Piecing together Jewish pasts in Poland

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.

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.

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

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.(JTA)

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