A version of this story appeared as an Op-ed in the September 21 edition of The Palm Beach Post
I recently returned from a trip to Poland where I spent time with my 38-year-old friend, I’ll call her ‘K,’ and her 12-year old daughter, ‘S.’ I met K six years ago. When K was 21, attending university in Krakow, she was assigned a family genealogy project. Since K was Catholic, the most logical starting point was her parish church records. When an elderly priest pointed K to a book of parish records, she noticed that there was a ‘dot’ next to her grandmother’s name.
“Father,” K asked, “why does my grandma have a dot next to her name?”
“That dot means that your grandma was a Jewish child during the war and was raised by a Catholic family,” the priest answered.
K immediately ran home and asked her mother, “Mom, are we Jewish?”
K’s mother put a finger to her lips admonishing K, “Don’t ever tell anyone. It’s our secret and none of our friends should know!”
While K embraced her newfound Judaism, K’s mother, 17 years later, still attends Mass every day so that her friends will see she is a good Catholic, “if it happens again.”
Ironically, K later discovered that her paternal grandfather, a noted surgeon in Poland, was also born Jewish, saved by a Catholic family. While he never attended church as an adult, his way of shunning his heritage was to make antisemitic jokes to friends.
The commonalities to these stories is not just that both K’s grandparents were Jewish, saved by Polish Catholics. It is that both lived their lives in fear of being discovered, using different defense mechanisms to help assuage that fear.
I told K’s story to friends, mentioning that antisemitism still exists in Poland: from the antisemitic graffiti that covers walls in Poland’s third largest city, Lodz, to the young Jewish tour guide, David, who wears a Yankees baseball cap to cover his kippah (skullcap) to avoid bullying (but walks around showing the fringes of his Tzitzit, the ritual undergarment worn by observant Jews – saying, “They think it’s a ‘fashion statement”). I also met a 30-something Polish historian who will not believe, despite all the evidence, that the massacre of the Jews in a small village called Jedwabne in 1941 was perpetrated by the town’s Poles.
My friends couldn’t believe what I was saying. “This is still happening in Poland?,” one asked.
Then I read the editorial in the Sept. 18 edition of The Palm Beach Post: “Action needed against hate, antisemitism,” which reported antisemitic and anti-social justice posters in Fort Lauderdale, Goyim Defense League distributed antisemitic propaganda in Coral Gables, Parkland and Boca Raton, swastikas marring the walls of a high school bathroom in Davie and flyers praising Hitler distributed in Boca’s Lake Wyman neighborhood … while the ADL “identified more than 400 instances of white supremacist propaganda being distributed in Florida from January 2020 through August of this year. Antisemitic incidents increased 50 percent from 2020 to 2021, from 127 to 190.”
I will send K the editorial, knowing that she will take little comfort in learning “this is still happening in America.”