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Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love takes a deep dive into the meaning of family and identity, and how our genealogical heritage shapes who we are. The way we are raised clearly matters, but so does biological inheritance. Shapiro knew and cherished the Jewish culture of the family she grew up with. She only learned about her non-Jewish genetic paternity when, at the age of 50, she took a DNA test.


Dani Shapiro’s book reminds me how powerful language can be. She focuses less on what happens than how it affects her, giving voice to her inner thoughts and feelings. It’s a good reminder for me, as a social scientist preoccupied with documentation of social worlds. Sometimes it’s better to provide fewer details, taking the time to plumb their deeper meanings.

As much as she embraced and was embraced by her family, Shapiro writes about the feeling of not quite fitting in. She would gaze at her father’s face and not see herself reflected in his dark hair, eyes, and complexion. Only when she met her blue-eyed, pink-cheeked biological father did she have that moment of recognition. Although she was raised in a household where her Jewish credentials were never in question, her physical appearance made her feel pressured to prove her Jewishness—by reciting Hebrew prayers, by referencing her kosher upbringing.

This isn’t to say that all Jews need to look a certain way. That’s not Shapiro’s point, and it’s not mine. But I do understand the urge to find yourself in the features of your parents.

Through it all, Shapiro never questioned the story of her heritage that was told to her, even when her mother let slip that her parents struggled to conceive and so they sought help for fertility issues. Even when her half-sister told her it was common practice at the time of her conception to mix the sperm of the husband with that of a sperm donor to increase the chances of pregnancy. Even when a poet stared at her and concluded, “You’re not Jewish.” She never doubted her origins, even when she looked in the mirror and saw her own blond hair, blue eyes, and pink and white skin.

What resonates the most strongly with my own experiences is that failure to know, even when you kind of do know. Shapiro’s mother knew how her daughter was conceived. She must have had some idea that her daughter’s biological paternity might be in question, but she nevertheless provided doctors with her husband’s family medical history and worried Dani might have inherited health issues from them. Similar things happened in my family. In fact, I did this kind of thing myself, when for instance I did not even consider my Jewish heritage while researching all the genetic diseases I should watch for while pregnant with my son. I had learned that my grandmother’s family was Jewish when I was in my 20s, but it didn’t really enter my consciousness as an expectant mother in my 30s. That’s how strong my identification was with my mom’s adopted Polish Catholic heritage.

Shapiro refers to the psychoanalytic concept of “unthought known,” experiences that are indescribable in words but that nevertheless influence thoughts and behavior later in life. The concept refers to awareness derived from early, preverbal childhood experiences, so it’s not an exact match to what I’m describing. But certain aspects apply. Even though I “knew” the secret of my mom’s family origin, I chose not to include it in my self-identity. I excluded it from the way I thought about myself, and also how I presented myself to others. I’m sure my mom did the same. She identified as a Catholic Pole and refused her Jewish heritage. She felt offended if anyone ever alluded to it. For her, and I guess for me too, who we were supposed to be was more real than who we actually were, who we actually came from.

Except that growing up, I felt something was hidden. Here my experiences come closer to the psychoanalytic meaning of unthought known. I felt the silences in my family history, and the feeling of displacement they produced. Shapiro’s story is a little different, because she fully embraced the Jewish heritage of her family, confident in her deep roots in that community. So for her, learning that her biological father was not Jewish led to a sense of loss and of disconnection. For me, by contrast, learning about my Jewish family has filled the empty spaces in my own family story. I know who I came from, which helps me know who I am. I’ve been embraced by my complex, heterogeneous extended family.

The Odyssey of a Polish Jew


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Roman Szydłowski grew up in an affluent assimilated Jewish family in prewar Tarnów, a medium-sized city southeast of Krakow. His “Recollections,” published under the name The War Began in Tarnów, breezily describe the many relatives and acquaintances who populated his youth, though it is jarring how many of their lives were cut short by wartime assaults against Jews.


The War Began in Tarnów, by Roman Szydłowski

Szydłowski’s book reminds me that Poland is a small country, in the sense that citizens who travel in elite circles know each other, or know of each other. A person raised in a family like Szydłowski’s rubbed shoulders with famous actors, writers, and politicians. Simultaneously, World War II lurks on the edges, and at times overtakes Szydłowski’s narrative, as for example when he describes the explosions at the Tarnów train station, an act of German sabotage that happened on August 23, 1939, a week before the official invasion of Poland began.

The book is interesting for its intimate portrait of everyday life before, during, and immediately after World War II, but it does so from the particular lens of the moment in which it was written: 1982, when Poland was under martial law following the suppression of the Solidarity Movement that had sought to reform the state socialist system. Szydłowski was 63 years old and looking back on his life as he approached retirement. That time and place might explain the glaring absences in his otherwise vivid, detailed, and immediate recollections.

Born Roman Szancer in 1918, the author grew up in comfort in a large apartment at the center of Tarnów. His family owned an enormous mill which his great grandfather established in the early 1800s. It is notable how little Judaism figured in his early life story—it was a factor but hardly a defining one. His first recollection of anti-Jewish sentiment involved one of his classmates who called him “you Jew” in a way that sounded like a slur. Roman couldn’t understanding why being Jewish would be an insult, but he replied in kind, “you Catholic.” When their teacher found out, he made them stop, threatening them with corporal punishment. Later, Roman and the other boy became good friends.

The Szancer family took pride in their unaccented Polish and their assimilation, not only into Polish culture, but also into elite European culture more broadly. As a child, Roman visited relatives in Germany and Austria. His grandmother, a cousin of Austrian philosopher Martin Buber, was the only one in the family who spoke Polish with a strong accent; they had to talk to her in German.

Roman portrays himself as a proud defender of Poland. About the rise of Hitler in Germany, he writes “We feared for the future of Poland, though none of us anticipated that our country, which we considered stable, would soon be pillaged by the Third Reich” (p. 60-1). Szydłowski mentions just a few instances when his early life was touched by prejudice. The first girl he fell in love with was Catholic, and “there were those who couldn’t reconcile with the fact that ‘that Jew goes out with such a pretty Polish girl’,” so they spread rumors that broke them up (p. 74). A few years later at the Jagiellonian University, Jews were separated from the Catholic students and confined to the so-called “ghetto benches.” This didn’t affect Roman directly because he had what people called “a good look.” In other words, he didn’t have the stereotypical features or mannerisms associated with Jews and so could sit wherever he wanted. He makes a point of saying that only the leftist students objected to the “Aryan paragraph” restricting Jews from student organizations; the majority of the student body voted in favor of the restrictions.

Another incident illustrates how distant Roman felt from traditional Jewish life. He describes a Hassidic wedding he attended in the summer of 1939 in a mostly Jewish town. The residents dressed differently than he was used to seeing in the towns around Tarnów, in round hats with small rims, shorter jackets and their pants tucked into manure-covered shoes. About the wedding he writes, “I’m left with an impression of something very colorful, but so far away and foreign as if I found myself suddenly on a distant continent” (p. 125).

Szydłowski’s wartime experiences read like an adventure story, making startling shifts from descriptions of carefree youthful high jinx to hair-raising brushes with death. Because he had connections, he was able to drive east ahead of the invading German army and find refuge with relatives near Lviv (part of Poland before the war, the Soviet Union after 1939, and Ukraine today). He describes his apprehension by Soviet authorities, deportation to the Far East, and eventful return to Lviv, one chance encounter leading to another that eventually got him back to relative safety.

After Hitler broke the German-Soviet nonaggression pact, he witnessed the most horrific events of his own wartime experiences. Thousands of Jews were slaughtered in Lviv, their blood running through the streets. He returned to Tarnów, where he moved freely, neither wearing the Star of David nor staying in the ghetto as dictated by the Nazi occupiers. By December 1941, he settled in Warsaw, where he changed his last name to Szydłowski, thus gaining the protection of a Polish surname. He writes breathlessly about the richness of the culture in the city, where he attended classical concerts, theatre productions, and university classes. All of these activities occurred “underground,” without the knowledge or sanction of the occupying forces.

He explains, “Warsaw during those years was a city impossible to describe. Terrifying contrasts collided at every corner. Luxury alongside poverty, tragedy next to debauchery, death and delight, everything compounded to the maximum. People lived as if in a trance, unsure of tomorrow. Everyone knew they could die soon, so they wanted to get the most out of life” (p. 155). After being arrested under suspicion of conspiracy, and imprisoned in Pawlak Prison, Szydłowski was mysteriously released. He made a quick retreat to the countryside near Krakow, where his “most carefree period of occupied life began” (p. 162). He spent the summer at the ancestral palace of a gentry family who treated him like an esteemed guest. The refuge was an illusion, he admits. A year later, months after he had moved on, German police came and shot the whole family.

What might explain the absences in Szyłowski’s narrative? Why doesn’t he mention the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, even though he was living in Warsaw at the time? He lived in the “Aryan” part of the city under his assumed name, but he must have witnessed the armed revolt mounted by the last remaining Jews in the ghetto. The fighting continued for 28 days until most of the partisans were either killed or took their own lives. Why doesn’t he discuss the massive scale of the Holocaust? He makes no mention of the millions who died, nor any details about the death camps. He does not address the nearly complete absence of a Jewish population in Poland after the war. The annihilation of Poland’s Jews only peaks out in the many biographies of family and acquaintances that ended with them murdered by military police or Germans.

Szydłowski’s recollections also elide any direct criticism of communism. He simply gives a matter-of-fact description of the arrival of Soviet troops after the Germans retreated , without addressing the heavy hand the Soviet Union played in shaping the postwar state-socialist republic. He writes directly about joining the Communist Party in 1946, but only indirectly about his disillusionment and retreat from the party just a few years later. Throughout his narrative, he acknowledges his socialist leanings, as well as the socialist and communist affiliations of his friends, but he also makes a point of emphasizing his disinterest in politics.

Szydłowski ran out of time to finish writing about his 35-year career as a theatre critic and journalist. He died in 1983.

What a difficult way to walk through life, carrying so many ghosts in your memories. And yet, Szydłowski speaks with the voice of an optimist.


Remains of the Szancer mill, June 2019

George Bereday and His Vision of Education


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I was happy to receive a package from Poland yesterday–a surprise post-holiday gift? In fact, it was a book by Justyna Wojniak titled Szkoła – Polityka – Prawo: George Zygmunt Fijałkowsky-Bereday i Jego Wizja Edukacji (School, Politics, Law: George Z. F. Bereday and His Vision of Education).


School, Politics, Law: George Z. F. Bereday and His Vision of Education by Justyna Wojniak

The author contacted me a year ago to talk about my mother and her brother for her doctoral dissertation about my uncle George Bereday, who was instrumental in establishing the discipline of Comparative Education. Most of the book focuses on Bereday’s scholarly work on the idea of equal education for all, methods for comparing educational systems in different countries, as well as his concerns about equal rights and social justice generally. I will read the whole book eventually, but the first chapter is most relevant to my search for family heritage. Wojniak cites this blog in the chapter about my uncle’s childhood and early life in Poland, and even discusses my mom’s service in the Polish Underground Army during World War II. It’s great to see my work being put to use, and translated into Polish for Polish speakers to read.

I was also amazed to find a photo on page 28 of my babcia with a young George/Jurek on one side and a young Maria/my Mama on the other. They are all smiling, and Babcia holds both children by the hand. It’s winter–they are wrapped up in warm coats, hats, gloves, and boots, walking along a gravel road with barren trees in the background. I would guess my mom is about six years old and Uncle George about eight, which would make it around 1928 or 1929. Based on the time and rural setting, my guess is it was taken at Dębinki, the estate outside of Warsaw where they lived from about 1928-1934. Mama always said those were the happiest years of her life.


George/Jerzy, Halina/my Babcia, and Maria/my Mama Bereda in Poland around 1928 or 1929.

I have never seen this photo before. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing a photo of my mother as a child. And even more surprisingly, the source of the photo is my own cousin Krysia! We’ve been in touch, and I’m counting on her to send me a better copy than this one.

Cousin Connections


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When I met Arline Jacoby in 2016, she was a spry and effervescent nonagenarian with vivid memories of the Pifko-Winawar Family Circle gatherings she attended throughout the early decades of her marriage. She knew that she was related to the Pifkos, but she couldn’t remember exactly how. She thought her husband Harry Jacoby was connected somehow to my great grandmother Hinda Piwko, whose maiden name was Walfisz. She also suggested her ancestors might be part of that family line as well, making her and her husband distant cousins.


Pifko-Winawer Family Circle, New Montefiore Cemetery, Organized 1938. Note the Jacoby name on right

No one else seemed to remember the exact family connections, so I just added this to the long list of mysteries to solve one day.

Periodically, I have come across interesting tidbits about Arline. She was featured in the “Sunday Routine” column of The New York Times (“How Arline Jacoby, Artist, Spends Her Sundays,” by Alexis Cheung, July 21, 2017). The article describes Arline’s daily life on Roosevelt Island. In one photo, dressed in a white blouse and loose off-white pants, she holds her cane in front of her as she talks with friends on a bus. In another, she smiles brightly as she reaches for a plant in her garden. And in a third photo, she’s swimming; “I’ll spend about an hour doing laps, and then I’ll go into the steam room,” she explains. In the final photograph, Arline looks up at a sketch in her installation at Octagon Gallery. Still a practicing artist, she says, “My studio is across the street from my house. I paint, I do printmaking, monoprints, paint in oils and watercolor.” Her vibrant spirit shines through the brief vignettes and quotes.


Arline in her garden. Photo credit: Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Another article from Tablet Magazine recounts the history of the Borscht Belt resort that the Jacoby family ran for many years. The “colony” was founded in 1941 by Arline’s father-in-law Nathan Jacoby, and later managed by Nathan’s sons Harry and Ben. The Catskills became a summer haven for New York Jews who left the heat of the city and set up house in resorts that organized all kinds of entertainment and outdoor activities. According to the article, some affluent middle-class families preferred the laid-back atmosphere of bungalow colonies like the Jacoby’s over the fancier hotel resorts nearby.

I learned from the article that Nathan Jacoby was born in Łódź, Poland in 1894, and came to America in 1921. He got into the bakery business “through a family connection.” Could that have been my grandmother’s brother Philip Pifko who had bakeries in Brooklyn at that time?

The Tablet article explained, “In the summer, he operated the bungalow colony as a second business, renting the units for the season. Jacoby wanted the colony to be a destination for Jews who had worked their way up into the middle class—light manufacturers and lawyers, many from the Midwood neighborhood in Brooklyn, with good businesses and good cars. The parking lot was filled with Cadillacs and Lincolns. These were families who loved parties and balls, and Jacoby was determined to entertain them, building a stage in his casino building for traveling comics, singers, magicians, and musicians, and for bungalow talent shows, too.” Arline’s daughter Annice said “What my grandfather created was not only a business. He created a sense of place. This was the good life.”

I was reminded of these family-oriented camps when Midge Maisel and her family spent much of Season Two at a similar resort. Arline remembers that comedians like Lenny Bruce performed there, another parallel with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which features Lenny Bruce performing in the Catskills. By the time I was growing up in 1970s, the bungalow colonies declined in popularity. My friends went to sleepover camps for kids only.


Midge Maisel in the Catskills. Screen shot from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

The breakthrough in my search for a family connection came when I was contacted via Ancestry by Cherie, whose husband is a descendant of Akiva Jakubowicz, the second husband of my great grandmother’s sister Tema. That’s when a light turned on. Could it be that the Jakubowiczes changed their name to Jacoby when they came to the US? Could Arline’s husband Harry have been a grandson of Tema, the sister of my great grandmother Hinda (Walfisz) Piwko?

I already had Akiva (Kiwa) Jakubowicz and his two sons Elias and Nathan in my family tree. Cherie confirmed that her husband descends from Elias, Nathan’s younger brother (Nathan was born in 1896 and Elias was born in 1898), and that they changed their last name to Jacoby after settling in the US. Elias moved from Łódź to Berlin where he married Martha Brusendorf. She was a German protestant, but they raised their children in the Jewish faith. When the war broke out, they lived in hiding in Berlin with their younger daughter, while their older daughter escaped to England on the kindertransport. The family reunited after the war, and immigrated to the US. They were sponsored by Nathan, who had been in New York since 1921.

Armed with this information, I was able to locate documents about Nathan, Arline, and their sons Harry and Ben on Ancestry. Arline Plumer and Nathan Jacoby married in 1947 in Philadelphia, her hometown. I’m not sure, but this might be Arline’s high school yearbook photo from 1943, Girl’s High School, Philadelphia.


Arline Plumer, class of 1943, Girls High School, Philadelphia. Is this my cousin?

If so, Arline’s parents were Isidor/Isadore and Anna/Annie Plumer, and she was the youngest of eight siblings. Her father is listed on his naturalization documents as coming from Barski, Russia, but in the 1920 census, he and Anna’s place of origin is listed as Russia (Pol.)  and their native language is Polish. All of their children were born in the US.

I found Nathan Jakubowicz in the 1925 New York State Census. He worked as a baker and lived with his wife Marie, one-year-old son Harry (listed as Herman), and a cousin Sol Winawer. I believe Sol is the son of my grandmother’s sister Liba, making him and Nathan first cousins once removed. This document also hints at an answer to the question whether Nathan worked in my great uncle’s bakery when he first came to the US. There, in the neighboring apartment, lived my grandmother’s brother Philip Pifko and his wife Goldie. So maybe Nathan is one of the many relatives Philip assisted when they first immigrated, offering them a job in his bakery and helping them find a place to live.


1925 NY State Census. Nathan, Marie, and Herman Jakubowicz live with Sol Winawer. In the neighboring apartment, Philip and Goldie Pifko live with other relatives.

By the the 1930 Federal Census, Nathan had changed his last name to Jacoby.


By the 1930 Federal Census, the family name had been changed to Jacoby.

All of this shows pretty convincingly how Arline’s husband Harry was related to the Pifko-Winawers. I’m still looking for comparable evidence that Arline is also a cousin. My guess is she descends from Łaja, the 3rd Walfisz daughter listed in the Żychlin Book of Residents together with my great grandmother Hinda and Harry’s grandmother Tema. I found one hint on Arline’s mother’s death certificate, which lists Anna Plumer’s parents as Morris and Leah Fox, originally from Poland. Elsewhere, I’ve seen Łaja and Leah used interchangeably, so I’ll keep digging.

The search continues. I’m glad to have figured out, at least in part, how Arline and I are cousins. At minimum, her husband and my mother were 2nd cousins. Perhaps she and my mother were 2nd cousins, as well.


Cousin Arline talks with Mama, January 2016


Ruth Ellen Gruber on Jewish Heritage



Writer Ruth Ellen Gruber gives two lectures at The University of Alabama:

Imaginary Spaces, Dark Tourism, and Writing about Difficult Topics for a General Audience: A Conversation with Ruth Ellen Gruber

205 Gorgas Library, Monday, February 25, 7 PM

Structured as a conversation, Marysia Galbraith (New College and Department of Anthropology) asks Ruth about her work on “Virtually Jewish” heritage in Europe, “Wild West” theme parks, tourism at sites of terror, Holocaust, and slavery, and the practice of writing for traditional print media as well as digital venues like her website “Jewish Heritage Europe.”


Beyond Virtually Jewish: New Realities and Real Imaginary Spaces

215 Lloyd Hall, Tuesday, February 26, 12:30-1:45 PM

Ruth discusses new forms of Jewishness, Jewish practice, and religious and cultural expression. She describes how she coined the term “Virtually Jewish” to describe non-Jewish involvement, embrace, appropriation and engagement with Jews and Jewish culture — and what that means in today’s changing conditions. She discusses new realities and new authenticities; new definitions of “Jewish.” And she takes her audience on tours to Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, and other Jewish spaces and places where community and commercialism combine and collide.


Ruth Ellen Gruber in the Kazimierz District of Krakow, Poland. Photo credit: Chuck Fishman

Ruth Ellen Gruber has worked on Jewish heritage issues and chronicled Jewish developments in Europe for three decades and currently coordinates the web site (She also studies the European fascination with the American Wild West, its mythology and its music.) With her 2012 book Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, she coined the term “Virtually Jewish” to describe the way the so-called “Jewish space” in Europe is often filled by non-Jews. Among her other books are National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe, first published in 1992; Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere), and Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today. A former correspondent for UPI in Poland and elsewhere in communist Europe, she has written for many publications, both popular and scholarly. Her awards and honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship and Poland’s Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit. She was the Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston (South Carolina) spring semester, 2015.

Sponsored by: College of Arts and Sciences, New College, Department of Anthropology, Department of Religious Studies, Department of Journalism and Creative Media, and Blount Scholars Program

Livestream of the ‘Unforgotten’ Event About Renia Spiegel’s Diary


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I’m counting down the minutes before I tune into this event at the Smithsonian Institute today:

80 Years after Kristallnacht: Diarists of the Holocaust

This is Renia, who was murdered on the streets of occupied Przemyśl at the age of 18 in 1942. She left behind a diary that through some miracle found its way to her family in New York.


Renia in Skole in the 1930s (Courtesy of the Bellak family)

I grew up calling Renia’s sister “Aunt Elizabeth,” but she never mentioned her sister until a few years ago. Encouraged by her daughter Alexandra, they started looking for someone to translate the diary from Polish to English, and Elizabeth started talking about her hidden past. It’s an extraordinary story about two extraordinary sisters. Both Elizabeth and Alexandra will share their stories at 1 PM eastern time today, November 8, 2018.


It’s time to stop giving attention to “Ethnicity” and genetic admixture



I don’t know if anyone else was surprised by their revised DNA report following Ancestry’s update. Here is an interesting reaction, which points out the problem with any claims about ethnic origin based on such genetic tests.

An American Genealogy

[One quick note: As always, we receive no financial benefit or consideration for any product or service we review/recommend/discuss here. Everything we discuss is our opinion alone, and we talk about it because we use it.]

Ancestry has made a lot of noise recently when they updated their Ethnicity estimates, and the now intensified debate about the “accuracy of DNA tests” and the confusion among the general public makes it clear: as a community of serious researchers, we need to be the voice of reason when it comes genetic admixture and call it out for dubiously valuable, largely inaccurate parlor trick that it is. Here’s why:

Ethnicity cannot be tested for. Ever.

Ethnicity is a social construct. Period. If we look at any test, any genealogical tree or other determination it will not build a social link to ones ancestral background. Michael hasn’t been to Ireland, but I have, and…

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Would You Live in the Ghetto?

The Stare (Old) Podgórze district of Kraków, nestled between the Vistula River and the hilltop Bednarski Park, has experienced an incredible resurgence over the past several years. What used to be a neglected part of the city, with crumbling townhouses and drunks who congregated in the town square, has become the home of restaurants, cafes, galleries, and museums. A new pedestrian bridge links Podgórze to the heart of Kazimierz; the rhythm of footsteps over the pedestrian walkway causes sculptures suspended from wires to totter like the acrobats that are depicted.


Old Podgórze is also the place the Nazi governor Hans Frank selected for the Krakow Jewish ghetto on March 3, 1941. “Within two weeks, 18,000 Jews were ordered to move to 320 buildings, whose ‘Aryan’ residents had previously been forced to vacate.” [1] Presumably, the district was selected because of its distance from the center of town, further isolated on the other side of the river. By March 20, Podgórze was closed off by a high brick wall; whether the symbolism was intentional or not, the undulating curves along the top edge evoked Jewish headstones stacked side by side. The ghetto shrank in 1942, when residents were taken to their death in camps like Bełżec, and was completely liquidated on March 13-14, 1943. The ghetto existed just two years, but the fact that it existed at all in this very place clashes uncomfortably with the district’s rebirth.

I have written about Podgórze before, and about the way the district captivated me. In fact, I’ve sometimes remarked that if I were to buy an apartment in Krakow, I would want it to be in Podgórze. But that was before I knew what happened there during World War II, before I started to explore my Jewish heritage, before historical markers brought difficult history back into the public sphere, and before the phantom walls of the ghetto became part of my inner map of the district. When I visited Krakow earlier this summer, I decided to rent an apartment in Podgórze to get a better feel for the place. Could I live there, knowing what I now know?

I found a place right in the heart of what used to be the ghetto, in a newly renovated building right beside a ruin, and across the street from the iconic red brick mikvah building that now houses one of the city’s most prestigious art galleries.


I took long runs past St. Joseph’s Church on the Podgórze Market Square, over the hills of Bednarski Park, and through the narrow streets.


I visited the remaining fragments of ghetto wall. A short section on Lwowska Street includes a plaque on which is written in Hebrew and Polish: “Here they lived, suffered, and died at the hands of Hitler’s torturers; from here they were taken on their last road to the death camps.” A larger section separates a school yard from the park; I came upon a group of Israeli teenagers whose armed guards asked me what I was doing there. I came to see the wall, I replied. I watched for a bit as their animated tour guide seemed to be reenacting the experiences of ghetto captives.


I waited for trams at Ghetto Heroes Square, sitting on the chairs that are part of the memorial to those who waited at this very spot to be transported on that final road to their deaths.


Could I be witness to this on a daily basis? Maybe if I lived in Podgórze, but outside the borders of the ghetto? But that seems no better—to put myself in the position of those who watched from outside the walls.

So my love of this space—a quiet corner just a short walk from the heart of the city—battles with the discomfort of flashes of a painful history.

Could I live there? Could you?

[1] Potel, Jean-Yves. 2010 Koniec Niewinności: Polska Wobec Swojej Żydowskiej Przeszłości. Translated by Julia Chimiak. Krakow: Znak. P. 128.

What if…

Just about every time I come to Warsaw I take a pilgrimage to this spot.

The view down to where my mother used to live, when Kościelna Street continued straight at the bottom of the stairs.

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?