The Jewish Chronicle
Hidden Polish Jews uncovered
Amanda Hopkinson admires a collection of personal histories. Jonathan Margolis’s imagination takes flight Opening the Drawer
Vallentine Mitchell, £17.50 Reviewed by Amanda Hopkinson
IN BRITAIN, we are accustomed to a panorama of settled Jewish communities, some with medieval roots, more who migrated here fleeing East European pogroms in the late 19th century. Few of the predominantly Central European exiles who arrived in the 1930s are still with us; the majority of a second and a third generation have grown up in an increasingly secular environment.
Even if we are ignorant of religious traditions, or prefer to call ourselves “cultural”, we are not unaware of our recent history. Where the story often wavers is when it gets personal: why were we not told what really happened to this or that relation, or to our whole family?
Was it to “protect the children”making it easier to start over and assimilate? Or because the host community did not wish to hear “sob stories” or, worse still, refused to believe first-hand accounts of the horrors perpetrated by a “civilised” German nation?
Poland, too, had its settled Jewish community for 1,000 years, interrupted by pogroms and fatally disrupted by Nazism. “Opening the drawer in my brain” is how Karolina Szykier-Koszucka describes accepting her heritage.
Many other post-war descendants of Jewish families, often raised as Catholics when desperate parents, facing imminent death, surrendered their children to an Aryan neighbour, or left a baby at the convent door.
And yet, despite these children fulfilling or failing their adoptive families’ expectations — one becoming a priest, another an antisemitic hooligan, they, Left to right: Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel, Robert Chmielewski and Paula Tonder, three of the ‘hidden children’ photographed by Witold Krassowski
too, report a sense of homecoming in the discovery of their true identity
These impressively candid first-hand accounts, compiled by Barry Cohen, of “Children of the Holocaust” cannot fail to shock and move readers. Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel, a Catholic priest, realised that, as a child, he knew: “I didn’t want to be a Jew. At the time, Christian upbringing was fiercely antiJewish… I wanted to be like my friends.” It was at seminary that he first learnt that “the Jews didn’t kill Jesus. That was
a huge discovery for me [and] to learn that his mother and all his apostles were Jewish”. Joanna Tarasiewicz, aware from earlier on, recalled: “if you said you were Jewish, there was always a strong reaction”, Robert Chmielewski knew what he didn’t know: “The core of my Jewish story is a few sentences; the rest is intuition”.
Many Jews have embraced their formerly hidden identity through a proliferation of organisations founded to support, instruct and foster links with Israel. History was against them: Stalin
was a known antisemite yet post-USSR regimes blamed Jewish revolutionaries for decades of Communist repression. And Jewish “cosmopolitanism”, even “internationalism”, evinced suspicion of dual loyalties, an accusation that persists today.
By presenting these three generations in their own words and images, their faces revealed by veteran press and portrait photographer Witold Krassowski, Barry Cohen follows a bloodline of recent European histo-
ry. His introduction, together with a dense historical foreword by Antony Polonsky, provides the vital context. However distinct their experiences, these children of the Holocaust touch a nerve in the wider Jewish body to which we belong.
Antony Polonsky will interview Barry Cohen and Witold Krassowski at Jewish Book Week next Sunday March 10 at 12.30pm. Amanda Hopkinson is a writer and translator