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Eclipsed: Poland's Secret Jews

Eclipsed: Poland's Secret Jews

I was raised in Warsaw as a Catholic Pole. Today I have embraced my Jewish identity.


Tusia Dabrowska grew up in Warsaw unaware that she was Jewish, a fact she suspected and then confirmed in her teens. For the past 15 years she splits her time between Wasrsaw and Brooklyn.

My grandmother, an agile woman in her mid-sixties, leaned over a pale, pink-tiled bathtub and reached behind the washing machine next to it. We were in the basement of her house. She was too small and had to climb up the bathtub ledge. Crouching, she finally reached a plastic bag. It was a dry and warm Polish summer in 1995. My grandmother was back on the floor, protectively holding the tightly wrapped package, a set of pictures of her family. The washing machine had long ago stopped working; it was a kind of treasure chest, hiding the memories of family that was unmentionable. My grandmother always believed that it was better our family history died with her.

Tusia in Warsaw

There was something unnamed, yet shameful about us. Kids said my family was ugly, polite adults said I looked Spanish, less polite adults said many other things. I grew up in Warsaw, away from the small town my mother escaped as soon as she could, and the street my grandmother lived on her whole life, including the years she spent hiding in another basement. That was the street to which my grandmother, like her mother, belonged. She belonged to this street when it was the heart of the Jewish District. She had belonged to it the 50 years when we were the last Jews there. Even before the war ended, while still in hiding, my grandmother was christened. For the rest of her life, she strived to find her home, to belong, to pass.

This obsessive need to fit in shaped my grandmother’s choices, and it echoed in my mother’s life.

This obsessive need to fit in shaped my grandmother’s choices, and it echoed in my mother’s life. I grew up knowing that the most difficult aspect of fitting in is the threat that at any moment we might be discovered. The erasure of the Jewish life in our part of the world was, mildly put, a discombobulating experience for those who survived. But in Poland, it was compounded by the almost complete demolition of virtually all social structures. Moreover, communism had no interest in rebuilding social bonds based in democratic practices. This meant that growing up 40 years after the war, I was still vulnerable to opinions about who I was offered voluminously to me by cab drivers, lonely drunks, old women who needed a reason to cut me in the line at the store, and a neighbor who thought I played music too loud. I was not only susceptible to their opinions; I had no other point of reference.

Tusia's Grandmother

Tusia's Grandmother

My grandmother was a Catholic who dyed her hair Henna-red and who destroyed her family pictures. The same pictures she had shared with me only once. On her deathbed in 2006, for the first time since the War, she told my mother, in utter confidentiality, that we were Jewish. My mother learned she was Jewish some 35 years before when her classmate told her he couldn’t date her. But had he not told her, there were other clear giveaways. Like the fact that my grandmother kept pictures in the washing machine. And that challah bread was most delicious on Fridays. Or that Paul Newman was the only light-haired actor that my grandmother thought handsome.

Tusia in Nelefki, once the Jewish quarter of Warsaw

Against her deepest fears, my grandmother passed on to us a wealth of culture, albeit an amalgam of Polish and Jewish traditions. And it was the strength of that world which guided my mother in Warsaw. She moved there in the late 1970s, approximately a decade after the last round of expulsions of Jews from Poland. But in comparison to what my mother had grown up with, the capitol brimmed with Jewish life.

The socio-cultural association of Jews in Poland, formal and not, sought to make sense of the remnants of Jewish life. When I was growing up, virtually everyone my mother was friends with was Jewish. It was an unnamed network of people who kept their life stories for late night whispery conversations. They were few in numbers and had a very narrow, if any, connection to a positive sense of their ethnic, cultural, or religious identity. But out of the sense of an unspoken bond, they also supported each other, including women like my mother, a single mother from rural Poland with a sickly child, a prematurely born daughter with kidney problems.

This sense of loss is a common sentiment among young people, Jewish or not, in Poland.

I’ve come to realize that the hardest part of overcoming the illness that marked our identity is not the cherishing of traditions that were passed on to me. It is reaching the place where I can begin to outline what was taken away from me. This sense of loss is a common sentiment among young people, Jewish or not, in Poland. However, to me,the Jewish festivals that fetishize the shtetl past are as alienating as Chabad Centers popping up in Poland. At a time when most young people, for better or worse, pick and chose their identities to then stretch them beyond accepted boundaries, being Jewish in Poland often feels as if you’re perpetually perched on the set of Fiddler on the Roof.

Tusia's Mother

Tusia's great grandmother

Like many other Warsaw Jews, I felt insatiated. Ostensibly preparing to write a novel, I spent a year researching everyday practices of Jewish women in pre-World War II Varshe. At YIVO’s photo archives I looked for pictures of I.L. Peretz to see the apartment in which his wife and companion in social activism lived. In the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum online photo archives, I studied women’s fashion. While reading a variety of blogs devoted to old Warsaw I hunted for trivia. I learned about idea markets where Jewish political agitators encouraged other Jews to join their party. I read about the notorious Adria restaurant and nightclub, which was run by the composer Henryk Gold and was considered one of the centers of cultural—Jewish and Polish, life. I discovered Jewish feminist activists, bilingual radicals, and tri-lingual writers—hoydenish dreamers who populated the streets of my birth city 50 years before me. I found my home.

After the war, Warsaw was, at least architecturally, rebuilt. The past – diverse and riddled with ethnic and cultural tensions, yet rich and co-habitable – was gone. The very few remnants of the past that survived had their function changed as if to hide their original purpose and inhabitants. From the Warsaw that survived, more – like a wood synagogue near my mother's apartment – were demolished by the early 1970s. It was assumed that Jewish architecture had no purpose or use in the country.

Allowing the voices of erased histories to echo through me helps my own voice to reveal joy in being Jewish.

And as communism covered the country first with majestic limestone edifices and then cheap concrete, it seemed that the once vibrant Jewish life has become a geological fact. My own apartment in Warsaw, built right after the war, is partially constructed from repurposed rubbles. Ghosts of that other Warsaw live in the walls of my home, and they give me the strength and pride to be Jewish in Poland now.

For a Polish Jew, creating the present has to be rooted in learning to draw on the past, beyond grief and fear. Allowing the voices of erased histories to echo in and through me helps my own voice to reveal joy in being Jewish, without feeling guilt or discomfort. My experience of discovering my family's history, redefining my belonging and my role in my community is a process that mirrors that of Poland's shift into a free country. Perhaps this is the plight of being a Jew in Poland today--never quite feeling grounded in your place in history.

Tusia is one of a number of younger Polish Jews featured in Adam Zucker’s documentary film-in-progress, The Return. The film explores being Jewish in Poland today by following four young women who were raised Catholic only to discover they were Jewish in their teens. Each struggles to create a living Jewish identity in a virtual vacuum—within the country that was once the epicenter of the Jewish world. Zucker has been travelling to Poland for the past four years to capture the story. Click here for more information, or to get involved.

Published: April 27, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 40

(23) Sonia N, December 29, 2013 5:46 PM

The land of Israel is the healing of the Holocaust

It am surprises me that in the article Israel is not mentioned. Not sought as a refuge but instead a choice to remain in a dark corner of the world.

Our mission is to be a light unto the nations!

The map is the Torah. Our identity thoroughly connected to our land, the Land of Israel

(22) William, November 1, 2013 9:48 PM

I, too, grew up in Poland. My parents did not keep a Jewish home, but I knew that we were Jewish, by the company we kept, ie. the Jewish Social Club. And yet, there were never any discussions about Judaism in our home. My parents were too secretive about their Jewish past. Although, at times, some snippets did come out. And those were lovely to hear. Pity, it took so long. What I did find out, was in my adult life. To think of how much we missed out on as children.

(21) Elisheva, October 16, 2013 4:39 PM

My people lived that too

Spanish Jews suffers greatly thru history. We've had to hide so much. We r so misunderstood in many situations in non Jewish settings. What is most painful is going to congregation and having your own people questioning your being Jewish. That has often kept me from congregating. It is hard to not be accepted by ashkenaz if one is Sephardi.

(20) Shlomo Taub, May 27, 2013 6:19 AM

Tusia Dabrowska Story

Just like Tusia, there are many Thousands Jewish souls wandering in Poland, and especially in Poland.
My advise to those lost souls is - get out of the closet. Today it is safe to be a Jew and more than that - a proud Jew, regardless age. By not revieling your origins, you may find yourself after 120, burried at a Catholic semitary just like I found in Karzimiesz Dolny. There is a huge Catholic cemitary - were many Jews are burried. When I asked the locals "how come"? so I was told that these people were born Jews, lived as Catholics, and died as Catholics. They just never had the guts to tell who they realy were.
Good luck to all.
S. T.

(19) Louise, May 4, 2013 5:53 AM

The Lord knows ...

Tusia, Thank you for sharing. The secret that we are Jewish was well kept by my mother-until my daughter asked her grandmother's name. It is her name, Hephzibah, that set us free. There are so many Jews amongst us on this earth, that have not yet discovered who they truly are. I do believe that there is a stirring - a drawing - within each one: something that my children, grandchildren and myself had for years.

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