Surviving the Red Sea by Judy Lash Balint Seattle Jewish Transcript
April 8, 2001
“We’re still in shock,” Agnieszka Ziatek says quietly, of her reaction to recent revelations that Polish villagers in Jedwabne murdered more than one thousand of their Jewish neighbors in 1941. It’s a dangerous moment for Polish-Jewish relations, the young Polish Jewish activist explained to the audience at a Jerusalem synagogue recently. “When Poles are accused, they get more aggressive,” Bogna admits. “There’s bound to be more anti-Semitism again,” she sighs.
Agnieszka and her colleague, Bogna Eliza Pawlisz, both 29, are committed to the revitalization of Jewish life in a country with perhaps the worst anti-Semitic image in the world. They’re studying in Jerusalem this year but the two women are passionately committed to the Polish version of Jewish renewal.
They’ve come to describe the new Passover Haggadah being compiled for the tiny Polish community. But first the women must recount their odyssey of rebirth from the repression of communism to the relatively open and sometimes philo-Semitic Warsaw environment that has encouraged thousands of Poles to acknowledge and even search for traces of their Jewish ancestry.
Bogna, decidedly un-Polish looking with dark skin and short black hair, remembers shooting of demonstrators in the streets; nighttime raids and tanks rumbling through Warsaw streets from her Warsaw childhood.
Agnieszka looks younger than her age. She doesn’t fit the stereotypical Polish look either, with her black hair, pale skin and intense eyes. Neither of the women describes her family background in detail, but both freely acknowledge that they knew absolutely nothing about Judaism until their late teens.
In Passover terms, the women say they fell definitively into the “child who doesn’t even know how to ask” category.
To anyone familiar with Jewish life in the former Soviet Union, the picture they paint is instantly recognizable, but the dimensions are of a totally different scale. Most experts on Polish Jewry admit that it’s impossible to estimate the number of Jews in the country. Without a distinct criterion to even define Jewishness there, the task is impossible, but the number of those identifying themselves as Jews does not exceed ten thousand
Bogna and Agnieszka have studied Judaism with U.S born Rabbi Michael Shudrich, who has served Warsaw Jews for more than a decade. They attend conferences with young Jews from other European and are among the leaders who have established a Jewish magazine and conduct Shabbat and holiday observances.
Initially, the young Jews hid their activities from their families, having imbibed the not so subtle message that being Jewish was something their parent’s generation would rather keep in the closet. In some cases those attitudes have prevailed, but Agnieszka rejoices in her grandmother who has slowly begun to recount her rich memories of the vibrant pre-Holocaust Jewish life she enjoyed in her native Poland.
Yet this new generation of Polish Jews struggles mightily with issues of identity brought about by their newfound Jewishness. Bogna explains why Jews stay in Poland. “Staying in your place is more natural than leaving it,” she says simply. Besides, for most of today’s young Polish Jews, half of their family is not Jewish, so leaving them behind would be painful.
“We feel in love with the Poles. They’re part of our existence. Poland is a country I love,” she asserts.
“My heart is Slavic and can find true friends maybe only among Poles, in Polish literature,” she adds.
When the issue of the church at Birkenau is raised, Bogna knows nothing about it. After a description of the exact location of the building, (headquarters of the camp SS commandant, a structure which now boasts large crosses in front and on top) and a few minutes reflection, Bogna admits that she’s so used to seeing churches everywhere that she just hasn’t noticed this one which violates the largest Jewish burial ground in the world.
Despite her proximity to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bogna didn’t grow up seeing Jews with numbers branded on their arms. The Jews were all killed or survivors who fled the country as soon as they could. For Bogna, it was Poles, not Jews whom she identified as the victims of Auschwitz. “My friends were Poles with numbers on their arms.”