Jews Can Now Search for Their Polish Roots
Miriam Weiner's Book Unlocks the Past
by Marilyn Silverman Senior Staff Writer The Jewish Post of New York
Jewish people never dreamed they had a family tree. They always assumed the ashes of the crematoria consumed all vestiges of their past. Genealogy was therefore an unknown word in their vocabulary. But the recent collapse of the Iron Curtain has proved that Jewish people can now trace their roots and meet their ancestors who once lived in a country with a vibrant Jewish life. Documents have been unearthed in the government archives of Poland that reveals life in the concentration camps and life in the innumerable towns, villages, and hamlets that dotted the Polish landscape. Poland, home to three million Jews, an intellectual and cultural mecca.
These documents, preserved in the Polish State Archives, were closed to inquiring eyes for over half a century. Today, family trees are sprouting up in Jewish homes on a global panorama since approximately 75% of Jews worldwide can trace their lineage directly to Poland.
This legacy can be discovered via the assistance of Miriam Weiner in her ground-breaking, heartrending book, "Jewish Roots in Poland: Pages from the Past and Archival Inventories". (Secaucus, NJ: The Miriam Weiner Routes to Roots Foundation, Inc., 1997 and New York: N.Y.: Yivo Institute for Jewish Research, 1997). This is the first government-sanctioned book that documents the voluminous files of the Polish State Archives.
During an interview in a midtown Manhattan hotel, Weiner justified this burgeoning interest in boarding this Jewish time machine. "The interest in family history is influenced by Alex Haley's publication of Roots, the bicentennial celebration and the Ellis Island and Statue of Liberty restorations. These events got people thinking about the immigration experience. Shindler's List is another catalyst that's making people aware of what was and what was lost, and also you have the situation of the Iron Curtain collapsing."
All Was Not Destroyed During the Holocaust...Undeniably the totality of the Jewish experience in this Eastern European country is not extinct. Yet nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of documents, in varying degrees of physical decay, are extinct. Despite the Archive's attempts at preservation, Weiner admitted, "Many of the documents were fragmented in pieces because of the ravages of time and what these books have been through and where they've been."
The documents in the Polish State Archives include a mundane litany of legal documents pertinent to a particular populace, some of which go back to the 1700's: birth, death, marriage, and divorce records; books of residents; election and voter lists; property records; immigration records; public school records; tax lists; bank records; applications for business licenses; notary records; and wills. These Archives also maintain an inventory of documents that bespeak the dark legacy of Poland, concentration camp statistics, transport list of Jews; ghetto registration; lists of confiscated money and valuables; books from the punishment unit; letters about camp employment; and hospital documents � illnesses, records of medicines administered, and extraction of gold teeth from corpses.
Exterminating the Jewish race wasn't sufficient for the Nazi's; exterminating all signs of their diabolical deeds was their goal as well. Nonetheless, an impressive amount was salvaged and are now preserved and displayed for present and future generations in the State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
That these documents exist at all is truly mesmerizing. As Weiner explained, "Just as many people were killed, many documents were destroyed, and just as many people survived, many documents survived. I don't want to give the impression that everything is there. But there is so much you can't imagine."
The material catalogued in the Archives is not limited to old documents; to the present date, local Polish residents submit documents that trusting Jews entrusted to them.
This trip back in time will be simultaneously painful and exhilarating. Exhilarating to see words on pages breathing life into your grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, ad infinitum. Painful to see how your long-forgotten relatives suffered. Yet Weiner feels it's important to know your family roots since "It's an important legacy to pass onto your children. It also strengthens Jewish Identity in young people. It also strengthens Jewish identity in young people.
"Because, even though the tragedy of Poland is that three million Jews were killed, Polish Jewry existed for hundreds of years."
"Jewish Roots in Poland," a five�pound book, as Weiner explained, can be categorized thusly, "It's a genealogy book; it's a Holocaust book; it's a coffee table book; it's a scholarly reference book. It's also a travel book." Her methodology is to include town�by�town listings of archival records in over 5,400 communities, as well as photographs of old postcards of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries and towns and maps that all serve one purpose � to revitalize a world that once was in pre-Holocaust Poland.
A Jewish woman walking through the corridors of the Polish State Archives "found the cooperation and interest in the project really remarkable and extraordinary." Any anti-Semitism? "I did not run into any problems because I was Jewish or that I'm interested in Jewish material."
"The only roadblocks she experienced was lack of fluency in Polish." There was some skepticism by the middle level archivists � could this woman really do this not knowing the "language?" Hiring a Polish translator alleviated this dilemma. The local archivists weren't surprised that this material was in their file cabinets." "They probably were surprised there was so much interest in it, because the average person in Poland is not interested in genealogy, whereas over here, genealogy I understand, is the second most popular hobby after stamp collecting."
Weiner first became aware of these hitherto hidden documents during a visit to Poland in 1989 as a guest of the Polish Tourist Office to meet with the Archives staff to discuss the feasibility of arranging tours. "As I traveled around the various Archives, I was thrilled to find so much material had survived and disappointed to see that it was not organized in a way that I or anyone else could use. I'm not saying the Archives were disorganized. They had their own system that suited their purposes." At a recent cocktail reception held in honor of the publication of "Jewish Roots in Poland" at the Republic National Bank in New York, Dariusz Jadowski, Consul General, Republic of Poland said, "Weiner's book is a treasury of documents which are free from the coldness of the Archives. This book makes one think, but does not force any arguments. For only the facts and documents, patiently gathered, speak here. Silence and focus permeate the atmosphere of the book with the shadow of the Holocaust always present, balanced by the reflective memory of the world that was and the mutual history shared by the present generations of Jews and Poles."
Jadowski also read a letter on behalf of Daria Nalecz, director of the Polish State Archives. "This book is a tribute paid to the victims of the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century, a document of martyrdom and a warning to all future generations."
"Jewish Roots in Poland" is verifiable proof that Jews can go home again � the ancestral towns of Poland were not wiped off the face of the earth.
Weiner is a genealogist, former executive director of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in New York and a syndicated columnist. A resident of Secaucus, New Jersey, she has an office in Poland and an apartment in the Ukraine. Two future volumes will deal with the Ukraine and Moldova, and Belarus and Lithuania, respectively
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