Danny Kraft: Interreligious Dialogue in Poland

October 26, 2017
DK

HDS is known to take interfaith dialogue very seriously. But what happens when that dialogue leaves the classroom? How does it work in the context of the “real world”—where faith is lived in addition to studied—and where trauma is a matter of experience, not just an object for discursive, intellectual analysis?

These are a few of the questions that motivated HDS student Danny Kraft, MTS ’18, to spend his summer pursuing a Greeley International Internship at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, Poland. 

The Center for the Study of World Religions’ Greeley Internship honors the Rev. Dana McLean Greeley, SB ’31, STB ’33, who believed that people of all backgrounds and faiths are deeply connected to one another and should work together for positive social change. In Kraft’s case, that took the form of “interreligious education”—particularly, the kind of education that might take place in the post-Holocaust context, in a place that suffered directly from the atrocities of the Jewish genocide.

Kraft recently spoke about this experience and how it inflected his understanding of interreligious dialogue.

HDS: Tell us what a typical day was like working at the Jewish Museum? What sort of work did you do?

Danny Kraft: Every day at the Galicia Jewish Museum I led educational programs, but otherwise, not much was typical. Two new exhibits opened while I was at the museum, and I was heavily involved in writing and editing the English materials for them. I also created and led an anti-discrimination workshop for groups of Polish, Italian, and Bulgarian university students, and led workshops on “morality and decision-making during the Holocaust” for a range of American and German students and educators. But in addition to these projects, at a small organization like this museum, departments are fluid, and everybody fills in wherever there's a need.

On two occasions, for example, I found myself helping to implement major public events: I handed flowers to Polish rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust at a ceremony honoring them, and I helped to facilitate an awards ceremony that honored Poles who are working today to commemorate their small towns' Jewish heritage.

HDS: What were your favorite things about being in Poland? Did your experience living there affect your work?

DK: I'll miss a lot about Poland in general and Krakow in particular. I think often about the gorgeous architecture of Krakow and about the wonderful and cheap bakeries and ice cream shops that were on almost every corner. I rode my bike to the museum every morning along the Vistula River, underneath the walls of Wawel castle, and I miss those casual experiences of daily beauty.

HDS: Were there any things that surprised you about working at the museum? Do you have any stories that crystalized your experiences there?

DK: I was most surprised by the large numbers of Polish and German tourists who came to the museum to learn about Poland's Jewish heritage. The political situations of both these countries are so fraught today, and it was inspiring to see average citizens committed to educating themselves about this painful past.

I was also surprised by the number of Jewish visitors who still felt they had "unfinished business" in Poland. I met an elderly Swedish-Jewish man, for example, whose mother was a Holocaust survivor, and who still returns to Poland every summer hoping to find information about the fates of his aunts and uncles, all of whom were murdered by the Nazis.

HDS: You’ve also worked as an educator in Oklahoma. How was your experience in Poland different? Were there perceptible dissimilarities in how your work was interpreted/received?

DK: Jewish education in Poland felt very different from Jewish education in Oklahoma. In Poland, there is such a rich heritage of Jewish life and Jewish death that many people already have deep-seated assumptions or feel strong personal connections to Jewish history.

Before the Holocaust, for example, Poland was 10 percent Jewish, but many major cities (including Warsaw and Krakow) could be around 35 percent Jewish, so many Poles today have grandparents or even parents who had intimate relationships with Jewish neighbors and who witnessed their Jewish neighbors deported to their deaths.

In Oklahoma, people tend to have assumptions about Jews based on their own Christian theologies, so there is no such sense of personal heritage or connection to Jewish history.

HDS: You’ve expressed concern about the “rise in anti-Semitism and reactionary nationalism taking place in Europe and North America.” Did you see any of that in your experience abroad? Was there anything about our current political moment that you felt informed your work?

DK: The rise in nationalism around the world absolutely contributed to the work that I was doing. When I led anti-discrimination workshops, for example, I was very explicit with participants that such discussions are particularly vital now, when anti-minority sentiment seems to be gaining mainstream acceptability. It was deeply jarring to be teaching about the Holocaust in a place where it was perpetrated, then to go home and read online about preparations for the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. That really drove home how high the stakes are for educating people about the history of fascism, racism, and genocide, and how easily ignorance can lead to violence.

HDS: Finally, you say that you’re interested, long-term, in interreligious dialogue. Has that plan changed at all since your work in Poland? Or been modified?

DK: I am still very interested in interreligious dialogue, but I have more questions about what successful dialogue looks like and how it can be implemented, especially in the aftermath of tremendous trauma.

It's easy to talk about dialogue at a place like HDS, but what does it look like to engage in dialogue in the shadow of an overwhelming death and destruction whose scars are unhealed and whose pain is still palpable? I have no easy answers about how to bring people together for reconciliation when their pain is still so great.

—by Will Walker