14 July 2009

Poland: Piecing together a Jewish past

The story of Poland's "hidden" Jewish children finding their ancestral roots and American Jews reconnecting with their Polish Jewish roots is the focus of this JTA story.

Like many children of Jews who grew up in Poland after World War II, Anna
Makowska-Kwapisiewicz was sheltered from her Jewish provenance for much of her life.

There were clues, of course. Her exotic dark eyes and hair occasionally drew remarks about her “Gypsy” or “Spanish” beauty. Her grandmother would constantly teach her the catechism so she could recite it “when they return.” And her grandfather told stories of hiding in the forest.

But it wasn’t until she repeated an anti-Semitic joke she heard in high school that her mother broke down and confessed that her father was, in fact, a Jew.

The news set Makowska-Kwapisiewicz on a path of discovery from Jewish study to ritual observance. Now she is a Jewish educator building a Jewish home and life -- complete with plans for Jewish schooling for her year-old daughter, Nina.

She's part of the Jewish awakening taking in Poland, where Poles, like amnesiacs, are trying to piece together a collective memory.

“We are so much interconnected,” the former president of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski, told JTA at a dinner in Warsaw. “I feel that part of my heritage is Jewish tradition,” he said, explaining that his grandmother lived in Vilnus, a heavily Jewish city, and she knew about Jewish dishes like cholent, the Sabbath stew.

If a Pole says “he has not one even drop of Jewish blood in this body,” then he is “not right,” Kwasniewski said.

A former Krakow bookstore owner, now a Polish literature doctoral student at the University of Chicago, Karen Underhill says Jews visiting Poland used to come by her shop seeking heritage information.

Some 75% of American Jews trace their roots to Greater Poland (Poland and parts of Ukraine, Austria and Hungary) says San Francisco philanthropist Tad Taube who is funding efforts to connect American Jews to Polish heritage.

A Krakow native, he says that “worship” of the Holocaust prompted Jews to foresake the 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland that preceded it, even though it was a “golden period” of Jewish life that gave rise to important religious and cultural development.

Some 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland before the war; more than 90% perished. Mixed heritage descendants of those who stayed in Poland are now reconnecting with Jewish roots and uncovering their unknown family history.

Taube is trying to create projects restoring Jewish pride in Poland, including the Museum of the History of Polish Jews (2011 opening), a new Krakow Jewish community center, Jewish heritage tours and the 19th annual Krakow Jewish Festival showcasing Jewish culture.

Read the complete article at the link above.

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