Helena Kosztyło

President of the Etz Chaim Foundation for Dialogue between Cultures, which aims to “promote the cultural and religious heritage of Jews in Poland and around the world”, as well as to promote “respect, tolerance and understanding for various nations and religions”. Since 2012, the Foundation has been managing a special educational institution: the Etz Chaim Private Primary School for Dialogue between Cultures in Wrocław.

She gained pedagogical education in the field of general pedagogy, rehabilitation and pedagogical counselling at the Institute of Special Education of the University of Lower Silesia in Wrocław. She is also a graduate of postgraduate studies at the University of Wrocław in the field of public administration, as well as organization and management of education. Helena Kosztyło-Kobiec is known for her social activities. In 2011, she co-created the project “Centre for the Support of Non-Governmental Organisations from the Wrocław agglomeration SECTOR3”. She is the Dialogue Ambassador in the team for intercultural dialogue of the Wrocław Centre for Social Development. By cultivating the Jewish heritage in Poland, it nurtures mutual contacts with Christians of different creeds and Muslims.

While searching for my life path, I realised very quickly that I wanted to do something socially important. Initially, I my idea was to work with the so-called difficult youth. I have always thought that a person we label “bad” is just unhappy, and needs help. The choice of pedagogical studies with the profile of rehabilitation and pedagogical counselling was dictated by this conviction. This is how my career began.

The key moment, however, was when I found my way to Żelazna 57 Street, where the so-called Jewish elementary school was located. I guess it was my destiny to have found this place. I believe that I am in the right place. When I got there, it was plunged in a deep crisis, and my son was about to start his first grade. At that time, most parents took their children from the school and transferred them to more stable institutions. I did the opposite – speaking grandiloquently – I decided to save whatever I could. Together with several other parents, we established the Etz Chaim Foundation for Dialogue between Cultures, which, in consultation with the Union of Jewish Communities in the Republic of Poland, became the governing body of the Jewish school in Wrocław. Before the agreement was reached with the Jewish Community and the building in Żelazna Street, I had to prepare the recovery plan, as well as the concept of how to run the institution. In this way, I moved from difficult youth to difficult Polish-Jewish relations.

While searching for my life path, I realised very quickly that I wanted to do something socially important. Initially, I my idea was to work with the so-called difficult youth. I have always thought that a person we label “bad” is just unhappy, and needs help. The choice of pedagogical studies with the profile of rehabilitation and pedagogical counselling was dictated by this conviction. This is how my career began.

My concept was that in order to get back financially, the school had to open up to other communities. Without “non-Jewish” students, we had no chance of success. We started our activity with 30 students and slowly, step by step, we built our brand of an institution open to multiculturalism and diversity, respecting each student regardless of origin, religion or nationality. In accordance with the statutory assumptions, the Etz Chaim School Complex is an open, secular educational institution, operating across political divisions, and its key goal is to conduct educational and cultural activities, primarily related to popularising the achievements of various cultures, promoting the multicultural and multi-ethnic heritage of the City of Wrocław, with particular emphasis on the Jewish culture – as emphasized in the statute – and promoting the idea of tolerance and counteracting the manifestations of racism, xenophobia and disrespect for people of different world views, origins and culture.

The school carries out projects integrating and commemorating the Jewish community and promotes the Jewish culture and traditions by organising Jewish holidays on its premises and implementing its own program of teaching Jewish history and Hebrew. Two years ago, on the basis of our primary school, we launched the first Jewish Secondary School in Poland. My ambition was to restore Jewish education up to high school graduation in a building that is a monument to Jewish history in Żelazna Street.

Currently, 30 students study in our high school, and in addition to the program enriched with Jewish history and the Hebrew language with Jewish culture, students learn the secrets of diplomacy in international relations, in line with the profile of our institution. We want to make it easier for them to move around the world and find themselves in various difficult interpersonal relationships. It is worth remembering that before the war, then German Wrocław (formerly Breslau) was, next to Berlin and Königsberg, one of the three main centres of the Haskalah – Jewish Enlightenment movement, which assumed the reform of religious worship and supplementing traditional religious education with secular elements. Such was also the case of the gymnasium at 3 Rehdigerplatz (Żelazna 57) at that time, emphasising the cultural rapprochement between Jews and Christians. Our Jewish school in Żelazna Street continues an earlier tradition of a place where Jewish students could study before all Jewish schools in Breslau were finally closed and Jewish education was forbidden. The Etz Chaim school is located in the building related to the history of Jewish education, filled with great emotions and history.

In September 2021, we will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the facility. What is the balance of these 10 years? In the current school year, we have nearly 170 students. We have appeared on the educational map of Wrocław in a relatively short time, we are also a recognisable, reputable institution listed in the rankings of the best schools in Wrocław.

This is a unique school and I am proud of it to be my child.