When the World Federation announced that this year’s meeting would be in Poland, many 2Gs (children of survivors), survivors and child survivors were angry. They didn’t want to spend a nickel in the country where their families suffered so brutally, and saw all Poles as collaborators. I, too, had sworn that I would never come to Poland to do what I call “Le Tour Macabre,” but when I heard that the World Federation was having its annual meeting in Warsaw, I realized I was a hypocrite, realized that Warsaw is not Chicago, Boston or DC. I realized I had to come, if only for three days. It is very hard to teach tolerance to kids and not be tolerant yourself. Why should I be a hypocrite?
My mother was furious. My friend’s mother forbade her to come altogether, and she obeyed her mother. But I was determined to go and my cousin in Jerusalem made it possible.
A few days after my trip was booked, I received a call from the North American Council of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and after an interview with Mr. Sigmund Rolat in New York, I learned I would be in Poland for 18 days—to learn about the country and to witness the I.B. Singer Festival in Warsaw while learning about the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, which sits atop what used to be the street where my mother and grandmother lived, in the Jewish Quarter that became the Warsaw Ghetto.
The welcome we received on Friday night in what I call the cocoon (the hotel that could be anywhere) was heartwarming. Stefanie Seltzer, the Federation president, opened the conference. The Israeli ambassador, Zvi Rav-Ner and American ambassador Lee Feinstein welcomed us, as did the mayor, really the President of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, along with Rabbi Michael Shudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, who was born in Queens, New York.
Ambassador Feinstein was honest. He noted that Jews have a very long history in Poland, one that was complicated at times, in part because of Poland’s location in the so-called “bloodlands,” where great power competition too often brought out the worst in humanity. He described how the Jews found a home in a historically diverse and tolerant Poland, and established what was once the world’s largest Jewish community. He talked about how the Jewish people made vital and lasting contributions to Polish society and world civilization, including in the arts, science, and commerce. And of course, he explained how the Holocaust changed all that, and yet there were Poles who risked everything to save Jewish lives, giving Irena Sendler, who saved 2,500 children, as the classic example of a Righteous Person.
He said that our conference was helping Poland re-discover its heritage and talked about the growing interest among Poles in exploring this history and embracing Jewish culture, mentioning the annual Jewish festivals in Warsaw and Krakow, noting that the embassy is playing an active role in supporting this renewed cooperation between Poles and Jews. (It is no secret that Poland is a strong ally of Israel at the EU.) He mentioned Holocaust education programs and the renovations and restorations of synagogues and cemeteries. And he described how President Obama came to Warsaw, and paid tribute to the Ghetto Fighters. He also noted that the U.S. President visited the new museum that is “rising from the ashes of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw to teach future generations about this rich history.” And, he admitted, there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done.
Part of that work took place in our workshops, where we met our 2G brothers and sisters in Poland, many of us for the first time. I was blown away by the courage of the Polish 2Gs, some of them who never knew their parents were Jewish, and some from mixed marriages, who grew up thinking and feeling they were apart from their society, and yet didn’t know why. Yet in their heart of hearts, they felt they were different, and at these meetings, finally felt as if they had found “a home.”
They told us that Jewish life was being reborn in Poland. For the first time in 73 years, they were able to talk about being Jewish. A.D., a psychologist and leader of the Second Generation movement in Warsaw, explained how after the war, their parents’ couldn’t understand what happened, and then were hit with the double-whammy of communism. Many hid their Jewishness as a result, and never spoke of it until communism fell in 1989. For the first time since the war, they thought they could tell their children who they really are.
The meetings were welcoming to those who thought they were lost forever—and that is truly the story of Polish Jewry today. While the community is a tiny fraction of what it had once been, for the first time, these people feel safe when they say they are Jewish. While some are discovering Judaism, others are discovering their Polish-Jewish history. They credit Pope John Paul II with doing more to fight antisemitism in Poland than anyone else, and while there is still antisemitism, as the older generation dies off, and the children become educated, it becomes less virulent, less effective, particularly in a global society. Poles are learning about Jews and Judaism, and are seeing that the Jews were an integral part of their culture and society, perhaps often separated, but part of Poland’s history for almost 1,000 years.
As one Polish 2G said, “We are discovering our Jewish roots, and the Poles are discovering Jewish Polish history. This creates a synergy…but while we are getting really good at seeing and fighting antisemitism because we have to, we are not so good at finding friends and allies. We need to find common ground.”
“Imagine how different the world would have been if we could have taught our children and grandchildren our heritage and legacy. We are like the hidden Jews of New Mexico, and now we have the unprecedented chance to change our future,” said another.
Some are discovering pride in their Judaism, while others just want to blend in. Another 2G talked about how he was born to be like everyone else. Now he deals with survivors every day, but says that was a choice that he made…and yet had no choice in making it, because he owes it to those who were murdered. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to be swallowed by the Holocaust. He feels like Ulysseys, who couldn’t deal with the souls of those who died. “There are too many stories, and some of them scare me, but I cannot come home. I hate going to Auschwitz-Birkenau, but I must go… Only my mother and grandmother survived and I hate to go to them with questions because of the looks on their faces…and still I try to extend my Jewish experience.”
A young woman talked about her father, who was in the underground. Her mother and grandmother survived, but avoiding talking altogether. Her father’s mother simply lied. But it was much easier for her to identify with her father, because he fought back instead of being trapped in the fear, shame and guilt that came from her mom. It took her a long time to be able to listen to the stories, and now she is discovering who she is.
These 2G/3G workshops also discussed the differences between those whose parents did not speak at all, and those who wanted their children to be their supporters, to use them as a tool for hating. It created complicated feelings when coping with their parents and was an important obstacle in the 2G acceptance and exploration of their Judaism.
A, who was born in 1947, was able to come to grips with her Judaism for the first time when she was 55 years old. She was self-motivated because she needed to find out who she was and accept her identity. It was hard for her to find herself in the shadow of the Holocaust, and she began with the story of her grandfather, who used to sing songs in Yiddish—and tell her he was singing old Army songs. He had a tiny Torah scroll that no one was permitted to touch, and she wanted him to read it to her. He said it did not contain stories for children. “If you hear them, when you are an adult, you will run away,” he told her.
Another woman was told as a child to forget Judaism, forget the Holocaust. She felt a pervasive loneliness, and was comforted by our presence. When she found out she was Jewish, she cried, and pleaded not to be told she was a Jew. Those fears and the feeling of being different ran deep, and it was scary. As one American 2G said to her, “It took something good to justify our survival, and if you want the third and fourth generations to be proud, you remind them that they come from a people who have perservered.”
In Poland, Jewish identity fluctuates. Many were raised in an environment loaded with high doses of antisemitism. As one Polish 2G put it, “It still exists, of course, and it depends where you live. Sometimes, when you tell your lifelong friends the truth, they treat you differently…it can be compared to other traumas, like those of mixed races who live in Zimbabwe.”
Yet on a personal level, they are finding each other and creating close, emotional bonds–just like the American and Israeli 2Gs did when they came together decades ago.
On Monday morning, the last day of Conference, those who attended the Yad Vashem ceremony to recognize the Righteous—Polish families who had risked their lives and families to save the lives of our parents, brothers and sisters—were reminded that good can triumph over evil, if people make difficult choices. The Israel ambassador, Zvi Rav-Ner spoke movingly and forcefully about those choices, and noted that there is a universal lesson in what these people did.
“They made the right choices even though it was so painful… Today we honor those human beings that we have to respect and honor forever. ..Yet not everyone saved people and not everyone could, but there were those who made the honorable decision. When we ask why not everyone did that, [why] there were collaborators…when we put must also put this question to ourselves…would you have risked your own lives and the lives of your family to risk to save a neighbor or friend or even a stranger? These people have done it, and we are forever in debt to them and their families… The message for the future is universal—to prevent such situations anywhere, God forbid that we get into such situations… These people give us hope that we can still believe in people.”
Because I believe it is important to name names—victims, survivors, rescuers—to put a human face on the tragedies of the past, to bring understanding that these were just folks who found themselves in dire straits and made choiceless choices, I list them here. Survivors’ children often presented these awards to the children, grandchildren and relative of the rescuers, all of them now resting in peace.
Leo Hoffman presented the award to the son of the late Janina Bereska. Ewa Banaszczyk of Lodz, received the award for her late grandfather, Adolph Brauner. Lilka Rosenbaum-Elbaum presented the award to the granddaughter of the couple who rescued her family, Jadwiga and Adam Chorqzkiewicz. Mira Becker honored two sisters, Maria and Marianna Kazuczyk, and gave the award to their family members. Jozefa and Wilhelm Maj were honored with an award given to their adopted child, a survivor herself, Ida Paluch-Kersz. The daughter of Katarzyna and Stanislaw Swietlikowski, Maria Nadstawek, received the award for them, and a survivor’s daughter, Agnieszka Bater-Shupska, gave the award to the nephew of her parent’s rescuer, Agnieszka Troszka.
Some of the children of survivors recognize the rescuers of their families.
You will probably be able to find all their stories and many more on the Yad Vashem website, along with information on how to honor the righteous who saved your own family members.
And the next morning, a group of us left for Lublin and Krakow…code words for Majdanek and Auschwitz… more to come.