2017 Irena Sendler Memorial Awards presented to Stefan Wilkanowicz and Bogdan Białek

July 11, 2017 

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2017 Irena Sendler Memorial Awards presented to Stefan Wilkanowicz and Bogdan Białek


Shana Penn (Executive Director, Taube Philanthropies) presented the 2017 Irena Sendler Memorial Awards to co-recipients Stefan Wilkanowicz (T) and Bogdan Białek (B).


KRAKOW – The 2017 Irena Sendler Memorial Awards were presented to Stefan Wilkanowicz and Bogdan Białek at a ceremony at the Kraków Jewish Culture Festival on June 30 in the Tempel Synagogue. Named for the Polish social worker who saved hundreds of Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation, the Irena Sendler Memorial Awards honor Polish citizens committed to strengthening Polish-Jewish relations and preserving Polish Jewish heritage and Holocaust memory. The awards were presented by Taube Philanthropies Executive Director, Shana Penn.

On receiving his award, Bodgan Białek said: "The Irena Sendler Award is mainly an opportunity to stress her first and most important message: 'People should not be divided into good and bad, race, origin, religion, education, wealth. The only thing that matters is what kind of human being you are,' and 'Lend a helping hand to anyone drowning!' Anyone who wants to pay homage to Irena Sendler should take her words as a personal commitment. The Irena Sendler Award obliges me to remember these supreme ideals."

On receiving his award, Stefan Wilkanowicz, supported by his grandson and assistant, read aloud his letter to Irena Sendler: "Dear Irena, News of having won this prize brought me great happiness, while, at the same time, I see that I am not worthy of it. I believe the prize is very important given the current state of world affairs, which require greater dialogue and cooperation in various fields. Our world is threatened with disaster, but the example of your life brings hope that, gradually at least, conflicts can be overcome. I feel undeserving of the prize awarded to me, while also seeing the tasks that appear before me, here on earth and in heaven. I will think about them. May this prize bring on a new set of tasks and raise awareness of the need for a spiritual revolution in our world."

The ceremony preceded the Annual Jan Kulczyk Memorial Concert honoring Dr. Jan Kulczyk (1950-2015), who was recognized with the Irena Sendler Memorial award posthumously in 2015. Dominika Kulczyk, daughter of Dr. Kulczyk, gave remarks about the importance of Polish Jewish relations to her father. The concert featured Moroccan-Israeli singer-artist Neta Elkayam.


Dominika Kulczyk, photo: Michał Ramus


About the 2017 Irena Sendler Memorial Award Recipients: 

Stefan Wilkanowicz, author, editor, educator, and Catholic leader, was a journalist for the Catholic liberal weekly magazine Tygodnik Powszechny, Poland's longest-running independent journal since the end of WWII, and served as editor-in-chief of the monthly Znak. He also was a prominent member of the Znak association of lay Catholics. During Communist Party leader Władysław Gomułka's anti-Semitic and anti-intelligentsia political campaign in March 1968, Znak was the only political organization in the Polish Parliament (Sejm) to protest against the campaign's human rights violations. Under Wilkanowicz's leadership, Znak was the first monthly to publish, in the 1980s, an entire issue dedicated to Polish-Jewish relations.

Now 93, Wilkanowicz has tirelessly and consistently played a pivotal role for more than half a century in nurturing Polish-Jewish dialogue and Holocaust memory. He helped establish the Catholic Intelligentsia Club (KIK) in the 1950s, served as vice chairman of the International Auschwitz Council, and was chairman of the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust. He also was editor of the online magazine the Forum of Jews, Christians and Muslims. In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI honored him with the John Paul II Award for human rights.

When psychologist Bogdan Białek first came to Kielce in 1978, the story of the 1946 pogrom had been suppressed and denied for years, both by residents and by Poland's Communist government. After the opening of Poland to democracy in 1989, Białek began to envision a public event that could serve as an educational platform to create an atmosphere of healing and acceptance of the civilian violence against their Jewish neighbors, in which 42 people were murdered and another 40 wounded. Today, after 17 ceremonies of acknowledgement and remembrance, true change has taken place in Kielce.


At the 17th Annual Ceremony of Acknowledgement and Commemoration at Kielce, July 4, 2017. B: Bogdan Białek. Photos: Maria Tajchman


To sustain these changes, Białek established the Jan Karski Society and Institute for Culture, Meetings and Dialogue (Instytut Kultury, Spotkania i Dialogu) at a historically infamous address, Planty 7, formerly a house where anti-Jewish violence took place in 1946. Białek and his brother raised private funds to erect sculptures and memorial plaques in Kielce to commemorate the Jewish past. Białek also serves as president of the Jan Karski Association, which engages the inhabitants of Kielce in Polish-Jewish dialogue. Białek is also part of many councils encouraging dialogue between Polish Christians and Jews. In 1994, he founded the first museum commemorating victims of totalitarianism, the Museum of National Remembrance in Kielce.

Białek's efforts have not gone unnoticed. In May, a documentary about his work, Bogdan's Journey, celebrated its world premiere in Warsaw and has been shown to wide acclaim at film festivals in the United States and Europe. As the film's co-directors – a Jewish American and a Catholic Pole – explain, "For Bogdan Białek, a Catholic Pole, anti-Semitism is a sin. This conviction is the animating force of his life. Conflict over the pogrom was still a festering wound when Białek moved to Kielce in the late 70s. He was shocked by the poisoned atmosphere of his new town. Trained as a psychologist, he has made it his life's work both to persuade people to embrace their past and to reconnect the city with the international Jewish community."

Białek is a published author who serves as editor-in-chief of the psychology magazine Charaktery.

For more information about the Award and Past Awardees:  http://nagrodairenysendlerowej.pl/

About Taube Philanthropies: 

Taube Philanthropies was established in 1981 by its founder and chairman, Tad Taube. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, the foundation makes philanthropic investments in Jewish, civic, and cultural life primarily in the Bay Area, Poland, and Israel. Its grant making programs support institution-building, scholarship, heritage preservation, arts and culture, and education. Taube Philanthropies is committed to collaborative grant making for greater charitable impact and actively partners with other philanthropic organizations and individuals. taubephilanthropies.org