Philip Earl Steele: Reverend Ćwierz, Edward – you are the pastor of the “Wieczernik” (The Upper Room) Christian Church in the Polish city of Kielce, and the Honorary Pastor of the “Namiot Dawida” (Tent of David) Church in Warsaw. And that is by no means your only role. In recent years you’ve been dynamically extending an ever larger umbrella over organizations and groups of Christians – especially Evangelicals – working for Polish-Jewish and, above all, Polish-Israeli reconciliation. The term “Christian Zionism”, commonly used in the USA, describes therefore an increasingly important slice of reality in Poland, too. Nevertheless, we in Poland still know too little about it. What exactly is Christian Zionism?
Edward Ćwierz: True, “Christian Zionism” is not a widely known term in Poland. I heard it for the first time from you when we met a few years ago! However, I like the term because it faithfully reflects what I and many people in Poland do. The “umbrella” you mention is not a formalized structure. Rather the Fundacja Pojednania (Foundation for Reconciliation) that I run is a platform, a meeting place for people who share the same values. The best image of Christian Zionism is that of a mountain we are all climbing. Ascending up one slope towards the summit are the Jews, and on the other slope are we Christians. One day we will meet and be fully united. The Church is discovering that without the Jews, it will not enter into the fullness of God’s plan. This is absolutely a case of God’s work in our hearts. It’s not only a turning away from antisemitism, but also pro-active support for those whom God has chosen.
As Christian Zionists we are first and foremost inspired by the Bible. In the Bible we rediscover what has always been: that Israel is God’s people who have now returned to their land – and that our relationship with Israel shapes our own future. Many of us, including myself, have rediscovered the plain Biblical truth that the Jewish people remain “the apple of God’s eye”. As Zechariah 2:8(12) says: “Whoever touches you touches the apple of my eye”. And that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”, Romans 11:29. These and many other promises from God to Israel inspire us to work through the difficult history of Polish antisemitism and rebuild Polish-Israeli relations. We are striving to help fulfill God’s original plan, that the centuries-old walls of hostility between Jews and non-Jews be torn down.
P.E.S.: What exactly then do you do as a Christian Zionist?
E.Ć.: The cornerstone of what we do was laid with our first journeys to Israel, and especially an encounter there with Jews from our own Kielce – people who survived the Holocaust and the pogrom of 1946. They told us of the pain they had been carrying with them for long years because of how they had been treated by Poles, just because they were Jews. I thank God for allowing us to embrace their pain then. That encounter opened the door for us to people in Israel. And Israel, that means people. So when we talk about supporting Israel, we mean people, not politics. And so the doors opened to guides and high-school students from Israel who travel to Poland as part of their history lessons. We are then privileged to stand before them in truth, not hiding our Polish guilt. The fact that someone on the Polish side takes responsibility for the thorny past has an extremely positive impact on the Israeli students. It’s always a very emotional experience for us all. We estimate we’ve managed to touch the hearts of about 20,000 young Israelis in this way.
In time, we took to the streets. In 2016, the first March of Support for Israel was held in Warsaw. In the following years, the March of Life took place in several cities here in Poland – in Kielce, Warsaw, Łódź, Wrocław, and Gdańsk. During the pandemic, such public activity came to a halt, but our online activity intensified. These marches, along with other efforts, are our public expression of solidarity with the Jewish people and of our opposition to today’s antisemitism. Since 2018 we have been organizing in Kielce a three-day festival “Cymes in Kielce, in the footsteps of Jewish culture”. It’s very popular among both locals and our guests from Israel. This year’s edition will start right away – on June 25. I cordially invite you all! In addition, we conduct seminars and conferences on Israel in various Evangelical churches.
P.E.S.: The Christian Zionism movement has a rising profile in our part of Europe, in part thanks to international cooperation. I know, for example, that you are working closely with Pastor Jobst Bittner in Germany, that you are building ties in Hungary – and above all with Israel. Please describe for us to this network of connections and your shared aspirations.
E.Ć.: We have many friends among Israeli guides and teachers who visit the memorial sites in Poland together with young Israelis. With some we feel like family. These ties have in no way been strained by the recent turmoil in political relations between Poland and Israel. For the past 9 years we’ve been working very closely with the March of Life Movement, whose founder and director is Pastor Jobst Bittner from Tübingen, Germany. At the moment, trifold cooperation appears to be strategic: Israel-Poland-Germany. We build bridges of reconciliation between Germans and Poles by working through the tragic history of World War II. It’s very much a task in progress as we try to put into practice the still-ringing words of Polish bishops to their German counterparts in 1965: “We forgive and ask for forgiveness”. Both in Poland and in Germany we have discovered a challenge that I can define as: “Poland and Germany reconciled, together for Israel”.
I have a friend who lives in Israel and is the ambassador of our foundation there. Igal is really excited to see Poles and Germans standing together for Israel. As are many others! It’s just so moving, especially when we bear in mind the havoc the war wreaked in our neighborly relations. Igal says: “It’s a miracle!” – and I agree with him. It’s the miracle of reconciliation. In that vein let me add that in the summer of 2015 we organized a week-long Polish-German holiday camp in central Poland under the banner, “The Miracle of Reconciliation”. It gathered 250 people from Germany and 300 from Poland. Other milestones include such joint meetings as the Polish-German Friendship Conference in Tübingen in 2014, which 140 people from Poland attended. We all stayed in German homes where we enjoyed a royal welcome. God has allowed us to create together what I can call a “sanctuary of reconciliation”.
I’d use that same expression when describing the Polish-German Friendship Conference we held at the overlap of August and September, 2019 in Gdańsk. There at the Shakespeare Theater, 200 people from Poland and 200 from Germany humbled themselves before each other. The real gem at the conference was that we hosted several people from Israel. True reconciliation occurs when there is confession, repentance, and forgiveness – this is the key. And it happens on a personal level. It’s your own decision.
It’s furthermore important that we are also together in Israel. In 2018, the March of the Nations, organized by our friends from Tübingen, was held for the first time in Jerusalem. Apart from the Germans, the group from Poland was the largest contingent at the event. Among 6,000 participants from 50 countries, Poles constituted 10%. That really made me happy!
P.E.S.: The annual convention in Kielce at the beginning of 2019 was attended by the Israeli ambassador, Anna Azari – as well as Tomas Sandell from Finland, president of the “European Coalition for Israel”, the important pro-Israel, Christian organization that operates primarily in elite bodies of the EU and the UN.
E.Ć.: That’s right. Madame Ambassador and Tomas Sandell responded to our invitations and attended our annual meeting for leaders of organizations building bridges with Israel. I’m grateful to Mr. Sandell for his help in writing a petition to the Polish government calling for the relocation of the Polish embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. We submitted the petition to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in April 2019.
P.E.S.: Your public ministry did not in fact begin with Israel, but rather with Jews – specifically, with the tragic pogrom that took place in Kielce a year after the end of WWII. What did your efforts in this matter look like?
E.Ć.: This is an amazing story of reconciliation. One that unfolded “from death to life”. Kielce wrote an infamous page in its history with the pogrom of Jews on July 4, 1946. I mentioned earlier that the first people I met in Israel were survivors of the War and that progrom. Maria Guterman was among them. She miraculously survived the Kielce pogrom, which she witnessed with her own eyes. It was a blessing to have met this lady. She harbored two extreme emotions: a love for Poland and, at the same time, a searing pain because of what she saw during the pogrom. But also from what she experienced from Poles more broadly. Pain inflicted in your own home hurts more than from an enemy from whom you don’t expect anything good, after all. Taking responsibility for the Kielce pogrom, we apologized to her for that cruel crime. In a flash she loved us like family. Her heart was comforted in the last years of her life. We took our young people from Poland to her home and she loved meeting them. Since her passing, we’ve maintained close ties with her family. This is our pastoral service. We continue to fulfill it toward the second and third generations after the Holocaust, too. I’ve mentioned our meetings with young Israelis at the Jewish cemetery in Kielce. They hail from the third generation after the Holocaust, and yet they often bear the same pain as their grandparents. The pain of being betrayed in your own home. I came to understood the Jewish pain over Polish sins against them when Ziuta Hartman, a woman from Kielce, told us in Israel: “The German soldier was ordered by Hitler to kill us Jews. But my neighbor denounced me to the Gestapo without having been forced to”. It’s precisely this pain we wish to embrace. We do this by listening to their stories and expressing our sincere apologies. It’s a great privilege and honor to be able to bring this kind of comfort. And we will go on doing so as long as we meet people who carry these wounds in their hearts. This is our ministry.
P.E.S.: It’s impossible not to wish for something similar to arise, for example, in the town of Jedwabne. I’m sure this is something close to your heart. What chances do you see for implementing Kielce “best practice” in a place like Jedwabne?
E.Ć.: Jedwabne is also a dark page in our history, further evidence that a nation of victims can sometimes be a nation of perpetrators. Just like in Kielce in 1946. The obvious key to Jedwabne is that of people ready to face a painful past that does not bring glory to our nation. Are there such people in Jedwabne? I really don’t know. As a pastor and a Christian, what I do know is that the key is to acknowledge our guilt without trying to blur responsibility with the suggestion that someone else goaded us to commit a crime. Even if that’s true, a crime is a crime and so we’re not absolved. So I’d also start a movement of contrition and seek out descendants of Jedwabne’s Jews in order to humble myself before them. Not because I myself committed the crime and am guilty. But rather because I take responsibility for my country’s past. I flash on the many whose hearts have been touched, whose wounds have been healed – and whom we’ve made friends of today’s Poland. Let me put it bluntly. We’ve discovered over the years that education, cultivation of memory – ever so necessary as it is! – simply does not change people’s hearts. Look at antisemitism’s revival! But humbling oneself, repentance, and forgiveness do change people’s hearts and rebuild broken ties. This approach bears the fruit of lasting reconciliation. But this won’t be done by politicians or historians. It’s for the Church to do.
P.E.S.: The pandemic interrupted the annual convention of Christian Zionists that you’ve organized in Kielce since 2017. This has no doubt given time for reflection, for setting new priorities. What does the pro-Israel, Christian movement you lead intend to achieve in the upcoming years?
E.Ć.: Our dream is of course that an understanding will grow in Poland of how important it is to stand in solidarity with Israel. Because the God of Israel calls us to this in His word. And also on behalf of the welfare of our own nation. For we believe that the promise made to Abraham – “I will bless those who bless you” from Genesis 12: 1-3 – remains valid. I pray that Christ’s Church will be illumined, and I pray that God’s heart will be revealed to Israel. Also, that politicians will have the courage to make just decisions that are not against Israel. Following the recent attacks by Hamas terrorists on Israel, some media, international organizations, and much of the public turned against Israel. This unwarranted reaction has been very painful for me.
But looking ahead, the Israeli youth tours should resume next year. So we’ll again be meeting with them. We’ll probably also return to regular Marches of Life, for instance in Warsaw. Marches of Life are also planned in seven cities in Israel in 2022. Poland will be responsible for conducting one of the seven. We are also in close touch with national March of Life coordinators in over 20 countries. We meet once a year in Germany, in Tübingen – and probably in early 2022 the next such meeting will take place.
Philip Earl Steele
Historian, editor, former lecturer at the University of Warsaw. Author of the book The Conversion and Baptism of Mieszko I and many papers, especially ones on religious studies, published in Poland, Israel, the Czech Republic, the US and the UK. His Polish-language book entitled Israel and Evangelical Christians: “A Match Made in Heaven” will be published soon.