Director of Judaic and Holocaust Studies, Youngstown State University, spent two years teaching Jewish Studies at the University of Lodz in Lodz, Poland. (Contact this author at; contact the editors of EMME at

Recommended Citation in the APA Style:

Sinnreich, H. J. (2006). Using the past to confront the present: Teaching minority history in present- day Poland. Electronic Magazine of Multicultural Education, 8(2), 1-7 Retrieved your access month date, year, from

(Please note that in order to comply with APA style citations of online documents regarding page numbers, only the PDF versions of EMME article, which are paginated, should be cited.)