Here we are in the Skierniewice Jewish cemetery at just the moment you wrote to me. I’ll write more about our visit soon.
Here we are in the Skierniewice Jewish cemetery at just the moment you wrote to me. I’ll write more about our visit soon.
Just about every time I come to Warsaw I take a pilgrimage to this spot.
My mind turns inward to the way I remember it in my imagination, based on my mother’s stories and archival photos. Back then, these stairs led to a neighborhood of narrow streets where old cottages sat beside brick businesses, and where my grandfather built my grandmother a three story villa behind a cast iron fence.
When I visited today, I pictured roads instead of pathways. With buildings on either side. The villa would have been straight down and on the left, just after the path that runs perpendicular.
For some reason I started to wonder what my mother’s life would have been like if there hadn’t been any war. Would she have married her first love, a priest? Or would he have decided to honor his vows to the church? No doubt, she would not have waited to have children. I imagine her with four, including the daughter that was born instead of me, only 10 years earlier. No need to wait through the war, dozens of surgeries, migration, and illness to start a family. Would she have resigned from her dream of becoming a doctor, or found a way to balance her home and work responsibilities? Maybe she would have lived with her active young family in the villa, where her mother could help.
And the daughter that was born instead of me would no doubt be a grandmother, with a grandchild the same age as my son.
Without the Nazi invasion, Poland’s Jews would not have been murdered, and the Soviets would not have imposed 45 years of state socialism. Instead of being destroyed, Warsaw would have continued to grow, its Jewish population an important component of the city’s economic and cultural vitality. Poles would have had to figure out how to live within a country full of diversity, where the Polish nation could not be defined as ethnically pure or exclusively Catholic.
Would my family still have hidden their Jewish heritage in such a Poland? I wonder. What do you think?
The new National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama on April 26, 2018. It stands as a reminder of the many acts of discrimination against African Americans over the course of American history, and in particular memorializes over 4400 documented lynchings that occurred between 1877 and 1950.
800 rectangular iron blocks hang several layers deep in rows around a square. Each block contains the name of a county and state where lynching occurred, as well as the names of the victims and the dates they were lynched. Some contain the name of just one victim, others contain dozens.
My husband, son, and I visited the memorial last week. The monument looms large atop an elevated earth mound. We walked past a sculpture of life-sized bronze figures in chains, and up the path from the entrance. The wall to our right got shorter as we climbed to the level of the memorial.
We should have been climbing out of slavery and into freedom, but instead were confronted by the sea of iron blocks. The first ones we approached were set on the ground. At six feet tall, they approximate the height of a person. At the next corner of the monument, a path leads downward.
The blocks in the first row are marked with counties in Alabama, each deeper row listing counties in other states and their victims. We couldn’t figure out how the inscriptions are ordered, so we asked one of the guards. He explained the blocks are arranged alphabetically by state and county in a spiral that starts in the outside row, goes all the way around the square, and then continues through each successive row ending with the most interior blocks.
As we walked downward, the blocks became suspended from iron poles. By the time we reached the bottom, they loomed above us, eerily echoing the hanging victims they document.
On either side of this below-ground passage, signs describe the circumstances in which people were lynched—for frightening a white child, or asking a white man for money they were owed, or for “standing around” in a white neighborhood.
On the lawn outside the monument, we walked by a second set of blocks, twins of the ones hanging in the memorial. Laid on their side as they are, they resemble coffins. The intent is for counties to claim the block with their name on it and to each set up their own memorial site. Over time, as such monuments proliferate, more and more gaps will appear in the blocks resting on the lawn. In effect, the memorial will become a network of sites mapping the places where lynching occurred.
Clearly, parallels can be made between the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and sites throughout the world memorializing the Holocaust. Rather than commemorating moments of national pride, they compel us to remember our failures. It doesn’t matter that I wasn’t born when these events took place. I’m an American, and proud to be one. And it is because of that sense of connection to my nation that I feel a sense of responsibility for what happened in my country, for the injustices that Americans perpetrated against other Americans. Even if I weren’t American, if it weren’t a failing of my nation, of people with whom I share a national affiliation, I would feel guilty—as a human being. Like I feel guilty that the Holocaust ever happened. It was a failure of humanity, of empathy that is only conceivable in its monumental horror because it actually occurred.
That’s not the entire truth. The fact is that, as a person of Jewish descent, I identify with the group that was victimized in the Holocaust. As a person of European descent, however, my group was responsible for the victimization of people of African descent. This shift in perception, from victim to victimizer, is a difficult one.
And the harm caused by racial bias and discrimination continues.
Several blocks from the Peace and Justice Memorial, the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum further highlights racial injustice in the United States. One exhibition has left me with a nagging feeling of distress, maybe because of uneasy associations with current conflicts about the highest courts in both the US and in Poland.
A single illuminated display summarizes all of the US Supreme Court’s rulings that address racial justice issues. Alongside the decisions most often discussed and celebrated, like expanding the right to vote and defending equal access to education, are many more that maintained or reinstitutionalized discriminatory practices. I didn’t know how complicit the Supreme Court has been in perpetuating injustice, but there it was made visible right in front of me.
For a brief period right after the Civil War, African Americans gained the right to vote and were elected into political offices. But then, Jim Crow laws imposed poll taxes and literacy tests that kept them from voting, and enforced segregation in businesses, buses, and public institutions. With one decision after another, the Supreme Court upheld such discriminatory practices, and whittled away at the rights of freed people of color. The 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling, in which the Supreme Court defended the constitutionality of segregation as long as African Americans had “separate but equal” facilities, is only the most well-known of many decisions upholding segregation and discrimination.
We like to see ourselves in a positive light. We identify more with Brown vs. The Board of Education than we do with Plessy vs. Ferguson. We celebrate the Civil Rights Movement, but shy away from a deeper acknowledgement of the harm inflicted by slavery, discrimination, and deeply entrenched biases. There is still a lot we need to come to terms with. I’m glad to see this new museum and memorial taking steps in that direction, and that they are in my adopted state of Alabama.
“Why should we learn about Judaism?” Mirosława Maćkowiak asked, gazing kindly at my son’s 5th grade class. The twenty-five ten-year-olds sat in chairs in the Jewish Gallery of the Leszno Regional Museum, which is housed in the former synagogue. I hurried to translate Maćkowiak’s question; the language of instruction at the International School of Poznan is English, and only some of the students speak Polish. Maćkowiak, the curator of the Museum’s Jewish collection, answered her own question: We should learn about Judaism because Jesus was a Jew. He celebrated all the Jewish holidays, followed all the Jewish laws, and dressed like a Jew. It’s important to know about the older religion from which Christians came. Judaism is that older religion.
Ian’s teacher, Ms. Ania grew up in Leszno, which is about 50 miles south of Poznan. Blond, with the perky beauty of a cheerleader, she is perhaps the only Pole I have ever met who openly declares herself an atheist. She developed a special interest in Judaism after getting to know some Jewish people in London. She lived on a kibbutz in Israel, where she absolutely loved the country and the people. When she returned to Poland, she made a point of learning more about its Jewish history. She brings her students to Leszno every year so they can see artifacts that once were part of the Jewish life that filled the city. She said there isn’t really an equivalent space in Poznan, where the historic synagogue housed a public swimming pool for years, and closed to the public in 2012.
Ania and Mirosława have known each other for years, but each has a very different perspective on religion. Both are positively oriented toward Judaism, and celebrate the historic cultural and religious diversity of Poland, but Mirosława also makes the assumption that the Polish nation is Catholic, and so legitimizes Judaism for her young Polish audience by linking it to the origins of Christianity. Segments of the Catholic Church promote the perspective that Jews are “older brothers in faith, as I witnessed during Judaism Day, which has been a holiday of the Polish Catholic Church since 1997.
During our visit, Ania kept reminding Mirosława that her students were not there to study Judaism from a Catholic theological perspective. “Not all of my students are Catholic,” she insisted. When Ania took a turn translating, she distanced herself from statements framed in a Christian perspective by prefacing them “According to Ms. Mirosława.”
Jewish memory work in Leszno shows us a few things about what can be done with Jewish heritage in Poland. In Leszno, important tangible heritage survived the war, providing a foundation for building public awareness about the history of Leszno’s Jewish population. Additionally, a local institution, the Leszno Regional Museum (Muzeum Okręgowe w Lesznie), became active in historical preservation right after the fall of communism, making Leszno one of the first communities in Poland to renovate Jewish structures, mount Jewish-themed exhibitions, and organize related public events. A central cornerstone of museum activity includes programs for school children, such as the one attended by my son’s class.
Leszno is a regional center with a population of about 64,000. More than a century of Prussian rule contributed to German cultural influences, and in the mid-19th century, the Jewish population began to emigrate to other German cities. By 1923 the last Leszno rabbi departed and was not replaced; only 160 Jews remained in Leszno. When Leszno was absorbed into Hitler’s Third Reich, the few remaining Jews were forced to move to places further east and then became victims of the Holocaust.
Besides the synagogue, several other buildings remain of the city’s Jewish past: a mortuary building where bodies were prepared for burial, now the public library; a mikvah; and multiple houses within the narrow, winding streets of the Jewish district. Little remains of the cemetery, on which socialist-era concrete apartments were built in the 1970s. Some tombstones have returned, however, rediscovered in farmyards and under roads, and now wait in a pile outside the mortuary building until someone gathers the funds and the initiative to create a lapidarium.
The Leszno Regional Museum’s impressive collection of Jewish sacred and everyday objects are mostly on loan from other regional museums. They are arranged in wood-framed glass display cases, each containing objects associated with a religious holiday. A laminated sheet on top of each case describes the historical and religious significance of the holiday, typical activities and meals, as well as characteristic objects associated with the holiday. For instance, one case contains artifacts relevant to Hanukah, mostly nine-candle menorahs called hanukiahs. The written description explains Hanukah, the Holiday of Lights, is “the eight-day holiday commemorating the triumph of Judah Maccabee against the Syrian army in 165 BC….” and explains, “Each day a successive candle is lit.” Words like “hanukiah,” “gelt,” and “dreidel” are written in bold, followed by their definition and their significance for the holiday.
Another case labeled “Shabbat table” contains silver cups, goblets, spice towers, candlesticks, a tray, and a knife, all arranged atop a white linen cloth. Two loaves of challah covered with a white cloth complete the display. The information sheet says, “Shabbat (rest) is the most important weekly Jewish holiday, in which there is an obligatory restriction on doing any kind of work. It begins on Friday at sunset and ends on Saturday at dusk. It is a joyful holiday.” It goes on to describe how candles are lit by a woman, while the father of the family says a prayer called kaddish (written in bold). Further, it explains that herbs are placed in the spice tower (bessamin, the Hebrew word is written in bold) and lit on fire. It describes typical Shabbat food, including challah, chicken soup, and the single-dish meal for Saturday dinner called cholent (again, this term is in bold).
The texts signal continuity over change. Jewish culture is portrayed as something that does not modernize. But this emphasis on normative customs also relegates Jewish culture to the past. The objects on display are old, most dating back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. While many of the objects, such as hanukiahs and Shabbat goblets, have contemporary equivalents that remain part of standard Jewish cultural and religious practice, other objects on display are artifacts of a former era. For instance, one of particular interest to the ten-year-olds on my son’s fieldtrip was a massive copper barrel set on the floor in a corner. Mirosława Maćkowiak explained that it would have been placed at the entrance of a mortuary building or some other place where it was customary for Jews to wash their hands. She pointed to two two-handled containers tacked to the wall above the barrel, and said they would have been used to scoop out and pour the water. She related this practice to the importance of cleanliness in the Jewish tradition.
Maćkowiak made similar generalizations about the value Jews placed on education, their kosher dietary practices, as well as the kinds of activities restricted on the Sabbath, such as cooking or turning lights on or off. She made no mention of the fact that many contemporary Jews dispense with these practices, nor did she discuss historical variation among Jewish populations. Even though Mirosława Maćkowiak talked about Judaism as a living religion, still practiced by millions of people worldwide, the static portrayal within the museum exhibition reflects the absence of Jews within contemporary Polish society.
My son’s class, when given the opportunity, gazed at the articles in the display cases with curiosity. Of far greater interest to them, however, was the hands-on demonstration by Maćkowiak in front of a two-meter tall display case intended as the focal point of the room. She explained that this was meant to evoke the most sacred part of a synagogue—the Aron haKodesh, where the Torah scrolls are stored. She pointed out the parochet hanging on the wall to the right of the case, explaining elaborately embroidered curtains such as this would cover the front of the wooden Torah cabinet. She pointed out the items in the case, including a silver crown set atop a fabric Torah cover, as well as some Torah scrolls wound around wooden dowels. Then she put on white archivist gloves, and took out a silver yad with a pointing end shaped like a tiny hand with its index finger extended, and demonstrated how such pointers were used to read the Torah from right to left without touching the parchment.
My son’s class was not the traditional school group. Their teacher brought them as part of a unit on world religions, where the emphasis was on cultural and religious diversity. By contrast, most school trips are initiated by religion teachers.
In most cases, religion is taught by Catholic clergy during the regular school day. This is an artifact of a law passed in 1991 in reaction to the Communist rejection of religion. As a reassertion of the centrality of religion for the Polish nation, religious education in schools became standard. Over the years, many have complained to me about it, but very few go to the trouble of filing the necessary paperwork to have their children attend “ethics” classes instead. After all, 90% of Poles identify as Catholic, and children risk ostracization if they are singled out like that.
Notably, this law passed at the same time that Jewish heritage work came out of the shadows and spurred public projects like the one that established the Jewish exhibition in Leszno. Poland is a complicated place, and relations between Jewish and non-Jewish Polish culture and history are a fundamental knot at the center of that complexity.
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.
Gazing at old photos, I imagine having conversations with my ancestors. Photos are deceptive that way. They appear so immediate, so full of meaning. And yet, these are relatives I never met. I don’t even know who they are. Take a look at this handsome fellow:
When I showed this photograph to my mother in 2011, when she could only communicate in single words, she exclaimed, “przystojniak!” In Polish that means “handsome fellow,” or if I want to believe Google Translate, “hunk.” Mom would never have called someone a “hunk,” so I’m sticking with “handsome fellow.”
When I asked mom who the handsome guy was, though, she didn’t know.
I wonder if it might be one of her mother’s brothers, perhaps Abraham/Jon Piwko who came to the US long before mama was born. It would help if I could pinpoint the year in which the photo was taken. His clothes provide some hints–the short, wide tie, the jacket pocket, and the cuffed pants. Still, I don’t know enough about historical fashion to figure it out.
If this is Abraham, it was taken when he was young, maybe even before he left Poland in 1906. The carved stone bench looks more European than American, but who knows? It’s also striking that his feet are not on the ground, but rather on a round pillow. By 1908, when this photo was taken Abraham wore a mustache without a beard:
Looking back and forth between the two photographs, I can’t tell if it’s the same person or not.
These photos were in the envelope my grandmother labelled “Do Not Open.” She didn’t want us to know about our family history because she didn’t want us to know our ancestors were Jewish.
One other photo in that envelope depicts a young girl. She stares at the camera with assurance, a charming smile revealing her dimples. Long curled locks reach down to her waist. She holds a telephone to her ear, tilting her head down toward the hand-held earpiece. A cousin has identified her as Abraham’s daughter Paulina Piwko, the older girl in the group photo above.
Again, clues to the date of the photo should be in the clothing–the white lace-up boots worn with knee-high stockings held up with garters, the pleated white dress reaching just above the knee, with a frilled collar and pleated short sleeves. Again, I don’t know enough to be able to read these clues and pinpoint the date the photo was taken. If this is Paulina, she would have been a little older than in the group photo. If she is 10 in this photo, it was taken around 1913.
My cousin Krysia has remarked on how much this looks like our grandmother. And I agree. Babcia also had dimples, thick, long hair, and the kind of charm that seems to radiate from the girl in the picture. If it were Babcia, that would mean this photo was taken around 1904. Candlestick phones like this were in use from around 1890-1940, so that clue doesn’t narrow things down enough to confirm or rule out either possibility.
Still, my cousin, a descendant of Abraham, knows this photo and recognized it as his great aunt Paulina. Why would he have seen a picture of my grandmother? Why would it have been among the photos that were passed down in his line?
Here’s a fantasy explanation–one I have no evidence for outside of the photographs themselves. Could the photos of the handsome fellow and the charming girl have been taken at the same time? Might the siblings have wanted photos of each other when the older brother went away the America, never to return? It’s a long shot, but it would make a good story.
“We recover history…we record history.”
That is what the Jewish Community of Poznan wrote when they announced a new memorial, “Pavement of Memory,” built with fragments of Jewish tombstones that were recovered during roadwork in Poznan.
When the road crew dug up the old pavement, they noticed some stones with strange writing on them. Realizing the letters were in Hebrew, they contacted the Jewish Community. The fragments are too small to make out names or details about whose tombstones they were, but at least they have returned to the cemetery where they belong. All over Poland, fragments like this are being found, out of place, reinforcing road beds, bridge foundations, and lake beds. They were harvested during the terror of the Nazi occupation, and sometimes afterwards under state socialism. With only ghosts to look over them, Jewish cemeteries became a source for scarce building materials.
The extraordinary thing is that when public spaces are designated as repositories of Jewish memory and culture, objects return to them. As cemeteries are cleaned up, fenced, and marked, tombstones come back. In some cases, it’s as if people have known for a long time about these objects. They felt they were out of place and it has sat uneasily on their minds. They are relieved to finally know where these objects should go. In others, as with this road project, people are surprised to find these fragments, but they feel a sense of obligation to honor the memory of the past. To put things back into place.
These fragments are back home on a wall in the corner of the Poznan Jewish Cemetery.
“Pavement of Memory” was designed by Janusz Marciniak, who also designed the memorial at the Jewish cemetery in Piła and did a series of installations in the Poznan synagogue when it still housed a swimming pool. Janusz’s design is simple and powerful, honoring the integrity of each fragment by hanging them in three rows of ten. And yet together, like a mosaic, they make a unified statement.
The words on the memorial plaque, in Polish, Hebrew and English, read:
Był czas, kiedy z macew robiono bruk. Czas, w którym najdosłowniej rozbijano, deptano i kaleczono pamięć o ludziach pochowanych pod macewami. Niektóre z kamiennych okruchów tej pamięci przetrwały i dziś ta pamięć łączy się z wdzięcznością dla wszystkich, którzy przyczynili się do jej ocalenia. „Z owocu swoich ust nasycony będzie człowiek dobrem, a odpłacone mu będzie według tego, co zrobity jego rece” (Prz 12, 14).
הייתה עת שבה עשו ממצבות אבני מדרכת, עת שבה היו באופן ממשי מנתצים, רומסים ופוצעים את זכרם של האנשים הטמונים מתחת למצבות. אחדים מהשברים של אבני הזיכרון
אותן הזיכרון מתאחד שרדו, וכיום עם הכרת טובה לכל אלה שתרמו להצלתו. “מפְרִי פי־אישׁ יִשְׂבַּע־טוֹב וּגְמוּל יְדֵי־אָדָם יָשִׁיב לוֹ” (משלי י”נ יד).
There was a time when matzevot [Jewish tombstones] were used for pavement; a time when the memory of the people buried under the matzevot was most literally broken, trampled, and maimed. Some remnants have survived and today this memory is connected with the gratitude to those who contributed to its rescue. “A man shall be satisfied with good by the fruit of his mouth, and the doings of a man’s hands shall be rendered unto him” (Prov. 12:14).
Were Jews included as part of the Polish nation or were they excluded from it? This was one of my driving questions when I started to uncover the Jewish roots of my (Polish) mother’s family. I wondered if I might find my ancestors in some kind of hybrid Polish-Jewish space in which they identified as both Polish and Jewish. Or perhaps they lived in a world that ran parallel to that of their non-Jewish neighbors, with limited points of interaction. What I have found so far is neither straightforward nor consistent. It doesn’t fit entirely nor unambiguously into a narrative of hostile separation nor of peaceful coexistence. I’ll be focusing here on my ancestors’ lives before World War II. The Holocaust was such a devastating event that it needs to considered in its own terms, something I’ll try to do in another post.
The Polish lands were hospitable to my Jewish ancestors, allowing them to prosper for generations. My grandfather Jacob Rotblit owned a Ford dealership in the 1930s, and before then he was a manager of an international trading firm. Or maybe he sold jewelry. It’s hard to find absolute proof, but either way, he maintained important business interests.
My grandmother’s father Hil Majer Piwko was in the lumber trade. Documents from the National Archive in Włocławek show he owned a building supply store in the 1920s, and according to Aunt Pat, he owned a sawmill before then. Pat also writes that he was recognized as an “honorary citizen of the Russian Empire” for his service during a cholera epidemic. This was sometime before 1918, when the region near Warsaw was part of the Russian Empire. Apparently, the title “honorary citizen” came with some of the rights that were normally reserved for the nobility.
So there was separation but also opportunity. It was not very easy for Jews to become gentry, unless perhaps through marriage, but there were other means by which they were granted special honors and rights. By comparison, different social classes faced road blocks against entering the gentry, regardless of ethnicity or religion. For instance, most peasants lacked the financial means and cultural capital to gain such social standing. At least in some times and places, wealthy, educated Jews would have had more avenues to social advancement.
More about my family’s prosperity can be read from the family portrait that was taken around 1916. Hil Majer and his wife Hinda had many children. They were wealthy enough to dress in fine fabrics. Hil Majer’s traditional clothing suggests that he had the freedom to practice his faith and customs, while his children were free to assimilate, as indicated by their modern clothing. Separation wasn’t just enforced by the majority, but also sometimes chosen to preserve cultural and religious distinctiveness.
Why did the family move from Hil Majer’s native Skierniewice to the village of Sobota, before settling down in Brześć Kujawski and then Włocławek? It seems likely they were following economic opportunities, but also possibly they were seeking a place more hospitable to Jews. This fits a common narrative about the Jews as wanderers. They arrived in Eastern Europe as tradespeople, financial advisers, and estate managers, and eventually established settled communities. But I’ve also been told that by the 19th century, most Jewish families stayed put. That’s why knowing the place of origin of one relative usually leads to many more relations.
Włocławek hadn’t always welcomed Jews. Until the end of the 18th century, it was a Church town, home to a bishop’s cathedral, with restrictions against Jewish residents. But then the city secularized, and as it industrialized and became an engine of commerce, the Jewish population also grew. Located as it was between Warsaw and the Baltic Coast on the Vistula River, Włocławek became an important port, and home to paper, ceramic, metal, chemical, and food processing factories.
In addition to economics and religion, political factors shaped the degree of inclusion available to Jews within the broader society. Antisemitism grew in the 1880s throughout the Polish lands, as Polish nationalists became more active in their pursuit of national sovereignty. Once Poland gained its autonomy in 1918, tensions deepened. Some political forces, led by Józef Piłsudski, argued for a broad definition of citizenship within the new Polish state, insuring equal rights for the 1/3 of the population that was Ukrainian, German, Jewish, and other minorities. Another political faction, led by Roman Dmowski, advocated for a narrower definition of Polishness, based on an idea of “pure blood,” by which he meant shared descent that also tied the nation to Catholicism. At the same time, Jewish nationalism grew, and took on a number of forms, leading some to embrace Yiddish culture, and others to espouse Zionism. Some Jewish nationalists dreamed of a safe place within the countries in which they lived, while others turned their eyes toward Palestine.
Włocławek became a crossroad for different varieties of Judaism, including Zionism, Hasidism, and Reform. Around the time that my great grandfather moved there, a new rabbi, Jehuda Lejb Kowalski, also arrived. He was very popular, and succeeded in reconciling the factions within the Jewish community. In 1902, Kowalski helped found the Mizrahi Party, and was a key leader in this Orthodox Zionist organization. Perhaps Kowalski is what drew the family to Włocławek? I’m not sure of Hil Majer’s affiliation, but his son-in-law, Rachel’s husband Pinkas, was a member of the Mizrahi Party in Włocławek, and a representative of the governing board of the city’s Jewish Community in 1931. Hil Majer’s oldest son Jacob represented the Zionist Party on the governing board from 1917 until 1922, and he was on the City Council from 1917-19. In other words, Jacob wasn’t only involved in Jewish political life; he also held a position in city government.
So there were opportunities to integrate into the broader society, to pursue economic and political goals, and to flourish as a distinct religious and cultural group.
But clearly there were problems that caused my relatives to leave for other countries, long before the German occupation and Nazi assaults against Jews. One of Hil Majer’s brothers went to Canada in the 1880s; the son of another went to Switzerland. In 1906-7, two of Hil Majer’s sons went to New York. Over the years, Philip sponsored many of the next generation who started out in the US at his bakery. Four more sisters, including my grandmother, also came to the US. Jacob’s children, as well as Rachel and her children, went to Palestine starting in the 1930s. Still, choosing, or even being forced, to leave didn’t necessarily signal a lack of attachment to Poland. For over a century, there have been mass migrations from the Polish lands by Catholics, Protestants, and Jews who, regardless of their national or ethnic affiliation, chased after their dreams in distant lands.
It would be easy to avoid this room, to bypass the emptiness left behind by Mama. But instead, I find myself drawn to this space, where memories run in my head like movies, and also where I feel the pain of loss.
Here is where Mama spent more and more of her time, in her hospital bed. Though nothing is there now, it still feels full.
The self-portrait I did in high school hung on the wall behind her.
Traces remain of Mama’s life in this space. Small gifts I brought her, or others gave her. Garden books. Mama leafed through the pages over and over again. She enjoyed the colors and shapes of the plants long after she stopped reading. Photographs of family. Our images surrounded her even when we couldn’t be there in the flesh.
The place left behind by Krystyna, who loved her like a daughter, and whom I loved like a sister. There’s a double hole without Krystyna, who survived barely a month longer than Mama.
I still love this room, not only for what it was—a safe haven for Mama as she faded from this world—but also for what it is. Its walls of windows show off the garden. I watch as the sun slowly melts the remaining patches of snow, until clouds blow in and threaten another storm. It’s bright and spring-like inside, with the green and white walls and honey wood floor. A space waiting to be reinvented, maybe into a playroom for the kids, or a sitting room for guests, but where I’ll still be able to visit Mama resting quietly in her bed, while Krystyna swirls around her, a source of both company and comfort.
A reader just asked me whether members of the Jewish community are still welcome in Poland. Fortunately, Jonathan Ornstein, the director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, answered this very question in his New York Times op-ed, In Poland, a Grass-Roots Jewish Revival Endures.
It’s worth reading the whole article, but here is an excerpt:
“The concern is genuine, warranted and appreciated. We, the Polish Jewish community, are weathering challenging times. The country we call home can feel a little less welcoming these days. On one hand, young people who only recently discovered their Jewish roots have eagerly joined newly opened Hillel student organizations in Warsaw and Krakow. But they hold in the back of their minds a question of what the future may bring.
“Polish Jewish leaders, too, are grappling with an uncertain future as we continue to build Jewish life in an environment that has taken a turn away from democracy toward populism. That shift is never a good sign for Jews — or anyone in a free and open society. And now the Holocaust bill, which criminalizes statements that the Polish nation had any responsibility in the Holocaust, may complicate our good relationship with our non-Jewish neighbors.
“What we have managed to rebuild over the last 30 years with the help of those neighbors is real. It is strong and it has emerged not only from government policy, but also from grass-roots efforts. We’ve built Jewish schools, synagogues, community centers and museums by working hand in hand with non-Jewish high school students, senior citizens and many others. Not only have they allowed these institutions to be born and flourish, but many have stood up and taken an active part in Jewish rebirth.
“So the answer is: Yes, come visit Poland. Walk down the historic streets that I walk without fear as a proud Jew. See beyond the camps. Go beyond the history, both the beautiful and the tragic. Stand with a community that has been through so much suffering, yet has emerged optimistic and eager to rejoin the Jewish world.”
Jonathan can be trusted on this. He has been at the forefront of the revival of Jewish life in Krakow since the JCC opened there ten years ago. It’s an extraordinary organization, and I was lucky enough to help out as a Shabbos Goy during the Jewish Culture Festival in 2016, when hundreds of people attended the largest shabbat dinner in Poland since World War II.
The JCC welcomes Holocaust survivors, Jewish visitors from around the world, and Poles rediscovering their Jewish heritage or who just feel an affinity to Jewish culture and history. It was a space where I felt right at home, as an American raised in a secular Christian household with a Polish-Catholic mother who descended from Polish Jews. It’s a space where I can be Jewish or Christian, Polish or American, but regardless I’m welcomed simply because I’m there and I want to learn more about what it means to be Jewish in Poland.