After the Iron Curtain was lifted in Europe twenty years ago, a surprising thing occurred – thousands of people who had been raised as gentiles came to the startling realization that they were actually Jews. Poland is home to thousands of such stories. During the Holocaust and under Communist rule, many Jews there hid their identities and continued to conceal them even after the fall of Communism. On their deathbeds, some of them have revealed their true identities to their children or grandchildren. Other people found out from old family records or through other means.
Once they discover their roots, people often turn to Rabbi Michael Schudrich, an American who has been the Chief Rabbi of Poland since 2004. Rabbi Schudrich has been the guide for multitudes of Jews to return to Torah Judaism. They turn to him for guidance and direction, and he tries to help them to reclaim their proud heritage that had been hidden for so many years.
Several years ago, Zbiszek, a 52 year-old man from Bialystock, came to Rabbi Schudrich’s office in Warsaw. Zbiszek told him that his mother had passed away four months earlier. Following the funeral, Zbiszek was approached by several neighbors who told him astonishing news – this woman who had raised him, whom he knew to be his mother, was not his actual biological mother.
They told Zbiszek that he had been born Jewish. In 1942, as Jews throughout Poland were being exterminated, Zbiszek’s Jewish parents gave him to the woman for adoption in case they were killed. His biological parents did not survive the Holocaust, and so the woman raised Zbiszek as her own son.
She had risked her life to save him during the war, and so she never wanted him to know the truth. She swore her neighbors to secrecy, and they dutifully remained silent for five decades. Now that she had passed away, they decided it was time to reveal the secret.
Zbiszek trembled when he first heard the news and didn’t know what to do. He spent a long time in deep introspection. Should he continue living his comfortable life as a Christian, as he had been raised, or should he embrace his newfound religion, of which he knew nothing?
Zbiszek decided he wanted to live proudly as a Jew, but didn’t know how. So here he was in Rabbi Schudrich’s office, looking for answers. Zbiszek told the rabbi that he felt most guilty that he never had a “Jewish baptism.”
Rabbi Schudrich calmed his fears and taught him the basics of Judaism. Zbiszek spent the next few years studying together with Rabbi Schudrich and attending classes in the community. Today he goes by Zecharya Asher, and is an active member of the Polish Jewish community.
Another unique story is that of Pawel Bramson. He was raised in an observant Catholic family. As a teenager, he joined a skinhead gang. He was virulently anti-Jewish, anti-black and anti-Gypsy.
Pawel married his Catholic high school sweetheart. They had two children, and at the age of twenty, Pawel’s wife found out that she was really Jewish! The news shook Pawel. However over time he was able to reconcile his previous hatred of Jews with the knowledge of his wife’s religion.
Several years later, Pawel’s wife decided to bring some Jewish traditions into their home. She began making Shabbat meals and Pawel consented to her desires. When he told his parents about the meals, they reacted with anger. They tried to pressure Pawel to make his wife sweep her Judaism back under the rug.
Pawel continued to support his wife, despite his parents objections. One day, his parents revealed the source of their anger – they were both Jews themselves! Pawel’s parents had hid their Judaism out of fear of anti-Semitism in Poland. The religious life that Pawel’s wife was beginning to explore represented everything they had tried to run away from.
The news stunned Pawel, and it took him a long time to accept it. The same Jews that he had hated as a teenager were now his own people. But Pawel slowly accepted the discovery, and he and his wife began bringing more traditions into their home. They are now fully observant.
Pawel has three brothers, one who is his twin. The twin still believed in many of the anti-Semitic myths that Pawel had rejected. And yet he has been influenced by Pawel’s religious growth in some small ways.
One Friday night, Pawel’s twin brother tried calling him on his cell phone but could not reach him. The twin went to the synagogue to try to find him, but Pawel was not there. That Friday night the synagogue had only nine men in attendance, just one short of a minyan. So when Pawel’s brother walked in, Rabbi Schudrich asked him if he could stay in the synagogue to be the tenth man. He said yes.
Such is the rebirth of Jews in Poland. Even Jews far removed from Judaism, with seemingly no connection, still have a tiny spark of Judaism deep inside them. With the right impetus, that spark can ignite into the beautiful fire of a proud Jewish soul.
Michael Gros is the former Chief Operating Officer of the outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. He writes from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in The Jewish Press in December, 2009