Polish-ish Jew

By Noah Graff

Wood Figurines of Jews sold in Warsaw Old Town

Two weeks ago I spent several days in Poland, staying in Kraków and Warsaw.

Poland is a country full of beauty with a rich history. Unfortunately much of that history has been a bloody one due to its location between Germany and Russia.

I knew that while there it was imperative for me to learn about the history of the Jews in Poland—my roots. Many of my ancestors lived in Poland; fortunately a lot of them left before World War II.

While staying in Kraków I drove an hour away to visit Auschwitz, the most notorious of Nazi concentration camps. I had been to a different concentration camp a few years ago, Dachau, nearby Munich, and while that was a powerful experience, visiting Auschwitz brought about emotions of another level of intensity. I walked into rooms with ovens to incinerate the dead and into gas chambers with photos on a wall of individual prisoners accompanied by information, such as their country of origin, if they were Jewish or Gypsy, and when they were killed—1942 for all those in that particular room. In one room I saw a pile of Tallites, the

Prisoner uniforms at Aushwitz with photos of murdered prisoners on the wall.

Jewish prayer shawls that had been collected from Jews upon their arrival at the camp. Another room contained the original striped prisoner uniforms with more photos of victims on the walls. I saw the barracks where prisoners slept two people per bed. I walked around the grounds and imagined prisoners assembling for role call. The original barbed wire double fences still surround the camp, along with the guard towers that prevented prisoners from escaping alive.

It feels different to see where the horrors took place in person—not looking at a photo or movie screen—but up close and in color. The horrors become real, rather than just a bad dream.

Before I left for Poland I was curious to find out how Polish people today see Jews. I have many Polish friends in Chicago, young First Generation Polish people, and a few of them have asked me if I am Polish. It feels a little awkward when I get the question. I say that my ancestors were from Poland, but they were Jewish, so I’m not sure if that makes me Polish. My parents always told me that the Jews were second-class citizens in Poland, segregated from the main-stream Christian Poles, which meant that they were not Polish. However, after my experiences in Poland, the places I visited and the Polish people I met, I feel a little more Polish than I did before. I guess I could go as far as to say that I feel “Polish-ish.”

In Warsaw I visited the Polin Museum, a museum devoted to telling the history of Jews in Poland. I learned that Jews first settled in the area of today’s Poland back in the 1200s. They were traders traversing Europe who decided it seemed like a good spot to put down roots. It started with about 200 Jews, who made up approximately 5% of the population. The Jewish communities were isolated in their own areas, and although they did not enjoy the same rights as non-Jewish people of the region, the nobility provided them a livelihood, employing them with jobs that were outlawed by Christianity at the time such as money lending—funny that 800 years later we are still known for the same occupation and often still resented for it.

As the centuries passed Poland gained a reputation in Europe as “the place where the Jews were treated too well,” so Jews kept settling there, eventually becoming a significant portion of the nation’s population. By the turn of the Twentieth Century many Jews had assimilated into Polish society and Jews were on the cusp of gaining equal rights and Polish citizenship. Some Jews fought in World War I to assert themselves as true Poles. During the same period many Jewish traditionalists feared that Jews were assimilating too much in Polish society. They feared that having the same rights as gentiles would cause Jewish culture and traditions to fade away. I think their fears were valid to some extent judging by the assimilation of American Jews in today’s predominantly tolerant American society. Also, history has shown repeatedly that when Jews become too comfortable in their surroundings it is a precursor to some sort of catastrophe.

Right when the Jews were starting to be officially accepted by Polish society World War II began. In a few years Warsaw went from a city with a 30% Jewish population to one with just a handful of Jews. Today one can walk through the touristy Old Town of Warsaw and see street vendors selling figurines of religious Jews so people can know what this extinct group of people looked like.

Some of the perspectives on Jews from people I met in Poland blew my mind. One woman in Warsaw told me that later in life she discovered she had a Jewish grandparent. She claimed that prior to World War II 70% of Warsaw was Jewish! A taxi driver told me that he was married to an ethnically Jewish woman—her mom was Jewish because her Grandmother was Jewish. He claimed that prior to World War II Warsaw was likely 50% Jewish. I interpret these shocking statistics to signify that Jews had been in Poland so long that they had spread their gene pool throughout the country. This probably was one reason Hitler killed so many Poles.

Just days after I returned home the world famous Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winning author, Elie Wiesel, passed away. He had devoted his life to ensuring that the world never forget what happened in the Holocaust. I hope I will never understand what it was like to be a prisoner in Auschwitz. Yet I feel grateful that on this trip I was able to see where the tragedy happened and better understand where I come from.

Question: Does today’s genocide in the Middle East remind you of the Holocaust?

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15 thoughts on “Polish-ish Jew

  1. Josh

    What genocide in the middle east? Unless we’re talking about ISIS?? I don’t think one can even begin to compare the pathetic acts of a small group of zealots who got their hands on some hand-me-down big guns to the systematic extermination of Jews in Europe by an established government who had invaded the better part of a continent. No, nothing in the world today reminds me of the Holocaust.

    1. Noah Graff

      The war in Syria!

      A lot more complicated of a Cluster @#$%@#! than WWII. Ethnically fueled. Millions of Refugees.

      Once again involving Germany.

      Not apples to apples but

  2. Ben

    It most definitely resembles the horrible treatment of humans during WWII. Allowing this to happen today is cowardly and other countries should quit discussing options and start taking action. Disgusting in both ways.

  3. Richard Rudy

    No, it doesn’t. The slaughter of Sunnis by Shins and vice versa is about whose version of religious beliefs will prevail, a inter-tribal fight to the death over different interpretations of received truth.
    The Holocaust was a catastrophe visited upon the Jews for no reason other than who they were. There was no ideology behind it, save a demented hatred two thousand years in the making, cynically stirred up and utilized by sociopaths. To compare anything to it cheapens its significance and obscures its lessons.

  4. Dick Crosby

    I was a kid during WWII. The revelation of the German concentration camps following the end of the war, was horrifying to the rest of the entire morally civilized world, if I remember right. The current open field, house to house, city to city, and region to region, slaughter today, does NOT remind me of the organized Holocaust. The German “Arrangement” may be the best publicized, but the Japanese also had established many prisoner-of-war camps where prisoners were worked and starved to death. The 1942 Bataan Death March in the Phillipines was not exactly a walk-in-the-park, either.
    I think there’s a stark difference between what’s happening today and WWII. Gruesome
    death takes many forms. The Apocalypse won’t be pretty either. The “Disappeared”
    is a class action. Better make your peace with your God. Good luck!

  5. Mike

    It’s not what is going on in the Middle East and elsewhere that scares me. What scares me is our reaction to it.

    Working together with other nations and like-minded people, we should be able to root out the bad apples and destroy them.

    Building walls and vilifying an entire religion is counter-productive to our goals.

    Secondly, we need to do something about the disparity of wealth in this world. With 1% owning 90% of the wealth, many people are going to be frustrated and angry at their place in the world. With these people having no future, at best, they’ll be looking the other way and not reporting what they know; at worst, they’ll be picking up an AR-15 at the corner store and joining in on the carnage.

    1. Marvin

      All part of globalization; the 1% (if it really is) want to keep a boot heel on the rest so they will keep pitting the peeps against one another. Then again I do not think the middle east has much to do with the 1%, they want total dominance of the world (depending on which one wins out). They want to rid the earth of the “infidel” and then fight to the death to see which side gets the spoils. The 1% think the money will buy them a place here, I think not, the interest is not money it is power. However; you can think what you want but just for fun I would look back in history and remember what took place as they ran across Asia, Europe and stopped in Spain …………….. stopped? I fear not. As far as grabbing an AR-15 at the corner store? Don’t make it sound so simple and besides you may wish you had one when the formidable crap hits the fan.

  6. charlie

    I have a problem with “destroying” human beings bad or not. Wouldn’t it be nice if we just gave the “bad” guys what they want and move the people they don’t want elsewhere and provide them with an equal or better living and home. The cost couldn’t be more than a war would cost and lives would be saved including our guys. You say they will sit on the free porch and collect “our” free money? I think not, the majority of people will use the help and go out and provide for themselves as well as getting off the free money provided. Unlike some in this country they still have personal pride.

  7. Donald Green

    My wife experienced the same treatment when she was growing up in Moscow, Russia. Everything about their being was the Russian/Soviet culture. Religion didn’t “exist”. However, to ethnic Russians they were Jews, not Russians.

  8. Lloyd Graff

    In 1999 I visited the Majdanek Concentration Camp which is essentially in the Polish city of Lublin. It was cold and snowy but I seperated myself from our group and took off my winter coat, sweater, and shirt to feel a tiny taste of the pain my brethren felt in the camp. Then , I reclothed and walked through the barracks. The “Showers” where the deadly Xyclon gas came out left the most chilling, recurring memory. I chose not to go to Auscwitz. Madjanek was all I could bear. But I am glad you went, Noah. Those memories impact you forever, even as just an observer. Elie Weisel is gone. Now you can endure as a secondary witness.

  9. rick

    Not only are the Christians being slaughtered and exterminated in the middle east, the real untold story is the Christian cleansing throughout Africa by the Islamists.

    For some strange reason the news will not cover this!

    What happened to the “girls” abducted by boko haram?

    That is still an everyday occurrence, and has fallen off the main stream news radar.

    There is nothing to be gained for the powers that be , so it is not reported…

  10. Reuven

    It was really surprising to read Noah’s article in Machining World. I am also a Polish Jew but I live in Israel. My parents chose to immigrate to Israel and not to America. As to the question: Does today’s genocide in the Middle East remind you of the Holocaust? The answer is simple, there is NOTHING in common between the war in Syria & Iraq and the holocaust. The question by itself shows a huge historical misunderstanding. Josh’s answer above represents my point of view and I’ll not repeat it.
    As to the term “Polish-ish”, “Ish” means “Man” in Hebrew.

  11. Ariel Chemlani

    Your QUETION is provocative
    And the questioner is aither. STUPID
    or ANTI-SEMITIC ( there. Are few JEWES WHICH
    HATE their Owen propel )
    You will not find in all mankind history where
    Educated engineers recruit by :
    west European
    Country government
    Siting in nice offices and design death factory’s
    Which involve logistic with thousands of trains
    And menpower . Only to MURDER
    CHILDREN . Pregnent. Women . Old and young
    I was born in Israel. My father born in POLAND
    And children’s was murder


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