I am in Poland. Sent here by the United States as Fulbright Senior Specialist whose mission is to teach and give lectures in my specialty: the sociology and anthropology of Jewry. I am to teach a short course to undergraduates in the Wroclaw (once Breslau, when the city was part of Germany) University Jewish Studies Program, offer lectures in Krakow’s Jagellonian University, and speak at other academic and community venues in both cities as well as in the capital, Warsaw. Except for a short weekend when I attended a conference here, I have never been to Poland — but Poland has been a part of my life since before my birth.
This is where generations of my forebears lived and died, including two grandfathers after whom I am named. Here my parents were born and married; and here they were imprisoned in the Plaszow concentration camp, and later saved when they were added to Oskar Schindler’s famous factory and list. Here my grandmothers and most of my uncles and aunts were murdered, and here, too, I will be reunited with the woman who helped care for my mother in the waning years of her life and became like a member of our family. I speak Polish, the language my parents used when they did not want their only child to understand their private words, and which I therefore learned. Indeed, from the moment I came here and heard that language around me, it aroused feelings of tenderness for it echoed with sounds that recalled home. Everyone here sounds like my parents.
When I went to the synagogue Friday night and Sabbath morning, it was full, the service led by the American-born Modern Orthodox rabbi who came, by way of Israel and his own personal journey, to religious observance. But while the pews were full Friday night, there was no minyan since, as the rabbi explained, there were not 10 men present who met the Jewish legal religious criteria for being a Jew.
The same happened the next morning. Not that these would-be Jews were ignorant. One, a former Protestant minister who came with his wife, could pray like a practiced native and quote Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) by heart, and did so when the rabbi taught a Mishnah from it. Another read Hebrew as if he were speaking it all his life, and talked about how he had prepared a kosher meal at home. The women were no less knowledgeable and engaged. The man who led the morning service, wearing a square black kipa and a tallit, had a beautiful voice and vaguely Israeli accent. But he also spoke and read in Polish the portion from the Bible (without a minyan there was no Torah reading). This man, who seemed to be a native, turned out to be a convert with absolutely no Jewish roots. (After the services, he whispered to me that I should not wear my kipa on the streets since there were many anti-Semites out on this May Day weekend, “and I know what I’m saying,” he added for good measure.)
In my university course, as I talked about the various types of Jews who today make up the Jewish demographic profile in America, I mentioned those who come from a Jewish background but do not consider themselves Jews. As with all the categories, I asked my students if they could describe what such a Jew would be like. One young woman raised her hand: “I know that well; that would be me,” she said.
“I was born a Catholic,” she said. “I cannot separate my identity from Catholicism. My mother is a born-and-raised Catholic, and her mother, my grandmother, became a Catholic to survive.” She added this last point, as if she were talking matter-of-factly about the color of the curtains in her home. But of course, it was extraordinarily striking to me. The young woman had only recently learned this fact of her background and now she was taking these courses in the Jewish studies program, where my course is being taught, to find out about Jews.
These students, almost none of whom is a Jew, know a great deal. They knew what the Amidah prayer is; they know a lot about Jewish history; they’re smart and engaged in the topic. But when we talked about the number of Jews in the world, and I told them, and then asked how many died in the Shoah, no one knew. I might have been surprised, but the night before I’d been watching Polish television, where a debate was being held about the place of Jews in Poland. One panelist, a historian, noted a survey question asked in 1945 and again this year. The question: Which people had suffered more in World War II, the Jews or the Poles? In 1945, only 32 percent answered the Poles; today 62 percent said it was the Poles. While I have no idea how good a poll it was, none of the other panelists challenged its findings.
The Poles have all been very nice to me, especially the people at Wroclaw University, who do not display the slightest trace of anti-Jewish bias. I’m learning a great deal, but I have yet to sort it all out. I am especially excited about going to Krakow, which will also be a chance to trace my roots, see where my family lived, see the graves of my grandfathers, and see the Schindler museum. Of course I’m thrilled to be speaking about Jews at the Jagellonian University, where my late father was once refused entry under the numerus clausus rules that limited the number of Jews at the university.
I’m not sure yet if I should mention that detail to my new colleagues.
Samuel Heilman is a professor of sociology at Queens College.