Inclusion and Exclusion in the Polish Nation



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.

Poland PartitionMap

Poland was under Russian, Prussian, and Austrian rule from the end of the 18th century until World War I. The region around Warsaw, where my family lived, was under Russian rule, though it had some degree of autonomy for some of this time. Map source and more information about the partitions of Poland:

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.


The Piwkos c. 1916. For more about this photo see: The Photo That Started it All, Some Reassembled Stories, and What Year Was It?


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.


Włocławek before 1898. Note the factories near the river. By Bolesław Julian Sztejner (1861-1921) ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Mama’s Room


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.


Mama’s place

Here is where Mama spent more and more of her time, in her hospital bed. Though nothing is there now, it still feels full.


Self Portrait, 1980, oil on canvas

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.


Krystyna’s bed

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.


The view of the garden

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.

Are Members of the Jewish Community Still Welcome in Poland?


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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.


Building a Jewish Future in Krakow: Jonathan Ornstein at the entrance to the JCC Krakow. Source:

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.


JCC Shabbat Dinner, July 1, 2016

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.

“The Polish Anne Frank” in The Forward


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Today in The Forward is an article Why Renia Spiegel is Called ‘The Polish Anne Frank‘.

During the Nazi occupation of Przesmyśl, Poland, she filled notebooks with her poetry and diary. Renia was only 18 when she was shot on the street, after someone reported her hiding place to the Nazis. Ariana, her younger sister, survived because she had been brought to Warsaw just a few days before that. Ariana became Elizabeth, whom I grew up calling Aunt Elizabeth. She was my mother’s friend for nearly 80 years.

Holocaust Remembrance Day in Włocławek



Thanks to Mirosława Stojak for all the work she does to preserve the memory of Jewish history and culture in Włocławek.

Here is a video from Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27) when she and students and teachers from the Automotive High School visited the memorial at the site of the World War II Jewish ghetto, also the prewar Jewish cemetery.

Flim credit:,

The interviews are in Polish, but even if you can’t understand the words, you can see that these people remember the Jewish history of their city. And they are passing on those memories to the next generation.  They lit candle lanterns in front of the commemorative monument, and the students placed pebbles upon which they had written words like “traditions,” “love,” and “memories.”

There’s more about Włocławek’s Jews on Ms. Stojak’s website The tagline of her site: “Ku pamięci, z nadzieją, na pojednanie,” “In memory, with hope, for reconciliation.”

The Family Burial Plot


I was shocked to learn that the family burial plot is just 20 minutes from where I grew up. No one had ever told me about it.


Gravestone of Abraham and Bertha Pifko, Washington Cemetery. Photo credit: B Kosovsky

I met my 2nd cousin Bob right around the same time my 1st cousin Krysia found his photo of Abraham and Bertha Pifko’s gravestone. Abraham and Bertha were Bob’s great-grandparents, and Krysia’s and my great-uncle and aunt. Poking around some more on the Internet, I figured out that this photograph comes from Bob’s Flickr account, in a folder containing photos of all the tombstones in the Pifko-Winawer Circle in New Montefiore Jewish Cemetery.

Since I was on Long Island for a visit, I decided to see the Family Circle for myself. I went with my friend Krystyna, who is Polish, on our way to Copiague, a town on the south shore of Long Island with a large Polish community and several Polish delis. I’ve driven that route many times to get black current jam, kasha, makowiec, white cheese, and other foods I miss so much from Poland, as well as my son’s favorites: kielbasa and ptasie mleczko, rectangles of marshmallow covered in chocolate. I’ve tried buying kielbasa from the grocery store, but Ian won’t eat it; he insists only the real stuff from Poland is any good.

You can practically see the cemetery from the road, but I never knew it was there. Nor did I know that my relatives were buried there. This is what family silence does. Because we weren’t supposed to know about our Jewish heritage, I had never been there, not even to visit the graves of Stanley and Stella Winawer or Pauline Kanal, relatives whom I remember so fondly.

It’s a large cemetery. Krystyna and I had to figure out how the sectors, blocks, and rows are organized, but eventually we found the Pifko-Winawer Family Circle. The size of the plot is astonishing. It contains dozens of graves. A hexagonal pillar toward the front is labelled “Pifko Winawer Family Circle Organized 1938.” Other faces of the hexagon include the last names Pifko, Lewis, Davis, Kanal, Shapiro, Winawer, Jaret, Jacoby, Jacobs, and Portny. Written on the back face is “In Memorium; Abraham J. Pifko; Max Winawer Rosen.” I had only begun my genealogical research and only recognized a few of those last names. Even today, after six years of genealogical research, I’m still not sure how I’m related to the Davises, Jacobys, and Portnys.

We wandered through the rows of gravestones—raised blocks with blunted front corners, backed by low evergreen hedgerows. Among them, I found Babcia’s sister Sarah Winawer, “beloved mother, grandmother, great grandmother, March 16, 1880-Feb. 16, 1964.” This is the sister my immediate relatives called Lusia, the one who died a few months after I was born and who said before her death that she would look down on me from heaven. She rests beside her husband Saul, and near their children Nathan, Stanley, and Pauline. Another son, Milton, is not there; much later, I learned he chose a different cemetery because his wife Nettie, who was not Jewish, couldn’t be buried in New Montefiore. I recognized names of other relatives Aunt Pat has told me about—Abraham Pifko’s daughters: Eva Lewis and Sarah Lewis who share a last name because they married brothers; and Pauline who was there with her husband Fred Rosen.

I found Babcia’s brother Philip with his wife Goldie, whose graves are on the side of the family plot, facing perpendicular to the others. Their stones have Hebrew lettering on top and English on the side. The others either have both languages on top, or English on top and Hebrew on the sides. Could this signal something? Perhaps Goldie felt a closer affinity with the Hebrew/Yiddish language?

I did not find Abraham and Bertha’s grave. When I asked Bob about it, he explained that they are buried in Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn. Abraham died before the family circle was established, and even though his great-grandmother wanted to be buried with the rest of the family, her spot was waiting for her with her husband. Another sister, Liba’s grave is not there, either, though she and her husband are remembered on a memorial bench with the inscription, “In memory of Jacob and Libe Winawer.”

Walking among my extended family, I felt the joy of finding them, and simultaneously the sense of loss that I never got to know, or even know anything about, most of them.

Is it odd that I spoke in Polish the first time I visited family graves in a Jewish cemetery? I don’t think so because Babcia’s family prided themselves in their ability to speak the language well. In some ways my ancestors straddled the boundary between Polish and Jewish culture. But the gulf was wide, and when my grandmother converted, she closed the door on her Jewish heritage, just as her father expelled her from the Jewish world in which she had been raised.

The Photo that Started it All: What Year Was It?



This blog started with a photograph. A family portrait of adult siblings with their parents. The photo also instigated my search for my hidden Jewish ancestors.


The Photo that started it all

Here, in my great grandfather’s long beard, head covering, and black robe, I saw for the first time visible proof that I descend from Jews. It took a long time, but I managed to identify everyone in the photo, including my grandmother (Babcia) who appears in the bottom left, her hand resting proprietarily on her mother’s wrist.

Based on their clothing and ages, I have guessed this photo was taken sometime around World War I. But I just came across some new information about my grand uncle Philip, the man standing to the right, that throws this date into question. Let me walk through what I have figured out.

Two Pifko brothers came to America, Abraham in 1906 and Philip in 1907. Here they are with Abraham’s wife and children and some other relatives:

BerthaPiwkoNathanPaulineEwa c1908

The Pifko brothers around 1908, New York. Front from left: Philip, Abraham, Paulina, Ewa, Bertha, Nathan. Back from left: Raphael Kolski, Sam and Max Alexander

This photo is easy to date; everything fits together. It must have been taken after Bertha and the children arrived in New York in May 1907, and Philip arrived in December 1907, but before Abraham and Bertha had their fourth child in October 1909. The style of Bertha’s dress is also consistent with this time period. Census records add another piece of supporting evidence; in 1910, all the people in the photo lived in the same household in Manhattan. So the photo was taken sometime between 1908 and the middle of 1909.


Philip and Abraham Pifko in the US.

In another photo of Philip and Abraham (on the right), they look a bit older, and Philip has grown a mustache. In my last post, I said that Philip is on the left, but my cousin Joan, who knew Philip when he was older, says she’s pretty sure he is on the right, driving the car. She also has no idea why his complexion was labeled “light brown” on an official document I found. His skin was not dark.

The photo that started this blog, and my search for ancestors, would seem to have been taken next, sometime around 1914-1918. Except it seems strange that Philip visited Poland during World War I.

Then, while looking through Philip’s documents on, I clicked on a passport application from 1920. It was for both him and his wife Goldie, to go to England and France. According to what is written, Philip became a US citizen in January 1916, and resided in the US uninterruptedly since arriving in 1907. In response to a question about where he has lived outside of the US since his naturalization, the space is stamped, “I have never resided outside of the U.S.” Below, in response to a question about previous passports, it’s stamped “I have never had a passport.”

So this got me wondering. If Philip didn’t leave the country between 1907 and 1920, could the photo have been made later than I thought, in 1920? Could it have been when he traveled on this passport?


Goldie and Philip Pifko 1920, passport application photo

I found this passport application a while ago, but it didn’t occur to me until now that it might have a back. Sure enough, when I clicked to the next page in the database, there it was. The back of the form includes a place where a lawyer verified the truth of everything on it. There is also a handwritten note, “Applicant says he will not go to Russia or Poland. Instruct Amer consul [American Consulate] at France and England.” And even more convincingly, Philip and Goldie’s photo is attached at the bottom.

At age 37, Philip clearly seems older than in any of the other photos. His hair is receding (and, by the way, his skin does not look particularly dark).

It seems unlikely, after all, that the photo was taken in 1920. Could it have been taken before Philip’s departure in 1907? I went back to the photo itself, to reconsider all the details. First, I checked everyone’s ages. In 1907, my grandmother would have only been 13, but clearly she is older in the photo. The boy in front, sitting between his grandparents is Nathan Kolski, whose mother Regina died when he was born; several of my cousins have confirmed his identity. But Nathan was born in 1905, and he is definitely not a toddler in the photo. He almost certainly isn’t 15 either, making it unlikely the photo was taken in 1920. Also, the oldest sister Liba was 20 years older than Babcia. It’s really hard to tell for sure, but I would say that none of the women who are standing in the photo look as old as 48. Perhaps a couple are around 40. So again, considering everyone’s ages, it seems most likely the photo was taken around 1915, when Babcia was 21, Nathan was 10, Liba was 42, and Philip was 32.

It is also worth noting that the youngest child in the family, Malka, is missing, making me think the photo was taken after she died in 1913. Otherwise she would have been in it.

Next, I looked at the way everyone is dressed. Clearly, there is a great deal of variation between my great grandmother’s conservative dress and my grandmother’s short hemline and high heels. The dresses of the younger women flow; they are not fitted and buttoned up like Bertha’s in the photo from 1908. Fashion catalogs from the period show that during World War I, fashions changed markedly. Hemlines went up, waistlines became higher, and clothes used less fabric to conserve resources for the war. Other characteristics from the period include the “V” neckline with a lace inset, as well as attractive high heeled shoes, like Babcia and her sisters wear. The clothes date this photo back at my original estimate, 1914-1918.

I even considered whether I could be mistaken about the identity of the man standing to the right. Could it be the spouse of one of the sisters beside him? But several relatives have identified him as Philip, and he looks like Philip based on the other photos. Rachel’s husband Pinkus Kolski looked completely different. I don’t have a photo of Nunia’s husband, so I can’t compare.

But if the photo was taken around 1914-1918, how can Philip have been there? Occam’s razor says when there are multiple explanations, the simplest is probably the best one. The simplest explanation in this case is that Philip was indeed in Poland at some point during World War I. Maybe the photo was taken in celebration of his visit. Maybe a space was left between Jacob and Nunia to symbolically mark where Abraham, the brother who stayed in the US, would have stood. Maybe it was taken for Abraham, so he would have a memento of his kin back in Poland. That would explain why the photo was passed down in Abraham’s family. Many years later, his grandson made copies for my grandmother and other branches of the family.

Does that mean Philip lied on his passport application? Maybe not. If he traveled to Poland before he became a US citizen in 1916, maybe he didn’t need to report it on the form. And if that’s what happened, maybe I can pinpoint the photo more specifically to 1914-1916, before his hair had receded quite so much, and before the US entered the war. That seems like the simplest solution, even though it still doesn’t explain why Philip went back to Europe in the middle of a war.

Two Pifko Brothers Came to America


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Two of Babcia’s brothers sailed to America during the first decade of the 20th century. They both established bakeries in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and the younger brother Philip also made a small fortune in real estate. Philip never had any children of his own, but he became the patriarch of the family in the US. For many years, he maintained the family circle that met monthly, and helped to sponsor relatives who came from Poland. At first relatives came to work, often starting out in his bakery. Later, during and after World War II, efforts to bring relatives over from Europe became more urgent. He wanted to save their lives.

The older brother came first. He is listed as “Abram,” on the ship manifest, though some relatives called him Abraham and others used his middle name Jan (the Polish form of John). He arrived in New York on the SS Moltke on January 24, 1906, and was released into the custody of his uncle Samuel Jaretzky, who was probably related to him through his wife Bertha/Blima. There is some confusion whether Bertha’s maiden name was Kolski or Jaretzky. Bertha’s great grandson Bob has heard different stories about this—either the names were used interchangeably or one branch of the family changed their name. As if that weren’t complicated enough, In the US, the Jaretzkys dropped the Slavic ending and became the Jarets.

Bertha joined her husband in May 1907 with their three young children, Nathan, Paulina, and Ewa. Their fourth child, Sarah, was born in 1909.

BerthaPiwkoNathanPaulineEwa c1908

The Pifko brothers around 1908, New York. Front from left: Philip, Abraham, Paulina, Ewa, Bertha, Nathan. Back from left: Raphael Kolski, Sam and Max Alexander

The younger brother, Philip/Efraim arrived in December 1907. Philip was twenty-six and still a bachelor. At first, he lived with Abraham and worked as a driver of a bakery wagon. In 1910, Abraham was foreman at a pants manufacturer.

I love this photo of them.


Philip and Abraham Pifko in the US.

The photo was in my grandmother’s collection, inside the envelope she labeled “do not open,” along with the others in this post. I’m guessing it was taken in New York sometime in the 1910s. They seem to be inside, so maybe the automobile was just a prop of the photographer. I’ve tried to figure out what kind of car it is. It might be some sort of runabout from the earliest years of the 20th century.

Both brothers had dark hair, and usually wore a mustache without a beard. Abraham, as described by his sister Nunia, had “devil eyes;” he “liked girls and girls liked him.” She described Philip as “shy, pockmarked, and sweet.” Nunia described both as tall, but official documents list Philip’s height as 5’ 7”. He had grey eyes and a “light brown” complexion. That’s one reason I think Philip is on the left in this photo; he looks dark, like a gypsy. Also, I imagine Abraham, as the older brother, would have been in the driver’s seat. But then again, Philip was the bakery wagon driver so maybe I have it backwards.


The youngest sister, Malka/Maria c. 1912 in Poland

Nunia described the youngest sibling Maria/Malka as dark like a gypsy.

In 1911, Philip married Goldie Przedecka, though her name might have been Gertrude Jacobs. In my aunt’s tree, she is listed as the former, but their marriage record says the latter. Names are complicated in my family; Goldie’s sister and mother had the last name Jacobs or Posner. I’m still working on this.

Philip and Goldie never had any children, but his memory lives on, much more strongly than that of his brother. Abraham died at the age of 47 in 1925, and even though he had children and grandchildren, the cousins I have spoken with know very little about him. They have personal memories of his wife Bertha, who lived until 1968.

Census records show that by 1920, Philip had his own bakery. In 1930, his occupation is “employer.” In 1940, he is listed as a manager of real estate.

Philip’s legacy lives on thanks to everything he did for others during his lifetime. The census shows that he opened his home to a niece, sister-in-law, nephew, and mother-in-law. In 1925, his sister Sarah’s son Nathan Winawer, age 22, lived there, as well as Goldie’s much younger sister Sallie Jacobs, who was 21 years old. Around this time, Nathan and Sallie married. In 1930, Nathan and Sallie were no longer living with Philip, but Nathan was working in a bakery which may well have been Philip’s. In 1940, Bertha’s mother Nicha Posner and Abraham’s daughter Pauline lived with Philip and Goldie.

Other relatives also worked in Philip’s bakery, including Nathan’s brother Stanley Winawer. Stanley went on to open his own bakery, which he had for many years in Brooklyn. Philip helped family members in other ways. Joan, Philip’s grand niece, says he was involved in relatives’ schooling, and he was important for opening doors for them. She was just a child at the time, but she remembers anxious discussions about getting the family out of Poland during World War II.

I don’t have to look any further than my immediate family to see Philip’s generosity. When Babcia, my mother, and uncles came the US, Philip helped them, too. I’m not 100% sure whether they stayed with him, or just in an apartment he owned.


Bertha and Abraham Pifko in the US.

Philip may well have been following in his older brother’s footsteps. After all, Philip was one of several boarders at his brother’s in 1910. Others included the brother of Abraham’s wife, as well as two cousins, all of whom are in the photo from 1908 that’s at the top of this post. In the 1920 census, Abraham is listed as “proprietor” of a “bakerstore,” and a boarder named Charles Jacobs lived with them. Charles, age 35, had come from Poland in 1913 and worked as a bakery clerk. Could he be related to Philip’s wife Goldie, whose maiden name might also have been Jacobs?

I keep trying to fit the pieces together, to tell a story about their  lives.


Polish Independence Day is International News


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The Marsz Niepodlegołości, March of Freedom, has gotten a lot of attention from the international press, no doubt because of parallels with rising nationalism in other parts of the world. The march, organized by radical nationalist parties, was on November 11, Polish Independence Day. Started in 2010, it has attracted more attendees than the official Independence Day celebrations almost since it began.


2017 March of Freedom under the shadow of the Palace of Culture. Photo credit: Radek Pietruszka/European Pressphoto Agency

Here are links to a few articles. Unfortunately, some of them are behind pay walls.

From The Wall Street Journal, “Polish Nationalist Youth March Draws Thousands in Capital

The next day, “Polish Leaders Condemn Nationalist March” was published.

From BuzzFeed: “March Led By White Nationalist Group In Poland Draws Tens Of Thousands From Across Europe

From Politico, “White nationalists call for ethnic purity at Polish demonstration

From The New York Times: “Nationalist March Dominates Poland’s Independence Day”

And a couple days later: “Polish President Sharply Condemns Weekend Nationalist March”

From The Guardian: “‘White Europe’: 60,000 nationalists march on Poland’s independence day”

And a couple days later: “Polish president condemns far-right scenes at Independence Day march”

And in Haaretz: “Tens of Thousands Join Far-right Nationalist March for Polish Independence

My post about the march: Independence Day: The Emotional Tenor of Populism in Poland

I’ll give a paper about it at the American Anthropological Association Meeting on November 30.


Independence Day: The Emotional Tenor of Populism in Poland


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As November 11, Polish Independence Day, approaches, I am preparing a paper about the official and unofficial marches in Warsaw that took place in 2014. I’ll present it at the American Anthropological Association Meeting in Washington DC on a panel entitled “Cycles of Hatred and Rage: What Right Wing Extremists in Europe and Their Parties Tell Us About the U.S.” on Thursday, November 30.

The panel will examine the dissatisfaction with the status quo that seems to have overtaken people in Europe, the US, and beyond, and the associated movements pushing for change. Anthropological studies of resistance and revolution tend to view popular dissent as a positive expression of agency by people who are underrepresented or oppressed by powerful political and economic interests. However, many of these contemporary movements are closely allied with xenophobia, making it harder to celebrate the changes they wish for.

Anthropologists usually work very closely with people, on the ground and in their everyday lives, giving voice to their thoughts, beliefs, values, aspirations and frustrations. They try to explain why they feel what they feel, and why they do what they do, so that their perspective is comprehensible for others who don’t necessarily share those beliefs, values, and experiences. Hopefully, what comes out of the effort is a broader understanding of the varied expressions of culture throughout the globe. I also think that anthropologists have tended to argue that such understanding can be grounds for greater tolerance, and even help to alleviate suffering. However, these assumptions are difficult to reconcile with the the recent rise of nationalism, nativism, and rejection of anyone and anything perceived as different.

I’ve been struggling with this myself since the last presidential election. It’s made me realize how much much my own world view is based on a belief in human progress, despite the fact that I have been critical of the so-called “metanarrative of progress” that assumes that modernization, industrialization, and for that matter globalization, lead inevitably to better lives. Other notions of progress have had a fundamental impact on my perceptions. For example, I thought I was witnessing the growth of tolerance, and the possibility of people working together toward common goals regardless of ethnic, religious, gender, cultural, and even political differences. This was part of the promise of globalization–a world more deeply interconnected, and thus interdependent. The global spread of democracy was supposed to limit warfare and global networks were supposed to contribute to economic prosperity.

Anthropologists have pointed out for decades that the benefits of globalization are unequally distributed. Some people feel left out; for them, the prosperity of others just deepens their sense of stagnation and frustration. And this brings me back to the favorable view anthropologists have tended to have of popular revolts. We’ve written about hegemony, and the failure of the oppressed to question the power structures that prevent them from getting ahead. We’ve celebrated the moments when underprivileged groups have organized and fought for civil rights and greater voice in leadership. Well, people are rising up right now. They are fighting against the structures that they see as limiting their freedom and opportunities. Cultural relativism, one of the foundational principals of anthropology, compels us to withhold judgement and understand the views of others in their own terms.

But as I tell my students when I introduce the concept to them, while it’s important to take a culturally relativistic approach in order to understand others’ beliefs and actions, that doesn’t mean we withhold critical evaluation or moral judgement. Some viewpoints need to be challenged, especially when they are dangerous to whole classes of people, whether it be because of their religion, or ethnicity, or gender.

In my paper about the official and opposition Independence Day celebrations in Poland. I will explore the reasons for the raw anger expressed by marchers in the opposition, showing how they are grounded in a legitimate critique of the failed promises of globalization. But I’ll also challenge the retreat into xenophobic nationalism. There is room in Poland  (and in the US and elsewhere) for different ethnicities and religions. There has to be, because the alternative will be worse. We’ll be back to forced resettlement, battles over territory, maybe even genocide.

See, I still hold out hope for progress–social progress where people rely on deliberation and negotiation to work out disagreements. They don’t immediately throw bottles and call each other names.

Here is the panel abstract:

Cycles of Hatred and Rage: What Right Wing Extremists in Europe and Their Parties Tell Us About the U.S

The growing support for extreme right wing movements and authoritarianism in the United States and Europe has caused apprehension among political analysts and scholars. Anthropologists are uniquely positioned to make a difference and have a direct impact on understanding these events that are of such grave importance in the U.S. and abroad. This panel underscores this year’s theme, “Anthropology Matters,” precisely because anthropologists’ commitment to long-term, in-depth research on the ground with participants in these movements and through inquiry into reception to the ideas transmitted during and after election campaigns contributes to a layered understanding of these movements. The support for these movements has occurred even in well-established, formerly stable democracies. These movements are nothing new, and many have origins in the later nineteenth century. Curiously, supporters of these movements often sacrifice their own economic and social best interests in elections in order to achieve ideological goals. Anthropologists have long been interested in this phenomenon, and David Kertzer, in Ritual, Politics and Power (1988) developed salient theoretical explanations for such voters, incorporating, among other sources, his own research in Italy. This panel of anthropologists working in Europe, from Poland to Germany to Italy to France to Great Britain, addresses these concerns, drawing on their own recent fieldwork and historical research.
Attitudes toward the European Union, economic nationalism, immigration and the acceptance of refugees, deindustrialization, and globalization are among the themes discussed in this panel. A number of questions will be addressed: 1) What motivates such support? 2) Is this support something new, or is a cyclical process at work? 3) If cyclical, can existing or new theoretical explanations be derived from the process? 4) Are these movements and their supporters increasingly becoming a threat to democracy? 5) Have effective countermeasures minimized such a threat?
Discussants from Europe and North America will use these findings to analyze the impact of these European movements on current developments in the U.S. and to reflect on the cross-cutting relationships of these developments with these European social and political movements.

And here is my paper abstract:

Independence Day: The Emotional Tenor of Populism in Poland

Just as David Kertzer (1988) points to the emotional and cognitive power of symbols to shape popular support, or opposition, for political authority, Jan Kubik (1994) showed how both the state socialist authorities and the opposition Solidarity Movement made use of national and religious symbols in their competition for popular approval during the waning days of state socialism in Poland. In recent years, with market liberalization and European integration firmly established, the same national symbols are employed once again in both official and opposition rituals. Independence Day events in Warsaw (November 11, 2014) reveal the stark contrast between the official ceremony, characterized by formality and pomp, and the opposition march, full of energy and anger. Notably, both events employed national symbols and claimed to be the legitimate heirs of past struggles for freedom, but the contrasting emotional tenor of each signals fundamentally opposed orientations toward open borders, global markets, and indeed the character of the Polish nation. Considered in the context of nationalist/populist movements elsewhere, it points to a global shift toward fragmentation and isolationism. I argue that the populist reassertion of nationalism in Poland can be viewed as the rejection of neoliberal hegemony. My point is not to support or condone the concurrent rise of xenophobia, but rather to understand how the turn to a protectionist vision of Poland free of external influences emerges from disillusionment with the failed promises of open markets, especially for the working class men who dominate the opposition Independence Day March of Freedom.