Family Discoveries and Anti-Semitism

Today I found (well, my friend a genealogist who helped me, found) my oldest known relative’s death record. Lejb. He was born in 1800 in Parczew and died in 1874 in Kock (pronounced Kotsk). He and his wife Chaja Gryna were grain traders. Chaja Gryna’s father was named Pejsach. Pejsach was likely born in the 1700s so I guess Lejb is not really my oldest known relative but he’s the oldest whose birthdate I know. I am sure all these people were religious Jews.

I met another relative yesterday and she’s really great. She is 20 years younger than me but on the same level of the genealogical tree. I still cannot get over the fact that I have living relatives in Poland. They are descended from my grandmother’s first cousin who survived the War. She was saved, like my mother, by non-Jewish Poles. I am excited to meet more members of the family. I went to ZIH (the Jewish Historical Institute) to tell Anna P. that I had actually met the people she had told me about. When I was telling her about meeting living relatives in Poland I felt myself getting emotional. She asked if she could hug me. It’s such a mitzvah what the people at ZIH do. Not only the people at ZIH but all the people who do genealogy for people and help them find connections to this land that is so often dismissed as a cemetery, a place of so much pain that it is not worthy even of setting foot on. But if it is that, if it is only a place of loss and death and pain (and my experience teaches me that it is so much more) wouldn’t that compel the opposite response? Wouldn’t we want to visit? To pay homage? But I am forgetting that this is not a logical endeavor. When pain is involved, when the emotions and the heart are involved all bets are off. It makes sense that a human being would not want to feel all that pain again and again. And it makes sense that people would need to blame someone for their pain. I guess that’s where any form of hatred comes from ultimately—some sort of pain.

A few months ago I heard an anti-Semite speak in a Polish church in Boston and the crowd was very much on her side. I had never been in such a hostile environment. There were even two priests in the audience. I could feel where the anger was coming from. My impression was (the event was in Polish) that there was a feeling among the audience members that their victimhood had not gotten enough air time, that the Jews had gotten too much of the spotlight and now they wanted their due, and it seemed the only way to do that was to diminish what had happened to the Jews.

Somehow this post has gone from meeting family in Poland to Polish anti-Semitism. My relative told me that it was never a problem being a Jew in Poland. His parents (both Jewish) had considered leaving in 1948 but not, interestingly, in 1968 during the so-called anti-Zionist purge. But when I asked if there was anti-Semitism in Poland both he and his wife answered, “Of course!” I am curious to explore this topic further. I have found the most interesting parts of the conversations I have been filming as part of my fellowship here, is when I ask people about their childhoods and what they did or did not hear about Jews and anti-Semitism. It varies greatly.