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?

Restoring Peace and Justice in America


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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.


National Peace and Justice Memorial, Montgomery, Alabama

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.


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.

But no.

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.


“Raise Up,” sculpture by Hank Willis Thomas at the Peace and Justice Memorial. Represents continued racial bias and discrimination by the criminal justice system.

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.

Learning about Jewish Religion and Culture in Leszno


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“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.


ISOP students heading to the museum in Leszno, 2015.

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.