A few thousand high school and university students, joined by politicians, participated Tuesday in an annual International Day of Racism in Lodz, a large Polish city in the center of the country.
They listened to lectures, attended concerts and visited houses of worship.
Joanna Podolska wasn’t among them.
Podolska, a Lodz journalist who helped found the Institute of Tolerance that organizes the U.N.-initiated pluralism activities there, missed the event for the first time in its five years: she was in the United States doing research on the Jewish history Lodz.
Podolska, a Catholic, has spent the past two months interviewing survivors of the wartime Lodz ghetto and working in archives here, especially the files of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
It’s all part of her attempt to preserve the memory of Lodz Jewry, which was nearly destroyed in the Holocaust.
Podolska, 41, who has written several books about the city’s Jewish history, conducted tours of the ghetto area, organized a traveling exhibition and trained young researchers, is now at work on an extensive, annotated chronicle of the ghetto.
Unlike a large group of Germans born after the war who have turned to philo-Semitism to atone for the sins of their country’s wartime generation, Podolska says her relatives were not perpetrators, were not collaborators, were not in Nazi uniforms.
"I don’t feel guilt," she said.
In an interview at the Center for Jewish History, where YIVO is based, Podolska says "I am sorry" about the near destruction of Jewish culture and Jewish life in Poland, the largest in the world before the war.
Podolska, who writes about history for Gazeta Wyborcza, a prominent Polish newspaper, became interested in Jewish history during meetings with visitors from abroad in the early 1990s.
"They asked me many questions" about Jewish Lodz, she said. "’Where is the synagogue? Where is the Jewish district? Where is the Jewish cemetery?’ I couldn’t answer."
Podolska had not learned about Polish Jewry while growing up: not at home, not at school.
"I never heard about the Jews: nothing good, nothing bad," she said.
She decided to teach herself.
"I am interested in history, I love history in general," said Podolska, who came to the United States on a scholarship to study about a Polish emigre author.
"It’s part of my history," she said of her Jewish self-education. "If you’re interested in the history of Poland, you’re interested in the history of the Jews. They are an important part of the country. They are an important part of the city where I was working."
The 230,000 Jews of Lodz constituted Europe’s second-largest Jewish community before the Holocaust. When the ghetto was liberated in 1944, fewer than 900 remained.
Today the city’s Jewish community has some 300 affiliated members.
The Lodz Jewish experience in the Holocaust has remained in the shadow of Warsaw, whose ghetto was the site of the fabled and ultimately unsuccessful uprising in April 1943.
"The Warsaw Ghetto was heroic," Podolska said. Though she is "kind of" the expert on the Jews of Lodz, she says her interest in things Jewish is not unusual among her non-Jewish peers.
"I have many students" at classes she teaches at her alma mater, the University of Lodz, learning about the ghetto. "Ninety percent, ninety-five percent are not Jewish.
"Many young Poles are interested. They want to know the traditions, the history, the religion."
Robert Shapiro, assistant professor of Judaic studies at Brooklyn College, calls that "a positive sign."
"There are people in many [Polish] cities over the last decades who are trying to capture what was a lost history," he said. "It’s always good to know that there are people who are interested in the world around them, even people who aren’t around them physically."
Shapiro has known Podolska for four years, since she attended a seminar about the Lodz Ghetto he led at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. "She’s a good human being," he said.
Podolska, a doctoral student at the University of Lodz, will go to Israel next month for more interviews with survivors.
In June, the City Council of Lodz will sponsor a ceremony marking 200 years of Jewish life there with concerts, seminars and other events.
For that, Podolska said, "I will be there, of course."