Anna Grigal Horen says the sounds of the tolling church bells from her childhood will always remain etched in her consciousness. While her friends in Nowy Sacz — Sanz, the cradle city of Sanzer chassidus enjoyed normative homes with parents, brothers and sisters, little Anna was surrounded by nuns dressed in white, with crosses dan- gling from their necks who would wake her in the morning and take her down to the prayer hall.
“When I was a child, I always assumed that my ‘mother’ decided to become a nun after I was born. I thought we lived without a father because he lived a life of frivolity and my mother didn’t want him to have a bad influence on me,” says 75-year-old Anna today, as she walks down the steps after Rabbi Avi Baumol’s shiur.
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain and Poland’s transformation into a democracy, an increasing number of Poles have begun to discover their families’ Jewish roots. These include young people whose Jewish parents or grandparents were put up for adoption with Polish families or Christian institutions in a desperate attempt to save them from the Nazi onslaught seven decades ago.
It’s no longer breaking news that many young people in Poland are discovering their Jewish roots after grandparents – natural or adoptive – come clean with deathbed confessions. But what is news, according to Rabbi Avi Baumol — an emissary of the Shavei Israel organization to Krakow is that elderly Jews themselves, who were often concealed as Christians in order to be saved, have begun to return together with their grandchildren.
Rabbi Baumol, who served as rabbi in Vancouver’s Orthodox shul before making aliyah in 2003, where he continued teaching in several American yeshivos and seminaries, feels his service in Poland is a closure of sorts. He comes from a rabbinic line that goes back tens of generations in Poland his grandfather received semichah from the last rav of Tarnow. For Rabbi Baumol, helping young Polish Jews retrace their lost heritage is a validation of his own roots, but he says the surprising phenomenon of elderly Jews reclaiming their heritage at the end of their lives is especially meaningful.
Anna, whose 25-year-old grandson Thomas was the catalyst for her own Jewish reawakening, says she discovered the truth about herself when she was 12. It was already after the war, but Jew-hatred was rife in Poland. Anna had gotten into a fight at school, and when her teacher came to settle matters, she couldn’t contain her contempt. “Dirty Jewess, too bad they brought you to this village and didn’t let Hitler finish you off,” she snarled.
“I returned home shaken, pale, and trembling,” Anna relates. “and then I cornered my ‘mother’ for a conversation. At first she denied it, but I kept pressing her to reveal the truth, and she finally admitted that I was a Jew and had been brought to the convent when I was just a few months old.
“Well, I felt absolutely crushed. My whole world had just caved in around me. Do you know what it’s like to discover that your mother deceived you, that you aren’t who you thought you were? A thousand questions raced through my mind. What did this mean for me? What did I have to do with this infor- mation? How was I to act from then on? Did my adopted mother who was my whole world hate me? Was my real family murdered by the Nazis? It was all too overwhelming, and I decided I’d never share my secret.”
That pledge she made to herself lasted several decades, but when a Jewish cultural revolution hit Krakow, Anna decided it was time to research her past and put her demons to sleep.
OUT OF THE GHETTO
Anna discovered that she was born Chana Kempinski, the fifth daughter of Avraham and Regina Kempinski. The family had lived in Sanz for generations, and her father amassed his wealth from large swathes of land and a huge cattle farm. But when Germans in- vaded Poland, the land was nationalized, the cattle farm confiscated, and the family driven into the ghetto. A year later the se- lections began and the Jews of the ghetto were sent to Belzec, the Nazis’ first death camp, where over 450,000 Jews were murdered and which claimed only seven survivors.
After the first round of deportations, Avra- ham Kempinski worked feverishly to save as many Jews as possible. “He was wealthy and had many connections,” Anna relates. “And so he could walk near the walls of the ghetto and was able to bribe one of the ghetto guards, who hired a horse and cart for him. He succeeded in persuading some people from the other side to take in those who fled the ghetto, and the convent in Sanz to take in his daughter — me.”
In the middle of the night, Regina Kempins- ki bid her daughter Anna — then four months old — farewell. The cart set out, dropping off its human cargo, and then returned to the ghetto to take another load of escapees. But the second round wasn’t successful. Everyone in the cart was shot on the spot.
“Although I’d discovered the truth, I decid- ed that nothing good would come out of me speaking about being Jewish,” Anna continues. “And if I had already grown up as a Christian, I would remain such, to the joy of the woman who had raised me. My adoptive mother was sure until her dying day that I would remain a loyal Christian forever.”
Anna grew up, married, and had three daughters. “We continued to live in Nowy Sacz. This is where I grew up, and this is where I raised my family.” Over time, the Iron Cur- tain fell, and her daughters — three Jewish women who knew nothing about their Jewish identities — had grown up, married, and built families of their own.
They could have continued living this way for many more years, but then came the turning point. “As I grew older, I began to feel guilty for not telling anyone that I was Jewish,” Anna says. “After my husband passed away, I felt very lonely, and decided to reveal this fact to my children. At the time, I didn’t know that it meant all my offspring were also Jewish.”
Thomas, her 25-year-old grandson, stands beside her, listening. After the revelation, he began taking his first steps toward Judaism, bringing his grandmother along. When he started to talk about the family confidence, he dis- covered that four or five other friends shared the same secret. “And we all had the same reaction. We needed to find out more, to find out what this meant to our lives.”
In a rundown house in the Karadjova neighborhood, not far from central Krakow, Emmanuel Elbinger, 85, sits together with his granddaughter among stacks of old newspapers that somehow anchor him to a difficult yet familiar past. He still remembers his prewar childhood in his native village of Nova Jasko, where “there was one radio for the whole village.”
Nova Jasko was a remote village with no running water or electricity, and just a few Jews. Emmanuel’s father had passed away, and it was up to his mother to find a way to protect her young family from the German murderers who had crashed into Poland.
“When my mother realized that the Nazis were closing in on us, she began transferring any- thing of worth to various hiding places,” Elbinger remembers. “We Jews were a small minority, and the general atmosphere was anti-Jewish. The old priest was a big anti-Semite whom every- one followed, so the Jews knew they couldn’t rely on their neighbors.”
At the beginning of the Nazi onslaught, the old priest died, and the new priest was actually a family friend. “The priest’s sister was a good friend of my mother’s. She promised that if we were in danger, we could hide in the convent. One day Mother returned home pale as plaster and said to us”—Elbinger switches from Polish to Yiddish—“ ‘Kinderlach, the party is over. We have to move into the convent.’
“We left everything behind. I still remember the childhood trauma of giving up every mean- ingful possession. As you see,” he says with a wry smile, pointing to the clutter all around him, “I find it hard to part from things. I think I’ve spent my life making up for that helpless feeling.”
In the village, the hunt for Jews was on, so the Elbingers took shelter in the convent cellar, where the priest and his sister — at mortal risk — provided them with a little food and water.
One day, though, Mrs. Elbinger couldn’t take the confinement and went out for a few minutes of fresh air in the convent yard where she was spotted by a “faithful” villager. That meant they had to move on.
“Mother found a run-down hut in the nearby village of Zakopane, where a poor family agreed to host us because they were desperate for the money,” Elbinger continues. In the convent the family was sustained. But now, they were on their own. “Every night, Mother went out to the forest, where she made connections with people who sold her bread. Every night we’d wait anxiously for her return, realizing she might not come back. And even if she did, there was no guarantee she’d obtained bread.” One night, Mrs. Elbinger didn’t return. Later, the children learned that she’ll been killed accidentally by Polish partisans.
The three orphans remained in the home of the poor family, who turned out to be righ- teous Christians. They decided to keep the Jewish children until after the war, but when no one came to claim them, the family made the adoption permanent.
“We were young enough to forget about our Judaism,” Elbinger says. In time, Emmanuel married and moved to Krakow. “For years, I lived like a Christian. Someplace in the back of my mind, I knew that until the age of ten I had been a Jew, but I didn’t speak about it to my wife and children. I didn’t want to know of it, or remember. For me, it was a distant, bad memory, and moreover, during the Communist rule, it was better not to be Jewish.”
I NEVER TOLD ANYONE
Magda, Emmanuel’s granddaughter, listens to the now-familiar story, which she only recently uncovered. Yet it’s because of her that Emmanuel now wears a yarmulke, goes to shul on Shabbos, and is a regular at Rabbi Baumol’s classes.
Magda is not Jewish, although she’s one of about 50 volunteers in the Krakow Jewish Community Center, a place where young people — most of them with some Jewish connection but not halachically Jewish — have found expression for Jewish culture and an- cient family tradition.
She explains that the family transformation came about after a mandatory high school trip to Auschwitz. “I was in shock,” she says. “I couldn’t believe how those evil people could reach such depths of depravity, and how the Polish people helped them out. I had to find out more, I had to hear what really went on at the time. I decided to make it my senior project. So what better place to start than with my own grandfather, who lived through it?”
Elbinger recalls the fateful conversation. “I never told anyone I was born Jewish, but you know, once the grandchildren start to ask and you’re considered a reliable source of information, you feel you have to tell the truth.”
For Magda, the revelation was much more than a term paper. She couldn’t believe she was connected to these people, and had to find out more. When Elbinger saw her enthusiasm, saw the positive energy of her non-Jewish friends for whom Jewish culture had become trendy, he knew that at 85 he had to go back there too. Magda, meanwhile, hasn’t decided which direction to go in her own life: To remain a righ- teous gentile? To undergo a halachic conversion? Meanwhile, both she and her grandfather continue to study. “I’m making up for a life of lost time,” says Elbinger.
While Judaism was buried for decades in Po- land, there is a certain fashionable draw to Jewish culture today. In Krakow, the “Jewish-style” restaurants and cafés might not be kosher, but the selection of chopped liver, cholent, kishke, and sweet Kiddush wine are not only a marketing attempt aimed at Jewish American and Israeli tourists; the cuisine has woven its charm into the hearts of Polish youth as well.
“Today there is a fascination with all things Jewish in Poland,” says Shavei Yisrael director Michael Freund. While offifficial figures list only about 4,000 Jews residing in Poland, there are an estimated additional 30,000 who are only now beginning to discover their true identity.
Today I’m tagging along with Rabbi Avi Baumol, and as our taxi drives through the streets of Krakow, I notice the elegant blocks as we enter the Nowa Huta neighborhood, one of the city’s upscale areas. We’re here to vis- it Dr. Wiktor Bodnar, a well-known clinical psychologist in Krakow, who’s already out- side waiting for us. He’s in great shape for his 78 years, and with a lightness that makes us marvel, he takes the stairs up to his home in a jiffffy, forgoing the elevator. His living room is tastefully decorated, elegantly furnished and full of exercise equipment.
Dr. Bodnar is Jewish, but like so many oth- ers of his generation, that information was hidden away for years. Today, Rabbi Baumol has a project: Dr. Bodnar — begrudgingly at first — has agreed to let the rabbi put a me- zuzah on his front door.
According to Rabbi Baumol, the mezuzah-affixing ceremony has sparked the inter- est of Jews and Judeophiles around Krakow. Just the day before, he affixed a mezuzah on the doorpost of a young baalas teshuvah and dozens of young people crowded around the small space when they heard a rabbi was com- ing to perform the ritual.
“Just wait here and see what happens,” Rabbi Baumol tells me. “I put the word out already, and we’re going to have a gathering here in a few minutes, guaranteed.”
Rabbi Baumol is right. A young crowd has gathered, and he explains to his impromptu guests about the significance of the mezu- zah on a Jewish doorpost. Then he makes the brachah and the crowd answers a fervent “Amen.” Rabbi Baumol is visibly moved. Well, let’s admit it — so am I. This little ceremony was so… Jewish.
“You can tag along with me for a week and witness scenes of spiritually thirsty people like this every day,” says Rabbi Baumol.
Dr. Bodnar’s personal history – like that of so many elderly in Poland who’ve finally come to terms with a secret past – is a web of both loss and salvation.
Dr. Bodnar’s roots lie in the court of Nadvorna chassidus. He was born in that town (“Nadworna”) in 1937, where his grandfather Moshe, an ardent chassid, owned ten farms and a large glass factory. Moshe Bodnar, head of the Nadvorna town council, was both smart and diplomatic. “He funded the Catholic church in the town so that the municipality would also fund the Nadvorna Rebbe’s beis medrash,” Dr. Bodnar relates. His grandfather had six sons and three daughters, but of the extended family, only three sons survived the war. One of them, Dr. Yosef Bodnar, moved to Eretz Yisrael and opened a dentistry practice in Ramat Gan. “My own family was saved by a righteous priest named Adolph Zoltinski,” says Dr. Bod- nar. The priest forged documents testifying that the family was Christian, and even “married” the elder Bodners with a Catholic wedding ceremony. Those Christian creden- tials saved their lives.
“My father tried to pay the priest, but he refused. When my father asked him why he was helping us and putting himself in so much danger, the priest replied: ‘There is so much evil around us, and G-d pursues justice. That is my only way to try and improve the situation. I’m happy to do it, and I’m proud that I am able to help the Chosen Nation survive.’ ” Zoltinski, who was wanted by the Gestapo, was eventually caught and murdered.
On October 6, 1941, the Germans came to Nadvorna. They had an exact list of all the wealthy Jews in town, and were assisted by the local villagers who were happy to identify them for the Nazis. Dr. Bodnar’s parents were on the list, and they, together with another 41 relatives and the rest of the Jews, were taken to the Nadvorna town square to be shot — but not before Dr. Bodnar’s father managed to stuff an envelope of money, together with his documents, into his coat.
“I was four years old, but I remember it all. The square was surrounded by SS guards and their dogs, but then a miracle happened to my parents. My father approached the commander and showed him the papers he had received from the priest. He spoke fluent German with a Bavarian accent, and the colonel was stunned by his excellent German and said, ‘You speak German better than my people.’ The colonel then took the envelope of money my father handed him and ordered, ‘Run away from here!’ “But my father remained standing.
“ ‘What do you want?’ the colonel barked.
“ ‘My wife is here,’ my father replied.
“ ‘So take her with you,’ the colonel said.
“My father went over to where my mother was and motioned for her to come toward him. She indicated that she couldn’t get up or she’d be beaten by the guards. He came over to her and screamed to her in German, ‘The colonel is calling you!’ The guard standing with his dog heard his screaming in German and allowed her to leave. My parents left the square and went up to the attic of an abandoned building, where they witnessed how 1,500 Jews of Nadvorna were gunned down.
“My grandmother and I were not on the death list, and a young Ukrainian couple who rented one of our apartments hid us. We soon reunited with my parents, and from that moment on, our flight began, using Aryan documents and the story that ‘we are Christians.’ Soon I picked up the culture. I kept all the Christian holidays and could recite their prayers automatically. Later, when I learned Christian religion lessons in school and we had tests on the prayers, all my friends cop- ied from me. I knew better than all of them.”
The Bodnars passed the war years wandering from town to town, and afterward settled in Krakow. They just wanted to put it all behind them, but their troubles were not over. A year later, pogroms raged through several Polish cities, and in Krakow, the Bodnars watched horrified through boarded-up window slats as the mob dragged Jews into the central square and beat them, while their drunken buddies looted the stores. Ambulances arrived, but the mob didn’t let them get near the victims. Only after 20 Jews were killed did the Polish army decide to send forces to stop the mob.
“So you can understand,” Dr. Bodnar admits, “that by the end of the war my family came to the conclusion that it’s not worthwhile being a Jew, that being a Jew is a handicap, that we have to forget everything so we can start our lives anew. My family lived like Christians. We went to church. We even had a Christmas tree.”
After the Six Day War, something in Dr. Bodnar’s worldview started to thaw. “Something was changing in the Jewish nation. It had a country, an army that could recapture biblical lands, and a modern state. There was this reemergence of Jewish pride.”
Still, in 1967, there was nothing to hang that newfound pride onto. Today, with the groundswell of Jewish revival in Poland, Dr. Bodnar has joined the movement of young people — some Jewish, many not — who have become attracted to Jewish life.
And that’s why he reached out to Rabbi Baumol, who in turn extends a Shabbos invitation.
“Now that you have a real mezuzah, will you come and pray with us?” the rabbi asks him.
“Why not?”the elderly doctor replies. “You know my neighborhood is a bit far from your shul, but as you can see I’m in good shape and I’ll do the walk.”
Originally Published in Mishpacha Magazine