Seek and ye shall find.
Three days in Warsaw revealed a Jewish community with vibrancy and
warmth, variety, and, deeper ‘interesting’ diversity issues and defining what
makes a Jew. Each day uncovered another
unexpected opportunity, due I’m sure to the magic of travel pheromones. While I could say it all comes back to the
refrain ‘it’s complicated’ when uncovering
Jewish roots in this country hit hard by the Holocaust, I was blessed with stories to add texture to the
complications. Certainly one of my most wonderful experiences
was my personal tour, arm in arm, with ‘a child from the Warsaw Ghetto’ through
the Ghetto Memorial Walk.
I met Teresa Steiner in the Chabad House Sukkah. While I know I am not typically found in a
synagogue on a Saturday morning, what could be more special than participating
in a service in Warsaw, once home to one of the largest Jewish populations. I couldn’t help but be amazed behind the mechitzah (separating men from women in an Orthodox service) that not only was I there, but that ‘we’re still here’. One of my rewards that morning was to be fed in the Sukkah and at the ‘women’s table’ where Teresa was sitting at the head, holding court so to speak. Honestly I was of no real interest to her until she discovered that Pittsburgh, home to her son also happens to be my hometown. Her face lit up at the connection. But like she told me her life has been full of connections at just the right time and place. She is lucky.
A natural born storyteller, with lots of stories to tell,
Teresa began talking about Jewish Warsaw and her own tie to the city. This
included living within the Ghetto till she was nine when her mother placed her into hiding first on a farm and later in a monastery. She
was the only member of her family to survive and at fifteen went to Israel
along with other orphans where she lived for forty-one years. She returned to Poland when the Warsaw Ghetto was memorialized, glad to see the family who had helped save her. Eleven years ago she moved back to Warsaw, as
a proud Jew and as a ‘child of the Warsaw Ghetto’. As you can imagine she is a bit of a celebrity. Openly Jewish and more than willing to share her story and the stories of all who lived and died in the Ghetto. An opera buff she is great friends with the opera director and from whom she has been given a lifetime membership. Again, I’m reminded her of how lucky she is.
There are more than a few who think no Jew should ever visit
Poland, much less live there after three million where killed there. Not so.
Teresa, as well as Miriam, a woman studying to be an Orthodox Rabbi(who I
met at the Nyzok Synagoga with a congregation of about 400) told me that
the Poles were never allies with the Nazi’s and never complicit in the killing
of Jews. In fact, they did what they could to save them. Not to say that
there is not guilt and horror of how and how many Jews were killed. Now there is interest and curiosity about Jews and trying to understand culture and music through Jewish Culture and Music festivals.
Of course, human nature being what it is, there is still
some anti-Semitism especially in Eastern Poland where people are poor and not as educated. I learned this from Olimpia, a brilliant young
woman working on her master’s in Arabic studies. There I was, characteristically lost at Central Train Station asking for directions to the synagogue when she offered
to call first her Jewish friend then her Jewish professor to get
directions. What are the chances that I would meet someone with the phone numbers of two Jews in her cell? She laughed and called this chance meeting a Jewish Conspiracy.
Directions lost their importance as she started talking
about Polish politics and the Anti-Semitic radio show host her grandmother
listened to who blamed Jews for the economic problems. Even the Pope had to tell this guy to ‘cool it’. ‘It’s complicated’. These small communities had had large Jewish populations and when Jews were sent to camps, the Poles moved into their homes. Remember, they were poor. But somehow people just weren’t making the connection between their former neighbors who had in a sense housed them and the anti-sematic rant of this host. Olympia summed it up as stupidity.
‘It’s complicated’ was Michael’s response to my ‘invented project’ about Jewish identity. I had a chance to meet him at a Sukkot party hosted by a lovely young French couple new to Warsaw and I met at Chabad House.
Chabad arranged for a small bus to take around fifteen of us to their
patio Sukkah which was rocking with amazing food and music. I appeared to be the token Yank, there were a handful of Poles including Teresa who had saved me a seat on the bus, the French couple, and the rest were Israeli’s.
There were easily a hundred people there and as the men danced (since
the even was Orthodox even though most of us were not) someone pointed out the Israeli Ambassador and famous soccer player who know plays here. (As an aside, the challenge with a conversational journey is I’m so busy listening that I’m not writing. Also why I’ve got lots of first names and am
hazy on last ones.)
Chabad allows Jews to practice and participate at a level they feel comfortable. Michael’s grandfather was the chief Rabbi of Poland (?) and his parents spent the war in Russia. Growing up as Jew in Warsaw
wasn’t bad since Michael always felt he was special (this with a grin). Clearly not Orthodox, he joins in morning prayers at Chabad. His attendance often
makes the tenth man/minion needed. Participating is important, special and meaningful to him.
Special, meaningful, an unexplained connection. These are things I’m hearing a lot. There’s also the clash so to speak between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox and the reform synagogue in the city. While in the U.S. some of us believe that we can practice our religion our way (and I know that sounds like a Burger King commercial – and you can get a whopper here!).
Some believe a Jew is either Orthodox – or nothing. There is an exception (for some). That being those who are just discovering their Jewish roots, a fairly common occurrence these days. At the party, I met Yola, and a former
Israeli. We had chatted throughout the evening and when she and her friend Barbara were leaving, I decided to go with them. Yola started to tell me Barbara’ (Basha) story, that of a ‘new Jew’ since Barbara only spoke Polish.
Barbara had been reading a book about Jews and saw her Grandmother’s name. Curious, she dug la little deeper and discovered that with her grandmother being Jewish, then not only was she Jewish, but so was her son.
While it was difficult for her at forty-seven to wrap her head around
the idea she was Jewish, her son, at twenty-eight and searching, found his
answer. He became involved with Chabad and now is living in London with his wife (also a discovered Jew) and their three kids. There are lots of stories
like this, they are all over. Somehow this all really hit home as Yola translated Basha’s story while letting me know that Basha is still unable to wrap her head around it all
There are so many more stories, but I know you don’t want to read a book do you? And I haven’t even talked about Warsaw and what a great city it is: cosmopolitan and full of history reflected in its architecture and people. But all this will have to wait,