Some serious questions: What does the human race learn from the terrible wartime inhumanity inflicted by one group upon another? From the continuation of warmongering around the world, it would seem as a species – if those in power can be said to represent the human species- nothing has been learnt as people continue to be tortured and killed, frequently in the name of group or national good. So how can something positive come out of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’? And, importantly, how can future generations learn to contribute to a better, kinder, more truly democratic world?
The dynamic and charismatic founder of the charity behind the exhibition descriptively called ‘Learning from the Righteous’, Anthony Lishak, gave a thought-provoking talk to APS and visitors through focusing on Irena Sendler, one humble woman whose extraordinary courage and defiance against such inhumanity helped save hundreds of Jewish Poles, particularly children, during WWII. Her bravery is an inspiration to everyone who feels they cannot stand by and do nothing against tyranny. And it was no small action: her help to endangered Jewish families led to her torture and near execution. Though her work was truly heroic, she never saw herself as that. She felt she was merely taking on the values instilled in her father, Dr Stanisław Krzyzanowski to help others in need, no matter who they were. To put Irena’s work into context, 6,706 Polish rescuers have been recognised by Yad Vashem as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’, the Jewish honour bestowed on non-Jews who helped them escape persecution, acts in which they risked death.
At the time of the stepping up of wartime Jewish persecution by the Nazis in Poland, Irena Sendler was a young social worker in Warsaw who spoke Yiddish, two facts which helped her take action to try and save as many Jewish people in the Warsaw Ghetto, and ultimately, being sent to their deaths, as she possibly could. Her organisational and networking skills were a great asset in her hidden work. The display boards in the exhibition and the accompanying informative booklet gave the fuller story of Irena and the other Polish Resistance workers.
The exhibition in Bristol at The Gallery Space, in Bridewell Street, was on from 9th to 15th July. As well as giving the APS talk, Anthony worked with groups of schoolchildren in the Bristol area. It is this aspect which is at the core of the ‘Learning from the Righteous’ charity. Anthony explained that it is through building empathy in young people that there is hope for a better world. The accompanying exhibition booklet clarifies this approach: “The work of ‘Learning from the Righteous’ is based on the belief that the quality of a child’s early encounters with the Holocaust will determine their relationship with the subject from then on. The charity works with children in the 10-14 age range from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds and focuses on the acts of rescue and resistance by those recognised by Yad Vashem as ‘Righteous Among The Nations”.
In my school teaching days before I worked with adults, I saw how engaging children with literature which developed the reader’s imagination could have in building understanding and empathy towards other human beings. Many books dealing with various kinds of injustice are used by teachers for broadening pupils’ minds. It is not a matter of taking in facts alone, for empathy involves being able to put yourself in the shoes of another human being, precisely the quality which is missing in those with racist and psychopathic tendencies.
I remember particularly using ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ with a difficult group of teenagers and seeing the humanising effect it had on them. They had never been exposed to the Holocaust story before and were clearly shocked to learn about it. Through identifying with Anne Frank, a girl their own age, the story of the persecution of the Jews was experienced not just as facts but emotionally, in real human terms. As a result of studying this book, I know the horizons of the girls I taught were broadened and I hope they individually reflected on the many issues it threw up later when they were adults. Talks such as the ones organised by this charity are obviously extremely important, for like reading, true listening opens hearts and minds. Having an engaging speaker- which Anthony most certainly was- helps the message touch the listeners in a profound way.
The charity sees the development of empathy and compassion as vital to combating intolerance and prejudice which, when stirred up by dictators, resulted in the genocide of WWII. I wish the ‘Learning from the Righteous’ charity the very best of luck in their important humanitarian work based on the Holocaust. Developing empathy and humanity in people towards others, no matter what their beliefs or nationality, is an ongoing challenge for every generation in every place in the world. May compassion for all fill every human heart.
By Alicja Christofides (nee̒ Świątek)