Generation Unexpected

LONDON, UK–I first met Katka Reszke and her partner, Slawomir Grunberg, when I was working on a story about Jewish Poles involved in the arts. I happened to be in New York and they happened to also be in the city, having just moved to the suburbs. We met at a Mexican restaurant and had a fascinating interview over margaritas and quesadillas.  Katka, originally from Wroclaw and a researcher in Jewish history, culture and identity, told me that her PhD thesis from Hebrew University in Jerusalem was being published.  Her book, “Return of the Jew: Identity Narratives of the Third Post-Holocaust Generation of Jews in Poland” , is being released in the next few weeks in English; a Polish language version will also be published later this year.  I got her on Skype before she zipped off to Nashville for a fundraiser for the documentary Karski and the Lords of Humanity”, which is being directed by Slawomir; Katka is the second director and co-writer. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

So tell me how this book came about in the first place.

It is basically a result of 10 years of work, which is almost sad. (laughs). I started interviewing people a decade ago. In the end, I talked with 50 people who were at the time all between 18 and 35. I interviewed people with Jewish roots, whose parents or grandparents were Jewish. In Poland, most people of this Third Generation discovered they were Jewish in their teens. Only a handful of people that I interviewed told me they  always knew they were Jewish but they did not grow up Jewish or know what it really meant until they were in their teens. So it is very much the story of the discovery of Jewish roots in Poland after Communism, starting in the early 1990s. It’s all set against this so-called Jewish cultural renaissance in Poland.

This Third Generation are essentially the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors;  their parents were presumably not raised Jewish and maybe they did not even know of their Jewish roots.

“Third Generation” is a problematic term.  Years ago someone in America coined the term “Second Generation” to describe people who suffered from Holocaust trauma who were not in the Holocaust. But as children of Holocaust survivors, they suffered as well. I am not implying that Third Generation Polish Jews suffered from Holocaust trauma, but what I think is true is that the Holocaust is this big break in history and we are so used to these terms of Second Generation, Third Generation and that is how people refer to each other. I did not coin the term, it already existed. And my buddies, well that is how we refer to ourselves. It is the title of my book and a question I am going to have to answer a lot because people will think that this generation, if they call themselves Third Generation, then the implication is that the Holocaust experience is a formative experience for them. But I am not saying that in book and that is not true. The fact that there was the Holocaust and that it affected our families is crucial but I do not think the Holocaust is essential to them in terms of their identity.

book-cover-697x1024You come to this from personal experience because you found out as a young adult growing up in Wroclaw that your mother’s family was Jewish. So you are part of this Third Generation. But interesting that this is the first real examination of this.

There are articles and essays on the issue but also not really from the inside. I am an insider. Which has advantages as well as drawbacks. I wrote a chapter about myself, because I was told I had to. I wanted to explain where I am coming from.

There are two questions I have that kind of come wrapped together—Polish Jews are a small but thriving community today and issues surrounding Judaism are very much a part of the conversation in Poland. Tell me about that and also about the reaction that Polish Jews get when travelling to places like Israel and the US. I remember when I was working on my story, several Polish Jews told me –with great humor—that when they would tell people they were Polish and Jewish, no one believed them.

The two questions are very related because the way we have to react to how the world reacts to our mere existence— sometimes even with outrage— that we even dare to exist, that is actually very much a part of what it means to be a Polish Jew. We have to have an answer to the disbelief by American Jews and Israelis and to the idea that if there are any young Jews in Poland, they should definitely leave as soon as possible. (laughs). And some of us say that the Jewish absence in Poland is more visible than the Jewish presence. It is almost as if the established Jewish community in the world—American Jews and Israelis primarily—are used to the “fact” that there are no Jews in Poland. So when you confront them with this, it upsets them somehow. I think it is fascinating.

Is that part of the Polish Jewish identity construction for your generation?

I think the major reason that most young Poles who discover they have Jewish roots, decide to engage and embrace their Jewish identity is in many ways exactly because it is in Poland. In a land where you know what happened so if you find you have a small, single Jewish  root, it is heavier and more compelling. I refer to us as “Generation Unexpected.”  We were not supposed to be here. If there were any Jews left in Poland, by 1968 the assumption was that we were all gone. And yet, after the fall of Communism, we started talking and look what we discovered. Some people went back to their Jewish names, not many, but it has happened.

Really?

Most people I know who took “Jewish” names adopted first or last names that had been in their family. And for the first time in so many decades in Poland, this generation say publically they are Jewish. Jewish identification is not considered a stigma as it was for so many years in Poland.  That doesn’t mean there is no anti-Semitism in Poland, there is. But in larger cities people no longer fear Jewish identification as much in smaller towns. You do not have many cases of people in smaller towns discovering that they have Jewish roots and embracing it because they don’t have a network. But in the larger Polish cities Philo-Semitism is more visible than anti-Semitism. Most of the time when I am in a larger city in Poland and I tell people I am Jewish, people will say, “Wow, really that is fascinating, tell me more.”

Now that the book is out, what else do you have on your plate?

We are currently fundraising for the Karski film, which is hard but important. We are forced to fundraise because the animation involved is very expensive. We choose to use animation because there are a lot of interviews with Jan Karski but obviously no footage of him going into the Warsaw Ghetto or going to meet with Roosevelt in the US or officials in London. Animation was the best way and it also attracts a younger audience. We are working with Yoni Goodman, the animator from “Waltz with Bashir.”  It all needs to get done by next spring, which is the centennial of Jan Karski’s birth. It is a big project, very important. Probably the most important project that we have worked on.