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Young Poles, US Jewish counterparts find commonality

WARSAW -- For Eric Robertson, Poland was a place frozen in black and white snapshots, preserved in his mind as the site of the Holocaust's death camps.

This week, however, the 17-year-old from Greensboro, N.C., stood in a Warsaw school gymnasium and played bluegrass on his mandolin before a crowd of enthusiastic Polish teens who offered their own performances.

He is among a group of scores of American Jewish teens taking part in an effort to bring young Poles and Jews together on the sidelines of the March of the Living, an annual Holocaust remembrance and education event at the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Before the afternoon was up, the Polish and American Jewish teens joined together to sing "Lean On Me," laughed and joked, and swapped e-mail addresses.

Robertson, who wore a sweat shirt from the Berklee College of Music in Boston as he played, was approached by one of the Polish singers, Monika Borzym, 17. They discovered they will both attend Berklee and set up a time to play music together over the weekend.

"I only knew Poland from pictures, and usually older pictures in black and white," said Robertson. "I couldn't even picture the country in color, let alone people my age, just like me, into the same things I'm into."

Several similar events took place across Warsaw on Thursday and yesterday.

Polish interfaith and Jewish groups have pushed for more such meetings around the march in recent years to address concerns that its broader program, packed with visits to death camps, reinforces stereotypes of Poland as anti-Semitic and misses a chance to let participants learn about the country as it is today.

"This is a golden opportunity for overcoming stereotypes in Polish-Jewish relations," said Andrzej Folwarczny, president of the interfaith Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, which set up Thursday's meeting and others like it.

On one side are the Jewish teenagers who come by the thousands each year from all over the world for the march, which this year takes place on Monday. Often, they have soaked up family stories of ancestors who suffered from anti-Semitism in pre-World War II Poland, or who died in the death camps that Nazi Germany set up throughout the country.

Although Germans perpetrated the Holocaust, bitterness often lingers toward the land where the killings took place. Some Poles collaborated; others risked their lives to save Jews.

On the other side are young Poles who know little about Jews, but are often eager for contact. Poland, a country of 38 million today, was home to a thriving Jewish community of nearly 3.5 million before the war. Today there are only 5,000 people registered as Jews, although there could be as many as 30,000.

Many of the Polish students, such as Ada Grabowska, 18, said it was the first time she was ever aware of meeting Jews. "I want to have friendships with them," she said.

The March of the Living, first organized in 1988 and run by the Israeli Education Ministry, is a two-part program that brings Jewish youth to Poland for a week to visit death camps, such as Treblinka and Majdanek, and Jewish cemeteries.

The main event in the program is a 2-mile march from Auschwitz to Birkenau. Then they head for Israel to celebrate Independence Day and take part in events to reinforce the pledge of "never again."

In a separate development yesterday, the Vatican said its ambassador to Israel will not attend a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony in Jerusalem tomorrow to protest a national museum's depiction of the wartime conduct of Pope Pius XII during the Nazi genocide.

At issue is the Yad Vashem museum's statement that the pope did not join allies in condemning the massacre of Jews.