In 2010 I was asked to serve as a Rabbinic scholar in residence at Beit Warszawa. My wife Judy Maller and I were amazed by the wonderful people we met in the congregation. Every rabbi knows that the Halakic definition of who is a Jew is simple: all children born of a Jewish mother, plus all those who convert to Judaism through an Orthodox Beit Din; are Jews.This legal definition worked well when almost all Jews lived in small villages and everyone knew someone who knew if a person had a Jewish mother.But in today’s world it can be difficult to determine if a person had a Jewish mother or grandmother. In Poland for example, many Jews have only discovered their Jewish ancestors since the fall of the communist government in 1989.Sometimes it is only revealed by an elderly grandparent or other older relative. Upon discovering their Jewish ancestry most Poles do nothing about it.Some however, are driven to study and then to rejoin the Jewish People.Unfortunately, most of these newly found Jews are rejected by Orthodox Rabbis in Poland (unless they are willing to convert to Orthodox Judaism) because they lack documentary evidence of their mother’s mother’s Jewishness.One would think that everyone who sincerely wants to be part of a Jewish community in today’s Eastern European states should be greeted with welcome and not with suspicion and negativity. But such a welcome exists only in Reform-Progressive congregations in Poland.The stories of Zigler and Daruis related by my wife Judy Maller, are two examples of undocumented Jewish souls seeking to return to the Jewish People and the Jewish religion.In my view it is a crime to push people like this away from the synagogue because they cannot prove that they are Jewish.I believe 90% of non-Orthodox Jews today would agree. They may be struggling with their Jewish identity, but so are many Jews who have known that they were Jewish from birth in today’s confusing world.
After my husband, Rabbi Allen Maller and I had been in Poland for about a month and after talking to many of the people in the congregation, I realized in a Reform Jewish Congregation most of the people had fascinating stories. I consciously decided to try to collect these stories and write them down.
One sabbath evening. a stranger sat next to me during the dinner that followed services at Temple Beit Warszawa. His name was Zigler, a dignified looking older man. I thought he might have been born in the 1940’s maybe during the war years. Zigler was dressed impeccably in a white long sleeved shirt and a tailored suit. He pulled out the chair for me and gave me my napkin for my lap.
I thought to myself I wonder what story Zigler would have and would he choose to tell me.
His hair was full, silvery with a mustache trimmed perfectly. He appeared to have come from a wealthy and a cultured family. Zigler’s English was quite good and we started talking about his life growing up in Warsaw.
“I was brought up in a middle class family. My father was an engineer and my mom stayed at home and took care of her three sons. I was the youngest. We were a close family with lots of extended relatives in the Warsaw area.”
“I had a normal, happy childhood. My siblings and I got good grades in school. We played lots of soccer and other sports. I remember wonderful holidays with our extended family. At the time, I felt that as boys we were very close. I could count on my older brothers for help at school and they stood up for me with the bullies.”
“Several years ago, when my parents were quite old, my mom was dying of cancer and my dad was frail. My folks called me over to their house. By then I had been married to my Catholic wife for almost 40 years and our two grown children were both married.”
“We have four darling grandchildren. I was still working as a businessman and had done quite well. We lived a comfortable life. I went to my parents’ house with a heavy heart. I knew by their voices this would be about end of life issues.”
“What happened in that little meeting was shocking to me and completely turned my life around.”
“I was already in my early sixties and nothing could have prepared me for this sudden change.
My parents hugged and and kissed me and held me tight. Then they declared “We want to let you know before we die that you will not inherit any of our estate”
“I was dumbfounded. What had I done to them, I thought I had always had been a devoted, dutiful son and had loved them very much. I searched my memory for that horrific thing I must have done for them to cut me out of the family inheritance.”
I asked Zigler, “Did you ever feel different from your brothers? Did you ever feel that you did not belong in that family?”
“No never,” he replied
“Finally my parents told me the story that they had kept secret all their adult lives.”
My mother told me about Irena Sandler; a Catholic Polish woman who worked with Catholic Orphanages. Irena had gotten a job from the Warsaw City Council to go into the Jewish ghetto and try to improve the sanitary conditions. She saw the misery and illness of the Ghetto. Irena couldn’t stand by while people were starving and dying.
She decided to save Jewish babies and smuggle them out of the Ghetto. She would give the babies a sedative and then hide them under her clothing or in her supplies smuggling them out. Irena then went to Catholic orphanages and private homes and pled with the nuns or the families to take in the babies.
It was estimated that Irena saved over 2,000 children from the Ghetto. Hundreds were sent to the Family of Mercy orphanage in Warsaw. Others went to private Catholic homes. Irena was captured by the Nazi’s and sentenced to death. Lucky, the Polish underground bribed the guards and saved her life.
“What has this story have to do with me?” Zigler questioned. “Why are you telling me this?”
My parent’s told me that I was one of those babies.
My mom said “Irena came to us and she pleaded with us to save a Jewish baby and bring him up as our own child. We have done that: but now we are faced with the fact that you are not our flesh and blood. We can’t take this lie to our death. You are not our real child.”
“I could not believe my ears. These were my dear parents who loved me, provided for me, taught me everything. I felt caught in a nightmare.”
My brothers and their families found out about my birth when the lawyer told us all about my parents will and why I would not inherit .
“I was shunned at both of my parents funerals. My brothers and their families did not talk to me or comfort me.”
“What had I done? I was a dutiful son, a loving son.”
“My brother’s families we do not see anymore, The bitterness that came from the funerals of my parents put a divide between us that can never be mended.”
“My wife tolerates my decision to search for my Jewish roots. She is frustrated with me for my obsession. My kids and their families feel the same. So I am quite alone in my passion to discover who I really am and uncover the tragic past of my real family.”
“I was faced with the fact that I was not who I thought I was for most of my life. I had been living a lie.”
“All I know about my Jewish family is that they all died in the Shoah. I don’t even know my family name.”
“What I can do now is learn about the history of the Jewish People here in Poland. I have a deep need to discover my roots.”
“I am here at the temple. I go to services, classes, read continually about the Jewish people and try to recreate my past.”
“Do any of your studies help you to feel closer to your true self?” I asked. “Does coming here and participating at the temple bring you any peace?”
“Yes, Zigler answered.” But I still have so much more to uncover; but many times I know what I am doing is right. I do owe something to my parents who suffered so horribly.
“I feel a connection to the Jewish stories and holidays.”
“Someday I hope I can stop struggling and be at peace with myself. I am now in my seventies and this will be my quest for the rest of the time I have left.”