Three remarkable Polish women visit Israel to strengthen their journey to Judaism

Three remarkable Polish women visit Israel to strengthen their journey to Judaism

Olga, Kinga and Catherine visit the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem

Olga, Kinga and Catherine visit the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem

Kinga’s mother had the unusual custom of saying Gut Shabbos (Yiddish for “Good Sabbath”) every Friday night, but she had no idea what the phrase meant. “My mother just repeated it because she liked the way it sounded,” Kinga says, recalling her childhood in Poland. It wasn’t until she left for university that Kinga put the pieces together and discovered the truth about her Jewish heritage.

Olga’s family took her and her siblings on a visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp when she was only 5-years-old. “It was just something Poles do,” she was told at the time. Seven years later, she learned she was Jewish and that very early visit took on an entirely different meaning.

Catherine doesn’t have a Jewish background but has worked as a tour guide with groups visiting Poland from Israel and South Africa for the past 10 years. She regularly participates in the March of the Living pilgrimage to Auschwitz. She is today studying towards conversion to Judaism.

Three very different stories with one common theme: Kinga, Olga and Catherine were all in Israel recently on a Shavei Israel-sponsored tour and study program to further their knowledge of Judaism and strengthen their connection to this 3,000-year-old people.

The Polish visitors were guided by Rabbi Avi Baumol, Shavei Israel’s energetic emissary to Krakow, who played the roles of escort, teacher and cheerleader with eager aplomb during the two-week trip.

Their program paired a variety of only-in-Israel activities: a visit to the Western Wall; social cohesion and spiritual uplift at shul during a visit to Rabbi Baumol’s home; witnessing a demonstration the next week opposite the Prime Minister’s residence; soaking in the sights at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda open-air market, then immersing in some serious Torah study at the beit midrash of Nishmat, a women’s adult education institute in the Israeli capital; shopping in the Old City’s ancient Roman Cardo, followed by a tour of the ruins of Caesarea, a testament to the mastery of Israel’s Roman-era Jewish builder Herod.

What was the highlight? All three respond in unison: Shabbat. (The women spent the weekend in the Jerusalem suburb of Efrat.) “It’s like it’s supposed to be,” says Catherine, remarking that while they keep the laws of the Sabbath in Poland, “being in a community where everyone is celebrating Shabbat together and it’s normal,” was inspirational.

“It was so powerful, everyone was so dedicated and the singing was so wonderful,” adds Kinga.

It was Kinga who grew up with that out-of-place greeting of Gut Shabbos. There were a few other customs that she didn’t understand until much later. For example, her grandmother baked a bread resembling challah on the weekends, and the family never mixed milk and meat. It wasn’t until she left for Krakow to attend university that she discovered this was a Jewish custom, though.

“The other students saw the way I would cook and explained it to me,” she says. “My mother simply said we did this because it was healthier!”

It was only when Kinga, now 26 and a student at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts, left Poland to study for a semester in Paris that she truly embraced her Jewish roots. By chance, her apartment roommate was from Israel. “She wasn’t religious at all,” Kinga remembers, “but when I heard her speaking Hebrew for the first time, I knew this was what I had been searching for. A Jewish consciousness started to grow in me and I started to observe Shabbat.” When Rabbi Baumol came to Krakow last year, she began to study with him and became an active member of the local Jewish Community Center.

Olga, 27, didn’t have the same discovery process as Kinga: her mother always knew she was Jewish (although she didn’t tell her daughter until Olga was 12) and she placed an emphasis on learning about Jewish culture above others. Olga didn’t initially connect to her own Jewish roots. “I felt proud to be Jewish, but nothing more at first,” she says. “Five years later, I came to Krakow for university and I wanted some connection with the Jewish community.”

Olga joined the Jewish Community Center, which she describes as “a second home,” while studying towards her Ph.D on the “Holocaust and Nazism in Pop Culture.” What does that involve? She brings the example of the propaganda films made during World War II by none other than Walt Disney. “In them, Donald Duck would play a German soldier, and the film was meant to show how difficult life was under Germany and how much better it would be in the U.S.,” she explains.

Catherine, 32, was drawn to Judaism when she began working with Jewish groups in Poland. “I’d keep in touch with the people I met and that strengthened my interest,” she says. “People had told me that working with Jewish groups would be hard, but I didn’t find this at all. The opposite, in fact!”

Catherine wrote her master’s degree thesis in university on the influence of Krakow’s annual “March of Remembrance” on the city’s Podgórze district and as a means for promoting “synergistic dialogue” between Poles and Jews. Today she is studying towards a degree in psychotherapy while working in a law office to pay the bills.

What do the three women’s families think about their Jewish journeys? Catherine, who has no Jewish background, says “in Poland, if you’re not familiar with this topic, you don’t know a lot about it. My parents don’t really have a full image of what I’m doing, so it’s hard for them to take any kind of position. They’re not against it, but I’m not sure they entirely understand what’s going on.”

Olga’s parents support her fully: “My mother said, you must do this.” She has one brother and four cousins, none of whom are interested in similarly pursuing their past (or future, for that matter). “That’s very common, actually, among the third generation after the Holocaust, for one person to want to be Jewish and for their siblings to not want to know more,” she says.

Kinga’s parents are also in favor of her process, and particularly her visit to Israel. But, she cautions, her father is worried about possible anti-Semitism and asked that we not include her last name in this article.

At synagogue in Efrat over Shabbat, Rabbi Baumol gave a talk about his experience bringing Kinga, Olga and Catherine to Israel. In front of a packed house of 75 and speaking in English so the girls would understand (their Hebrew is somewhat less than fluent…so far, at least), he told this powerful story relating to the prophecy of Ezekiel:

I always had trouble with the principle of “resurrection of the dead.” What did it mean that each individual was supposed to be returned to life with a second chance? Having now spent the last six months in Poland, I have developed a new understanding of the miraculous prophecy.

I recently heard a harrowing story during the liberation day ceremony at the Birkenau concentration camp. Three men wanted to say kaddish for one of the men’s father, but they couldn’t manage to stand up so they rested on a pile of bodies. When one asked the other where his father was laid to rest, the response was, “you are sitting on him.”

How could the Jewish people ever think about a future after such a story? Yet they built and rebuilt, developed and thrived, ultimately creating the new modern state of Israel, a haven for all Jews and a light to the world. Is that not “resurrection of the dead?”

Moreover, in the 20 years since communism fell in Poland there has been a resurgence of Jewish Poland! Poles keep finding out that they have Jewish roots and they are inquiring as to what that means for them in their lives. The women I brought with me from Poland this week have such a story. Is that not the very essence of the prophecy G-d spoke to Ezekiel the prophet so many years ago?

If you would like to support Shavei Israel’s work in Poland, and help bring the spirit of Jewish resurgence to even more “Hidden Jews” of Poland, please consider making a donation on our Support page.

We have pictures from the trip below.