Middle-aged Poles are shocked to learn of their Jewish heritage

September 19, 1990|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Evening Sun Staff

KRAKOW, Poland -- Here and across Poland, thousands of middle-aged men and women and their children are learning a jolting truth about themselves.

After surviving the Nazi occupation during World War II and growing up as Catholics in the postwar era, these families are being told that they are Jews.

Their true identities vanished in the Holocaust that swept across Poland beginning in 1939.

As the Nazis rounded up Jews for extermination, many Catholic Poles bravely took in Jewish infants and saved them by claiming that the children were family members.

After the war the children remained with the Polish families and were raised in the Catholic faith, since so few of the biological parents survived the SS death squads and concentration camps.

The Poles who took in the Jewish youngsters are elderly now, and they are revealing the truth to their wards -- who are middle-aged with families of their own.

The word often comes in death-bed "confessions" by foster parents driven by conscience to inform the children and grandchildren of their true heritage.

The phenomenon has produced shock among many of the recipients of the news in a country that still has strong anti-Semitic sentiment in some quarters and whose Jewish population has shrunk from more than 3 million before World War II to less than 15,000 today.

Some feel newly threatened, or at least greatly discomforted. Many others, however, have reacted with a sense of positive discovery; they seek more information about their biological parents and about the strong traditions of Judaism denied them NTC and often ridiculed in their towns and their country long after the war.

In response to this desire, a New York rabbi, Chaskel Besser, has been shuttling between the United States and Poland this summer counseling hundreds of these newly identified Jews and conducting orientation camps about their heritage. Some of the younger Jews are being taken to the United States for similar education.

The work is underwritten by a New York foundation named for and headed by Ronald S. Lauder, an heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune and the unsuccessful Republican and Conservative Party candidate for mayor of that city last year.

Besser, who himself fled Poland at the start of World War II and is now an American citizen, says the revelations of Jewish identity have been brushed aside by many of those involved because life still is too difficult for Jews in Poland.

"For some people, this is a calamity," he says. "It's like finding out they have AIDS.

"They are sometimes so bitter about past persecution during and after the war that they want to erase their own connection with Jewry, as well as their children's."

As elements of that fear, Besser recalls the Polish pogroms against Jews after the death of Hitler and crackdowns on them as recently as 1967.

But many others who have heard of the foundation's program have come forward eagerly to trace their roots and regain their heritage. In recent weeks, Besser and Michael Schudrich of the foundation conducted orientations for three separate groups of the Jewish-born children and grandchildren in an orientation camp near Warsaw. Others go to Israel to try to find their biological parents and other relatives.

The matter of Jewish heritage is particularly sensitive here in Krakow, where Jews flock from Israel and elsewhere to visit nearby Auschwitz, site of the largest and most brutally &r methodical of Nazi extermination camps in World War II. A Jewish ghetto of 17,000 people in Krakow was nearly wiped out by the Nazis in 1942 and 1943; they murdered many of the inhabitants on the spot and dispatched thousands of others to Auschwitz.

But priests and others often took great risks to help Jews. A museum in what remains of the Jewish quarter includes the false identity card of a young Jewish man based on false certification of his heritage provided by the pastor of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter.

Many other priests, churches and monasteries in Poland provided sanctuary for Jewish infants originally taken by Polish families who then turned them over out of fear of being caught, according to Besser. Under the Nazis, harboring a Jew brought the death penalty.

As for Catholic foster parents troubled by their lifelong secret, Besser says they now are going to their priests asking whether it is a sin against the Catholic Church to tell the children and grandchildren the truth and risk their return to Judaism. The priests are advising them to do so, the rabbi says.

Other cases are coming to light, Besser says, in which Polish husbands who returned from the war or labor camps to find their wives with a child are learning only now, in old age, that the child is someone else's -- and is of Jewish heritage to boot.

Church marriages of children raised as Catholics have been jeopardized by the 11th-hour disclosure that the bride is really Jewish, says Schudrich of the Lauder foundation.

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