Shavei Israel profile: Basia Wieczorek – a “third generation” Polish Jew makes aliyah
It’s an increasingly common story among the Jews of Poland: a grandparent, lying on his or her deathbed, reveals to the grandchild a shocking secret – that the grandparent and, as a result, his or her family, is actually Jewish. The phenomenon has occurred so frequently that some observers have referred to it as the emergence of the “Hidden” Jews of Poland.
Basia Wieczorek is one such person, although she explains that Polish Jews refer to themselves as being part of either the “first,” “second” or “third” generation since the Holocaust. Where you are in the spectrum can have a huge impact on Jewish identity.
Wieczorek should know: she’s just finished writing her Master’s Degree thesis in Media Education at the University of Warsaw on the subject of “Jewish Identity of the Third Generation.” She is set to graduate in only a few days and then immediately afterward make aliyah, where she’ll be living in an absorption center for new immigrants in Jerusalem.
Wieczorek says that the history of Jewish rediscovery in Poland is more than just grandparents hiding their Jewish roots during and after World War II. While it’s true that many Jews – especially children – who survived the Holocaust were sequestered with non-Jewish families, it wasn’t simply that they were too afraid to re-identify with their faith when the Nazis were ultimately defeated.
Wieczorek gives her own grandmother as an example. “Her family was trapped inside the Warsaw Ghetto during the War, but my grandmother managed to escape by paying off the security guard at the courthouse building, which was exactly in-between the ghetto and the rest of Warsaw. She was taken to live with a Polish family in the town of Poznan. They had lost their own child who was about the same age. Both children had blue eyes. Most of the neighbors thought it was the same kid. No one asked questions.”
After the war, Wieczorek’s grandmother’s adopted family tried to find her real parents, but they had perished, as had everyone else in her biological family. So had any documentation of her Jewish heritage. It would be just as easy to “pass” as a non-Jew, which is what she did. Her first husband was not Jewish, but her second husband was. “My grandfather was not ashamed of his Jewish identity,” Wieczorek says. “He wanted to raise his kids with a knowledge that they were Jewish.”
Then came 1968.
Following the Soviet Union’s severing of diplomatic relations with Israel after the Six Day War, the Communist government in Poland waged an all out campaign of discrimination against the Jews who remained in Poland. “People lost their jobs, they had to leave university and school,” Wieczorek says. “Most of the people who had any kind of a Jewish identity emigrated – to Israel, Europe, and the U.S. The rest decided to hide. Or put another way, the people who stayed had a much stronger Polish identity than a Jewish one, and they really didn’t want to leave Poland. Some would even raise their kids as ‘extreme Catholics’ so no one would suspect.”
By 1971, nearly 13,000 Polish Jews had fled the country and the remaining members of the “first” generation very often simply neglected to tell their children – the “second” generation – anything about their true past.
Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, Lech Walesa ran for president of Poland, and everything changed again.
With the stunning fall of Communism, a new phenomenon sprouted up in Poland: the Jewish summer camp. These camps were established and supported, in many cases secretly, by the “first” generation (the grandparents), who would send their grandchildren – now the “third” generation” – for the summers…sometimes without telling them where they were going or even that they were Jewish!
Wieczorek was not one of those kids; she learned from her grandparents of her Jewish roots when she was 5-years-old. But she became a regular at the Jewish summer camps and she tells a remarkable story of a 13-year-old boy who arrived at camp completely in the dark.
“It was just before Shabbat and we were discussing who would be leading the blessings during the meal. And this boy asked us why we were playing a game pretending that we’re Jewish. So we said to him, ‘we’re not playing a game.’ He responded, ‘what? you’re all Jewish?’ And we said to him, ‘and so are you.’ He had no clue where he was. He was in total shock. He called his grandma and she confirmed it. She hadn’t even told his parents where she was sending him. I ran into him years later and he was a counselor at another Jewish summer camp in Poland!
The “skipping” of the second generation can be seen everywhere in Poland, Wieczorek adds. “In synagogue, you’ll see Holocaust survivors and their grandchildren. But the second generation doesn’t come.”
Wieczorek went to the camp in Warsaw, which is where she made most of her Jewish friends growing up. “It was like a kibbutz!” she marvels. A second camp, run by the Ronald Lauder Foundation, is more religious in nature. Wieczorek, now 28 and who has become religiously observant herself, is a counselor there.
In addition to her studies, Wieczorek also works for the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, a non-profit group that is responsible for restitution of Jewish property from before World War II. Wieczorek coordinates an educational program called “To Bring Memory Back” that teaches non-Jewish Polish school children about Judaism and Poland’s long Jewish history. “They take on various activities, like cleaning up the local Jewish cemetery or creating a movie about the Jews who once lived in their city.”
The program is not a response to anti-Semitism; indeed, if anything, Poland is marred more by indifference, Wieczorek says. “People just don’t know what it is to be Jewish. By educating the younger generation, they can teach their parents.”
Wieczorek has been dreaming of moving to Israel since she was a teenager. In addition to her participation and leadership in Jewish camps (she also attended an international Jewish summer camp in Hungary), she has been to Israel a few times, first through Birthright and then as a counselor for several of Shavei Israel’s annual summer seminars for young Polish Jews.
Her family is supportive but worried. “I had a cousin here who died in a terrorist attack in 2003,” she says. “So my family is terrified that I’ll get killed as soon as I land in Ben-Gurion Airport. If somehow I miraculously survive, they fear that I’ll be taken straight away from the airport to the army, even though they know I’m already too old for that. And if I survive that, they think, then I’ll wind up having 20 kids and they’ll never see me again.”
Shavei Israel’s seminars have played a big part in Wieczorek’s life. “I feel much more Jewish now,” she says. “It’s not just the lectures and classes or the trips. It’s that you meet other Jewish people from all over Poland, and you find out you’re not the only one having these feelings and struggles. You feel less alone.”
Wieczorek’s sister has also found Shavei Israel’s seminars life-changing. “Michael Freund [Shavei Israel’s Founder and Chairman] asked my sister at a recent seminar in Katowice what she thought about my making aliyah. My sister said, ‘it’s a crazy, dangerous idea.’ But after she came to Israel during the last Shavei Israel summer program, she realized it’s actually a good place for me.”
Wieczorek has been involved with Shavei Israel in Poland for many years. She’s worked with both Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis, Shavei’s emissary to the Katowice area, and before that with Rabbi Boaz Pash, who was based in Warsaw, on the “Ner l’Elef” educational program for young adults. Apart from Shavei Israel, Wieczorek also served as the president of the Polish Jewish Student Union. So she is certainly well positioned for a successful aliyah. “I just need to learn Hebrew better!” she says
“Hidden” Jews who want to immigrate to Israel from Poland don’t always have an easy time of it. They need to prove their Jewish roots, and with so much documentation destroyed – first by the Germans, then by the Russians, and often by the families hiding the Jews during and after the War – this can prove impossible. Indeed, “if you managed to survive the war, then your papers must be somehow missing,” Wieczorek points out. Wieczorek was fortunate: she had the documentation she needed and is on her way.
It seems that, at least for this resolute young Polish Jew, the “fourth generation” will be raised in Israel.
UPDATE: as we were pressing “publish,” we received news that Basia Wieczorek arrived in Israel on aliyah!