Barbara Czyznikowska

Chair, Project Polska

It is estimated that there are over 25,000 individuals with Polish roots residing in the United Kingdom’s county of Leicestershire. Polish migration to Leicestershire has seen several waves, and dates back to the Second World War, when many Poles endured a gruelling journey through Siberia and Persia to settle down in this county. So-called Solidarity migration brought the second wave of Poles who came to Leicestershire between the late 1970s and early 1980s when Poland was governed by an authoritarian, socialist regime, requesting political asylum. Lastly, following the 2004 admission of Poland as a member state of the European Union, another wave of Poles arrived in the United Kingdom. This time it mainly consisted of young individuals who left Poland in pursuit of a better economic wellbeing.

In Leicester, where Poles of all three waves settled, their presence has been positively noticeable and, similar to numerous other communities, they have largely assimilated into the broader fabric of the city. Over the years, it has seen the development of formal and informal networks that support the community, providing a gateway to preserve and pass on the richness of Polish heritage and culture.

At Project Polska, a community led organisation aiming at empowering the Polish diaspora to engage in social action and cross-cultural dialogue, we place particular emphasis on fostering sustainable relationships between members of the community with other local communities. By setting up the Recovering Connections initiative, we aspired to build a bridge between the local Polish and the Jewish communities, who are largely disconnected despite their shared cultural heritage. While isolation can breed misunderstanding, we believe that building better relationships can help us connect, comprehend each other’s challenges, and show that Poles and Jews can care for and appreciate one another.

As Holocaust survivors gathered in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland in January 2020 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, the world was compelled to reflect on the climate of hatred, contempt, and prejudice that is still present in our lives. When we look back at the horrifying images of the anti-Semitic and racist genocide that took place during the Second World War, we must still ask ourselves, “could this happen again?”. The sad lessons of that period were adequately captured by Eric Hoffer who once said that, “in a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists”.

No one can argue about the fact that the Holocaust was one of the most brutal chapters in world history, leaving millions grieving and displaced. However, while historically Poles and Jews have a long-standing relationship, the complexity of its nature during the Holocaust in particular has been under debate, especially in recent years. Yet, despite these passionate and sensitive debates, one must still remember that, before the Holocaust, Poland was home to 3.5 million Jews, which constituted Europe’s largest Jewish population at the time. To rephrase, on the eve of the Holocaust, 10% of Poles were Jewish.

Before the Holocaust, Polish Christians and Polish Jews lived side-by-side, often conversing in various languages and interacting with one another as an integral part of their daily routines. To this very day at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, one can still observe strong cross-cultural influences in both Polish and Jewish everyday life experiences, including, for instance, the presence of Hebrew and Yiddish words in Polish language, and Polish cuisine being filled with Jewish dishes, as well as vice versa.

At Project Polska we hope that Recovering Connections helps Poles and Jews to be reminded of their historical and cultural connections, as well as to establish new friendships and grow in their understanding of one another.