Examining a shared history through a festival lens

Last fall, I was invited to show my documentary “Raquel: A Marked Woman” in Eastern Europe, including Poland, Romania and Ukraine. I wondered whether the gap left by the annihilation of local Jewish communities, followed by decades of silence and secrecy behind the Iron Curtain, is the same in each country.

My documentary tells the story of a young Jewish-Polish mother, Raquel Liberman, who left Warsaw in 1922 with her two young children to follow her husband to Argentina. What happened next is an ordeal many young women suffer today. An international crime organization, made up of Jewish-Polish immigrants, entrapped and enslaved her into the sex trade. These men recruited young Jewish women from the shtetls (small Jewish villages) in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. The organization, headquartered in Argentina, ensnared Raquel in its web and destined her to a life of suffering.

In my film, the “bad” guys are Jews. I ask audiences to move past the familiar demonization or idealization of Jews and see them as human beings with all their human foibles. This exercise is challenging for a conventional Jewish-American audience. Because these East European countries are only now beginning to reconcile their shared pre-World War II history with Jews, I was curious about their reaction. 

It was a great opportunity to present subject matter that local audiences could relate to — given its historic and present-day relevance to the Eastern Europe sex trade. I realized that bringing Raquel back to her home country of Poland would also be a chance to engage with local audiences and understand the cultural and environmental landscape from which my heroine came — a culture that had been fertile ground for the Holocaust. 

Before embarking on my mini-tour, I thought I would experience the consequences of the Russian propaganda machine — a generation too old or too complacent with its secrets. But the opposite seemed to be true. Most young people feel a kinship to Jews and Jewish culture. Yes, it’s now “hip” to be a Jew. This led me to ask: Is the recent resurgence of interest in Jewish culture and traditions in Eastern Europe based on curiosity or atonement? 

“Raquel” was scheduled for two film festivals and two community screenings, all run by non-Jews. These audiences are trying to come to grips with their history and the reformulation of their identity. In Warsaw, a city that was leveled during the war and eerily rebuilt by the Communists, the audiences’ surprising focus was not on the “bad” Polish Jews, but on Raquel’s courageous journey from enslavement to heroine.

Krakow’s Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, an old town dating back to the 12th century, is seeing a Jewish revival of sorts. Many young Polish people are finding out that their grandparents converted to Catholicism and never spoke about their origins — either for fear of persecution or guilt by association.

This unique population was represented in the questions it raised: “Did the Catholic neighbor, who became the foster parent to Raquel’s two young boys, ever tell them that they were Jewish?” “Why did Raquel leave her children with a non-Jew?”

In Bucharest, Romania, the event planners were eager to educate Romanian non-Jews about Jewish life, culture and Israel. Why? The new generation of Romanians is completely unaware of its relationship to its Jewish past, and Israelis run many of the country’s mid-level businesses. The focus of the audience was twofold. First, was I afraid for my life in exposing this Jewish mafia? Did I have the mafia’s list of members and was I going to publish it? Second, the audience deeply identified with Raquel’s story and shared how its country is living through what was depicted in the film: girls being trafficked in and out of Romania for sex.

The final screening took place in Lviv, Ukraine. All but one of the synagogues is still standing, and years of Soviet rule obliterated the population’s enmeshed history with the Jews. In Ukraine, the truth is hard to find and its re-creation is a feeding machine of propaganda and fears. The questions that surfaced were about what happens when there’s a gap in knowledge, as in Raquel’s story. For 70 years, her children and grandchildren remained completely in the dark. How does the gap in knowledge get filled when much of the information has been buried or is dismissed? Was it possible for Raquel’s descendants to make sense of her story even if the information was buried? 

At the end of my trip, both as Raquel’s storyteller and as a second-generation Holocaust survivor, I asked myself questions similar to what my audiences asked. How do you build a story when there’s a gap in history? How do you create an identity when much of your history is buried in secrecy or dismissal? In my films, I have explored the notion of active recalling, engaging and, ultimately, taking responsibility for our past. What happens when those who held the memories die off, as in the case of Raquel? Who is responsible for the telling of their story? 

The new generation in these countries surprised me. What at first seemed such a peculiar reality — Eastern Europeans hungry to find their connection to Jewish history — has now made me realize that we might be struggling with a similar goal. 

The journey through these lands has opened my heart to a past we share. We are forever tied to a communal history. It is no longer about victims and perpetrators. It is about our humanity. It is about a world that requires us to see beyond our fears, to question our lessons, and to open our hearts — as I know Raquel’s story has opened audiences’ hearts to the reality that too many young women are still being trafficked today. 

Gabriela Bohm is a filmmaker in Los Angeles.

Reconstruction of synagogue roof unveiled at Warsaw Jewish museum

The reconstructed roof of a 17th-century synagogue was unveiled at Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

The replica of the now defunct wooden Gwozdziec Synagogue was presented Tuesday to journalists in a sneak preview of what will be the core exhibition of the museum, which is scheduled to open to the public next year in Muranow, a district of the Polish capital that before World War II was home to many Jews.

The reconstruction launched in 2011 produced an 85 percent scale model of the tall peaked roof and richly decorated inner cupola of the synagogue that once stood in Gwozdziec, now in Ukraine.

Designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki, the building housing the museum is split into two large main halls with undulating walls symbolizing the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea.

Citing figures provided by Warsaw's Capital Development Board, the local television station TVN Warszawa reported that the Polish state has spent about $50 million on the construction of the building, which has floor space of about 130,000 square feet.

Representatives of the media will be able to tour the museum starting next month, the museum said.

Israel trip helps Polish Jews in Jewish rediscovery

After Jerzy heard about frequent vandalism at an old Jewish cemetery in his home city of Gdansk, Poland, he decided to visit the graveyard.

It had fallen into such disrepair that “people would go there to drink beer,” said Jerzy, who gave only his middle name due to fears of anti-Semitism. 

He made a few trips to the cemetery, meeting a member of the local Jewish community who invited him to come to Friday night services and Shabbat dinner. 

“I liked Jews all my life,” said Jerzy, 32, who although not raised Jewish had worn a Star of David as a child. “It was the opposite of all of Poland.” Around Gdansk, he said, he sometimes sees graffiti of a Jewish star hanging from a gallows. 

As he learned more about Poland’s Jews, Jerzy began to research his own family history. He traveled to his father’s birthplace near Lublin to find his father’s birth certificate; soon afterward, he learned that his father and his maternal grandfather were Jewish.

Three years later, Jerzy — whose arms are covered in tattoos — has across the back of his neck a huge Hebrew tattoo that reads “Shema Yisrael.” He is converting to Judaism to gain recognition from traditional denominations.

Jerzy was one of 19 participants to travel to Israel last month on a trip for Poles with newly discovered Jewish roots. The trip, according to Shavei Israel, the group that organized it, aims to teach participants about Judaism and to involve them more in Jewish life and support of Israel.

“The Jewish people are a small people, and there are these communities out there that were once a part of us,” said Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel. “When someone discovers or rediscovers their Jewish roots, it makes them more sympathetic to Israel and Jewish causes, so it’s something we stand to benefit from [regarding] diplomacy and hasbarah,” Israeli public relations.

Based in Israel, Shavei Israel also runs programs for those with Jewish roots in Spain, Portugal, India and Russia.

The two-week August trip took participants throughout Israel. They traveled through Jerusalem, to northern Israel and also to West Bank settlements such as Hebron and Mitzpeh Yericho, where they spent Shabbat. Freund said that the visits to settlements do not indicate that the trip takes political positions.

“We stay completely away from political messaging,” Freund said. “There is no political agenda here. The agenda is to give them an opportunity to see the land of Israel and visit important historical sites.”

The group also visited Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, to gain an Israeli perspective on a tragedy also etched deep in Polish national memory.

Trip leaders did not discuss politics, participants said. Several said that their favorite part of the journey was the feeling of being in a Jewish society where they were free to wear kippot on the street and to try out their Hebrew. 

After doing advanced coursework in Jewish studies, Gosia Tichoruk, 35, learned two years ago that her maternal great-grandmother was Jewish — and therefore that she, her mother and her grandmother were as well, according to Jewish law. In Israel, “The first thing that struck me was you’re walking down the beach, and you have Jews all around you,” she said. “It’s this safety you have, people greeting you with ‘Shavuah tov’ and ‘Shabbat shalom.’ “

Like a few of the participants, Tichoruk has started keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and learning Hebrew. She said Jewish life is sparse in her hometown of Poznan, but cities such as Krakow and Warsaw have more Jewish resources.

The Krakow Jewish Community Center has been a boon to Jedrek Pitorak, 23, who goes there for Shabbat dinners, holiday celebrations and Hebrew classes. Pitorak, who has known he is Jewish his entire life, was one of the group’s most experienced Israel tourists. Unlike many who were first-time visitors, he came here in 2009 on Taglit-Birthright Israel, which sponsors free trips to Israel for young adults.

Pitorak is heartened by “how many small children we see here. It’s a bright sign.” Although he’s involved in the contemporary Polish Jewish community, he does not think his homeland will become a center of Jewish life, as it was before almost all of its Jews perished in the Holocaust. Approximately 4,000 registered Jews currently live in Poland, although community leaders suspect that tens of thousands of Poles may not have identified as Jewish.

“There are many old people and the community is not growing,” Pitorak said of Krakow’s Jews. “If you come to the JCC, you see more volunteers and sociologists than real Jews.”

Participants said that they enjoyed Israel’s religious options, historical sites, beaches and food. But one of the features of Israeli life that Pitorak likes best may surprise Israelis and American tourists alike. He appreciates “how polite the drivers are to each other and the pedestrians.”

Poland and the Jews: Is it time to stop hating the country when positive changes are transf

Daniela and Kuba — Jewish in Poland: Two Polish students describe how they came to be interested in Jewish life and culture.

Is it time to stop hating Poland?

Last summer, as Hezbollah rockets rained down on northern Israel, a group of 15 Israeli teenagers from Nahariya were whisked away for two weeks’ respite in Poland. In Israel, they’d spent their time hiding in bomb shelters; in Poland, they became guests of Lodz Mayor Jerzy Kropiwnicki and were treated to horseback riding, rock concerts, sightseeing trips and even Shabbat dinners complete with kosher food.

Many Jews still view Poland as the land of pogroms, persecution and prejudice; a terminally anti-Semitic and blood-drenched country where 3 million Jews were mercilessly murdered during World War II; a land dotted with death camps, desecrated cemeteries and deserted synagogues. What most Jews don’t know is that Poland has changed radically over the past couple of decades, and these days, it is reaching out to Israel and to Jews –and not just socially, either.

As a member of the European Union, NATO and the World Trade Organization, Poland has become a land of economic opportunity. In fact, since the collapse of communism in 1989, many Israelis have been heavily investing in the country.

Elite Coffee purchased Poland’s MK CafĂ© brand and has become one of the country’s top coffee producers; Israel’s Elran Group is a major financial partner in the newly opened Warsaw Hilton Hotel and Convention Center; and Israel’s Elbit Systems has engaged in a joint venture with two Polish companies to produce unmanned reconnaissance aircraft for the Polish army and police.

Even Poland’s public radio now broadcasts a daily 30-minute program in Hebrew, partially funded by Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Poland is the most pro-Israeli country in the world,” said Jaroslaw Nowak, deputy to Lodz Mayor Kropiwnicki in charge of relations with Israel and the Diaspora.

Yet many Jews harbor a seething, deep-seated hostility toward Poland that won’t dissipate, no matter how many decades have passed since the Holocaust and or how markedly it contradicts the attitudes and behavior of present-day Poles.

“Jews in Poland felt they were betrayed by their neighbors, by people who had been their friends, and that betrayal looms larger than the betrayal by the Nazis, from whom they expected nothing,” said Michael Berenbaum, Holocaust scholar and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism).

Berenbaum also explained that the totality of the violence in Poland — the scope, intensity and speed, with essentially 90 percent of Poland’s more than 3.3 million Jews wiped out in a matter of 14 months — also fuels the intense loathing. And since a majority of the world’s Jews trace their roots to Poland, the impact is personal and enormous.

Additionally, many questions concerning Poland’s role in World War II remain unanswered. What really happened on July 10, 1941, in the town of Jedwabne, where at least 340 Jews were murdered by the local population, about 300 of whom were burned alive in a barn? And what instigated the pogrom at Kilce on July 4, 1946, where, of the 200 Jews who had returned home after the war, a Polish mob murdered 37 and wounded more than 80?

While Poland has passed legislation dealing with the return of communal Jewish property, survivors and heirs remain frustrated that the government still has not devised a way to compensate individuals whose private property was confiscated by the Nazis or later by the communists. And many people believe that anti-Semitism is too embedded in the Polish psyche to ever be overcome.

Still, 62 years after the Holocaust — almost three generations later — and more than 17 years after the fall of communism, Poland is a place where each summer since 1988 the Jewish Festival of Culture in Krakow has attracted thousands of visitors. A new Museum of the History of Polish Jews will break ground this summer, for which the land and much of the $33 million cost were donated by the Warsaw City Council and the Polish government.

And because it is a place where Jewish life flourished and enjoyed relative safety for 800 to 1,000 years, a place that gave birth to the Ba’al Shem Tov and modern Chasidism and a place where more than 60 percent of all Jews can trace their ancestry, there is tremendous potential for tourism. So, naturally, Poland wants the word out.

That was the thinking recently when Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited a group of 11 American Jews — including Rabbi Steve Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Cantor Roz Barak of Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, members of the American Jewish Committee in Los Angeles and Houston, as well as this reporter — on a trip to explore Jewish life in Poland today.

Accompanied by Los Angeles Polish Consul General Krystyna Tokarska-Biernacik, the trip was designed to show Poland’s vibrant and emerging Jewish life. Its mission was also to dispel American Jews’ stereotypes of Poland and Poles by examining historical fact and fiction, as well as modern misconceptions.

For starters, there is Jewish life in Poland.

Just walk into the Lauder-Morasha Jewish Primary and Middle School in Warsaw, which began as a preschool with seven children in 1989. Today, 240 students, ages 3 to 16, are actively engaged in Jewish and secular learning. Student-made Stars of David and mezuzahs adorn the hallways, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet circle the classrooms like wallpaper borders and the boys sport brightly colored kippahs.

The new head of school, Rabbi Maciej Pawlak, 29, who took the helm in September 2006 and who was educated at New York’s Yeshiva University, is the country’s first young Polish-born rabbi since World War II.

At Beit Warszawa, Poland’s first post-war liberal synagogue, on any Friday night, 50 or more primarily young, casually dressed Jewish Poles welcome Shabbat by singing “Hinej Ma Tow” and “Szalom Alejchem,” among other songs and prayers, the Hebrew words transliterated into Polish.

Commemorating the Warsaw Uprising

On April 19, 1943, heavily armed Nazi troops penetrated into the Warsaw Ghetto with a grim goal: the liquidation of the ghetto and the deportation of the last remnants of Warsaw’s Jews — some 40,000 men, women and children.

The German forces were met by something unexpected: a fierce attack by some 750 young Jews fueled by desperation and armed with a few machine guns, homemade grenades and makeshift Molotov cocktails. The battle between the scrappy Jewish fighters and the mighty Nazi army has been described as a contest between an ant and an elephant.

But the Jews held out for a month before the ghetto was finally overwhelmed and burned to the ground, leaving a handful of survivors and a lunar landscape of devastation.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the uprising.

On Saturday, as they do every year, Poland’s tiny Jewish community marked the anniversary with a small ceremony at the Ghetto Monument on the secular calendar date on which the uprising began.

The Polish government is hosting high-level official commemorations on April 29 and 30, to coincide with Yom HaShoah. During the past 60 years, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising has come to symbolize both the horrors of the Shoah and the struggle against Nazi tyranny.

Five years to the day after the first shots were fired, a huge memorial designed by sculptor Natan Rapaport to commemorate both heroism and annihilation was erected on the site of the ghetto.

And in the 1950s, the Israeli government designated the 27th of Nisan, a date that was about halfway through the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, as Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Memorial Day. (This year it falls on April 29.)

"The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the first time in occupied Europe that civilians put up armed resistance against Nazi occupiers," said Marek Edelman, 82, the only surviving commander of the revolt.

"We wanted to show that the Jews, who were considered subhuman, were people like any other," Edelman, a cardiologist and human-rights activist who still lives in Poland, told the Warsaw Voice newspaper last week.

"There was no talk about victory or avoiding extermination," he recalled. "It could only be about surviving with dignity, with arms in hand, for a few more days.

"We showed that you could fight against the occupier," he said.

"This was the first brick yanked out of the wall of Nazism in Poland. After our struggle, there were rebellions in the Treblinka and Sobibor extermination camps, in the ghettos of Bialystok and Czestochowa. We shook the conscience of the Polish underground army and international opinion. We started a process that later led to formulation of the idea of the fight for human dignity and rights included in the U.N. Charter," Edelman added.

Commemorating the ghetto has also became an international event.

Poland’s President Aleksander Kwasniewski, Israel’s President Moshe Katsav and other dignitaries, including the president of the European Jewish Congress, Michel Friedman, will take part in the ceremony later this month, and the last living participants in the uprising will receive high state honors.

"Sixty years ago, young men and women from the Jewish Fighting Organization here in Warsaw, in the Warsaw Ghetto, grabbed their arms and, creating an organized resistance movement, fought to defend their dignity and honor," Kwasniewski said in announcing the events. "In the face of the crushing power of the Nazis, a handful of Jewish young people by their desperate, three-week-long fight gave testimony to enormous heroism."

The official events, which will be nationally televised, include wreath-layings April 30 at the massive memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto heroes on the site of the ghetto, as well as a gala concert.

On April 29, Kwasniewski and Katsav will join thousands of teen-agers at Auschwitz for the culmination of the annual March of the Living Holocaust commemoration, which is always timed to coincide with Yom HaShoah. Memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising has cast a long shadow in a country where, under communism, discussion of Jewish issues was practically taboo and where anti-Semitism festered.

Poland was home to 3.5 million Jews before World War II, and Warsaw was Europe’s biggest Jewish city: Its more than 300,000 Jews made up about one-third of the city’s population. The Nazis forced more than 500,000 Jews into the cramped ghetto in Warsaw’s old Jewish quarter. At least 3 million Polish Jews, including almost all of Warsaw’s Jewish population, were killed in the Holocaust.

In his 1945 book "The Ghetto Fights," Edelman described what was going on behind the ghetto walls: "The sea of flames flooded houses and courtyards," he wrote. "There was no air, only black, choking smoke and heavy burning heat radiating from the red-hot walls, from the glowing stone stairs. The omnipotent flames were now able to accomplish what the Germans could not do. Thousands of people perished in the conflagrations. The stench of burning bodies was everywhere."

Evil as a Day’s Work

“There was no shouting or wailing,” recalls a Nazi army veteran in wonder after watching Polish Jews digging their own graves before being machine-gunned. “There was a deadly silence.”

The observation is among the hundreds of telling remarks and casual asides by ordinary German soldiers and their officers who participated in or witnessed the day-by-day unfolding of the Final Solution, as documented in the History Channel’s “Hitler’s Holocaust.”

The six-part miniseries, starting Monday, June 18, was made by German television producers for German audiences and is remarkable on two accounts.

“Hitler’s Holocaust” lets the perpetrators — not the masterminds but the little “willing executioners” — tell their stories.

The documentary also illustrates how even the greatest horror ultimately becomes part of a daily routine, not just for the murderers but also, in some measure, for the victims.

As one Latvian collaborator puts it, after a while, the killing of Jews “just became work to be done.”

Besides death and starvation, the victims faced a constant, degrading psychological pressure. One survivor recalls: “We started to believe ourselves that we were really Untermenschen [subhumans] and that they were really the Herrenrasse [master race].”

The six segments, some shown in tandem on the same night, are “Invasion,” “Decision,” “Ghetto,” “Mass Murder,” “Resistance” and “The Final Toll.” The History Channel made available only two tapes, “Invasion” and “Ghetto,” but even they provided numerous telling samples of the killing machine in action, together with rare incidents of repentance and humor, German style.

No less a witness than Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal recalls that while imprisoned he was one day called to the bedside of a fatally wounded SS officer, who demanded to see a Jew before he died.

When Wiesenthal entered the hospital room, the SS man grabbed his hand and asked him, as a Jew, for forgiveness. “I withdrew my hand and walked out,” Wiesenthal says.

The show also examines the lifestyle of some Nazi bigwigs, who benefited hugely from the conquest of Poland. For instance, Hans Frank, the governor-general of occupied Poland, was so notoriously corrupt that his subordinates came up with a pun: “Im Westen ist Frankreich, und im Ostem wirt Frank reich.” [In the West there is France, and in the East, Frank is getting rich].

While it may seem at times that television provides a new program on the Shoah every other week, the History Channel miniseries is recommended for serious students of the Final Solution and of the mindset of its perpetrators.

“Hitler’s Holocaust” will air nightly June 18-21, starting at 9 p.m.