OSWIECIM — Until four years ago, 20-year-old Krzysztof had no idea he was Jewish. He grew up Catholic, went to church every Sunday and celebrated all the Christian holy days. Then, one Christmas eve, that all changed.
“It was just moments before we started Christmas dinner. My grandmother had laid out the plates with the traditional meal and then turned to us and said, ‘You are all Jews.’
“It was a huge shock,” he recalls.
Krzysztof, an Opole native, is just one of the dozens of Polish “hidden Jews” who attended a Shavei Israel seminar in Oswiecim last weekend. Of all ages and hailing from all over Poland, the participants held a Shabbat together in the town more commonly called Auschwitz, where they prayed and studied Torah and Judaism with Rabbi Boaz Pash, the former rabbi of Krakow. The weekend finished with a guided tour of the former death camp.
Krzysztof’s story, remarkably, was not unique among the attendees of the seminar. A large number of the participants were Jews and most had discovered their Jewishness only recently, and some at an advanced age.
‘Over the years my grandmother was probably afraid to tell us we were Jews’
“Over the years my grandmother was probably afraid to tell us we were Jews. The strangest thing is she was not afraid of the Nazis, but was afraid of the Communists and the Polish government before the fall of Communism. The atmosphere in Poland at that time made her fearful, and she chose not to tell us we were Jews,” says Krzysztof.
When asked if his parents knew they were Jewish, or if their parents had also hidden the fact from them, he says, “My mother has always known she was a Jew. My father is Catholic with no Jewish roots. Now my sister and I also know that we are Jews.”
In light of this life-changing revelation, Krzysztof says he feels “half-and-half,” as he describes it.
“I’m still a Catholic. I was baptized and I’m still not entirely sure I want to change my religion. I came to the conference because, deep inside, I feel a strong connection to Judaism and I wanted to meet other Jews and to study Jewish culture, language, tradition and history.
“The most important thing for me was to celebrate Shabbat together. We prayed in the synagogue, we learned Torah and other activities related to Shabbat. It was really great.”
“I may not celebrate all Jewish holidays yet, but I light Hanukkah candles. I feel half Catholic and half Jewish,” he says with a smile.
Many of Poland’s hidden Jews prefer not to reveal their religious status after they first discover their Jewishness. Krzysztof did not have this problem.
“I told all my friends that I am a Jew. The teachers at my school also knew it, because I invited one of Poland’s rabbis to lecture my class about Judaism. The students’ reactions were very positive: They found it new and very interesting.
“Sometimes I hear people speaking negatively about Israel, but it’s usually because of the security situation and the conflict with the Palestinians – it’s not anti-Semitism or hatred of Jews.”
Last summer, Krzysztof visited Israel for the first time, and fell in love with the place. “The weather in Israel is just great for me because I do not like winter. The food is excellent too, especially the oranges. They were so delicious, not like the ones we get in Poland. The people are wonderful too, not only in appearance, but especially in the way they behave and think.”
Jakub “Kuba” Einhorn, 35, also grew up in a mixed family but, unlike Krzysztof, he says he feels completely Jewish.
“From an early age I knew my parents came from different religions,” he recalls. “We always celebrated both the Jewish and Christian holidays; now I feel completely Jewish and have recently taken part in several Shavei Israel seminars. I felt very comfortable among the Jews who were here with me. We celebrated Shabbat together and the atmosphere was great.”
Einhorn also says most of the reactions to his Jewishness were very positive.
“In fact, since I graduated high school I have only encountered anti-Semitism once, when I had a guest, a Jewish Agency emissary. We went to spend Shabbat together in Wrocław when a group of young men on the street started shouting at us after they saw he was wearing a yarmulke. I tried to drag him away, but he chose to stand and confront them verbally. Afterwards he told me it was good it had happened because people in Israel sometimes think that there isn’t any more anti-Semitism in Poland. Now he knows that there still is.”
Twenty-seven-year-old Basia Wieczorek, or “Batia” as she prefers to call herself, is from Warsaw where she works for the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland. Although she also knew as a young child she was Jewish, her parents insisted she keep it a secret. Later she attended the Jewish seminary in Oswiecim and she now teaches elementary school students about Jewish history and the traditions of the cities in which they live.
“I never had an identity problem. When I was a kid, the Communist regime still ruled Poland and my parents were afraid to publicly state we were Jewish. I remember that when all the students were asked to tell the class what they did during the summer, I always made up stories to hide that I had been at a summer camp for Jewish children. One day, I decided not to hide it anymore and told everyone I was Jewish.
“Most of the comments were very positive. Only one member of my high school class was anti-Semitic. I asked him why he hated Jews and he replied, ‘The Jews cheat and want to take our country.’ I asked him if he thought the same of me, and he said: ‘No, you’re different.’ This is today’s anti-Semitism in Poland. Most people will not tell you directly that they hate Jews”.
During her work, she has encountered several cases of Jews who chose or were forced to hide their Jewishness.
“Usually it was a decision taken by parents or grandparents not to tell their children they are Jews. In many cases, they even educated their children to be devout Catholics so nobody would suspect them. It was only when they were older and felt the end of their lives was approaching that these parents or grandparents decided to reveal the truth,” says Wieczorek.
Founded by Michael Freund, Shavei Israel is a non-profit organization whose mission is to strengthen the ties between the Jewish people, the State of Israel and the descendants of Jews around the world. The organization is currently active in nine countries and provides assistance to a variety of different communities, such as the Bnei Menashe of India, the Bnei Anousim in Spain, Portugal and South America, the Subbotnik Jews of Russia, the Jewish community of Kaifeng in China, descendants of Jews living in Poland, and others.
‘Our aim is to underline the indestructibility of the Jewish spirit’
“Our aim is to underline the indestructibility of the Jewish spirit,” says Freund.
“In recent years, a growing number of young Poles have begun to discover their Jewish roots, which Hitler and his henchmen so ruthlessly sought to erase,” he continues. “By bringing these young people together to honor and explore their Jewish heritage, we are sending a message to the world that we are truly an eternal nation. Indeed, I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate that the Jewish people still live than by celebrating Shabbat with young Polish Jews in the shadow of the valley of death known as Auschwitz.”
The seminar and its activities were led throughout the weekend by Rabbi Boaz Pash, the former rabbi of Krakow who says the goal of bringing this special Jewish community together has begun.
“One of the participants told me, ‘I was sure there were no other Jews living within 100 km of me, but in the end I found there is a Jew who lives only 30 km away.’ There is enormous potential in the Polish Jews who want to get to know each other, and there is a lot of work to do to build Jewish life in Poland.”