Hitler almost succeeded in making Poland judenfrei. The Germans murdered ninety percent of Polish Jews. Most of the survivors chose not to return. They really had nothing to return to. My father harshly criticized Poles for their anti-Semitism. His anger reflected Poland in the 1930s. As I journeyed further into my family’s history, I became more interested in finding out what was Poland is like today. I signed up for a genealogy tour of Poland including the area where my father once lived.
The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw lists over 1400 shtetls in Poland. Shtetls were small market towns that shared a unique socio-cultural community pattern during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yiddish was the spoken language. They began as private towns and the non-Jewish population grew around them. This describes the communities that my family came from. Think Anatevka from Fiddler on the Roof.
Those villages and small towns dotted the Polish landscape. Each shtetl had a market in the town center, at least one synagogue, and other Jewish institutions such as a Hebrew School. There were about 1,200 Jewish cemeteries In Poland at the start of the war.
During the Second World War, the Germans systematically removed the Jews from these communities. Some of the villages no longer exist because there were so few residents that remained. Most villages are still there, but without Jewish residents.
I visited several towns and villages. A few synagogues still stand, some of them crumbling from neglect and disuse, others preserved and restored to their former dignity but not necessarily a place of worship. The synagogue in Jaworzno was reconstructed after the war and is now a pub. A café operates in the former Chevra Tehilim synagogue in Krakow’s Kazimierz quarters. The Pinczow synagogue is one of the oldest in Poland having been built during the Renaissance in 1594. It was used for storage until 1970 when the Regional Museum in Pinczow restored it and is now part of the museum. Often the reason that some synagogues survived is that they were used for storage or as a horse stable by the German during the war.
Occasionally, outside the borders of a village, there would be a small Jewish cemetery, with weeds and vegetation climbing up the shattered gravestones. That was the case in Wislica, where my father was born. There was no trace of my ancestors’ graves who had lived in the village for 200 years. The gravestone fragments found in the Pinczow Jewish cemetery were moved to the synagogue and used to build a memorial. I felt like I was visiting relics of a lost ancient civilization. The pulsing Jewish world that was here, the small shops and stalls, the bustle of people, carts, horses, the sounds of Yiddish are no more.
There are between ten and twenty thousand members of the Jewish community in Poland. It’s difficult to come up with a number because many Poles are unaware of their Jewish heritage. Under Communism, many hid their Jewish roots, and their descendants are now just becoming aware that they have some Jewish ancestry. There are four active synagogues in Warsaw. We were introduced to the rabbi of the Nozyk Synagogue. There are another three in Krakow and perhaps twenty more across the country. A Jewish Community Center is now active in Krakow. Polish Jews are using genealogy services to trace their Jewish roots.
The cultural revival isn’t limited to the Jewish community. I met numerous Poles who specialized in Jewish studies in university and now are working as historians, genealogists, and tour guides. They are more knowledgeable about Judaism than many of my Jewish friends. Several are able to read Hebrew. We just missed by a few weeks, the world’s largest Jewish cultural festival which is held each summer in Krakow’s old Jewish quarters and organized by non-Jewish Poles. Poles fill the Auschwitz-Burkineau State Museum each week. The Kazimierz quarters has Jewish-themed restaurants catering to non-Jewish diners. In 2005, the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened its door. It’s a first-class cultural institution presenting the 1,000 years of Jewish life in Poland. People I encountered treated as very well. When the topic of my memoir came up, some offered to help me with the research.
It was all very nice to see but one can’t ignore that Jews were now just part of Polish history and barely visible in Polish society. Whether you visited a former shtetl or a large city, I didn’t hear anyone say a bad word about Jews. But they also don’t encounter very many Jews. There was a woman in Pinzcow with the same last name as my father’s first wife, Estera Sledzik who also lived in Pinczow. I asked the woman from the local museum who was showing us around whether it was possible to contact this woman. I was told she refuses to talk about her past. It seems she has kept her Jewish ancestry a secret from others in the town. This suggests that there might still be a stigma associated with Jews.
The Poles were warm and friendly, but I still had an uneasiness. Throughout history, anti-Semitism will sometimes disappear, but it will always return to the surface. Poland will be no exception.