Polish hidden Jews embrace ‘hip’ ancestry

Rediscovering Jewish roots is becoming cool for Poland’s youth, but lingering memories of the Holocaust are never far from the surface

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Malgorzata Lubinska's son Lucasz (left) preparing for his bar mitzvah in Warsaw in "H-I-Jew Positive." (photo credit: Ron Katzenelson)
Malgorzata Lubinska's son Lucasz (left) preparing for his bar mitzvah in Warsaw in "H-I-Jew Positive." (photo credit: Ron Katzenelson)

Warsaw real estate consultant Malgorzata Lubinska was already a married woman with two children when she found out she wasn’t exactly who she thought she was.

Years before, when she was dating the man who would become her husband, he asked her if she was Jewish. She told him, “Of course not.”

Though she wasn’t deliberately lying, Lubinska wasn’t telling the truth. Years later when her grandmother made a death bed confession that she wasn’t her biological grandmother, Lubinska realized that her mother had probably been a hidden Jewish child during the Holocaust.

Lubinska’s situation is far from unusual. For the past 25 years since the fall of Communism, Poles have been discovering unknown Jewish roots. Some Polish citizens have found official papers affirming their Jewish ancestry. For others, like Lubinska, all they have to go on is a relative’s deathbed confession, or a hunch that rumors about their family’s Jewish past could be true.

Not all so-called “hidden Jews” decide to pursue the implications of these revelations. Only some decide to learn more about Judaism or assume a Jewish identity and become active in Poland’s revived Jewish community.

In many cases, it is the youngest members of a family, the furthest removed from the traumas of the Holocaust and Communism, who have the curiosity and courage to dig into the past.

However, those who do choose to become Jewish, do so in a country with an anti-Semitic reputation, a country that has long been thought of by world Jewry as a massive Jewish graveyard. This poses unique challenges, but also unique opportunities, including a chance to rebuild, both solemnly and joyfully, a Jewish community that most doubted would ever recover from the ravages of the Holocaust.

No longer just a Jewish graveyard

Three and a half million Jews lived in Poland before the Holocaust. By late 1944, ninety percent of them had been killed by the Nazis and their collaborators. The 350,000 Jews who remained in Poland after WWII either left the country (mainly for the United States or Israel), or went underground during the Communist era. Those who stayed buried deeply their Jewish identity, hiding it from their neighbors, their children, and even from themselves.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 initially triggered revelations that many individuals had hidden Jewish backgrounds. Interested in supporting a possible rebirth of Polish Jewry, American Jewish philanthropists like Ronald S. Lauder and Tad Taube began building communal Jewish institutions to support daily Jewish life and ritual, as well as Jewish education.

Jewish wedding in Krakow in 'The Return.' (photo credit: Scott Anger)
Jewish wedding in Krakow in ‘The Return.’ (photo credit: Scott Anger)

Today, there are viable Jewish communities, with synagogues, mikvehs, schools, and other community institutions in Warsaw, Krakow and Lodz. Warsaw and Krakow have their own American-style Jewish community centers and there are smaller functioning Jewish communities around the country that can sustain regular prayer minyans (quorums) and educational programming.

According to Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the country’s American-born chief rabbi since 2004, it is estimated that today there are 25,000 Jews in Poland out of a total population of 38.5 million.

He tells The Times of Israel that he actually thinks the number is much larger, but that he doesn’t focus too much energy on statistics, preferring to focus his time on teaching Torah and ministering to the local Jewish community.

An ongoing process

Israel filmmaker Ronit Kertsner began following Lubinska and handful of other hidden Jews in Poland with her camera fifteen years ago. Her 2000 documentary, “The Secret,” chronicles their initial discoveries of their Jewish heritage.

These people’s Jewish journeys did not end there, and Kertsner updates us on their stories in her new film, “H-I-Jew Positive,” which is being screened as part of the program for the grand opening of the core exhibition of new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw this week.

While Kertsner’s subjects are now in their 40s and 50s, four women profiled in a similarly-themed new documentary by American filmmaker Adam Zucker titled, “The Return,” are younger, in their 20s and early 30s. Zucker’s film had its world premiere this past weekend in New York at the Margaret Mead Film Festival.

Kertsner’s subjects are the children and grandchildren of Jews directly affected by the Holocaust. Zucker, on the other hand, filmed and interviewed individuals who are an additional generation younger and who discovered relatively recently that they were descended from Jews.

‘The biggest surprise has been that this is a phenomenon that continues’

“The biggest surprise has been that this is a phenomenon that continues. It did not end within a few years of the fall of the Berlin Wall,” says Michael Freund, founder and chairmen of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based, Modern Orthodox organization that does Jewish outreach in Poland, among other countries.

Schudrich reports that not a day goes by without someone who has suspicions of having a Jewish family connection making contact with him or another Jewish leader in Poland.

Clearly, the process of hidden Polish Jews’ “coming out,” so to speak, is far from over.

Generational differences

Some Jewish returnees liken the rejuvenation of Jewish life is Poland to emerging from a black hole.

“We’ve woken up from a 50-year coma,” is how Tusia Dabrowska, who appears in “The Return,” describes it.

‘We’ve woken up from a 50-year coma’

No matter what analogy is used to describe this rebirth, it has involved dealing with and overcoming deep-seated trauma and fear passed down through the generations.

It is clear, however, from Kertsner and Zuckers’ films, as well as from conversations with some of the people in them, that reconciling with and exploring one’s Jewish identity is easier today in Poland than ever.

“In the first years of my Jewish journey, I saw Jewishness as a sort of disability,” says Lubinska, who was president of Warsaw’s Progressive Jewish community between 2009 and 2011.

Things are significantly different for her two sons, now both young adults. In Kertsner’s film, the younger, Lucasz is seen at his bar mitzvah and then several years later speaking openly with his non-Jewish friends about being proud to be Jewish. He plans on becoming a politician and sees a future for himself in Poland.

Dabrowska, an artist and NYU writing and new media instructor, splits her time between New York and Warsaw. She can’t imagine, at least at this point, not making her home partially in Poland.

‘Once you decide to be a Jew in Poland, It’s your full time responsibility’

She takes her identity as a Polish Jew very seriously, and finds that this can be overwhelming at times.

“Once you decide to be a Jew in Poland, It’s your full-time responsibility. I think once you take on an identity of a minority, that kind of takes over your life a little bit,” Dabrowska says in “The Return.”

Although she knew from a young age that her single mother’s family was Jewish, it was always left unspoken. When she returned to Warsaw after living with her father in New York for several years, she reconnected with her childhood circle of friends and discovered that she was not alone. Most of those friends turned out to also be from Jewish families and were in the process of reconnecting with their roots.

Dabrowska’s life partner, museum designer Wiktor Podgorski, is also Polish and Jewish. His work on the Museum of the History of Polish Jews recently kept the couple in Warsaw for a full year.

“Our common Jewish-Polish experience is a significant aspect of our relationship,” Dabrowska tells The Times of Israel.

Cool Jews

Members of this younger generation explore their Jewish identity at a time when philo-Semitism is strong in Poland and being Jewish is considered cool. Interest in Jewish culture has grown to curiously high levels in Poland in the years since the first annual Krakow Jewish Cultural Festival kicked off the trend back in 1988.

Some hipsters even wear clothes from a fashion line with designs that incorporate Jewish symbols.

From the new RISK OY collection. (photo credit: Celestyna Krol/courtesy of RISK Made in Warsaw)
From the new RISK OY collection. (photo credit: Celestyna Krol/courtesy of RISK Made in Warsaw)

“What we really want to do is to re-brand Jewish identity. We want to show the modern, positive aspects of it. What we are doing is showing that being Jewish is cool and sexy,” designer Antonina Samecka told The Times of Israel about her RISK OY line earlier this year.

Showing off one’s Jewish identity, or one’s philo-Semitism, is a way to be edgy and counter-culture, especially in cosmopolitan centers like Warsaw.

“Here in Europe it’s very cool to have three types of friends: Jewish ones, black ones and homosexual ones. And if you have them, oh yeah, you’re cool,” remarks Katka, a Catholic Slovakian who converts to Judaism in Poland, in “The Return.”

“Young people want to be different,” says Lubinska, who has noticed that young Polish women are eager to meet visiting Israeli men.

‘Jewish husbands are becoming popular and desirable in Poland’

“Jewish husbands are becoming popular and desirable in Poland,” she observes.

Torah-teaching Schudrich sees no harm in the Jewish cool factor, but filmmaker Kertsner remains somewhat skeptical.

“Non-Jews try to be Jewish, but if you find out you’re really Jewish, it’s not actually so cool,” she says.

The anti-Semitism question

While some say that being Jewish in Poland is sexy, others contend that the anti-Semitism that so many American and Israeli Jews associate with the country has not completely gone out of fashion.

Dabrowska, who saw “Jude Raus” painted as graffiti on her family’s Warsaw apartment building as it was being renovated, thinks it is a matter of perception.

‘There is less anti-Semitism in Poland than Jews think, and more than Poles think’

“There is less anti-Semitism in Poland than Jews think, and more than Poles think,” she says.

She may not fear anti-Semitic epithets being hurled at her as she walks in the street, but at the same time, she hides letters from Jewish community organizations she receives from the gaze of her neighbors.

“I was trained to do that as a child, and it is a habit I still have. I was raised to worry about my Jewish identity,” she explains.

“I guess I was raised a little paranoid, but I don’t need to be afraid.”

What Schudrich has observed is that Poles see Jews as exotic, as other— something he does not necessarily equate with anti-Semitism.

In addition, this “otherness” is starting to fade now, he says. Whereas groups of Poles used to approach him about helping to restore “your” [Jewish] cemeteries, he now gets calls from Polish groups about saving “our” cemeteries.

Warsaw Jewish community vice president Leszek Piszewski inspects derelict properties legally restored to the ownership of the Jewish community in "H-I-Jew Positive." (photo credit: Ron Katzenelson)
Warsaw Jewish community vice president Leszek Piszewski inspects derelict properties legally restored to the ownership of the Jewish community in “H-I-Jew Positive.” (photo credit: Ron Katzenelson)

Warsaw Jewish community vice president Leszek Piszewski, seen in Kertsner’s film, agrees that Polish society is safer now for individual Jews, but he believes there is actually more anti-Semitism at present than when he was growing up.

“In the past, no one was openly Jewish in Poland. There is more anti-Semitism now for the simple reason that Jews are more visible,” he tells The Times of Israel.

“Anti-Semitism is not a problem for individual Jews. There have been no cases of people being attacked,” he explains.

“It is a problem for the whole Jewish society when it is blamed for something, like with shehita,” he says, referring to a ban imposed earlier this year in Poland on ritual slaughter.

Should I stay or should I go?

Despite the relative safety of most Polish Jews and the growth of the Jewish community over the last 25 years, the question remains as to whether young Polish Jews will remain to help build the Jewish communities in their native country, or leave to pursue a life of greater Jewish opportunities in Israel or the US.

“I ended up with an Israeli-Jewish husband and an Israeli daughter, which is not where I had imagined my life going,” Katarzyna Czerwonogora tells The Times of Israel during an interview at her Jerusalem apartment.

Czerwonogora, who appears in Zucker’s film, was brought up Catholic and discovered when she was a teenager that her paternal grandfather was Jewish. After filming for “The Return” finished, she made aliyah and now lives in the Israeli capital with her husband and five-month-old daughter. She works at Yad Vashem and is pursuing doctoral studies in sociology through a German university. Her dissertation is on the development of feminism and women’s rights in the Zionist movements of the early 20th century.

“My aim was not to practice Judaism or to become a religious Jew, but once I moved here, I saw that I could explore this aspect of Jewish life more freely and discreetly. Here I am just part of the crowd,” she says.

Tusia Dabrowska, who spends half the year in her native Warsaw and half the year in New York, at Dabrowno synagogue in 'The Return.'  (photo credit: Scott Anger)
Tusia Dabrowska, who spends half the year in her native Warsaw and half the year in New York, at Dabrowno synagogue in ‘The Return.’ (photo credit: Scott Anger)

According to Dabrowska, many of her New York Jewish friends encourage her not to return to Poland, but she is unconvinced by them.

“Their biggest misconception is that it’s Auschwitz and that’s it. I hope the new museum will change this perception. It is very forward thinking and presents Jews as part of Polish and European history,” she says.

Jews by choice

The most eye-opening aspect of making “The Return” for Zucker, who has never questioned his own cultural Jewish American identity, was the realization that for today’s Polish Jews, being Jewish is a conscious choice, and “active embrace.”

“They thought they were someone else, and then suddenly they had no idea who they were,” says Kertsner of Poland’s hidden Jews.

Malgorzata Lubinska searching archival records for her Jewish roots in "H-I-Jew Positive." (photo credit: Ron Katzenelson)
Malgorzata Lubinska searching archival records for her Jewish roots in “H-I-Jew Positive.” (photo credit: Ron Katzenelson)

Lubinska has tried unsuccessfully to find historical evidence that her mother came from a Jewish family. She has given up combing through archives and is leaving the search to her son Lucasz, who is interested in genealogy.

It is enough for her to identify strongly as a progressive Jew, even without proof of Jewish ancestry. She chooses to be Jewish, but at the same time believes that as soon as she heard her maternal grandmother’s deathbed confession, the choice was made for her.

“The process that has happened was like a river I was inside,” she says. “I had no choice; I followed the stream.”

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