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.