Johns Hopkins Gazette: August 21, 1995

On Faculty: Democracy And Anti-Semitism Occupy David In Poland

Steve Libowitz

     No. 9 Rinick was the last home of Steven David's 80-year-old
uncle before he left Poland forever in 1920. But his uncle
couldn't remember what city his house had been in. When David,
professor and chair of the Department of Political Science,
visited Poland last month as part of a teaching project, he
inquired about the street address only to learn that nearly every
city in Poland has a Rinick, which means "town square." 

     So on a side trip to Warsaw, David snapped a shot of the
house at that address. For someone who had come to Poland as a
teacher, it was a poignant lesson that a vibrant Jewish community
had once existed in Poland, but now it seemed everyone had
largely forgotten where it was.

     David was one of 10 U.S. and British  faculty members who
traveled to the tiny village of Mierki--a resort about 150 mile
north of Warsaw used at one time by the communist elite--to help
teach a crash curriculum on democracy. The ongoing program,
funded by the Ford Foundation and the Batory Foundation, provides
students from Eastern Europe an alternative to Marxism, which
they now reject. At Mierki more than 150 graduate students and
low-level government officials were exposed to basic
international relations, security issues, political theory and
democratization. David, who taught a course on international
political economy and one on institutions, presented the material
in much the same way he does to his Hopkins students but it was
received somewhat differently.

     "They were taken aback because I gave them conflicting
approaches to the material and didn't tell them that any one of
them was the right one or which one I believe in," he says.
"They've always been told what to think."

     The classes were all in English, which was the common
language of the participants attending from a dozen or more
European countries. But David admits his humor did not translate
so well.

     "If a student came in late, as they walked in I'd say '...or
you will fail,'" he laughs. "And they'd have this look of sheer
panic on their face and ask the other students, 'What'd he say?'
They just weren't used to their teachers joking around.

     "One of the refreshing aspects about this experience was
that these students represented countries actually facing the
questions we raised theoretically," he says. "For example,
there's a big debate in political science about the value of
institutions in international politics. 

     When we discussed whether a country should put its trust in
institutions like the United Nations or NATO or in its own power,
my Croatian student was quite clear that putting faith in
institutions has failed the Bosnian Muslims. These issues were
very much alive in the minds of the students."

     Although David taught 12 hours per week, his visit was not
all work. 

     "It was like a summer camp," David says of his stay in the
Lake District, with its cool winds blowing off the Baltic Sea.
"We lived in quite rustic conditions, and we ate and played
together (Eastern Europeans are very dynamic volleyball players,
he says). It's hard to say what our impact was, but I enjoyed the

     But the pleasure he derived in the world of his classroom
was overshadowed by the reality of the world outside it.
Like many American Jews, David's family came from Poland, which
once supported a community of three and a half million Jews. Most
of that population, and many members of his own family, were
wiped out in the Holocaust.

     Part of what motivated David to make the trip to Poland was
his interest in what has become of the Jewish community, now
numbering only about 2,000.

     David took the opportunity to have many frank discussions
with students and government people about the anti-Semitism that
persists in Poland today.

     One thing that deeply disturbs and depresses David is the
extent to which Jews are still blamed for many of Poland's
problems. "Jews are barely here, yet they are still perceived as
the problem," he says.

     That the Jewish community is all but nonexistent in Poland
is David's other great sadness. 

     "It's one thing to read about the destruction of the Jewish
people there, but it is quite another thing to see it," he says.
David had two particularly painful experiences. He attended a
Friday night Sabbath service in a synagogue in Warsaw--most
likely, he says, one of the only synagogues remaining in the
country--and no more than six or seven men were present. There
was no Jewish star to mark the building.

     He then visited a Hebrew cemetary in Lodz that had tens of
thousands of graves.

     "The grass was higher than me," he says. "It really brought
home that once there was this community, and now it's gone. And
no one seemed to care.

     "That's the thing I tried to express to the Poles. Poland,
its culture and history and the state, has changed, but it still
exists. Jewish life in Poland, though, is gone forever. 

     "I appreciated the chance to visit Poland, but I left with a
profound sadness."

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