Named not in hubris but in honor and memory of Austin M. Wright, who taught me critical thinking, and his teacher, Wayne Booth, who coined the phrase.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I'm Jewish? Now what?

The opportunities I had to meet with young Polish Jews were highlights of my recent trip to Poland with the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations.

On our first full day of meetings, we met with Karina Sokolowska-Folwarczny, Country Director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.  (Karina is married to Andrzej, who directs the Forum; they met after both were involved with their respective organizations.)

The “Joint,” as it is known, is the primary funder of many of the Jewish communal activities in Poland, as it is in the FSU and many other areas.  In addition to supporting traditional programs – primarily social services and kosher kitchens that provide meals for elderly and needy Jews – it also helps the growing community of young Poles who are discovering and/or want to learn about their Jewish backgrounds. 

Karina herself is an example.  She grew up knowing she was Jewish; her grandparents had met in camps and returned to the German area of Poland.  During the Communist era – from the end of World War II until 1989 – Judaism became an underground religion like others.  In college in the 1990s she joined a Jewish student organization, and that was the beginning of her public identification. 

How many other Jews are there in Poland? 

No one knows for sure.  Michael Shudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, with whom we also met, notes that 350,000 were left in Poland at the end of the Second World War, and 5,000 are now registered with the community. 

On its website, the Joint estimates 12,000.  Karina Sokolowska-Folwarczny told us that an organization of “hidden children” now numbers 1,000+.  In addition, Sochnut, the Jewish Agency, sponsors an annual trip to Israel for Polish youth between the ages 18-26.  For 7-8 years, two trips each year have taken 60 young people who have had to prove a connection to Judaism.

The phenomenon of “hidden children” was fascinating to our group.  Deathbed confessions by people now in their 60s and 70s are common.  There are many versions of very similar stories. 
  • An elderly person – more often a woman, because girls were easier to hide and “pass” – was adopted by a non-Jewish family, and raised as a Catholic but told at some point she was born Jewish.
  • Even with that knowledge, the person either continued to practice Catholicism because it was their religion or – in the face of Communist anti-Semitism – hid their roots from their spouses and children.
In addition to the descendants of hidden children are Poles whose ancestors survived because they themselves hid or disguised or denied their Jewish roots.

Yale Reisner, a researcher at Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute, also spoke to us of this phenomenon.  On the average of once a week someone calls or comes to the Institute with a similar story.  “My mother has only a few months to live, and last week she told me that her parents were Jews.”  They want to know what to do next.

Some Poles make the discovery themselves and then confront their relatives; this was the case of a young journalist who found his family’s unique name and town on the popular Jewish genealogical website, while he was browsing the Internet late one night.

(This is not only a Polish phenomenon.  Last week, we spent five days in Brussels as guests of the International Jewish Center, Belgium’s only English-speaking Liberal Jewish community and a member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.  At the Jewish Museum of Belgium, we learned about the constantly increasing number of Belgians who learn late in life that their parent was one of the enfants caches.)

We met that young Polish journalist who found his family on the Web not because of his past, however, but because of the choice he has made about his future:  to live a Jewish life in Krakow.  Much of that active life is focused around the Centrum Spoleczności Żydowskiej w Krakowie, the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow, in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter.  Dedicated in 2008 by Prince Charles, the Centre is directed by incredibly energetic New Yorker Jonathan Ornstein, who also has become a permanent resident.

A few blocks away, at the Żydowskie Muzeum Galicja – the Jewish Museum of Galicia – our guide was an educational specialist from Nashville, a young Jewish woman whose father I know, coincidentally.  She too plans to stay in Poland.

We met many, many other Jews like these, from Poland and other countries, who are building active communities in Warsaw, Krakow, and Lodz.  Poland’s annual Limmud – an annual adult education program that has been spreading throughout Europe from country to country for 30 years – attracted 640 eager learners to Warsaw in November.

An American expatriate I met in Brussels commented, “When you live in the U.S., you tend to think of everything in Europe in terms of past history.  When you live in Europe, you realize that history is part of your life every day.”

And this is the message of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations.  Our history as Jews, and/or as Poles, is very much a part of today.  How we respond has the power to shape tomorrow. 

* * *

As I write, Garrison Keillor is telling me that today is the 151st anniversary of the birth of Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, inventor and advocate of the use of the international language Esperanto.  He died in Warsaw on April 14, 1917.  I photographed his grave when we were in Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery.


  1. I am not Jewish, but I have to admire the obstinate will to live of the Jewish people in Poland and elsewhere.

    As an Esperanto-speaker, I was delighted to see the reference to Dr Zamenhof's creation and to see your picture of his grave. He was a great man, aware of the situation of his own Jewish community, while open to the wider world. Inmcidentally, the word Esperanto is based on the root word for hope, something we can never have too much of.

  2. I agree with Bill Chapman.

    However can I add that Esperanto is not only a great idea, but is now a living language.

    The study course is now receiving 120,000 hits per month.

    That can't be bad :)