10/31/2012 12:39 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2012

Reflections of a U.S. Jew in Poland: A Dynamic and Palpable Tension

One day, when I was very young, I sat upon my maternal grandfather Simon (Szymon) Mahler's knee. Looking down urgently but with deep affection, he said to me through his distinctive Polish accent, "Varn, you are named after my father, your great-grandfather, Wolf Mahler. I lived in Krosno, Poland with my father, Wolf, and my mother, Bascha, and 13 brothers and sisters, and aunts, uncles and cousins."

Simon talked about our mishpocheh (family) with pride, but as he told me this, he exhibited an obvious sadness on his face. I asked him if our family still lived in Poland, and he responded that his father, mother and most of the remainder of his family were no longer alive. When I asked him how they had died, he told me that they had all been killed by people called Nazis. I questioned him why the Nazis killed our family, and he responded, "Because they were Jews." Those words have reverberated in my mind, haunting me ever since.

Simon left Krosno in 1912 bound for New York City, leaving Wolf, Bascha and nine of his siblings. He returned with my grandmother, Eva, in 1932 to a joyous homecoming. He took with him an early home movie camera to record them on film. While in Poland, he promised that once back in the United States, he would try to earn enough money to send for his remaining family members who wished to come to the United States. History, however, was to thwart his plans. During that happy reunion, he had no way of knowing that this was to be the last time he would ever see the members of his family alive. Just seven years later, on Sept. 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland.

I have long believed that before the end of my days, for me to be able to say that I have truly accomplished all I needed to accomplish in this world, I must travel back to Krosno. So, in the summer of 2008, I traveled to my ancestral village. I took with me a DVD version of the film Simon and Eva took in 1932. Upon approaching the town from the bus I rode from Krakow, I felt as though I were returned back home to a place I have never previously been. I checked into my hotel room, and then walked around the town, this beautiful place with its narrow streets and charming buildings, rolling hills, small factories and bustling train station -- that same station I recognized from the film I had grown up watching.

Then, I saw it, and as I did, tears came to my eyes. I was at the entrance of Market Square, the same square Simon filmed in 1932 as happy family members and other residents of Krosno shopped open air surrounded by horse-drawn carriages and vendors' kiosks selling fresh produce and Kosher meats of all varieties. Walking a very short distance off Market Square, I chanced upon a local museum, Muzeum Podkarpackie w Krosnie (Subcarpathian Museum of Krosno). I introduced myself to a museum assistant, Lucas Klopot, and informed him that I had a film of the Jewish community taken by my grandparents, Simon and Eva Mahler, in 1932. I inquired whether he would like to view the film. With a look of surprise, he assured me that he would be delighted. Upon viewing the film downstairs on his office computer, he told me that "...this is the greatest documentation I have ever seen of Krosno's Jewish community." This rare film, he informed me, is actually the oldest film of the town known to exist.

The following day, Lucas introduced me to Katarzyna (Kasia) Krepulec-Nowak, local historian and assistant director of the museum who kindly gave me an English-language tour of this beautiful museum. I knew instantly that Kasia and I would be good friends. This was confirmed when Kasia and Lucas organized a Jewish exhibit at the Museum in September 2010 profiling the Mahler family, with the film as its cornerstone. And in their continuing efforts to recover and preserve Jewish history and to reconcile and heal from a tragic past, Kasia organized, aided by Lucas, their "Jewish Day" Exhibit, Jan. 16, 2011. Kasia extended a gracious invitation to me to travel back to Krosno to present the Keynote address at this historic event. My cousins, Bernard (Bert) Cohen from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Rabbi Gary Tishkoff, from Israel joined me on the trip.

Wearing my grandfather Simon's antique tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) and a beautifully embroidered kippah (Jewish skull cap), a gift Gary brought me from Israel, I presented my remarks, translated by a woman coincidently also named Kasia Nowak ("Smith" in Polish). I read a personal statement I called my "Letter to My Great-Grandparents of Krosno, Poland."

Lucas screened the film, and members of the audience sat transfixed as they witnessed the sights of their town during a time long passed. Some pointed to familiar landmarks. Others spotted possible relatives in the old Market Square. Some were visibly moved, tears streaming down their cheeks.

Jews in Contemporary Poland

When we first arrived in Poland, after checking into our hotel in Krakow, Gary, Bert, and I explored the area around the hotel. Within one block, we found disturbing graffiti spray painted on an apartment building, which was obviously anti-Jewish in tone, especially the words spelled out in English "Hitler Rules," and the words "Jebac Żydów" ("Fuck the Jews"), and a Star of David enclosed within a circle, written in red and later spray painted over in black.

During our bus ride to Krosno, we engaged in a very intensive discussion about what we were feeling as Jews in Poland. A young Polish man seated in front of us named Pawel asked if he could join in our conversation. He provided us with a very interesting and informative snapshot of contemporary Polish/Jewish relations.

He informed us that while Polish anti-Jewish attitudes most certainly endure in the larger Polish society, many Poles see that their homeland culture has been diminished, and that it is not as rich and vibrant with so few Jews remaining in Poland, from approximately 3 million before the Nazi invasion to about only 10,000 today. Pawel explained to us that while this graffiti has a very complicated explanation (coming somewhat from a sports team rivalry), it can be seen as a visible example of the tensions currently underway in Polish society in coming to terms with its past and how it moves forward.

Many young people of the current generation like himself are working to ensure a brighter future for Jews in Poland. Pawel, who stated that he is not Jewish himself, worked for a few years at the Jewish Museum in Krakow because he is motivated to learn as much as he can about Polish Jewish history and culture.

No Jews have resided in Krosno or in the surrounding Subcarpathian region of southeastern Poland since the 1940s. Since then, a dynamic tension has developed between those, especially in many of the older generations, who bask in the monoculturalism evidenced by the longstanding Polish Catholic cultural heritage. Others, though, composed of many in the younger generations born during the past few decades, yearn for an earlier time in Polish history, one where many cultural traditions mingled and enriched the overall national culture.

Though tragedy befell the Jewish community in my ancestral homeland, some people took and are continuing to engage in acts of courage, kindness and compassion. In the midst of danger, righteous rescuers came to the aid of those who were oppressed.

For example, Krosno farmers, Jakub and Zofia Gargasz, who were Seventh-day Adventists, risked their own lives to shelter from Nazi troops and to nurse back to health a Jewish woman, Henia Katz, and her daughter. A neighbor, though, betrayed them, and Jakub, Zofia, Henia and her daughter were arrested and sentenced to death on April 26, 1944. At the trial, Zofia affirmed that she and her husband took this courageous action motivated by their religious faith.

Hans Frank, the governor of the occupied Central Polish government decided to commute their death sentences to incarceration in a concentration camp. Jakub and Zofia survived the concentration camp, which the Allies liberated. Nazi soldiers, however, murdered Henia and her daughter.

Following the war, Jews no longer resided in Krosno. Subsequently, the Jewish cemetery fell into disarray. In 2002, local students from the Olszówka association, working under the energetic and compassionate leadership of Grzegorz Bożek -- a local teacher and activist with the ecology organization "Workshop for All Beings" -- restored the Jewish cemetery in Krosno. They removed decades of overgrown weeds, cleared bushes, restored the cemetery gate, hung new informational plaques and preserved about 200 gravestones. The Krosno Jewish Cemetery is now considered one of the best kept Jewish cemeteries in all of Poland because people care and because people want to ensure a brighter future.

I also place in the category of "rescuers" the good people of the Muzeum Podkarpackie w Krosnie, especially Katarzyna Krepulec-Nowak and Lucas Klopot. They and all of their colleagues work tirelessly to rescue a vital part of history in keeping memories alive and in educating new generations.

"Kasia," I asked following "Jewish Day," "what motivates you to do the pioneering work you are doing here in Krosno, especially with the subtle and not-so-subtle resistance you often face?" Without hesitation, and with her typical modesty, she told me that though she does not consider herself a pioneer, "There is much evil here, and as a mother of a 3-year-old, I must do what I can to work for a better world for my son." As Kasia proves, one does not have to be Jewish to practice the Jewish tenet of Tikkun Olam: the transformation, healing, and repairing of the world so that it becomes a more just, peaceful, nurturing and perfect place.

Recently, a young man, also named Pawel, one of the initial students to volunteer a decade ago in the rehabilitation of the Jewish cemetery, contacted me:

"I think our motivation to do this at that point was very different for each of us, in my case it had mostly to do with the questions: what happened here some 50-60 years ago? Our neighbors were erased, like their whole civilization was -- why only so few people would talk (not saying of commemorating) about it? Why no one admits their grief? And loss? You could sense this tension all around, like in many other Polish towns, I guess. And just imagine, cleaning this abandoned Jewish cemetery had something counter-cultural in it, it really had. It was an act against the silent mainstream (and often against their anti-Semitic reactions)."

Pawel now lives in Austria with his wife and young son, as he wrote, "with its vibrant Jewish community, ranging from ultra-orthodox to leftist intellectuals. I enjoy this fact very much and wish that Poland would someday become such a place of diversity too."

The Time of Crushed Memories

During the summer of 2012, Grzegorz Bożek contacted me to attend a series of events he was helping to organize in Krosno, "The Time of Crushed Memories," to take place Oct. 10-11, 2012 in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the annihilation of the approximately 2,700 Jews of Krosno. Scheduled events included a series of workshops for high school students on Jewish culture including the basics of the Hebrew language and calligraphy, dance and music, plus a memorial service held on the grounds of the Jewish Cemetery by the chief Polish rabbi from Krakow, Michael Schudrich, and attended by Krosno's mayor, Piotr Przytocki, and U.S. Ambassador to Poland Ellen Germain. In addition, local high school students were scheduled to perform a play profiling the Jews of their town of Krosno composed of three acts: the Jewish community prior to World War II, the Nazi invasion, and the decimation of the Jewish population of Krosno. Since virtually no Jews remain in southeastern Poland, Polish Catholic residents comprised all of the organizers, performers and most of the participants.

So I traveled to Poland a third time. While there and after talking with a number of Polish residents, I had the opportunity to reflect and come to a greater understanding of the social and political climate for contemporary Jews in Poland, or at least in the Subcarpathian region of southeastern Poland.

One resident told me that many people in Poland continue to believe the stereotypes that Jews control global banking, that we are inferior human beings (lower "racial" forms), that we insinuate ourselves into the body politic as the puppet masters manipulating governmental leaders, and that we killed their Lord Jesus. This resident stated that "This is the way my brother-in-law sees all Jews as a lower race and as killers of Christ," she said, "at least until I introduced him to you Warren. You are the first Jew he ever met. Today, as he drove me into town, we had the first rational conversation about you and about Jews in general that was not shrouded with insulting and demeaning stereotypes about Jews. Your mere presence enabled him to see you as a human being, a compassionate human being, and not as the evil, scornful, and corrupting image he carried in his head all his life."

Following our discussion, the next day I walked from my Hotel to the Krosno Cultural Center for the 70th anniversary commemoration and the student performance. I placed my colorful embroidered kippah my cousin Gary had given me firmly upon my head as if it were a bejeweled crown. I held back my shoulders, pulled my head upward as if a cord were uplifting my body, and while no Jews remain in Krosno to promenade down its boulevards and winding pathways, I walked proudly down Krosno streets caring not whether bystanders gazed with admiration or with scorn, with curiosity or contempt, or even with no attitude at all. I walked in pride to honor Wolf and Bascha and the 2,700 others whom the Nazis took from us.

Two event organizers greeted me upon my approach to the Krosno Cultural Center. Organizers bedecked the Cultural Center with contemporary photographs of members of Krakow's Hassidic Jewish population taken by photographer Robert Podkulski. Also evident were portraits of earlier Jewish residents of Krosno prior to the Nazi invasion, as well as sacred Jewish objects.

As I stood fixed on one of the photographs, two young high school women standing only yards away, I would estimate their ages to be 15 or 16 years old, gazed at me, pointing and giggling. I looked over in their direction wearing a friendly smile, and I said "hello." This simple gesture intensified their giggles as they literally ran away squealing something in Polish. I assume they had never been in the presence of a Jewish person prior to this experience, and I must have appeared as a foreign and strange curiosity. This confirmed what I had been told that Jews of Krosno today are about as common as the mythical unicorn.

Students from the Zespol Szkol Ponadgimnazjalnych (Team Secondary School) No. 5 in Krosno performed a moving tribute, "Went Away By Shadow..." to their former neighbors, the Jews of Krosno, written by history teacher, Piotr Zych, from their school. Watching this play performed by these eager, fresh-faced, compassionate and passionate young people, some decked out in Jewish holy tallits and kippahs, singing in Polish and in Hebrew, commemorating my mishpocheh and all the former Jews of my ancestral village, my tears fell unrestrained. During their bows, some looked my way, our eyes locking in profound understanding and appreciation.

The evening concluded with a Skype interview with 89-year-old Alexander Bialywlos (White), a resident of Krosno during his youth. Currently a retired physician living in Arizona with his wife, Dr. Bialywlos escaped certain death through the righteous efforts of Oskar Schlinder.

[Not A] Conclusion

On my last day in Krosno on my current trip, I walked casually around the town. On one of the main streets, I recognized a small jewelry shop where I had purchased an amber pendent for my mother Blanche Mahler Blumenfeld in 2008. This time I went into the shop to look for an amber ring for myself. (Poland is renowned for its silver and amber jewelry.) As I perused the glass cabinet at the front of the store, I looked upward and saw a picture hanging on the wall of what appeared to be a Hasidic Jew, with long white beard and large kippah above his flowing side locks.

Taking me by complete surprise, I asked the owner, "Is that a Jew?" He responded, "Yes, it is!" The young women employee standing beside him, with a broad smile suddenly appearing on her face, looking my way said, "Yes, money, money," rubbing together the thumb and index finger of her right hand. I then noticed in the picture that the Jewish man held a large coin in his right hand.

I bought the ring, but I left the shop with a tense uneasiness in my stomach. That evening at dinner, I asked Kasia what this image in the shop meant. She expressed to me what I had anticipated, that the image represented and exemplified the stereotype of the "rich Jew." A number of Polish merchants place this picture in their shops not in support or appreciation of Jewish people, but, rather, as a symbol in hopes of acquiring wealth and riches. She added that while Krosno is a good place to live, to work and to raise a family, Krosno in particular and the larger country of Poland more generally, is a good place to reside "if one is not different."

I know that Jews will return to Poland one day in great numbers, for we have long been part of Polish life and Polish culture, a culture that has diminished and I believe weakened since our loss. We will return one day, and when we do, we will enrich the Polish nation once again.