My passport is not much to look at. It’s dog-eared, many of the stamps are fading, and the back has been covered in a sticky film since I pasted a baggage claim tag there about a decade ago.
Yet as soon as I step outside American borders, it becomes my most valuable possession — my ticket back to everything I know and love. And it’s more than that, because that sad-looking little pamphlet is the most tangible link between me and my nationality. Functionally, it’s my stockholder’s certificate in this great big company called America.
These days, many Americans are looking to diversify their portfolio: The evening of President Donald Trump’s election in November, Canada’s immigration website reportedly crashed as a result of increased traffic from Americans — Americans looking for an escape hatch. For many American Jews, the most convenient escape hatch — other than Israel — is to turn to the same countries that spurned their ancestors during the Holocaust.
I was afraid I would somehow acquit Poland of the crimes against my family.
For me, that means Poland. I decided to make a guinea pig of myself and see what the citizenship process entails. That’s where Neil Kaplan came in.
Kaplan is a genial businessman in his middle age who’s held a number of leadership posts in media and internet companies, including president of the Jewish Journal’s board. But his most recent gig is closer to home.
After securing Polish citizenship for himself and his family, he decided to open up shop helping others do the same through his website, PolandPassport.com. It turns out, Poland is willing to accept Jews (and others) of Polish ancestry, but only after making them jump through some bureaucratic hoops that are impossible to navigate without a fluency in Polish legalese. Since launching his business in late 2016, he’s evaluated more than 400 cases, roughly 60 percent of them Jews, by his estimate.
Successful applicants get all the benefits of citizenship in a European Union country, including potential tax and tuition advantages and ease of travel and immigration. What’s more, Kaplan and his team don’t get paid until you get your passport.
What did I have to lose?
The first step was filling out a “qualification quiz” on Kaplan’s website: names, birthdates, places — all easy enough for me given my borderline-unhealthy obsession with family history. As I typed, I fit entire generations into the neat little text boxes on the website, distilling sons and fathers and daughters and mothers into a form digestible by the Polish bureaucracy.
I hit “enter” and a few days later, Kaplan called to tell me I had a good shot at obtaining Polish citizenship. The question now became: Did I really want it?
I dodged the question. Kaplan offered me a friends-and-family discount — he’s a longtime friend of the Journal — but still, I couldn’t bring myself to say “yes.” After all, what would my “yes” mean? Would I be forgiving Poland for what happened to my tribe?
For his part, Kaplan doesn’t kid himself, that Polish citizenship makes up for the Holocaust. But if it offers the “tiniest bit of restitution,” he said, then it’s worth taking.
I still wasn’t so sure, so I called somebody who has thought about it a lot more than I have.
Grant Gochin is a South African-born wealth manager in Woodland Hills and the grandson of Jewish Lithuanian refugees. He sued the government of Lithuania five times before it was forced to grant him citizenship. After citizenship was granted to him, he had no second thoughts about taking it.
I explained my hesitation to him — my discomfort with taking anything from Poland. I was afraid I would somehow acquit Poland of the crimes against my family, delivering absolution I have no right to offer.
Gochin told me I was looking at it all wrong. Poland wasn’t giving me anything. Instead, I was claiming something that is mine by birthright.
But furthermore, I would be creating a birthright for my own future children.
“If you can give your kids a Polish document with their name on it, it personalizes their history,” he said. “It’ll show them what they come from so they can personalize it.”
I can sympathize with Gochin’s “future generations” argument. It’s past generations I’m worried about. Consigned to the silence of the grave, they speak through my words, my actions.
Nationhood is an entanglement with the past and the future. It ties you to national inequities and travesties, historical and ongoing, that you might not care to associate with. By accepting Polish citizenship, it seems to me, I would align myself with the nation of my ancestors’ discontent.
Take this story, for instance: In my grandfather’s hometown, after the war, nine Jews returned and settled in a home together. A short while later, a Polish neighbor tossed a grenade into the home, killing all nine. Mind you, this was after Germany had been beaten back.
Now, I don’t blame today’s Poland for that atrocity. But nor can I so easily move on.
I don’t delude myself that America has no blood on its hands. After all, the genocide of the Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans is not so far in the historical rearview mirror.
But unlike Poland, America is the country of my birth, and the stains of its history are my birthright — mine to tussle with and fight to overcome.
Maybe my family members’ opinions toward Polish nationality are more pragmatic. They are welcome to apply on their own, and I’m sure Neil Kaplan would be happy to help them.
But I can’t see myself running headlong toward the nation where my family members were sold up the river, even if it means I can travel more easily or set up shop in Paris.
Almost 80 years have passed since Poland turned into my ancestors’ personal hell. But sometimes that history still feels close — and raw. Maybe 80 years is still too soon.