29 July 2008

Poland: Young people making connections

During the Holocaust - often right before their towns were liquidated or the Jewish population was transported to their deaths - Jewish parents tried to save their infants and young children by entrusting them to non-Jewish families.

More than 90% of Polish Jewry perished in the Holocaust. Although some families who cared for these children tried to contact relatives in other countries - if they had such information - after the war, many did not. Many purposely forgot the children's origins and never told them about their Jewish families or roots.

Today, however, things are changing in Poland.

Jerusalem Post colleague Michael Freund is chair of Shavei Israel which is currently hosting 22 young Poles on a trip to Israel. All have learned they have Jewish roots and are attempting to learn more.

A story in the Jerusalem Post details their experience.

A group of 22 Polish youth who only recently discovered their Jewish roots arrived in Israel this week for a three-week-long Polish-language seminar in Jerusalem.

The seminar is being arranged by Shavei Israel, a non-profit organization which aims to strengthen ties between Israel and the descendants of Jews around the world. The participants will travel throughout Israel, study Hebrew daily and learn about Jewish history, culture and religion, as well as the history of the State of Israel.

"In Poland in recent years there has been this awakening taking place where more and more people are discovering their Jewish roots," Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, told The Jerusalem Post.

"Many Jews who survived the war and chose to remain in Poland , because of the persecution they faced, decided to hide their identity. Now that Poland has become a democracy and its society has begun to open up people feel freer to identify as Jews. We are seeing this incredible phenomenon of the hidden Jews of Poland emerging from the shadows."

A Shavei Israel emissary in Poland said, "Shavei Israel has the idea that people who have Jewish roots should receive an equal opportunity to decide whether they want to be Jewish or not. It is not their fault that they are not 'Jewish' in the sociological sense of being Jewish."

Each participant has a unique tale of their discovery and reconnection; not all have found it easy.

About a year and a half ago, Andrzej, one of the seminar's participants, found papers proving the Jewish heritage of his mother. She, like many other Jewish children, was given away as a baby to a non-Jewish Polish family during World War II. Andrzej has since become an observant Jew, keeping kosher and observing Shabbat.

"The irony and/or tragedy of it all is that Andrzej's mother is a believing Catholic while his father is even quite anti-Semitic," said Rapoport. "Andrzej therefore made it a secret to his own family that he was going to have a brit mila [circumcision]."

Another participant, Patryk Wolanowski, grew up in a Polish orphanage.

"His aunt once told him that his father was Jewish. That's all he knows," [But now he is] an active member of Jewish life in Wroclaw [Poland ]," said Rapoport.

While the goal of the program is to strengthen connections between descendants of Jews and the Jewish people, it could go further with DNA testing and actually find these young people's living relatives.

Some of these young people may be the relatives of Tracing the Tribe's readers and thus these connections could be made stronger as the descendants of these "hidden" children learn what really happened - if known - to their birth parents and help them connect with living relatives.

Personally, I would recommend each young person provide a DNA test to Family Tree DNA. The results may reconnect them to their actual birth families and relatives, making the bond even stronger.

Do read the complete article at the link above.


  1. Family Tree DNA will help the males with "most common recent ancestor" thru the Y-DNA test. The female mtDNA test isn't likely to show much useful info due to low mutation rate. I don't think there is really a "Jewish" mtDNA profile, unlike a number of Jewish male Y-DNA profiles.

    That raises another point under halacha. The Rabbinate in Israel insists on the strict ruling that Judaism passes thru the maternal line.

    Women who can show they had a Jewish father, say by testing of a brother for Y-DNA or partial pre-war paperwork, aren't considered Jewish unless they convert and maintain strict orthodox observance from that point on.

  2. Hi, Peter.

    Thank you for writing.

    Family Tree DNA's extensive Jewish DNA databases have already linked other hidden children to their birth families, using both Y-DNA for males and mtDNA for females.

    The point is that a genetic match to known Jews in these databases provides a link to the birth families and thus by extension, the real names and family history of hidden children and their descendants.

    I fully understand the conversion issues, and my comments were not meant to discuss this sticky topic.

    In line with making connections, however, the possibility of discovering these individuals' true family names, possible living relatives, family history of these hidden children and descendants of hidden children seems an admirable task to make these bonds stronger.

    with best wishes

  3. Hi Shelly, you spoke to us in Portland at our Jewish Genealogical Society of Oregon. I just sent to familytreedna for a test of mtDNA for my father's mother. A first cousin is doing the test. Bubbi was from Suwalki, Poland. I've made your blog one I'll follow. So glad to find it.