Stories from Poland: Anna Discovers A Jewish Grandmother
by Judith Lynn Maller
My husband is a retired rabbi. We were very fortunate to have been invited to Warsaw, Poland for two months in 2010. We stayed at Beit Warszawa, the reform progressive congregation, and helped with the congregation; doing programing, services, and outreach to towns in Poland where some people had a desire to form progressive Jewish communities. To us it was a great adventure, much better then being just a tourist visiting the country. We lived with a community and become part of it. The most precious items that I brought back with me were some unbelievable, sometimes chilling stories, about wanting to be a Jew in Poland.today
This story is from Anna, a slightly heavy woman in her mid forties with a husband and three school age children. I met Anna at a family Succoth event about an hour from Warsaw at the summer home of a member of the congregation. It was a beautiful, slightly chilly day in a house filled with sounds of babies , the smell of wonderful cooking and animals and children running freely on the expanded green grass that backed into a deep wooded area. The Sukkah had been started and the men, kids ,dogs and other assorted animals went into the woods with their saws and axes looking for branches for the roof of the Sukkah and things got quieter.
I was sitting in the backyard next to Anna enjoying the sunny day when I asked her the question that I had learned to ask everyone I met in Poland; so what your story? This is what she related to me.
“When I was 31, already married and with a child, I asked my grandmother why do we go to the cemetery and visit graves only on grandfather's side of the family? Where is your family buried? Do they live far away in a rural area of Poland, or in another country? The answer she gave me was: they all went up in smoke. Everyone in Poland knows exactly what that means. Grandma was old at that time and ailing. I knew I needed to hear the story now, before she died. or was too ill to tell it. My grandmother told me she was Jewish. When the German's came in 1939 my grandmother had a Polish boyfriend who saved her life. Luckily grandma was blond, blue eyes with light skin Her parents were well off and her boyfriend's family was from a working class family. Both families were very upset about their relationship. But in 1941 when the Jews were being forced to move into the Ghetto, the boyfriend went to his priest to try to get a baptismal certificate for his Jewish girlfriend. The priest found a girl of similar age who had died. With her certificate my grandma got married to her boyfriend in a Church, and moved in with her boyfriends family
My grandmother didn't forget her family who were starving inside the barb wired Ghetto. She tried to do what she could for them.She arranged with her family to throw food over the ghetto walls at night. She sent messages to them. Everyone she knew; aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, parents and her little sister were caught in the filthy, starving, desease ridded ghetto, squished together eight or ten in a room. She pled with her parents to let her smuggle her little sister out. She could try to get false papers for her also, and maybe send her to the country to friends of her Catholic in laws. or set her up at a school with nuns, Her parents would not agree. They had faith that things would blow over , it couldn't get much worse they said. So they refused to let her younger sister out of the Ghetto walls. They could not believe they would die, but they all did. Gased at Treblinka.
That was the straw that broke her will and her belief in any God. She became her false identity: that name was her name, her age, her religion. She raised a Catholic family, and never spoke a word about the terrible past. She never told anyone she had been a Jew. When she died, only a few weeks later, she had already made arrangements to be buried in a Catholic cemetery, with the name, and birthday of the false identity papers. She had become that person. Since I am the only one to know, I leave a stone on her grave site whenever I visit her grave. I remembered who she really had been.
I was haunted by my grandmother's story. I was married to a Catholic man and was raising my child Catholic. I had to know what Judaism was about, so I went to the university and started taking classes in Jewish history. The more I learned the more I needed to know. I took classes in Hebrew and Yiddish. I went to a rabbi and started classes in conversion to Judaism. I started going to the temple and became convinced I wanted to become a Jew. I talked to my husband about my choice and I was surprised that he wanted to learn about Judaism also. We studied for several years and we both decided to convert and have our children also convert. We became members of Beit Warszawa and then felt so strongly that that we now send all three children to the Lauder Jewish Day School in the center of Warsaw. As a family we are very happy with our new identity. My son came home from second grade and told me he told his teacher that he wanted to grow up and become a rabbi. I thought of my dear grandmother and how the chain from one generation to the next had not been broken.
Pietro: Jewish Music Revives a Soul
It was only three weeks until Rosh Hashanah. We were in Warsaw at Beit Warszawa Temple. I had volunteered to help the choir get going. I had brought music from Temple Akiba thinking it would be helpful to this young congregation. The challenges to getting the choir started were daunting. People came to practice and then didn't come. Marta the professional, and Kasha, the want to be professional, wanted four part harmony. They also wanted the most difficult music from the 19th century. I tried to make the process simple. ”How about songs by Craig Tubman or Debbie Friedman” I pled. ”Never cried the real musicians.” They wanted only the most complicated music, and definitely four part harmony. Inside I cringed, I thought to myself we do not have the time, and secretly I thought; I don't even read music. The pieces they wanted were to me dull, hard,and heavy music. I cringed again and thought “This is not going to work” My stomach was tied up in knots. To make matters worse, Sevran our patron who finances the whole temple, announced excitedly that he had invited the Israeli, English, and American ambassadors and their families to the first night of Rosh Hashanah, and they were all coming. We need an angel to make this work out.
The next morning I woke up early and walked out of my room on the third floor of the temple into the hall where the grand staircase was; and tripped over a lot of stuff on the floor. I looked closer and there was a young man, thin and disheveled, sleeping on the couch, and strewn around him was his disarranged stuff.
I found out later at breakfast that he just maybe our angle. Pietro was a student at the University in Lublin; majoring in Jewish Studies. He was going to help out with the music and was a quitar player. Wow my prayers were being answered. A musician and a quitar player; maybe Debbie Friedman or Craig Tubman would make it into the music here in Poland. Pietro was to help lead the music and do several solos. Yehoo; I felt a great relief until practice that day when Pietro shuffled in late. Unprepared. and without the music. I think our angel had not made it to Warsaw yet. Maybe she needed a map.
One morning at breakfast I asked my favorite question. So Pietro; tell me your story. He answered, “When I was very young I never felt comfortable in church but I loved music. I was always moved by lovely music. When I was in High School I went with my band buddies to the klezmer Festival in Krakow. I was blown away. This music touched my core, my heart, After several years of going to the festival I need to get a teacher and wanted to learn how to play that way on my guitar. I did and it led me on the path I'm on now. I knew klezmer music was Jewish but I knew nothing about Judaism. So I started to take classes at the University in Jewish history, customs, and the Shoah. This search led me deeper into Jewish studies. It felt so right. I related to the classes and it drove me on to learn more and more. I took Hebrew and Yiddish and began to take any classes I could find on Judaism.
This helped me seek out a rabbi and get involved in the temple. I started playing music for the religious school and family services. It felt good and comfortable. The more I got involved the better I felt and the closer I became to the Jewish people. The opportunity came for me to go to Israel and I think that changed my life. I felt at home there. I could talk openly and share my inner thoughts. I was sad when I had to return to Poland. When I got back I changed my major to Jewish Studies, and now I will be entering a program for a Doctorate in Jewish Studies.”
I told Pietro this is a wonderful path but what did your family think. Did they support you in your journey to explore Judaism? My parents and brothers are real anti semites, he replied. What do you mean I said. They claimed there is no one in our family who was Jewish, so why would I be seeking to learn about Jews. My dad told me to stop this nonsense or he would cut me off from any funding for the university. When I explained that I felt more comfortable in the temple then a church my father exploded saying 'You are no son of mine . How could you say such hateful lies. Are Jews giving you money to turn you away from your family, and friends, this village, and our Polish roots. We are real Poles he added we slaughter Jews. Good for the German's who tried to rid us of that vermin.
I heard my family on several occasions tell jokes about the Jews or ridicule a behavior and call it greedy just like the jews. In my youth I never thought much about it, but now I knew and Identified with the Jewish People. My father gave me a choice: forget what I am doing or I was never to speak or see anyone in the family again. I was never to go back to my village or contact anyone in our family; included aunts, uncles, cousins, etc, He said that I was dead to them and would be cut off completely from any inheritance.
I asked Pietro in a shocked voice. What happened? That was it, he said, I am now 31 and I have not seen or heard from anyone in my family for over 5 years. I went to the into to Judaism class, and I officially became a Jew. I have my conversion papers.
I felt deeply sadden by Pietro's story and then I remembered a Jewish midrash. Pietro I said, you are a true Gilgul. What is that he said. I told him there is a belief that sometimes a Jew dies before his time, like in the Shoah, and his soul travels to inhabit a Gentile in a later generation, who is drawn to some aspect of Judaism, so his Jewish soul will not die out.* I think you have such a Jewish soul, even if you can't find anyone in your family that connects you to the Jewish people. I know there is a connection. The Jewish people are your new home and family. I held out my arms and we embraced.
What happened you ask to the Rosh Hashanah singing? We flubbed though it, but Marta saved the day by singing the most beautiful Aveenu Malkeinu I ever heard.