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(photo credit: Waclaw Klag/AP)
Ian Krasniewski always thought the missing branch in his family tree was a secret royal bloodline. But instead of finding a princely legacy, he landed upon something he did not expect.
"I loved to read when I was a kid and, in doing so, I found out that surnames ending in 'ski' are descended from the nobility," Krasniewski told The Jerusalem Post, the sparkle of a childhood fantasy still glowing in his eyes.
He was 14 at the time, the veil of Communism lifted and the freedom to question a shadowy past was tantalizing. He approached his father with the question of their last name and the response was an ominous, "It's time to tell you something."
"'Your grandfather changed our surname in 1955 from Kirschenbaum to Krasniewski,' my father told me," Krasniewski says. "[My grandfather] told us he changed his name to do something good for his children, so they wouldn't be persecuted."
He is now 20 years old and one of more than 150 "hidden Jews" who gathered this weekend in Krakow's historic Kazimierz district to rediscover the Judaism that their families "lost" two generations ago to escape Nazi persecution. The event is sponsored by the Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel organization
Krasniewski's grandfather was one of only two survivors in his family of 70.
"At first, I had a big problem with it because I didn't know any other Jews," Krasniewski says about his initial reaction.
He belongs to a luckier generation of Jewish ancestry in Poland. Raised in a tolerant household, he says he never harbored anti-Semitic thoughts.
In 1968, a wing of Poland's Communist regime sought to gain power by using the Jews as scapegoats. Up to 25,000 were expelled or encouraged to leave, depending on which side tells the story.
"Our [generation's] parents haven't come out because they're afraid," Krasniewski says. "My Dad is not baptized and my mother is a completely nonpracticing Christian. They wanted to give me a choice."
But at three years old, with some pressure from the extended family in a devoutly Catholic country, Krasniewski was baptized. In public school, he says, a course on Catholicism was "practically obligatory. But I never really felt connected with that. [My family] celebrated Christmas not as a religious festival but as a cultural practice. My mother only goes to church for funerals."
Throughout primary school, his schoolmates assumed he was one of them.
"I made up an imaginary church that I attended regularly to appease my colleagues," Krasniewski says, adding that at the time he was unaware of the real reason for his family's avoidance of church.
Throughout his teen years, he kept his Jewish identity secret. Even on a class trip to Auschwitz, he didn't tell anyone. At a party, one girl, while intoxicated, told him that she was a Jew.
"It was a big Jewish coming-out party," Krasniewski laughs with the relief of finally admitting his identity to a fellow hidden Jew.
Now he is open about his identity and proudly calls his country "philo-Semitic."
"I'm quite open about [being Jewish]," Krasniewski says. "There has been too much silence about it in Poland. It's not something to be ashamed ofâ€¦ When someone tells me 'Merry Christmas,' I say 'Thanks, but I don't celebrate that.'"
Krasniewski is helping his family regain their Jewish identity.
"My father went to synagogue with me on Rosh Hashana this year," he says. "It was his first time at synagogue in his life."
Neglecting to tell his mother, Krasniewski provoked her anger in a way he never expected: "She was so angry! She asked: 'Why didn't you invite me? I would have loved to come!' She even prepares kosher meals for me."
In the welcoming climate of today's democratic Poland, the only part of Krasniewski's life that is segregated is his refrigerator: a shelf filled with kosher food is labeled "For Jews," and the shelf with traditional Polish food is labeled "For non-Jews."
"It's for my mom," he says of the family joke.