I am a teacher at the Economic Technical Secondary School in Kalisz; I teach Polish and also work in the library. I have been a friend of Centropa for many years – it is an institution that very effectively supports teachers in teaching about the Holocaust and fighting prejudice and discrimination. I have participated in trainings, and seminars for teachers. After Centropa had equipped me with useful materials about Jewish history and the Holocaust, and about the significance of Jewish cemeteries, its most recent “HerStories” project, which Centropa developed in partnership with Galicia Jewish Museum and four other partners from all over Europe, enabled me to address to my students the specific issue of the presence of women in the pages of history. 

Significance of the HerStories project

I got involved in the HerStories project because the roles and representations of women have always been important in my work. I have pursued these issues before. I am a mother of 15-year-old girls. I would like my daughters and my students to grow up in a world of equal opportunities, and to change this world. But first of all, young girls need to be equipped with tools, to be taught soft skills, to find their strength within themselves.

During the seminar for teachers from Poland and Ukraine (“HerStories - Biographies of European Jewish Women” at Galicia Jewish Museum), I became aware of how intricate and complicated the fate of Jewish women was. They were discriminated against because of their gender as well as their origin. Dr. Edyta Gawron talked about the presence, or rather the absence, of women in Jewish history, using the example of Krakow. It is only by following these few biographies, scant traces, and rare memories, that it can be confirmed that out of 81 published biographies of Krakow's Jews, as many as three are portraits of women. They rarely appear on the pages of history. If they do, it is always in the company of a man – as someone's daughters, as someone's wives or widows, and finally as mothers – their place in history being a result of kinship. These roles were the only ones that defined the women of the time; this was the only way to exist in the male world.

The November 2023 seminar in Krakow was linked to preparatory work on the exhibition “HerStories. In the Footsteps of European Jewish Women” and ongoing work on online resources within this project. This collection of biographies of seven Jewish women from Germany, Poland, Greece, Spain, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic presents the intricate aspects of Jewish history in Europe. Looking at the photographs of the few women recorded in history, standing out from the crowd of nameless sisters, makes me want even more to grasp their fates, to extract the facts, to save them from oblivion. I am fascinated by women who are resolute, who are self-determining, who boldly look to the future, and who change the world. All my areas of interest are intertwined like a Shabbat challah.

Previous experiences: working with Centropa materials and the role of youth competitions

I would like to briefly outline how I have used the content presented by Centropa in my daily teaching work. Every day, I try to sensitize pupils to multicultural local history, fight prejudice, and motivate them to broaden their horizons. Sometimes this arouses enthusiasm among the students, but often is also met with indifference. But the indifference of the teachers is much worse.

A few years ago, I led a pedagogical innovation at my school entitled “We Are United by Memory - from Kalisz to Jerusalem.” The innovation consisted of three thematic blocks:

  • Jewish culture - religion, tradition, and history

  • The Holocaust - broadening knowledge of the mass murder of the Jewish people during the Second World War

  • Tolerance versus antisemitism

The aim of this teaching innovation was to familiarize students with the history of the Jewish minority in Kalisz, to learn about their culture, art, and customs, and thus to combat stereotypes both on the levels of thinking and feeling. The innovation was intended to broaden students’ knowledge of the Holocaust. It was dedicated to pupils who were interested in the cultural values of the local and regional community and historical topics. The implementation of this educational project was intended to foster the development of students as active, open-minded, sensitive individuals who are prepared to live in a multicultural society, and who have historical knowledge and can use this knowledge in their lives. The use of such innovations will make students aware of the cultural diversity of Kalisz, and allow them to learn about the traditions and history of the Jewish people.

The final part of the educational activities was working with students to prepare competition films. Two groups participated in the Centropa film competition for students from the Visegrad countries (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Czech Republic). The students prepared films in thematic categories:

  • Local history - the history of the Jewish community in a specific locality. Two of my students presented the fate of the Jewish community in Kalisz in the form of TV news. Their work was honored. 

  • Individual fate - a biography of a selected person of Jewish origin. Three students prepared a film about the Kalisz-born sculptor Alina Szapocznikow. The girls took second place and received a valuable prize - a voucher for electronic equipment.

This was my first herstory project. At the time I wasn't aware that it was called that. We were simply enthralled by this woman – an artist, a very sensitive person, a little crazy, wanting to enjoy life. We read her letters with blazes on our faces – stories of love intertwined with the worries of everyday life. We fell in love with “our Alinka”. This love, fascination, and admiration resulted in the pupils presenting their competition film several times and talking about the artist in an art gallery in Kalisz. 

In recognition of their hard work, the students were invited by Centropa to an award gala in Budapest. The gala took place in May 2018 at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest. Not only were there participants from Poland, but also from the other Visegrad Group countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary). During the event, prizes were awarded and the results of the competition were announced. Those gathered were welcomed by the Hungarian ambassador, the Slovak ambassador, the head of the Polish Institute in Budapest, and Centropa founder and director Edward Serotta.

Centropa youth competition award ceremony in Budapest, 2018.

The implementation of pedagogical innovation has come to an end, but the topic is so important that I couldn't stop my activities on shaping cultural openness and tolerance. Everything I do from now on is the aftermath of this innovation.

Unfortunately, many students still use stereotypes in their perception of the world and reproduce verbal clichés. Sadly, it is becoming more and more difficult to find people willing to carry out planned activities, excursions, lectures, and meetings. Students mindlessly repeat what they hear in the media and at home. I hope that thanks to appropriately selected tasks and experiences, pupils will be able to free themselves from stereotypes, eliminate xenophobia and aggression, and learn to take advantage of the richness that diversity brings.

Local activism, herstories, and empowerment of girls

At some point I realized and fully understood that in many parts of the world, women are still discriminated against in so many different ways, based on their gender. After reviewing history, literature, and culture textbooks, it appears that women occupy a marginal place. Researching the presence of women in history saddened me. Using sources and literary texts, I searched with my students for biographies of women who inspire in some way. The longer I looked at women's biographies, the more I realized that it was much harder for them to succeed in areas usually attributed to men. Perhaps the hardest part was breaking through the resistance of people's prejudices and stereotypes. We still see the tendency to objectify and infantilize women in many environments.  If they were pioneers, why do we know so little about them?

And I have tried to answer these questions together with my students by implementing another pedagogical innovation entitled “I, a woman”. The innovation consisted of thematic blocks:

  • psychological and empowerment workshops, workshops on the search for one's personality

  • women in politics

  • herstory activities – portraits of women changing and influencing the world around them

  • health – prevention of women's diseases

The main aim was to strengthen the intellectual and creative potential of adolescent girls who, as national and international studies show, experience a sharp decline in self-acceptance and self-confidence at this stage of their lives, withdrawing from activities in the areas of science, new technologies and sports, and from the roles associated with being a group leader.

I wanted to support girls in building a positive self-image and acceptance of diversity in other people's appearance; to impart knowledge and sensitize girls to oppressive and discriminatory mechanisms regarding the image of femininity in media and – more broadly – in culture, to impart knowledge and inspire girls with biographies and achievements of prominent female figures in history and the present; reinforce motivation and courage to take on responsibilities, different roles and functions and achievements in the fields of science, (new) technologies, arts and sports, and shape attitudes of equality.

I have been implementing an empowerment innovation for girls at my school at the same time as being a member of the Kalisz Women's Council for three years. The Council includes eleven representatives from various backgrounds.  The formation of community councils is a sign of shared responsibility for the affairs of the city and its inhabitants. We are united by creative projects and initiatives. 

For the past three years, we have been inviting students to take part in the competition “Where Have the Superheroines Gone”? Participants in the competition have to look at biographies of women and choose among them the one that inspires the most. Using sources and literary texts, they find a biography of a woman who deserves to be remembered (e.g. one who is not taught at school, who was not appreciated, but whose life or choices inspire). The students should present her biography, her achievements or innovations, and explain what they have in common with the chosen character. The participants are free to choose how they present the story: it can be a poster, a literary text, a short film, or a multimedia presentation. They are also supposed to get into character, take a photo, and present the words that the Superheroine might say to the youngsters. They choose either a sentence spoken by the heroine, an aphorism, or they simply formulate a central thought that would be a message to other girls. 

When the messages of our female ancestors resound, we will realize that we too are doing something important! Taking on the role of a Superheroine, preparing a costume, and props, finding characteristics, and looking for some common truth that connects with this person – these types of activities inspire, motivate, and encourage further development. Women’s stories from the past become signposts for life. Each time, I encourage the students from my school who take part in a competition to look into the biographies of the Jewish women of Kalisz.

HerStories Youth Competition – stages, motivation, and support

In my educational work, I often motivate male and female students to participate in all kinds of competitions and contests. I have noticed that my students more often engage in different activities and are more likely to absorb new knowledge in the hope of success. Without the vision of a reward, most of them do not undertake the activity at all… (o tempora, o mores!) And I am grateful that various institutions and organizations prepare a wide range of such activities; annual competitions organized by Centropa and Galicia Jewish Museum are truly valuable. 

I was delighted to find out that the HerStories consortium organized a youth competition in the framework of this project. It meant that my students would have to find and select a story of a person who had made their mark on the city's history with their achievements. Or perhaps one who had not made it, who has been forgotten, who has faded from the collective memory, and needs to be brought back and remembered.

Recording voiceover for the new film submitted in HerStories youth competition. Kalisz, 2024.

Preparing the students to participate in such programs and creating the competition entries is always a broad educational project in itself. The very selection of the topics and coming up with a story that remains in line with the competition subject involves many hours of discussions with students – if we choose one thing, another one has to be discarded. In this way, I smuggle in a lot of content and knowledge. And I often try to make Jewish women the protagonists of the works. HerStory is a graceful subject to work on, but also very important, and very complex. 

What characterizes our works is that they are always strongly anchored in historical sources. We base everything on documents, files, photographs, and witness’ accounts. We always start our research with a visit to the State Archives and the Kalisz Museum. The archivists and librarians at the Jewish Historical Institute also provide great help. We often go to the places we want to talk about. We search for photographs of old Kalisz and find sites that are important to us. These unique illustrations of bygone realities help students to understand and relate to the fate of the people for whom they provide the background and context. Sometimes we have the opportunity to contact the living family of our protagonist and also from them, we acquire photographs, family albums, documents, and stories.

We approach Internet sources with a great deal of precaution and verify all information as far as possible. Centropa's online collections are an extremely valuable source and they often guide our research. And here I'll let you in on a secret of mine – I always start my work with students by watching the film about Tosia Silbering. Using this example, I show how to weave photos into a story, how to build a narrative, how to leave out certain facts when there is excess information; and how to present individual fates against the background of historical events important for the whole community.

It might seem that we are presenting the fate of one family, but the fate of entire Jewish generations is playing out in the background. Often, in the process, students learn about Jewish traditions, religion, customs, music, and culture. 

I always work with my students. I motivate them and show them ways to explore while learning a lot myself. At the same time, I explain social phenomena, explain the world, and fight prejudice. I educate them. 

Often I have to fight against their indifference, their straw enthusiasm, and their over-inflated promises. Sometimes it causes a lot of nerves because I am emotionally engaged: because I love my job, and I love my students.

Becoming a YouTuber?

At some point, I realized that over the last few years, I have made many films together with my students. They deal with the history of our town, they present important figures from the perspective of local history. Many of the film portraits are of people who were little known, lost somewhere in the whirlwind of time. I decided to collect all these films and set up a channel on YouTube. Yes, I am a YouTuber…

You can see the course of my work, and my fascinations; the fate of Kalisz residents is focused there like in a lens. Out of 34 videos on various subjects, six are portraits of women. So close to my heart. Other films mostly present important places in the old space of the city – the synagogue, and the Jewish cemetery. 

The students involved in the projects have real satisfaction, seeing that their work is appreciated, preserved, and shared.

And here comes a bitter reflection - I do all this after my working hours, in my so-called free time. And, of course, nobody rewards me for it. In Polish schools, there are no systemic solutions to develop passion in students, to teach attitudes and values. Everything is based on passionate teachers and activists... and these are becoming fewer and fewer.


Izabella Galuba-Bryja

Polish teacher at the Economic Technical Secondary School in Kalisz, Poland