Friday, December 7, 2018

In Search of Family


I sometimes wish I had a bigger family. Now that is not because I am especially family-centered, but as a genealogist I am envious of those with many genealogical branches to explore.  I satisfy that desire by doing genealogy consulting for others and temporarily adopting their family as my own. With Jewish roots we often originate from the same region and our ancestors spoke the same language and shared the same customs. Who’s to say we aren’t family. 

I am currently working on one family history from Lithuania and another from Latvia. I have to work at keeping the common Jewish names separated between the two. Often, they bump up against each other in my mind and I sternly order them back to their respective tree.

One of my clients is curious about my process. I do have one, but each search often has unique elements. I draw on hunches that I’ve learned to trust. Part of what helps me is knowing the range of possibilities. For example, double given names can be used interchangeably or be swapped for one with the same meaning, birthdates were fluid, people often gave the nearest big town as theirs even though they may come from a small nearby shtetl. All these learnings guide me. There are many assessments I make, considering possibilities, discarding some while forming hypotheses from others. My process is relatively consistent when I begin, then diverges depending upon what information is available.

1897 Russian census
One client has a family tree that was put together thirty years ago, just names without dates and lots of missing maiden names, but a good starting point to fact-check and expand. I think about how difficult it must have been for them to put it together pre-Internet.  While more recent births are usually accurate, the further back they go, the more family folklore comes into play and inaccuracies can arise. As I fact-check, I build my own tree. I’m a firm disciplinarian as to what I allow into the tree, supporting documentation is required.

I often reference my tree to clarify relationships as names will tend to repeat through different generations. I also begin to create organizational tools as the list of names becomes unwieldy.  One of my most helpful tools is a spreadsheet with names down one side and data sources across the top. I check off my sources by each person to cross-check my process. I look for several sources to validate that anyone on my tree belongs there. I look for linkages between people and cross linkages across both place and person. It is like weaving a tapestry that connects the various elements, people to place, people to people. It has to weave tightly together with no weak links that can introduce errors. To that end I also identify those with the same name and time period who are not related to assure that I keep incorrect data out. You can’t be too eager to add new names.

One of my strategies is to work back from the US to ancestral towns.  I look for links between people from the ancestral town and those who came to the US. There are many ways to find those linkages. If family members immigrated after 1906 the immigration record notes the nearest family member in their place of origin. It also notes who they were going to in the US. Census records will reveal when they immigrated so I use them to work back to immigration records. One of my key linkages with my Lithuanian search is an immigration record of an entire family. Each name and birthdate ties precisely to the Lithuanian records and later to the US records. This is a rare occurrence at a time when birthdates were rather fluid. I steam across the ocean with them, picking up the threads of this family as I disembark the ship. It is a connection woven of many threads, offering me a level of certainty that I’ve found the correct family.

I have sometimes found marriage records in the US that note parents and sometimes death records will also provide that information. Death records will also say what cemetery they are buried in. Findagrave or Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Registry often have tombstone pictures which will provide the father’s name. I have cracked many puzzles by starting with a tombstone. I read those tombstones carefully hoping for a double name. If I can make a match to two given names, a surname and a place then I have an additional level of certainty that I have the right record. In both of these projects I had the good fortune to find double names. 

From there I tap into the transcriptions of the Lithuanian or Latvian records, both of which are at least partially on-line. If I am lucky, I find birth, death or marriage records and sometimes census records. Sometimes there are links to the actual handwritten Russian records, often not properly linked so a bit of knowledge of Cyrillic Russian is helpful to find the correct record. I know enough Russian to find the record before I turn it over to someone with greater fluency for confirmation. Pattern recognition will often do when fluency is lacking.

Many hunches later, I will have solved the puzzle which had seemed so insurmountable at the start. Then I will hand over the tree to its rightful owners and bid a fond farewell to this family that has invited me in, a guest to their home and their family. 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Lives We Touch

photo by Diana Karchevsky
Do you ever find that everything you encounter seems to be pointing the same direction? My theme song of late seems to be aging and with that its corollary, purpose. Now that should not be a surprise as this is the year of a milestone birthday. It is a reminder that time is limited and the need to use it well. With both parents gone, I have a marker on my age, a likely timespan that seems relatively short when I measure it against the time that has passed. 

My birthday early this month was also a reminder of both the limits of our time on earth and the richness of memory. I began my day being serenaded by my late parents. They had called me on a past birthday and sang Happy Birthday to my voicemail which in turn sent me the recorded message. My father died just three months later. For the past seven years my birthday has begun with their birthday song. What once contained sadness has now faded into a happy memory and their voices raised in song warm my heart and make me smile.

I was reminded of raw loss, untempered by time, when later that day I attended a funeral for a very talented man with whom I had worked through a volunteer engagement. Over a decade younger than me, he had died quite unexpectedly. As I watched his young family, I reminded myself to be grateful for the extra time I’ve been given. There are no guarantees. The priest talked about the fabric of the community that we touch and that touches us, how it sustains us and contributes to who we are. I thought about that later in the day as we awaited guests at an open studio weekend. It is often through artwork and storytelling that I have an opportunity to touch others in ways I often don’t always realize. 

That was driven home later in the month when twenty teens gathered in my studio to learn about my journey and my work. They were the children of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and part of the RAJMN Teen Fellowship. I was struck by their genuine affection for each other and the energy that entered the room with them. Much of my artwork relates to Jewish themes and my interview series and book deal with the stories of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. My interviewees had been of the generations of these teens’ grandparents and great-grandparents. Here before me was the reason they came and we are richer for it.

So what could I impart that would have meaning for them? In addition to my artwork I talked about reinvention, how we reinvent ourselves throughout our life. They were at an age where they are beginning to think about career paths. After dramatic changes in my own life from where I began, that choice seems far more temporary. I encouraged them to think less about specific careers and more about the things that excite them which can be found in many disparate careers. Telling stories and solving puzzles were my gateways to many interesting directions. 

One of the things I’ve found in public speaking is how important it is to let your authenticity show. That means sharing the moments of vulnerability that make us human and relatable.So often we only talk about our successes, but not about our path which may be littered with things that didn’t happen as we hoped. We step out with uncertainty in new directions, we figure out alternate paths when things don’t work as planned. We finish one project and have to figure out how to begin anew. How do we start in a new direction? Take a risk that might not pan out?  Those are the questions and challenges that shape our life. We don’t have to have all the answers. Much of my story is about saying yes and then figuring it out, stepping out of my comfort zone and having opportunities open up. 

The following day I got one of my favorite kinds of notes. The director of the program reported that she had gotten quite a few phone calls from kids’ parents with rave reviews. Apparently some of what I said stuck and they continued to discuss it with family. You never know for sure who you touch and how, but sometimes you get hints.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving with gratitude for those who have touched your life.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Packing Knowledge


Do you keep a travel list of what to pack and things to do before leaving home? My packing begins long before a trip with a reading list related to my destination. Travel in conjunction with reading provides a way to explore a region or related topic.  Usually I discover how little I knew.

I recently returned from my first trip to Russia and for all the reading that I did about Russian history, I realized that I didn’t learn enough about today’s Russia. My expectations were woefully out of date, more tied to the Soviet era than the present. Because this trip was sponsored by the Museum of Russian Art, we had the good fortune of having quite a bit of expertise on board. That included authors and historians, people conducting business in Russia and one traveler who grew up in Russia. Several wore more than one of those hats.

We had several evenings set aside where we explored the questions that arose as we confronted the Russia of today. Those who had the opportunity to observe the development of Russia throughout time noted that in the past it largely focused on Lenin, the Bolsheviks and revolution. There is a renewed interest in the Romanovs and the theme of imperial power, something perhaps that Putin hopes to benefit from.  The question is what do you do now with the unsavory aspects of Soviet history? One solution has been to re-define the Soviet experience as being about World War II when the USSR played a critical role in the war as well as suffered great losses. There have also been efforts to commemorate those who lost their lives under the despotic Soviet regime. The Last Address Project places a plaque commemorating that history at the former home of a victim of repression, much like the stumbling stones that commemorate where Holocaust victims once lived.

I’ve spent the past year reading extensively about Russian history beginning with the czars, moving into Soviet times and more recently into today’s Russia.  I am struck by a theme of totalitarianism that runs throughout. Initially it was an imperial society run by the Tzar with support from the class of nobility. A very significant portion of the population was comprised of serfs and peasants, creating an inherently unstable society. After the revolution the nobility was uprooted and often executed. The players changed, but oppression through fear remained a constant. 

So why this recurring theme? One theory that intrigued me was to look at it through the lens of slavery. The United States' Civil War was over 150 years ago and yet we are still dealing with the aftermath of slavery. Russia had its own form of slavery in the serfs who represented a third of the population, 20 million people when serfdom was abolished in 1861. By contrast, in the US at that time slaves represented 4 million people. Serfs were Russians by birth and of the same race and religion and yet were viewed through an entirely different lens than other classes of Russian society. They were Other. Studies of Russia have found that a history of involuntary servitude results in lower economic and educational achievement many generations later. In the US this underlying inequity resulted in a civil war and a painfully slow correction which is still ongoing. In Russia it created an environment which fostered totalitarianism. Despite attempts to move to a more open society it continues to rear its head. Censorship was lifted under Gorbachev and Yeltsen tried capitalism, but economic disarray followed and the 1990s were described as a jungle run by thugs. Putin was viewed by many Russians as a stabilizing force who reasserted Russian identity even as he consolidated control.

So, are Russians better off today than during the Soviet regime? Our guides shared their experiences from the past which varied widely depending upon where their parents were positioned. They seemed to feel comfortable speaking about their experience which at one time would have been highly unwise. Having said that, it was also evident that there remained issues that were deeply felt and not discussed. Now they can travel, something that would not have been possible before. Food is available in grocery stores without the queues of the past. With some of the benefits of capitalism also comes greater insecurity and fewer guarantees.

I started with reading so let me end with some recommendations. As I move my attention to the Russia of today, I have found two books helpful in finding greater understanding. Red Notice by Bill Browder filled me in on today’s economic environment, the corruption within Russia and the power of the oligarchs. It also explains the underlying story of the Magnitsky Act and why Russia is so eager to get that lifted. This non-fiction book reads like a gripping novel. The other book that I would recommend is The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen. This National Book Award winner follows the lives of several families through time giving us a perspective on the Soviet times and the progression to today. As someone who grew up in Russia and has since left, Gessen offers an inside perspective on the country of her birth. 




Monday, October 1, 2018

Connection and Division

My husband and I are both introverts. Unnlike some of my more extroverted friends we can go an entire trip without speaking with anyone but each other, waitresses and hotel clerks. This trip has been quite different so far. As we sat in the Amsterdam airport, my husband was approached by an airport representative who was doing a survey on airport experiences. Two brothers in a nearby area had a chance to hear his replies and posed a question to him on what they heard. We had picked up a bit on them as well,  eavesdropping on their conversation. We may be quiet, but we are curious. Turned out we were all heading to Lithuania, them on a bit of a roots trip, something I know quite a bit about because of my involvement in genealogy. We conversed further and found them to be interesting people, continuing our new friendship one night over dinner.

We were emboldened by this satisfying connection. At a subsequent dinner we overheard someone at another table mention Minnesota, the state in which we live. As he exited the restaurant, we asked if he was from there. Indeed he was. The innocent question of what brought him to Lithuania took us down an unexpected road. He noted that he thought Western Europe was being destroyed by immigration and was doing a bit of a farewell tour. That led into a political discussion that was disturbing to say the least. 

When he noted that he considered the Kavanaugh hearing to be a travesty, it occurred to me that we might be coming to that conclusion from quite opposing philosophies. It reminded me of the time I was confused by a reference to Lithuanian partisans. I was most familiar with the Jewish partisans who fought with the Soviets against the Nazis. The Lithuanian partisans did exactly the opposite. Duh (head slap!), partisans can be on either side! As I expected, his travesty assessment was on “poor” Judge Kavanaugh.  Mine was on the Senate’s plan to vote immediately after going through the motions of hearing Ford’s testimony.

 I am not one to stand down in such conversations. Even as I have little desire to engage in pointless political discussions, I feel it important to state I do not share their view. I did so politely keeping my voice low, hoping to signal to him to do likewise. Did I mention that he was loud and opinionated? My husband and I caught each other’s eye with a mutual plea of “Get us out of this!” Hints to wind up were not working. The most cringe-worthy moment was when the Italian co-owner poked his head in nervously wondering if everything was ok. Our new acquaintance in the middle of an anti-immigration rant replied, “We were just talking about you.”

So did this encounter serve to reinforce our desire for insularity? Quite the opposite as the story continued to unfold. After he departed and we heaved a sigh of mutual relief, the restaurant owner joined us in conversation. We quickly disassociated ourselves from the prior gentleman’s views. There was no “we” involved. I mentioned to the owner that I had fond memories of his restaurant from when I was there almost ten years ago to attend the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. I still remember our very international group singing Happy Birthday in a multitude of languages to a good friend in their open courtyard where we frequently gathered. 

He told us that he was a filmmaker and for a film he is working on he had interviewed Fanya, a much treasured survivor who had taken us around the Jewish quarter and to the bunker in the forest where she was a Jewish partisan. He too had gone to the forest as part of their interview. He had also spoken with the artist Samuel Bak who was a child in Vilnius during the war and paints extraordinary work out of that experience. We had just visited a large exhibition of his work at the Vilnius Tolerance Center and had seen his work in Massachusetts, where he now lives.  Our new friend told us that after the war, those who survived found temporary shelter in the courtyard behind the restaurant where the arches of the loggia were then divided into rooms. He told us the story of a woman with whom he spoke who told him her grandfather while living there had planted a large tree that remains today. I recognized a fellow storyteller who builds connection through his stories, a welcome antidote to that earlier discussion so focused on division.


Thursday, September 20, 2018

Girding for a Fight

I live in Minnesota, the home of Minnesota nice, where people shy from confrontation. We tap our car horns gently, slightly embarrassed to disturb the car about to hit us.  While I don’t much like confrontation, I grew up in a family with New York roots where it was assumed that you would speak up if necessary. Passivity was not encouraged. It’s not that I can’t do confrontation, it is more that I resent having to. I just want people to deal with me fairly, share the necessary information and take responsibility for doing their job properly. That doesn’t happen nearly often enough for my taste.

Recently I’ve had a spate of situations where that didn’t happen. They all seemed to cluster, making me realize how much of an energy drain confrontation can be. By the same token when you’re raised to fight for yourself, wimping out can be just as distressing as confrontation. There is a delicate balance point that I have to consider to decide if it’s worth moving forward, confrontation stress versus disgust with myself for wimping out. Usually the latter pushes me forward.

Let me give you a recent example. This year I had two overseas trips (stay tuned for more on our upcoming Russia trip). I realized I needed to find a better phone option while traveling. On occasion I’ve gotten a sim card for my phone, but it was one more step to secure and install it, hence additional hassle. Alternatively, several providers offer international plans, but they can be quite costly and require you to set them up. As I embarked on what was becoming a rather extensive research project, I discovered that there was an attractive and seamless option. I went into the store to talk to them about the plan. As we were moving forward I learned that my existing company would charge the full monthly fee even if I ended the service early in the month. Apparently, this is common, kind of a "don’t let the door hit you on the way out gesture." At that point I suggested to the new provider that we wait on moving forward until shortly before my upcoming trip. The staff, eager to have two new customers, offered to give me a credit to neutralize that difference. 

“Yes,” I said, “but what if you have a special phone offer that comes out in that window?”  

“Oh, you could get it for 14 days after you sign up” they replied, assuring me that a special deal was quite unlikely. And so, we moved forward.

Shortly before my first upcoming trip we prepared to buy a new phone and to transfer my old phone to my husband. I checked the phone company to see if there were any deals and to my surprise the deal they said would never happen had happened. If we bought one of their more recent phones we could get $700 off another phone. I called the young man at the store and reminded him of our discussion. He agreed that I was in the 14 day window and we stopped in the store.

Now the fun began. His assumption that I had 14 days turned out to be just that, an assumption, and a faulty one at that. Now I should confess that I have a bias against young men in service jobs. I add the caveat that I know this is not true of everyone, however in my experience it seems that a disproportionate number of young men talk as if they know what they’re doing and don’t. They are big on bravado and faking what they don’t know and unless they get called out it actually is a useful skill to advance in a career. Women don’t present this bravado, but for that reason I trust what they tell me to be factual. Most of my service providers are female for this reason. 

Only when we entered the store did he call in to headquarters to confirm his assumption and learn otherwise. Apparently, it wasn’t worth checking at the front end until I was standing in front of him. Not a good sign. As I eavesdropped on his conversation, what I heard sounded an awful lot like asking permission rather than advocating for me as the customer. He got off the phone, turned to me and said sorry can’t do it.

Now I am a fast reactor. You know, the kind you have to scrape off the ceiling. It makes my husband nervous when I do this. He’s seen me react before and knows one would not describe me as temperate. I am much more of the WTF school of thought. “Your misinformation will cost me $700,” I sputtered in rage. “You need to fix this!”

He shrugged, obviously not taking this as his responsibility. “You could call customer service,” he offered. “Who did you just talk to?” I asked incredulously. “I don’t know” he replied. I was so furious I could barely dial the number but after some fumbling I had customer service on the line. I could see my husband bracing himself for what he knew was to come. He’s a Minnesota boy. They do get angry, but only in private or in the car where no one but me can hear them. They are much better behaved in public.

A perky woman answered and I apologized in advance. “I’m so furious I can barely speak,” I said, “I’m going to apologize now in case I get carried away. I have been misled to the tune of $700 by the store and I need you to fix this. I am a new customer, and I would think you would want new customers to be happy.”

Imagine my amazement when she replied “We will fix this.” A good starting premise.

I explained the situation. She did some checking and assured me that even if someone in the bowels of the company turned down the rebate, she had the ability to override it. “Get it in writing!” my husband urged. She provided us an email detailing out what she had agreed to and told us to go ahead and pick out the phones. 

Now I am happy to report that she followed through and I am a satisfied customer, albeit skeptical of advice from their store. We worked this through to my satisfaction, but it felt like a lot of work and I’m tired of fighting. I want to work with competent people who don’t try to bravado themselves through life. It is a rarity, so when I get those people I sing their praises. And when I don’t, I guess I’ll just muster my energy and put up a fight. Just don’t make me do it too often. 

Monday, August 20, 2018

Exciting Discoveries Await


After the IAJGS conference in Warsaw, I decided to travel to Radom, my Polish ancestral town, to do research in the archives. Radom is about an hour and a half drive south of Warsaw and is a town of around 215,000.  At the time of the war it was 100,000 of which 25% was Jewish.

My prior visits were in 2010 and 2011 and in the interim I had ordered many records on my own family and for others for whom I was doing research. That works well when you are working with records of a page or two on specific people that are indexed, such as vital records, Books of Residents and identity or forced labor papers. 

On this visit I wanted to do something different. I wanted to explore the community as a whole and perhaps my family’s place within it.  Unfortunately, I don’t speak either Polish or Russian, the language of the records. I can painfully decipher Cyrillic names and Latin-based Polish names are easily readable. Most were in the form of lists, hence somewhat more manageable, but those that are narrative in either language required more extensive language skills. Many of the records were bound in books with other records so knowing what I was looking at also took some deciphering. Often you find a relevant name, take a picture and get translation help later, but this was a lot of material. I needed to target my search. 

So why was I interested in community records? I do the Kehilalink on Radom for Jewishgen. A Kehilalink is a website on a former Jewish community for people who are researching their Jewish roots. I hoped to find information that I could put on-line. I also had begun to get a sense of the broader community through my genealogy work for others and wanted to build on that. When I look at a page of names I recognize a community of researchers descended from many of those names.

The Radom Archive had moved to a different location since I had last been there and it had changed quite a bit in the intervening years. In addition to the old paper records, there were now computers that had the vital records and identity papers, accessible by archive visitors. 

Now you don’t just show up at archives without doing quite a bit of preparation. I had spent a lot of time learning how to mine the online Polish Archives. I had searched the contents of the Radom Archives for “zydow”, one of the Polish words for Jew, and found a number of interesting items with the aid of Google translate. Before arriving at the archives, I had sent them several pages of items that they then pulled in advance of my visit.

On my first morning, Google maps guided me to the archive's new location. It was a sunny pleasant day as I walked through the town, tracing the edge of the beautiful park across from my hotel.  When I arrived, a young man sat in a central area outside of the archives. I had been asked by another researcher to check on some information for him and I didn’t look forward to a discussion in a language I didn’t speak. The young man had limited English and with my non-existent Polish it called for some creativity. Using Google Translate, I pressed conversation. I spoke into my phone in English and it  repeated it in Polish. I then asked him to do likewise. We didn’t prove very proficient with this program as it captured just small segments at a time, but it had given the young archivist an idea. He pulled up Google Translate and typed his response which appeared in English. “You type” he said. I reached for the keyboard and did likewise until we arrived at mutual understanding.

I deposited my belongings in a locker and entered the archives with my computer, phone and notes.  I was delighted to see the welcoming face of the same archivist I had met in 2011 and a large pile of the resources I had requested. She gave me a pair of white cotton gloves and black plastic disposable gloves for handling the archival material and I settled in at a table surrounded by history.

Where to begin? I reached for a white folder from 1940, questionnaires on Jewish teachers collected by the Nazis. Within each was a photograph and a completed form with their birthdate and names and ages of their children. Some listed parents and grandparents. I saw the word for Jew. Each had written out their resume in longhand Polish. Over twenty Jewish teachers, each with the well-modulated handwriting I have come to associate with teachers. I imagined a pride reflected in those resumes filled with hard-earned credentials, perhaps still hopeful at this early stage that their skills would still find them a purposeful existence. 

I had one other piece of 20th century history to peruse, a number of files from 1945 which listed real estate that had been owned by Jews and lay abandoned after their death in the Holocaust. It was gathered by a city department that was looking at tax collections that would now prove fruitless. Unfortunately, it did not list owners which would have been valuable information, but it did list addresses. I envisioned those addresses on a map to visualize the Jewish community and the hole it left with its absence. You can find the map I later created here With the records from the 1940s there was often printed text. I held my phone over them in Google Translate and it translated the words below.

Having cut my teeth on the history of the past century, I stepped back into the 1800s. I had gathered information in the form of lists, lists of Jewish tailors from 1847-1851, Jews living temporarily in the city from 1847-48, Jews who owned real estate 1814-1865, Jews who contributed to the schools from 1872-74, Jews who chose the supervision of the synagogue in 1875/1884, contributions to the fathers of families 1878/1893. The earlier lists, those that preceded the mid 1860s were still in Polish, and names were readable. The later records were in Cyrillic Russian and even when the scribe had good penmanship, which he often didn’t, the pages of names were daunting. The paper was thick, like handmade paper. Not exactly tactile through gloves, but the foreign writing on thick cream paper reminded me of the passage of time it represented.

I attempted to make use of Google Translate with a Polish title by typing in the hand-written title for the document. According to the translation of the archive text, the collection was called the City Name List of Jews Living Temporarily in the City. It translated what I input to this: 

a list of smuggled believers in exchange for gas-fired spectacles 

Then it gently asked me if I might’ve meant something else. What it proposed translated to this: 

name list of the Old Testimonies with testimonies gasily in the children's council 

And yet another iteration got me to this for which the first part is accurate and the last part is puzzling.




Name list of the Orthodox believers in the joy of the children's advice 

The discovery for which I am most excited is what appears to be a Book of Residents dated 1827 which lists my third great-grandfather, his children and their spouses. The title in the archives translates to Radom City Lists Jews of Homeowners and Tenants Together with Families and Service 1823 to 1847. It consists of 30 double pages in Polish. I hope to begin by pulling out the surnames and ultimately posting them on the website. What is interesting about this is that Jews did not take last names until 1823. On prior visits I found a listing of the patronymics that preceded last names (father's name and ending) and the subsequent last names they took. Because of its proximity to 1827 it allows us to expand from the man to his family. 

A lot of work lies ahead and I will need to tap others to assist with translation. For anyone preparing for an archive visit, I would urge preparation with archival online resources and familiarity with the tools that Google offers. Exciting discoveries await.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Phantom Presence: How Past Influences Present



I had always thought of conferences as work perks.  They certainly weren’t a part of what I envisioned post-career, yet now I go to two conferences each year related to personal interests.  What I’ve come to realize is that there are two important parts of reinventing oneself, one is our ability to continue to learn and develop new skills and the other is to deepen our communities. Conferences are designed to do both.

One of the conferences I attend is put on by the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies(IAJGS) and focuses on Jewish genealogy. This year it was in Warsaw, Poland. I’ve been to Warsaw several times, but each time I was there it was prior to the creation of the Polin museum that addresses the history of Polish Jews. I remember looking longingly at the building as it went up, wishing my timing had been different so I could explore it. This time I wasn’t going to miss my opportunity.

 It was a somewhat controversial time to go to Poland as a new law had been passed criminalizing speech that associated Poland with Nazi acts in the Holocaust. The Polish sensitivity arose from the conflation of descriptors of place with responsibility. Concentration camps that were housed in Poland were created and operated by the Nazis and a reference to "Polish concentration camps" failed to capture that distinction. The difficulty with the law was that it painted with a broad brush and potentially silenced any talk of Poles who were complicit. An outcry soon resulted in an amendment dropping the criminalization but retaining civil penalties. This became a topic in several sessions raising questions as to how it might suppress accurate Holocaust education reflecting the fact that some people were complicit, many were bystanders and a small group risked their lives to save Jews. 

There are stereotypes that historically have created distance between Jews and Poles. Stereotypes may arise from actual events but get extrapolated more broadly to define an entire people. So what colors these perceptions? While Poland was originally a safe haven for Jews, state antisemitism arose in 1935 after the death of the statesman PiƂsudski and was often fed and condoned through the Catholic Church of that time. The Polish stereotype of Jews was that they were allied with Communism, although pre-1935 only 2-7% of Jews voted for Communist linked parties. 

And after the war?  One need only say Kielce, one of the best known pogroms post-war, to elicit a knowing nod. Many survivors returned from concentration camps to their former communities only to find Poles occupying their homes filled with their belongings. Wanting your property back could be life threatening. In addition to the Kielce pogram which killed 42 Jews, there were reports of Jews being murdered in other Polish cities. These events contributed to Jews seeking to leave Poland.  After the war, some remaining Jews were initially incorporated into visible positions of power within the Soviet government, furthering the stereotype of the Jewish communist, until of course the Soviets turned on them in 1968 with their own brand of antisemitism.

The echos of this history underlie Polish-Jewish relations with property remaining a sensitive issue. At the same time Jews and Poles share a common history across many centuries, something that the Polin museum seeks to capture. We struggled a bit with terminology. Many of the Polish Jews identified strongly as Poles, but the convention in that part of the world is to use the term Jews as a nation, implying one is either Polish or Jewish. Polish Jew is a phrase more consistent with American terminology. Conversely in a Jewish gathering, we found ourselves using terms like non-Jewish Poles.

Three million Polish Jews were killed during the war, a sizable portion of the Polish population. It is a bit like a phantom limb, still exerting influence and a presence even in it’s absence. If there was any overriding theme to the sessions,  it is the idea of phantom presence that takes several forms.

For example, several conference talks were on Polish partitions and explored the various divisions of Poland between Austria, Prussia and Russia. The boundaries kept moving as Poland was gobbled up by its neighbors.Those divisions affect the language and format of documents and the culture. Apparently they even affect the voting patterns today. The division is no longer active and yet it has left its influence. 

A similar phenomenon is found in the former existence of Jews within the country. The Jews represented a significant part of the country in terms of population and in some towns Jews could be as much as 80%. The Jews were often the merchants and entrepreneurs. What happens to the remaining community when you eliminate a significant part of it, and a vital part? 

The past continues to influence the future even in its absence. As new generations come of age without the clouded history of earlier generations, there is a curiosity about this aspect of their history and the opportunity to explore it through fresh eyes. My take away is that there are non-Jewish Poles who feel a deep commitment to the work of re-connection and a growing curiosity about the the former Jewish community. That manifests itself in a sometimes selective interpretation of Jewish culture by non-Jewish Poles. 

While in Poland, I visited a number of museums which added some perspective. The Polin museum does an exceptional job in telling the story of Poland and of the Jews and the Poles in connection. It doesn’t have the story of the Jews in isolation, nor does it focus on the Holocaust to the exclusion of all other Jewish history. That’s a story that interests multiple audiences and is presented in a way that draws the viewer in.

The other museum which I found particularly noteworthy was the Warsaw Rising museum which tells the story of the Warsaw uprising without neglecting contemporaneous events that affected the Jewish population. And it underscores that discussion of this event was suppressed by the Soviets. This museum gave me a greater appreciation of the Polish experience. It is a country that was sliced and diced by its neighbors and despite its efforts fighting in the war against the Nazis, it was handed over to the Soviets. The Soviets then proceeded to persecute those who fought in the Polish army and were active in the Warsaw uprising and ultimately the Jews who stayed to rebuild their country. While I knew pieces of that history, I had never truly knit it together nor fully appreciated the role of the Soviets in suppressing aspects of Polish history. 

And the final takeaway, we need to appreciate the experience of each other if we are to find the common ground that we all share. Museums offer us a gateway through which to do that.