My Grandfather's Legacy

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I feel very connected to my grandfather--my mother's father, Roman "Rachmil" Bawnik. Saba* Roman was a wise man and it was his brilliance and creative thinking that likely kept my mother and her immediate family from perishing during the Holocaust. Of course it was more than that--it was luck too and help from many people: non-Jewish Poles, fellow Jews and a German in Lublin, my mother's birthplace. My grandfather might say he was a fool not to have taken the family to the Soviet Union. He likely cursed himself for not saving his beloved sister Elka and her three children who were shot in the forest outside Lublin, his brother Gerzon's wife Cyla and son Eljusz and my grandmother's siblings and their children. Those losses probably weighed heavily on him, and yet his quick thinking and understanding of human nature before and during the War helped save his own nuclear family.

When my mother was little she and her sister were not allowed to speak Yiddish, only Polish. He felt that they would thrive better speaking Polish. Though he and my grandmother spoke an imperfect version of the language, that was what the family communicated in.

I was just listening to my mother's testimony to the USC Shoah Foundation and she tells the following story: Once when my mother was little she went to church with a governess. Some friends or neighbors saw this and reported it to her parents. "So, she went to church," my grandfather reportedly said. "So she will see how other people do things. When she grows up she can decide."

I recently wrote about a similar experience: "In 10th grade my parents let me go with my friend Jean on her church youth group's weekend retreat. They did not admonish me or tell me to be careful or warn me that I was Jewish and these were not my teachings. They just said yes. I remember learning, and really liking the song, 'Dance, then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the dance, said he, and I'll lead you all wherever you may be, and I'll lead you all in the dance said he.' But more than that I remember kissing a boy on the lips."

Going on the retreat because it was Christian was not a big deal. It was not forbidden. The exciting part of the weekend was the boy, not the cross!

Other people's religions were never portrayed as something waiting to swallow us up. Being Jewish was never presented as something we were in danger of losing. In fact, history had shown it was not something you could easily shake off even if you wanted to! I embrace this link between my mother's upbringing and my own and see in it the seeds of what I do now, introducing people to the work non-Jews are doing to commemorate Jewish life, working to break down stereotypes. Thank you, Saba Roman.

*Saba means grandfather in Hebrew.

 

 

 

Leaps and Boundaries in Language Learning

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I just returned from six weeks in Poland. The first four I spent studying Polish at the summer school at KUL—the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin. I’ve been trying to learn Polish on and off for years but must admit I have not worked at it systematically. This time I was quite motivated as I will be spending a good chunk of time in Poland soon (more on that in another blog post or in a BTP newsletter or on Facebook). I love learning languages and speak a bunch of them—Hebrew and Spanish fluently, French very well and I get by in Italian. And I have taken courses in many others: Yiddish, Portuguese, Arabic, ASL, German, Russian—and that list does not include the ones I have fiddled around with on Duolingo. But Polish is really tough. There have been times in the past few years when I wondered if I would ever master all the cases—nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, locative, vocative and instrumental. If you don’t know what cases are the easy way to explain it is that nouns take on different endings depending on what they are doing in the sentence. For example Polska is Poland. But Bridge to Poland is Most Do Polski. But if you want to say, “I am in Poland,” you say, Jestem w Polsce. Polska, Polski, Polsce. All the same word, but different cases. And that’s an easy example! Suffice it to say Polish grammar is a bear, but the combination of determination, having an amazingly wonderful teacher in Małgosia Prześniak Bolechowska, and being there for an extended period of time, helped propel me off the Polish plateau I had been lingering on for several years. For me language learning is like weight loss—you plug along doing exercises (in the grammar book or maybe just talking to native speaking humans) and one day you turn around and you’re far above—as opposed to below when it comes to weight!—where you had been for so long. How can I tell I’ve made progress? Here’s how 1). I can have a sustained social interaction with someone in Polish even about serious topics. We might have to consult dictionaries a few times, but we manage. A couple of years ago when I met the parents of a Polish friend who did not know English there were a whole list of topics were unable to delve into due to my limitations; 2). Strangers are actually willing to maintain a conversation with me in Polish even if they know English. I’m talking about clerks and waitresses, et al. and 3). Several times I have been asked how long I have been away from Poland, the implication being that I was born here and left, and that my Polish kindof sucks because of it. I take that as a great compliment!

Statement on What's Happening in Poland Now

The other day I was on a panel for the Jewish Genealogical Society for Greater Boston and I was asked to make a brief statement clarifying the legislation that was recently signed into law by Polish President Andrzej Duda. I thought I would share it here:

 

On February 6, 2018 Poland’s president Andrzej Duda signed into law an Amendment to the Act on National Remembrance which reads in part : Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich, … or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes – shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to 3 years.

There are exceptions if the offence is committed in the course of the one’s artistic or academic activity.

The Act shall apply to Polish and foreign citizens.

 

This action on behalf of the Polish government has unleashed barely buried anti-Semitism, anti-Polish sentiment and attacks within Poland on those doing the important work of Holocaust scholarship and memorialization of Jewish life and Jewish death in Poland.

It is therefore now more important than ever to visit Poland to show our support for the small but vibrant Jewish community there as well as for those non-Jewish Poles who are engaged in commemoration and remembrance of Jewish life in museums, universities, death camps and cultural institutions.

Our Shared History

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It’s not only Jewish history or Polish history, no, it’s for us together.

 

My friend Grzegorz Jędrek who works at Brama Grodzka* in Lublin said this, paraphrasing the Brama Grodzka credo, in the Mission Video that some of you received in my last newsletter. How timely this sentiment is given the recent uproar regarding the proposed amendment to the Act of National Remembrance in Poland that would ban speech implying the Polish nation is complicit in crimes committed during World War II.

 

Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN, and all the other wonderful partners I have in Poland are dedicated to opening up lines of communication, not shutting them down. It is through education, dialogue and sometimes difficult conversations that understanding is built.

 

This has been a hard week. People have dug deeper into their trenches populated by like-minded associates. On Facebook groups I see many expressions of hatred towards Poland. Luckily there are defenders too; those who see that no country’s people can possible be just one thing. Anti-Polish stereotypes are not true across the board any more than anti-Jewish stereotypes were or are.

 

Sometimes, when I bring up the good work that my friends in Poland are doing to try and show that things are not black and white, people remind me of anti-Semitism, of szmalcowniks**, and of Jedwabne, the town where non-Jews rounded the Jews up into a barn and burned them alive during World War II. Yes, I know about these things. I am not a Pollyanna who thinks that all non-Jewish Poles were rescuers. Though Bridge To Poland chooses to focus on the light, I see the shadow and do not shy away from it. It is after all part of the conversation in the Jewish Polish landscape. And I am aware of the problem of the pendulum swinging in the direction of Nationalism. I live in America after all.

 

But I don’t believe that the answer to these truths is to close myself off in a little world surrounded by people who have had my experiences. Nor do I think that making laws limiting speech is the answer. Only by looking into each other’s eyes and respectfully discussing the hard questions will bridges be built. So let us remember:

 

It’s not only Jewish history or Polish history, no, it’s for us together.

 

*Brama Grodzka Teatr-NN is an organization in Lublin, Poland with whom Bridge To Poland works very closely. It’s Founder and Director, Tomek Pietrasiewicz and Deputy Director Witek Dąbrowski are partners and close personal friends. Brama Grodzka is an integral part of every Bridge To Poland trip. It’s where the hope and the healing lie.

**Szmalcowniks (pronounced Shmaltzovniks)—Those who denounced or blackmailed Jews during World War II.

 

 

 

 

Witness

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This is testimony from a woman who heard and saw some of the 28,000 Jews who were marched to the gathering point in Lublin (now called the Umschlagplatz) from which they would be taken to be gassed at the death camp, Bełżec in 1942. It's part of a memorial created by my friends at Brama Grodzka in Lublin, Poland marking the likely path of that march.

This summer, during the Lubliner Reunion, a gathering of 200 descendants of Lublin Jews we walked along the path that many of those Jews likely took. I knew that my relatives had been among them. Probably my grandfather's sister Elka and her husband and children. Probably my cousins B. and G.'s father's first wife Cyla and his child Eljusz. My friend Tomek Pietrasiewicz, one of the Polish "Guardians of Memory," held the microphone for this woman, this witness, Wiesława Majczak, who told her story with passion and compassion. She talked about the horrible sounds she heard. About seeing the body of a girl her age—a Jewish girl—being trampled, and warned us that we must not let such things happen again. She was holding onto Tomek for support. Tomek, a non-Jew who devotes his life to preserving Jewish memory—the memory of those with names and those without them. As I watched her lean on him I thought of the many who were leaning on him at that moment, countless unseen souls, counting on him to tell their stories, and not to forget.

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Valuing Value

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A friend of mine read a blog post about choosing three words to be guideposts for 2018. I have chosen Nourish, Write and Value. I want to speak to Value here.

It’s important to me to be valued and to bring value to the world. I have found my calling in bringing people to Poland and showing them the different ways that Jewish History is being taught, remembered and commemorated. I bring value by serving as a bridge between countries, generations, religions, identities and world views. I see the value that I bring and people tell me about it too. When a student on a Bridge To Poland trip sees the work of remembrance being done at Brama Grodzka in Lublin, Poland and says, “We have to do something about Muslim refugees!” I feel the trip I have put together has value. When an adult trip participant says that before she came on the trip she wondered why “the Poles” did not do more to help the Jews, but after the trip she saw how demoralized the population was and started to put herself in the other person’s shoes, I feel like I have crafted something of value.

When a Polish woman talks to me about her ambivalence about a newly discovered Jewish past and says somehow I am the only one she can talk to about it, I feel I have value.

And yet despite all these moments of knowing my value, of feeling deeply that I am doing the work I was meant to do of healing historical wounds, fighting stereotypes, working on the border of identity with an open mind and heart, I still doubt myself. I am hard on myself. I have a fierce inner critic. She is ruthless and mean and she knows how to tear me down and tell me I am not worthy.

So, I have started (today!) keeping a value journal. I am writing in it how I am intrinsically valuable, the value I bring to others and the nice things others say about me. If you know me, whether personally or professionally and have something nice to say, either small or big, please let me know! I’m going to collect the nice things people say and read them when that inner critic rears her ugly head. And I encourage you to do the same with the others in your life. Life’s too short not to express our appreciation for each other.

Here are some of my appreciations:

My mother taught me to always include people. When women became widows or got divorced she still invited them to dinner parties. She brought soup to people who were sick. I think she learned that from my grandmother who was known for her good works.

What I loved in my father was his curiosity about EVERYTHING, his love for languages and his desire and ability to talk to everyone. Also, he was a great storyteller.

My parents both taught me never to break a promise.

My brother is a real mensch–visits people in the hospital and he is brilliant and creative.

I value my sons first and foremost for being decent human beings who treat others with kindness, especially old people. And they are hysterically funny to boot.

I was going to try to write about my friends too but that was too much for a blog post. Let’s just say I am lucky to have great ones in the U.S., Israel, the UK, Spain, Lithuania, a few scattered elsewhere and of course my dear ones in Poland. It is these friends who make it possible to withstand the harsh  critics, both inner and outer; it is these friends who, with compassion, wisdom and humor, prop me up when I am low. I encourage all of us to reach out to those whom we value and tell them so.

 

 

On the Boundaries of Identity

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Let's face it, it's exhilarating when someone gets us. When you give someone only the ABC of your life language and philosophy and they reflect back to you the KLM... RST... XYZ you're like, "Wow, what just happened here?" That happened to me today when I was talking to F., a friend and colleague of my mother's from the University of Connecticut. I sent him an article that I wrote for the Polish journal Konteksty about my relationship to Lublin and Brama Grodzka, the organization I work closely with that is devoted to remembering the Jews of Lublin. I bring all Bridge To Poland groups there; it's the heart of all my trips. F. is very familiar with my mother's work and immediately saw my focus on the rescuers of memory as a continuation of her work on rescue. 

We talked about identity. I told him that my friend Witek, Deputy Director at Brama Grodzka, and I talk about doing the work of remembering the Jews of Lublin together. I told F. that Witek and I had been born the same year. I had not felt a connection to Poland, and Witek had not known about the murder of the Jews in his country. With time we both learned, and we each came to devote our lives to the same thing—to the telling of the story of Lublin's Jews and to the breaking down of stereotypes related to Jewish Poland. Witek said to me last summer that our stories are now part of the story of the Jews of Lublin. I think that we both live on a Borderland of identity. We are comfortable on both sides, which makes us stronger storytellers.

F. recognized the synchronicity of my friendships in Poland and understood that together we are healing wounds from the past, from history. These are things that I know to be true but I don't expect many people to recognize them, let alone articulate them! 

My mother had to pass as a Catholic girl to survive the War. Part of that time she spent alone with a family, and the mother was emotionally abusive to her. She was hungry. With money that her father had left for her she was able to buy bread occasionally. She would take the bread to a church (this was in Otwock, Poland) to eat. F. read me a passage about this from my mother's memoir, Dry Tears: Inside a church I felt neither a Christian nor a Jew, but only a human being, who had a terrible need to confide in someone. In the stillness I could whisper my secrets without fear and whether it was a Christian or a Jewish God who listened to me did not matter. What mattered was that I had someone to confide in, and that he was listening. The bread and the church. Witek brought me to that church in 2008 and I cried my eyes out. I had never lingered on this passage in Dry Tears before, but hearing it read aloud today brought tears to my eyes once again. I guess because it sums up what is most important to me: It doesn't matter if we are Jewish or Christian, Black or White, Man or Women, Straight or Gay or something else. What matters is that we are human and that we are seen.

Go Towards the Light

 Umschlagplatz Memorial in Lublin (Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN)

Umschlagplatz Memorial in Lublin (Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN)

Some weeks I get a message from the Universe. This week’s is: Go towards the magic. Go towards the light.

A few weeks ago I was in Poland and I met an amazing man who is doing the work of bridge building all over the world, in Bosnia, with gang members in New York and in Poland. I hope you will come and spend more time with us on the Borderlands, he said. Yes, please!

The other day I spoke to a bright star of a woman in Britain who is helping people see themselves in the history of others. She too is a bridge builder and a visionary. Do you want to do a workshop with me on identity she asked? Boy would I!

In between magical moments I had to deal with a difficult person. A person who did not see me, my gifts, my potential or understand at all what I am here to do. My instinct when faced with someone like that used to be to show them who I am, to convince them. But now I realize that some people do not want to know, or perhaps they are not ready to know. It’s best to let them be and go towards the light.

Today I was watching video clips where my friends Witek and Tomek talk about how we are all working together to break down stereotypes, work that is essential to what the three of us have come to define as our life’s work.

Sometimes I get criticized for focusing on the positive. People have said to me, “Those Poles you talk about, remembering Jewish life, those are the exceptions.” So what? I was talking to someone the other day about how I don’t like the tabulation of the number of rescuers, those who saved Jews. Why is the number important? People are always flinging this number about, shouting about how big it is or how small it is. What if there was only one righteous person? If there was one I surely would focus greatly on that person.

I was recently in Białystok with my friend Krzysztof. We saw a monument dedicated to the Jews that were massacred in that spot. The monument listed the number of men, women and children murdered, and one baby. I first read it in Hebrew, “Ve tinok echad.” And one baby. The one baby made the hair on my arms stand up. Because it was a baby? Because it was one? Because I have had babies and could imagine the anguish of the mother (who probably did not survive)? 

In this work, in this world, in this minefield of pain and loss and remembrance and identity, where there is much that people are waiting to discover—each life has meaning. Each life that was lost has meaning. Each rescuer has meaning and each person doing memory work today has meaning and is worth highlighting.

For me, my beautiful friends in Poland are the magic and the light, and that is why I continue to go towards them and to bring others with me, across the bridge.

 

(Addendum: I understand that there are those who find the idea of focusing on the light in the place where their families were slaughtered offensive. I share that pain of that loss. I too lost much family in the Holocaust in Poland. Grieving is a personal process and the timing cannot be dictated from the outside. I am sharing what is true for me, and I honor your truth).

Remembering

 Leora Tec, Bridge To Poland Founder and Director with Krzysztof Banach, Historian of the State Museum at Majdanek

Leora Tec, Bridge To Poland Founder and Director with Krzysztof Banach, Historian of the State Museum at Majdanek

My friend, the historian Krzysztof Banach, who is in charge of exhibitions at the Majdanek death camp in Lublin, Poland, wrote a book about the exhibit he curated about the Lublin Ghettos. I am so grateful to him for creating this exhibit, for bringing together all these photographs, testimonies and facts about these terrible places where my ancestors were robbed of their dignity and treated worse than animals.

 

The photos in the book feel eerily familiar to me. I KNOW those streets. Streets that have not existed for 75 years. How can this be? I don’t know, but it is true. My mother is quoted twice in this book. She is one of a handful of eyewitnesses to the barbarity.

 

The book contains a surprise. A photo of Szeroka number 1 just before it was destroyed. Szeroka number 1— the building where my mother was born! I had never seen this particular photo before. What a gift.

 

In my work I am often confronted with stereotypes that people have of non-Jewish Poles. They make sweeping generalizations about how horrible the Poles were to the Jews or about how anti-Semitic they are today. Of course sweeping generalizations are never true. They were not true about the Jews and they are not true about the non-Jewish Poles.

 

I think the second or third time I was in Majdanek with Krzysztof he quietly showed me a piece of paper that was part of the exhibition. He did not describe it to the group. It was evidence that his great-grandfather had been a prisoner at Majdanek. Like my grandmother’s brother Icek. And that he had been murdered there. Like my grandmother’s brother Icek. I realized something in that moment. We share a common history. There is not such a separateness between us like some people might think, or like some want to keep believing. The history that Krzysztof and so many of my friends in Poland is working to preserve is our history. Our shared history. I can see right now someone getting up in arms saying that the Jews suffered a different fate than the non-Jews during World War II. Of course they did. But what I have come to see is that it is possible to know that and see the non-Jewish Polish experience in all its complexities. It is possible to hold the nuances on both sides and to know that suffering is not something to be compared.

 

I want to know all the stories.

 

My friends in Poland are open to the hard conversations and the difficult questions. Something I did not realize at first, when I first stepped onto Polish soil, soil that is now so familiar to me, is how much we, the Jews, are missed in Poland. My friend Tomek Pietrasiewicz—more a visionary than a man if there is such a thing—says that the greatest achievement of his life was creating a memorial to the path that the Jews walked to the Umschlagplatz in Lublin where 28,000 Lublin Jews were gathered before being deported to Bełżec where they were gassed. “I can only be sorry I did not start this work of remembrance earlier,” he told me last week. This from a man who has devoted the last twenty-five years of his life to preserving Jewish memory.

 

To Krzysztof, to Tomek, to all my friends in Poland who remember those children who lived and died, and miss those who did not get to be born, thank you.

Poland June-July 2017: June 3, 2017

I arrived in Poland yesterday and started vomiting on the way to my hotel from the airport. The driver, a young guy of about 30, couldn't have been sweeter and asked if I wanted an ambulance. Thought I do suffer from long distance travel (which is why I always arrive a few days before my groups) this was worse than ever. In fact I think it was food poisoning from the plane food. Not an auspicious beginning.

After coming out of my sleepy-sick stupor I tried to call a friend but my Polish phone did not work. Come to find out that this right wing government has required everyone to register their I.D. # or passport with their mobile phone account. [Addendum: A Polish friend informed me that this is a standard anti-terrorist measure done in many countries]. So, as soon as I felt faintly human I took a cab to the mobile phone store PLAY to sort it out.

Oh, I forgot this story: I had told them at the desk that my bathroom light need to be changed. Just as I was about to leave for PLAY a man entered my room (even though the Do Not Disturb sign was still on it) he apologized and I was like, "No, I'm just leaving" I really wanted to show him the light and also ask him to help me lift my suitcase off the floor. I ran down the hall after him but he disappeared. Downstairs at the desk I told the receptionist that the guy had come to change the bulb and had walked in. She said it's a woman who changes the bulb, not a man, and that it must have been a guest who walked into the room by mistake (the doors don't lock automatically). No wonder he ran away from me when I was inviting him in. I hope I don't see him at breakfast tomorrow!

Went to a little kiosk to buy water, cheese etc... The woman behind the desk was wearing a gold star of David with a diamond cross inside it. I told her about the work I do and asked her about it and she said she believes there is one God for everyone and that's why she wears it. She wants to read my mom's memoir "Dry Tears."

"Auschwitz After Auschwitz" An Interview with Dr. Tomasz Cebulski

Please join me on December 11, 2016 at 5:00 pm Eastern time for an online interview with Dr. Tomasz Cebulski who will be joining us live from Kraków, Poland. Dr. Cebulski is the author of the new book, "Auschwitz After Auschwitz" in which he explores the last thirty tears of  memory construction of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. We will delve into questions about how memory has changed since communism fell in Poland, who shapes the memory, how memory is different in the West, Poland and Israel and what the future holds. 

Dr. Cebulski, one of Poland's foremost guides of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, will be the guide for the Bridge To Poland June 2017 trip. This interview will be particularly interesting to people already signed up for the trip or those considering signing up.

Here is the link to sign up for the interview: https://zoom.us/meeting/register/4724be3d4f53e3537c24e00bf0acd2b8

I look forward to seeing you there!

Leora Tec

Bridge To Poland, Founder & Director

Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia, June 19, 2016

This Sunday, June 19th I will be speaking at the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia. The title of my talk is, "The Persistence of Memory: What Happens When All the Survivors Are Gone?" This is an expanded version of I talk I originally gave at Boston College in November, 2014 at a Symposium on Memory and the Shoah. I have expanded the talk to include more questions about how we can remember Holocaust victims and survivors, and the fears and hopes I have when look forward to 2116 as I consider Holocaust remembrance. I am excited to share these thoughts and hope for a lively give and take with the audience.