A panel of experts moderated by Poland’s Honorary Consul General Marek Lesniewski-Laas will discuss the revived interest in the history of Jews in Poland and the resurgence of Jewish culture in Poland today. Panelists include: Amy and Josh Degen, American facilitators for the advanced completion of the Bialystok Cemetery Restoration, a project focusing on the preservation of Jewish history in Bialystok and restoration of neglected Jewish cemeteries in the area; Leora Tec, founder and director of Bridge To Poland, an organization committed to breaking down stereotypes through trips that highlight how non-Jewish Poles are commemorating Jewish life in Poland today; Katka Reszke, author of Return of the Jew: Identity Narratives of the Third Post-Holocaust Generation of Jews in Poland, filmmaker, and photographer working in the US and Poland.
About the Amy and Josh Degen and the Bialystok Cemetery Restoration
Jewish settlement in the Bialystok, Poland area dates back to about 1658. Bialystok grew to be a successful and predominantly Jewish community. For hundreds of years before 1906, the Jewish community flourished in the Bialystok area. By many accounts, Bialystok was the quintessential example of Polish-Jewish assimilation and acceptance in society. Unfortunately, the city suffered from anti-Semitism even before the Nazi desecration which gave rise to this funding request. In 1906, the Czarists massacred many of Bialystok’s Jews. A black obelisk monument to the victims of those programs stands prominently in the center of Bagnowka cemetery. After the pogroms but before WWII, Bialystok was once again a vibrant Jewish community. World War II changed Bialystok forever. After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, they killed approx. 2,000 Bialystok Jews in the Great Synagogue Fire of June 27, 1941. The remaining Jewish population was forced into a ghetto by the occupying Nazis. Many of those Jews were killed during the 1943 Bialystok ghetto uprising. Those who remained were taken by rail to the Treblinka death camp, where the average life span of a prisoner once he or she stepped foot onto the platform was about two hours.
Amy and Josh Degen have been dedicated to the restoration of the Bagnowka Cemetery in Bialystok Poland after their visit to Bialystok in the Summer of 2015. They have fund raised and led a group of volunteers from the U.S. for the past two summers and will continue again this Summer. Amy is a Holocaust educator trained by Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) in 2007. She continues to teach about the Holocaust to 9th graders at Congregation Shalom in North Chelmsford, MA. She was sent by FHAO the Summer of 2015 to meet with The Forum for Dialogue in Poland. After her seminar she traveled with her husband to see Bialystok to see where her family lived and were murdered during the Holocaust. Lucy Lisowska, the coordinator of the cemetery restoration, took Josh and Amy to see the cemetery. Josh Degen is a landscape contractor, mason and owner of Earthscape Inc. It was when Josh entered the Bagnowka Cemetery in the Summer of 2015 tht he decided to coordinate a group of volunteers to help restore the cemetery. With his knowledge of stonework and machine operating, there have been over 650 headstones restored in working 12 days (6 days each summer).
About Leora Tec and Bridge to Poland
Through Bridge to Poland and partnerships with her colleagues and friends in Poland, Leora Tec works to break down stereotypes about non-Jewish Poles and build bridges between people.
Leora’s talks, workshops and on the ground small group study tours in Poland highlight the work of non-Jews who are commemorating Jewish life in a myriad of ways. She seeks to challenge old stories, blank space—the undiscovered—and fossilized representations about Poland, “the Poles” and Polish-Jewish history. Rather than providing answers she seeks to provide participants with more questions—more to be curious about—and with healing.
Bridge To Poland is about making connections and about transformation. Group members enjoy debate, in-depth conversation, and even friendly arguments. Laughing, crying and singing are all part of a Bridge To Poland experience. Leora is the daughter of Holocaust survivor and scholar Nechama Tec, whose work focuses on rescue and resistance. Leora sees her work as the second generation of her mother’s. Nechama Tec writes about those who saved lives. Leora works with those who are saving memory.
Leora is the American Ambassador to Brama Grodzka-Teatr-NN and is on the Board of the American Association of Polish Jewish Studies. She holds a B.A. from Wellesley College and a J.D./ LL.M from Duke University School of Law.
About Katka Reszke
Katka Reszke is a Polish-born, U.S.-based writer, documentary filmmaker, photographer, and researcher in Jewish history, culture, and identity. She holds a PhD in Jewish Education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is the author of Return Of The Jew: Identity Narratives of the Third Post-Holocaust Generation of Jews in Poland (2013) and the chief screenwriter of the acclaimed partially animated documentary film Karski & The Lords of Humanity (2015). As a writer and filmmaker, Reszke specializes in Polish-Jewish history and relations, as well as human rights, social justice, minority and gender issues. Her film director credits include Shimon’s Returns, Coming Out Polish Style, This is Not a Fairy Tale, and Magda. She also served as Second Director & Editor of HBO’s Trans-Action and as Editor of The Peretzniks and the award-winning Castaways. During the Fall Semester of 2015 Katka Reszke served as Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar-in-Residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. She is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. Her upcoming
research-creation project is The Meshugene Effect – a book and an experimental documentary featuring personal narratives of several Polish women, who embark on a pursuit of Jewish identity following an irrational feeling, a hunch about having Jewish ancestry. The project explores cultural and discursive contingencies surrounding religion, gender and authenticity and how they affect the way we make sense of experiences of memory and transition. All of this set against the landscape of troubled Polish-Jewish history and a new curious Polish-Jewish present.
About Marek Lesniewski-Lass
Since 1994, Marek Lesniewski-Lass has served as Poland's Honorary Consul for the New England States of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, promoting economic, cultural and political ties between the Republic of Poland and the United States. This has included assisting Polish dignitaries during their visits to the US, organizing Massachusetts trade mission to Poland, assisting Polish nationals in the US, and working closely with the Polish-American organzations. He also practices law, assisting foreign individuals and companies in navigating the US legal system, and helps US firms and individuals do business in Poland.