For the first time, the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) will hold their annual conference in Poland. From my perspective the timing couldn’t be better. It’s a chance for Jewish genealogists to visit the land where so many Jewish ancestors lived, and to highlight the incredible work that has been done in Poland to reassemble Jewish history and culture in towns and cities all over the country. None of this erases the horror of the Holocaust, but the conference promises to be a space for Poles and Jews to meet in a spirit of dialog and reconciliation. The Polish co-hosts, the Jewish Historical Institute and the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, have been at the forefront of such efforts. They deserve international recognition and support for all they have done, and all there remains to do.
The conference will be in Warsaw from August 5-10. The first hotel filled up so quickly, they added a second, and now a third to the list. In fact, I read somewhere that already more people have registered this year than ever before.
I will have two presentations at the conference. I tried to think of topics related to my areas of expertise that would also be of relevance to genealogists. This is what I came up with:
The Past in the Present: How the Polish Partitions Shape Jewish Heritage Work Today (a 1 hour presentation)
Returning to the towns and cities of our Jewish ancestors in Poland, we are likely to feel haunted by the absence of Jewish life. And yet, if we know where to look, residents of communities throughout Poland have worked tirelessly to bring Jewish history, heritage, and memory back into the public sphere, in the form of monuments, memorials, and culture festivals. This work is influenced by the legacy of the ruling empires—Russian, Prussian, and Austrian—that partitioned Poland from the end of the 18th century until World War I. Within each partition, the particular character of leadership shaped Jewish communities, which in turn contributed to the different ways in which the Holocaust was carried out. The legacy of the partitions continues to influence Jewish heritage work today—as well as the kinds of records and local allies available to genealogists. The presentation offers insights into finding local resources relevant to genealogical work.
Pulling Stories Out of Silence: Uncovering my Hidden Jewish-Polish Heritage ( a 25 minute presentation)
I had been visiting Poland for 20 years before I realized that if I really want to know about my family’s Polish heritage, I needed to delve into the big secret in the family: that my grandmother was born Jewish. Since 2011, I have tracked down family photographs, collected memories from relatives, searched archives for family records, and traveled to the towns and cities of my ancestors. Not only have I traced my ancestors back to the 18th century, I have also, more importantly, found my living relatives—in the US, Israel, Switzerland, and Canada. Through my personal story, I explore the complex relationship between Jews and Catholics in Poland before and during World War II, and how it carried over into my family’s life in the US. I also offer clues about the resources available online and in Poland for anyone who wants to trace their Polish-Jewish ancestry.
The first presentation dovetails with the ethnography I’m writing about Jewish heritage work in towns and small cities, provisionally titled Memory in Fragments: Reassembling Jewish Life in Poland. The project asks what can be done with the fragments of Jewish heritage that remain, sometimes hidden and sometimes in plain sight? And what value does such memory work have? I have learned that the legacy of the Polish partitions continues to shape the various regions of Poland in ways that also influence what is left of Jewish culture, and how local communities mobilize to commemorate and preserve Jewish memory. Genealogists will find it useful to know the history of the Polish partitions because it influences the language in which records were kept, the migration patterns of Jewish populations into and out of various regions, the impact of the Holocaust, and the memories and silences that contributed to the preservation or destruction of Jewish heritage after the war.
The second presentation recounts my more personal journey of discovery about my Polish Jewish family, which I am documenting in what I call a family memoir provisionally titled, Do Not Open: A Family Memoir of Hidden Jewish Ancestry.
The conference website includes a statement, Why Our Jewish Genealogy Conference is Coming to Warsaw. In it, conference co-chair Robinn Magid writes, “We believe in continuing dialogue between people of different perspectives and in supporting the Jewish Community of Poland today.” Especially now, as nativism, tribalism, and nationalism have been overtaking public discourse, such dialog and support are crucial for advancing an alternate narrative of mutual respect and hopefully, reconciliation.