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. 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.