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Piecing together Jewish pasts in Poland

A performance from the 2008 Krakow Jewish Festival, which with its array of Jewish culture attracts tens of thousands of visitors -- mostly non-Jews.  (limaoscarjuliet/Creative Commons)

A performance from the 2008 Krakow Jewish Festival, which with its array of Jewish culture attracts tens of thousands of visitors — mostly non-Jews. (limaoscarjuliet/Creative Commons)

Anna Makowska-Kwapisiewicz, with her husband, Piotr Kwapisiewicz, didn't find out about her Jewish roots until she was in high school. (Pawel Mazur)

Anna Makowska-Kwapisiewicz, with her husband, Piotr Kwapisiewicz, didn’t find out about her Jewish roots until she was in high school. (Pawel Mazur)

WARSAW (JTA) — Like many children of Jews who grew up in Poland after World War II, Anna Makowska-Kwapisiewicz was sheltered from her Jewish provenance for much of her life.

There were clues, of course. Her exotic dark eyes and hair occasionally drew remarks about her “Gypsy” or “Spanish” beauty. Her grandmother would constantly teach her the catechism so she could recite it “when they return.” And her grandfather told stories of hiding in the forest.

But it wasn’t until she repeated an anti-Semitic joke she heard in high school that her mother broke down and confessed that her father was, in fact, a Jew.

The news set Makowska-Kwapisiewicz on a path of discovery from Jewish study to ritual observance. Now she is a Jewish educator building a Jewish home and life — complete with plans for Jewish schooling for her year-old daughter, Nina.

Makowska-Kwapisiewicz is part of a Jewish awakening taking place in Poland.

Like a country of amnesiacs waking up from the trauma of Nazism followed by the silence and historical whitewashing of communism, Poles are now trying to piece together their collective memory. In doing so they are discovering, often in quite personal ways, their Jewish roots.

“We are so much interconnected,” the former president of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski, told JTA at a dinner in Warsaw. “I feel that part of my heritage is Jewish tradition,” he said, explaining that his grandmother lived in Vilnus, a heavily Jewish city, and she knew about Jewish dishes like cholent, the Sabbath stew.

If a Pole says “he has not one even drop of Jewish blood in this body,” then he is “not right,” Kwasniewski said.

While for Poles this awakening is about discovering their Jewish roots, for Jews worldwide it’s about discovering their Polish Jewish roots.

Karen Underhill, a doctoral student in Polish history at the University of Chicago who is a former bookstore owner in Krakow, says Jews visiting Poland used to come by her shop seeking information about their heritage. Poland, she says, has become a place for Jews to rediscover their Jewish roots, particularly those who do not have a strong connection to contemporary Jewish communal life or Israel.

This month, American Jewish visitor Jeff Wachtel said he saw his own family when visiting the Galicia Jewish museum, which houses an exhibit of Mayer Kirshenblatt’s paintings of his boyhood Polish town.

“I had no sense of what their life was like,” said Wachtel, a senior assistant to the president of Stanford University. But when he heard Kirshenblatt talk of his Poland, it reminded him of his own family.

“When I was listening to it, I was sure that that’s where my mother grew up,” Wachtel said. “For the first time, part of my past became very understood in my mind.”

Three-quarters of American Jews trace their roots to Greater Poland — including Poland and parts of Ukraine, Austria and Hungary — according to Tad Taube, the San Francisco-based philanthropist who is funding a variety of efforts to connect American Jews to their Polish Jewish heritage.

Taube, a Krakow native, argues that “worship” of the Holocaust has prompted Jews to foresake the 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland that preceded it, even though it was a “golden period” of Jewish life that gave rise to important religious and cultural development. Ashkenazi Judaism, in fact, was codified in Krakow.

Approximately 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland before the war; more than 90 percent disappeared in the Holocaust.

Despite continuing anti-Semitism after the war, some Jews stayed in Poland. Their descendants, typically of mixed heritage, include newly Jewish-identified Poles who are now free to reconnect to their Jewish roots thanks to democracy replacing communism.

As Poles uncover their Jewish pasts, a small Jewish community is re-emerging here. Michael Schudrich, the New York-bred chief rabbi of Poland, says there are about 30,000 Jews in Poland.

Many newly identified Jews find their way to Jewish institutions and groups like Czulent, a young Jewish association whose name references not only the traditional Shabbat stew but also the “melting pot” of its members’ mixed heritage.

Taube Philanthropies is trying to reattach the Jewish-Polish umbilical cord with its projects restoring Jewish pride in Poland. They include a Museum of the History of Polish Jews, slated to open in 2011 at the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, a new Jewish community center in Krakow and Jewish heritage tours to reconnect American Jews with their lost Polish Jewish heritage.

Taube also supports the Krakow Jewish Festival, which held its 19th annual event this month, showcasing a wide range of Jewish culture, from classes in Jewish cooking to Yiddish singing and genealogy research. Like so many Jewish projects in Poland, the festival was organized by many non-Jews and drew nearly 30,000 people, according to festival organizers. Most were not Jewish.

In a country that still suffers from some anti-Semitism, the festival creates a safe space for Jews to express their Jewishness, local community leaders said.

That’s the ultimate goal, said Jonathan Ornstein, director of Krakow’s new Jewish Community Center.

"Not the Jewish revival,” Ornstein said of Polish interest in things Jewish, “but the Jewish, Jewish revival.”

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