SOUNDS KIKE: "OY VEY! I'M A KIKE!?"

Series: Sounds Jewish

Sounds Jewish podcast: the Jewish revival in Poland

Writer Denise Grollmus goes on a personal journey of Jewish discovery in Poland, the country where 3 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the second world war

AUDIO [MP3]

Presented by Denise Grollmus and produced by Sarah Peters with music by Iain Chambers

guardian.co.uk, 5 June 2013

Denise Grollmus grew up in the US, and was especially close to her grandmother, a Polish Catholic from Warsaw. Or at least, that's who she said she was. On her 28th birthday, Denise discovered that her grandmother had been keeping a secret – that she was, in fact, a Jew who had changed her identity during the war and then continued to keep her Jewishness hidden for almost 70 years. That discovery instantly made Denise Jewish, too.

Denise has spent the last year living in Poland, on a quest to understand what exactly it means to be Jewish in a country regarded by many as a byword for deeply rooted antisemitism and still feared by many Jews as little more than an enormous graveyard.

Treated as an oddity in the US, Denise discovers that her family background is the quintessential Jewish experience in Poland. There, countless Poles are discovering their own Jewish roots, reconnecting with the Jewish life their grandparents or great-grandparents had abandoned or kept secret.

We follow Denise as she explores this improbable Jewish revival in the unlikeliest places. She meets Jonathan Ornstein, a fast-talking New Yorker now directing the vibrant Jewish Community Centre in Krakow. He tells her it's time people changed their expectations of Poland, and realised that it's not only home to the story of Auschwitz and persecution, but also a place where Jewish life can prosper again.

She meets film-makers Katka Reszke and Slawomir Grünberg, who explain how they stumbled over their Jewish roots.

The chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, tells Denise why Jewish life was all but erased from the country after the war, long after the Nazis were gone. Just a few thousand Polish Jews survived the Holocaust and chose to stay there. Yet they found that all talk of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust and of Poland's rich Jewish history before the war was silenced under communism. Why?

And what of Poland's non-Jews? What do they make of this new uncovering of their country's buried past? Denise asks Janusz Makuch, the non-Jewish director of the Jewish Culture festival in Krakow, now in its 25th year. Janusz tells her of his own deep need to find out more about the history of his own country – to explore a history that includes a thousand year era when Poland was the epicentre of the Jewish diaspora. And that exploration, explains Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett from the newly opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews, will help Poles discover more about their own identity.

But Denise finds that this Jewish revival and surging interest in all things Jewish can never quite escape the shadow of Poland's darker history. She heads out to a park in Warsaw's Praga district to meet the photographer Lucasz Baksik, who has unearthed the shocking fate of Jewish gravestones, not only during the Nazi period but long afterwards.

So, as Denise's year comes to an end and she gets ready to return to the US, is she any closer to understanding the truth her grandmother kept from her?

• This special edition of Sounds Jewish has been sponsored by the Jewish Community Centre for London and by World Jewish Relief

Comments for this discussion are now closed.

LatinAries: "The fact is that 3 million is the number of Jews living in Poland before the start of second world war, but not all of them died. Some flee the country, some survived, many young men made their way into the Soviet Union to join the army."

chinamark: "No, that's not true. The 3 million was indeed the number of Jews murdered. There were 3.5 million Jews in Poland before the start of the war. In total, it was estimated that 50,000 to 120,000 Jews survived the war."

Rimona_F: "'Poland, the country where 3 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the second world war.' Now to the figures: The last official census before the war was on Dec. 9, 1931 and recorded 3,113,900 civilians and 18,681 of the Jewish faith in Poland. Making a total of 3,132,581 individuals. Now assume an average yearly increase of population of 9 per thousand (0.9% or 28,193 in the first year) calculate this through to 1939 and you will get a total of 3,365,360. Add to this about 17,000 Jews deported from Germany to Poland in 1938 will bring the total to 3,382,360 individuals. At the end of WWII some 50,000 Jews survived the war in Poland either hidden by Poles or by joining the Polish or Soviet partisan units. A further 120,000 were repatriated from the Soviet Union (the Soviets did not want Jews - or Poles - in the Soviet Union after 1945) [HA HA, FUNNY THAT THAT "THEY WOULDN'T LET JEWS LEAVE, OY VEY!"] and about 30,000 survived the death camps and the "March of Death". So out of 3,382,360 individuals 200,000 are accounted for. I think that the statement that 3 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the second world waris more than reasonable and borne out by facts."

nocausetoaddopt: "I was at the Jewish Culture festival in Krakow last year. Superb time. There is also the Galicia Jewish Museum. Here's their English webpage. http://www.en.galiciajewishmuseum.org/"

boldING: "Curious...For an article on identity and the Second World War, it manages to avoid mentioning a certain nationality just beautifully... It does invent a new one, though: a Nazi. History is dead. Long live Amnesia."

Gabriela Teresa Firkowska: "so true"

EricNave: "I don't think the Nazi is a new nationality according to this article. If you read the article again I think you will find that it is just some political group that the Poles must have elected during its "darker history" not only during the Nazi period but long afterwards That "Nazi period" can be a term used in a similar way to say Britain's "Thatcherite period"...."

boldING: "In your example you seemed compelled to use BRITAIN'S. When dealing with Hitler period of a certain nation's (which, I deeply believe, must have had some sort of name...) history, increasingly (or, rather, in keeping with a long established trend), through simple omission, most media choose a warped sense of PC over simple historical fact. What it boils down to is that new, whitewashed history is being created. Apparently during the Second World War the Poles, the French, the British fought against the Nazis - an uprooted people fighting for their right for self-determination and their own state... Or does it perhaps strike you as not particularly correct?"

EricNave: "I agree with you but that's only half the equation. The author has gone to some lengths not to offend one nation whilst at the same time going all out to demonise it's neighbour."

AlleinAllein: This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn't abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted.

Stunning: "'a country regarded by many as a byword for deeply rooted antisemitism' -- Yawn. Usual hypocricy. The word "German" studiously avoided"

external: "Are you implying that there was no antisemitism in prewar Poland ? Have you ever met any Jews who grew up in Poland between the wars ?"

Lyndhen: "Stunning's point is that Germany should be the byword for deeply rooted antisemitism - obviously."

Tonieja: "'Are you implying that there was no antisemitism in prewar Poland ?' -- I don't think he is implying it. Interesting question is how did it compare to to, say, anti semitism in the US? I live in a gated community in the US where the statutes still on the books prohibit Jews from buying houses here. Of course they are not enforced anymore, my family wouldn't be able to buy a house here otherwise. How does it compare to the situation of Arabs in Israel, where Palestinian citizens are prohibited from opening bank accounts in Jewish areas? According to my limited knowledge every city and town in pre war Poland had large Jewish community. They were culturally separate, but interacted on daily bases, including kids going together to the same schools. There was also large secular intellectual and professional and artist Jewish class totally integrated into Polish society. How did the anti semitism manifest in pre war Poland?"

Stunning: "Actually I do, including members of my family, through marriage. The abject hypocrisy of western European counties such as France (let alone Germany) getting all self-righteous about antisemitism is laughable."

belljo: "Ah, but of course, a feature about Jewish people and so the Palestinians must be mentioned. Re: Israelis of Palestinian origin not being allowed open bank accounts, any evidence for that or is it just another fact-free assertion? Because of course Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza are, in fact, governed by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas respectively and would so use banking facilities in those regions which is quite normal. Unless you think it's quite usual for say UK citizens to open bank accounts in France if they're not actually living there. Back to the article actually at hand, re: anti-Semitism in Poland, it was rife in Poland towards the end of the 19th Century and all the way up to WW2, although historically that wasn't the case and Poland was safe for, if not always welcoming, to Jews due to theological anti-Semitism. So just the usual pogroms, academic quotas and banning from Trade Unions and etc etc. Certainly the ancestors I have who came from Poland in the early 20th Century left due to anti-Semitism, so hardly a German import."

EricNave: "The anti-Semitism may not have been imported but the death camps that killed so many Jews (as well as Polish Gentiles, Soviet POWs etc) were. This article that does not mention Germany whilst rambling on about some "Nazi Period" is, it appears, trying to blame the Poles for them"

belljo: "I was responding to a question that a poster posed re: the manifestation of anti-Semitism in Poland. There was/is still significant anti-Semitism in Poland both pre- and post-War (see Jewabne, the 1967 purge etc). The whole point is that the negative experience of Jews in Poland in the early/mid 20th Century cannot just be put down to the Nazi regime. It is a far wider question which the article tries to cover. Frankly, I think it is disgusting that posters here - including you - are trying to minimise what is actually a separate issue, that of Polish anti-Semitism."

loopine: "Prohibited is a fairly strong word to use. You refer to an Israeli current affairs TV show investigating racism at a large Israeli bank where in 3 out of 5 attempts, Arab Israeli customers were refused a transfer of branch from an "Arab" town to a "Jewish" town. In 2 out 5 cases, the customer could transfer the account. The bank apologised, stated that it was contrary to company policy and promised to enforce company policy permitting transfers by anyone to anywhere for any reason. Israeli anti-discrimination law (as in the UK) prohibits such discrimination. In the UK we business owners who refuse to let gay couples access their services, contrary to UK anti-discrimination laws. Gay couples are not prohibited from staying in hotels together."

EricNave: "Frankly, I think it is disgusting that posters here - including you - are trying to minimise what is actually a separate issue, that of Polish anti-Semitism. So pointing out that the author does not once mention Germany in relation to Poland's "Nazi Period" is disgusting is it????"

gotnotruck: This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn't abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted.

shalone: "So "tells Denise why Jewish life was all but erased from the country after the war, long after the Nazis were gone. Just a few thousand Polish Jews survived the Holocaust and chose to stay there. Yet they found that all talk of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust and of Poland's rich Jewish history before the war was silenced under communism. Why?" I suppose those who hate have no mercy. Also it is easier to hate than show tolerance towards others. Jews have suffered so much. It is time we thought positively about those still around us."

Tonieja: "I suppose those who hate have no mercy. Also it is easier to hate than show tolerance towards others. You seem to have very intimate relationship with hate. If you are imputing it into others, you must know how it feels. Who is your hate directed towards?"

shalone: "True. I know what hate is. I belong to a minority and see those eyes who look at me with hate."

Bethsynbod: "This is so wonderful to hear, especially as the news only ever reports acts of anti-Semitism in Europe. I completely understand her Grandmother's practicality and cautiousness but hopefully time will alleviate her forebodings and she can begin to release the terrible legacy that binds her."

external: "'This is so wonderful to hear, especially as the news only ever reports acts of anti-Semitism in Europe.' --- That's because there are so many acts of anti-semitism in Europe today, all which will do nothing to 'alleviate her forebodings'. And some of the comments here which deny that there was any anti-semitism in Poland will only serve to increase her forebodings."

RememberGiap: This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn't abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted.

charles794: This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn't abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted.

pedwarpimp: "more religious nonsense, wtf is the matter with people ?"

canukgranny: "When it's your entire family that's been murdered one is "too" many. Lots of people argue over numbers of dead when it's 3 million you loose sight of that one small baby taken by the feet and having it's tiny head smashed in by a goose stepping moron bigot..."

Mourad: This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn't abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted.

daisydill: "Poland's "dark history" - its mysterious Nazi period. I have noticed for some time now that, in the official version of WW2 (as opposed to the What Actually Happened version), the Evil Axis Powers are becoming Poland, Poland and Poland. Yet Poland actually fought on the Allied Side - if I can still say that without being arrested by the Thought Police. Sad as I am to see my dear aged father (who fought in the Polish Free Forces - against the Nazis - whoever they were in today's version of the war) being constantly reviled and darkhistoried, it does remind me to be very careful about believing what i am being told about the current Crusades in the MIddle East. Non existent WMDs come depressingly to mind. And it makes me even more sad that Poland's politicians sent its young men to join in the Shocking and Aweing of the exhausted sanctioned country of Iraq. Surely the lesson here is to stay out of these wars, stay neutral, and try to do good to all?"

dral: "here is one aspect of the past which has been uncovered http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/Kielce.html After the Kielce pogrom, the situation changed drastically. Both Jewish and Polish reports spoke of an atmosphere of panic among Jewish society in the summer of 1946. Jews no longer believed that they could be safe in Poland. Despite the large militia and army presence in the town of Kielce, Jews had been murdered there in cold blood, in public, and for a period of more than five hours. The news that the militia and the army had taken part in the pogrom spread as well. From July 1945 until June 1946, about fifty thousand Jews passed the Polish border illegally. In July 1946, almost twenty thousand decided to leave Poland. In August 1946 the number increased to thirty thousand. In September 1946, twelve thousand Jews left Poland."

Kamila1845: "Funny how the article doesn’t mention who the Nazis were? Well, it was Nazi Germany invading, Nazi Germany murdering and Germans who followed Hitler beliving that they are some sort of better humans! (Who himself was Austrian)"

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