As I travel through Poland and Israel, watching, discussing and writing about films, I find myself tracing the continuities, as well as the tensions, of Jewish identity. The only child of Polish Holocaust survivors, I am returning to Poland for the first time in 25 years, exploring what Judaism means there now. My mother, who accompanied me the last time, is no longer alive, but I feel her presence especially in Krakow, her beloved native city. Unlike 1989, when the first free elections were ending decades of Communist rule, I sense a growing philo-Semitism: Younger Poles are expressing awareness of all that their country has lost — not only during the Holocaust, but also in the 1968 expulsion of Jews.
The most striking official expression of this is in Warsaw, at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Although its official opening will be in October, the museum’s director, Dariusz Stola, offered me an early guided tour. The museum is an extraordinary testament to the vitality of Jewish life in Poland, especially before World War II. The site is across from the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, created in 1948 by Nathan Rapoport, an American sculptor of Polish-Jewish origin who appropriated the black granite that had been ordered during World War II for a Berlin monument to celebrate Hitler’s victory.
Warsaw was not simply occupied by the Nazis from the first days of World War II, but systematically destroyed on Hitler’s orders, even as the end of the Third Reich was imminent. Stola reminds me that the Nazis began the process of torching one house after another in the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943 — targeting Jews first and foremost — and then repeated the same strategy for the Polish population during the Warsaw Rising in 1944.
Despite omnipresent modernization, Poland seems permeated by a sense of loss. When my husband, Mark (an actor and teacher whose parents were also Polish Holocaust survivors), arrives in Warsaw a week after I do, I take him to the Plac Grzybowski to see the restored Nozyk synagogue (where I attended Sabbath services a few nights ago), as well as a ruined building I previously noticed nearby: Riddled with bullet holes, it had large aged photos of Jewish-looking individuals next to the upper windows, as if commemorating them. But when we arrive there, no photos are visible. A construction company has already erected a huge drop cloth on the upper floors.
We are on the Ulica Próżna, a name that seems all too apt: It means “empty street.” Unsure if this is the same building, I find a worker who confirms that they are renovating and have covered the photos. I have no idea where we are, but I keep feeling that this must be a remnant of the Warsaw Ghetto, even though the Ghetto area is supposed to be farther away. I am struck by words that were stenciled near the bottom: “żyjesz?” (Are you alive?), and “pamiętasz?” (Do you remember?). I later research “Ulica Próżna” and learn that it’s the only former Warsaw Ghetto street that retained tenement houses. We must have seen the very last one, literally on the brink of modernization.
At the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, I develop a deeper appreciation of the city where my mother had a happy childhood until she was deported to concentration camps. Her family was assimilated: Because her father had been a captain in the Polish Army, she was one of only two Jewish girls in her secular school. She told me she went to the synagogue on only the High Holy Days.
There were no open synagogues when we visited Krakow 25 years ago, but now I sit in the restored synagogue, listening to klezmer music one evening and to exhilarating Middle Eastern rhythms another. Leaning my head against the wall, I wonder if my mother prayed within this space 80 years before.
During the festival, I hear about the growing number of Christian Poles who learn of their own Jewish ancestry when a parent or grandparent is on her deathbed. As in the great Polish film “Ida” — the fictional tale of a young nun who discovers she is the daughter of Jews murdered during the war — there seems to be a growing personal stake in exploring one’s origins and assuming a legacy. This has become the subject of new documentary films such as Adam Zucker’s “The Return” and Francine Zuckerman’s “We Were There,” as well as Katka Reszke’s 2013 book, “Return of the Jew: Identity Narratives of the Third Post-Holocaust Generation of Jews in Poland.”’