It began with a secret told by a dying woman to her son.
The mother of Mariusz Robert Aoflko, a Polish attorney, told him she had been hiding the truth from him. Though he had been raised as a Catholic, he was a Jew, she said — and not only a Jew but a (priestly) Kohen as well.
The revelation changed his life.
On Thursday, 13 years after what he calls his “rebirth,” Aoflko, 64, celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The ceremony took place during Aoflko’s first trip to Israel.
Aoflko’s mother told him that she and his father were Polish Jews whose families perished in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Fearing post-war anti-Semitism in Poland, they decided to hide their identities and pass themselves off as Catholics.
It took some time for Mariusz, who now calls himself Moshe, to identify as a Jew. He contacted Rabbi Boaz Pash, the Krakow representative of Shavei Israel, an organization that seeks to bring ”lost Jews,” or Jews who have lost their connection to their heritage, back into the fold. Through Pash, Aoflko became active in the Krakow Jewish community.
A second fateful encounter took place last month at the entrance to Auschwitz. Aoflko struck up a conversation with Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, and told him about his return to Judaism.
“I was deeply moved,” Freund recounted. “I told him that since 13 years have passed since he found out he was a Jew, it is an appropriate time for him to have a bar mitzvah.” Freund offered an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel, covered by Shavei Israel. Aoflko leapt at the opportunity.
“Since my mother revealed this incredible secret to me, I feel like I am reborn. By embarking on this journey into my heritage, step by step it all starts to become clear to me,” said Aoflko. “I am not doing this to prove anything to anyone. All I ask is to embrace the truth about my family and regain the lost identity that was hidden from me for decades.”
Aoflko’s discovery is part of the surprising rebirth of the Polish Jewish community.
During the Middle Ages, Poland was Europe’s most tolerant country, attracting Jews from across the continent. It became the center of European Jewry, and over three million Jews lived in the country on the eve of World War II. The Nazis wiped out 90 percent of the Polish Jewish community during the Holocaust.
Today, the Jewish community in Poland is small but growing. Only 1,133 people identified as Jews in 2002, but that figure had climbed to over 7,500 by 2011. Some estimates place the number of “lost Jews” at 20,000.
In April 2013, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened its doors on the site of former Warsaw Ghetto.
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