The visit to Yad Vashem.
The visit to Yad Vashem. Photo by Emil Salman
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When Karolina Wantuch was 7 years old, she discovered a scroll with strange-looking letters up in her grandmother’s bedroom in their apartment in Krakow, Poland. Her mother explained to the curious child that what she had found was a story called the Book of Esther that is read by the Jews on one of their holidays and that her grandmother had probably obtained it from Jewish friends before the war.

Fifteen years later, while on her deathbed, Karolina’s grandmother revealed her secret to her granddaughter: The megillah in her room had, in fact, belonged to her husband, Karolina’s grandfather, who was a Jew. A survivor of three concentration camps – Auschwitz, Majdanek and Plaszow – where he also underwent medical experiments at the hands of Nazi doctors, he never spoke about his experiences after the war, nor did he ever mention the fact that he was Jewish. His real name was not Karimierz Alcrewski, as he was known by all his friends and family, but Shalom Altstadter.

That was three years ago. This week, Karolina was part of a delegation of 20 Poles known as “the hidden Jews of Poland” visiting Israel on a trip designed to help strengthen their Jewish identity. Like Karolina, many of the delegation members were raised Catholic and have only discovered their Jewish roots in recent years, after the fall of Communism in Poland. The trip was organized and sponsored by Shavei Israel, an organization that reaches out to “lost” Jewish communities around the world – among them the Jews of India and the Jews of the Amazon – to help them reconnect with their Jewish roots.

On Friday, the participants visited Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem in what was undoubtedly one of the more emotional experiences during their 10-day trip that included stops at Masada, the Dead Sea, Hebron and Safed. “Until now, being alive for me was always something that I took for granted,” observed Wantuch, a 25-year-old student who wears a silver menorah pendant around her neck, after the visit. “Now that I know my family history, it is not so obvious anymore.”

When Wantuch revealed the family secret to her parents, she says they were in shock – “especially my father, who had absolutely no idea.” Today, though, she says, “they’re very happy with this information and enjoy coming with me to synagogue.”

Magda, also from Krakow and the unofficial leader of the delegation, is not prepared to reveal her last name or to say what she does in Poland. “It has nothing to do with anti-Semitism,” she insists. “It’s just that it’s not very comfortable being a minority in Poland, no matter what minority.”

Older than most of the other group members, 46-year-old Magda says hers is a “typical Polish story.”

“My father comes from a Jewish family, but it wasn’t anything we ever talked about,” she says. The family’s Jewish background came to light a few years ago, when her parents received a phone call from some British tourists in Poland. “These were members of my father’s family who had left Poland before the war,” she recounts. “They picked up a phone book when they got to Poland and looked to see if there was anyone with the same last name still left in Poland, and that’s how they found us.”

Ever since she discovered her Jewish roots, Magda has embraced her Jewish heritage passionately, teaching herself Hebrew and attending synagogue regularly. “Sometimes it’s a bit uncomfortable, though, because the synagogue is Orthodox and according to halakha, I’m not considered Jewish, so some people don't know what to make of me,” she says, referring to Jewish religious law.

Magda says she was quite apprehensive about the trip to Yad Vashem, afraid she might find there photographs or other traces of family members who had perished in the Holocaust. “It was a very powerful experience,” she says, “but I think that now that I’ve been there with a group, I want to go back on my own and see it again.”

Many of the men in the group wore kippot, among them Sebastian Fortek, a 32-year-old radio commentator from Gdansk, who says he would not feel as comfortable identifying as a Jew in Poland. He says he began wearing a Star of David around his neck even before he knew he might have Jewish blood running through his veins. “What I know is that on my father’s side, one of my great-grandmothers was named Malka. That’s a Jewish name, so I assume there were Jews among my ancestors,” says Fortek, whose arms are covered in brightly colored tattoos, and who is currently undergoing conversion.

For Karolina, the journey back to her Jewish roots does not end in Israel. Recently, she made a trip with her family to the town of Zbaraz, a small shtetl in Eastern Galicia (formerly Polish and today Ukrainian territory) where her Jewish grandfather was born and raised. “It was a very difficult trip,” she says, “because everything Jewish has been destroyed. The old synagogue is now a vodka factory.”