Until she was 28, Kasia Jachnicka thought she was Catholic. Like the majority of Polish citizenry, her family celebrated Christmas and Easter. Then one day, Jachnicka’s mother, after years of internal struggle, ultimately revealed a new truth: her family is Jewish.
In the beginning, Jachnicka felt there were a lot of questions and very few answers. “What does it really mean? What should I do? I felt sorry for the fact that my mom saw her roots as a dangerous burden, a flaw that she passed to her children.” Surprised and fascinated, Jachnicka began a journey of tracing her roots and rediscovering her identity. Unlike the generations before her who, either by choice or by circumstance, hid their Jewish roots—first during the Holocaust and then under communism—Jachnicka could embrace her newfound heritage.
“After all these years, embracing my Jewish heritage was like coming back home. Finding a missing element of the whole picture,” Jachnicka reflected after more than a decade of research and learning. She is now deeply involved in Warsaw’s Jewish Community Center (JCC), where she has met others on the same journey.
I had the distinct pleasure of learning Jachnicka’s story—a familiar one in today’s Poland—on a weeklong study tour of Jewish Poland. The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has conducted a series of study tours for select American Jewish professionals and lay leaders to experience Jewish Poland firsthand. At the invitation of the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Washington, D.C., I had the honor to travel with the most recent study tour—the third of its kind—on behalf of B’nai B’rith International.
Our delegation of seven diverse Jewish professionals and lay leaders traveled between Warsaw, Lublin and Krakow for an intimate look at Jewish Poland through the juxtaposition of death and rebirth. The study tour featured visits to a variety of sites relevant to the historical presence of Jews in Poland and the Holocaust, including a visit to the esteemed POLIN Museum, the Jewish Historical Institute and Emanual Ringelblum Archives, the Okopowa Jewish cemetery, the Katyń Museum, the Museum of Yeshiva Chachmei, the Majdanek concentration camp and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps.
In contrast to the dark and difficult history explored at those sites, meetings were also held with leaders of local communities breathing life into today’s Jewish Poland. We met with communal leadership, including those from the Mi Polin project, the Taube Center, the Nożyk Synagogue, AJC Central Europe and B’nai B’rith Poland. Over a festive Shabbat dinner, our group was hosted by Agata Rakowiecka, executive director of the JCC Warsaw, for a look at how her community is reasserting its identity and revitalizing Jewish life in Warsaw through weekly Shabbat programs, holiday celebrations, lectures, educational opportunities and more. Like Jachnicka, Rakowiecka is another member of the community emblematic of the newest generation of Polish Jews rediscovering their roots.
One thousand years of history and Jewish contribution to Polish society were nearly extinguished over 70 years ago. Alongside Jachnicka and Rakowiecka, among those who should be credited for Jewish revival in Poland are the non-Jewish Poles at the fore of preserving this memory and carrying it forward. Our group was briefed by a multitude of civil society organizations (CSOs) dedicated to exactly that. We met with leaders like Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, president of the Jan Karski Educational Foundation and former consul general of the Republic of Poland in New York, and Marta Usiekniewicz, communications coordinator for the Forum for Dialogue. Both organizations provide essential educational resources, trainings and programs across Poland and are staffed primarily or entirely by non-Jews.
Another important CSO, the "Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre" Centre, is a municipal cultural institution based in Lublin. In a visit with Deputy Director Witold Dąbrowski, we learned the Centre draws on the symbolic and historical significance of its residence, the Grodzka Gate, which had previously been used as a passage between the Christian and Jewish parts of the city. Beyond the gate today extends the empty space of the destroyed Jewish district. Through several unique exhibitions, educational and artistic initiatives, the Centre is dedicated to preserving the memory of the former Jewish quarter of Lublin. Dąbrowski and Junczyk-Ziomecka are two of thousands of non-Jewish Poles embracing roles as custodians of Jewish memory.
At the same time, today we are witness to a resurgence of anti-Semitism throughout Europe and around the globe. Weighing heavily on my mind heading into this trip was the dramatic increase in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial that has appeared in some sectors of Polish society in recent years. Just last year, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party silenced criticism of Polish complicity in the Holocaust by pushing a bill that criminalized the attribution of blame to Poland for any crimes committed during that period. The Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, or IPN law, popularly known as the Holocaust bill, was viewed widely as an attempt to regain control of a revisionist historical narrative that cast Poles as blameless victims. The law has since been watered down after facing severe international backlash, but there has yet to be significant movement on Poland’s part to have an open and honest discussion regarding the country’s wartime history.
Hosted for a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with Ambassador for Jewish Diaspora Affairs Jacek Chodorowicz, our group raised these concerns and advocated for mandated standards on Holocaust education, the adoption of the widely-accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, and a systematic and government-wide inquiry into the full history of the period of the Holocaust. While the sensitivity that Poles have around the issue of the Holocaust is understandable, not enough is being done at the highest levels to address the history of anti-Semitism that preceded the Holocaust and continues to this day.
A highlight of our delegation’s visit was a meeting with Commissioner for Human Rights Adam Bodnar, and Mr. Marcin Sośniak, head of the Migrants and National Minorities’ Rights Department, on combating anti-Semitism in Poland. The Commissioner is the independent constitutional authority charged with safeguarding the equal treatment of all persons. Bodnar and his team have taken an important and vocal stance as defenders of minority rights, even in the face of PiS-adopted legislation diminishing human rights protections and a prosecutor’s office which has been known, in Bodnar’s experience, to turn a blind eye to recommendations for legal proceedings against documented cases of anti-Semitism. The political reality leaves the Polish Jewish community acutely aware of their oft-perilous minority status. Bodnar is a critical voice in opposition to the ruling party, and this meeting offered a slightly more well-rounded picture of the political climate on the ground.
Without a doubt, Poland has much to celebrate. It has one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities in the world, and there are many within Polish society and government who are fighting tirelessly to combat the ills of anti-Semitism, revive Jewish life and preserve Jewish memory. While Poland’s broader relationship with the Jewish people remains complicated, projects like these study tours are an important tool to bridge the divide. Cultivating a space that is open to the tough and earnest dialogue necessary to carry relations forward is challenging but invaluable. I am most grateful to our hosts for this compelling look at Polish-Jewish relations.
Sienna Girgenti is the Program Director for Strategic Engagement at B'nai B'rith International. She joined the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy in 2013. To view some of her additional content, click here.
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