A Polish Christian who preserves Jewish heritage

Beyond current disputes about the Holocaust, some non-Jewish citizens in Poland are showing an interest in Judaism.

By
April 21, 2018 14:07
A Polish Christian who preserves Jewish heritage

Karol Glebocki, a Christian high school history and science teacher, on a week’s visit to Israel. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

 
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A phenomenon in Poland over the last 20-25 years is the awakening of Christian interest in Jewish history, culture and tradition.

“You can’t teach Polish history without Jewish history,” says Karol Glebocki, a high school history and social science teacher from Wysokie Mazowieckie, currently on his first visit to Israel.

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“This is my dream come true,” he tells The Jerusalem Post in an interview in the lobby of the Jerusalem International YMCA.

Born and raised in Wysokie Mazowieckie, which is approximately an hour’s drive from Bialystok, Glebocki, as a boy, would sometimes wander through what was popularly known as the “Jewish forest” and ponder about the headstones with the strange lettering on them.

While it was only passing curiosity when he was younger, he came across the “Jewish forest” again during his university studies while researching the history of the parish for his MA thesis.

The forest was the overgrown and abandoned Jewish cemetery, standing as the neglected orphan of a community that is no more.

As a teacher, Glebocki decided that it was important for his students to know not only that Jews once formed the demographic majority of the town but also what they contributed to the town’s culture and economy.

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For instance, the marketplace was once the central Jewish area of commerce.

ALMOST IN tandem with Glebocki’s decision to teach Jewish history was the rededication of the cemetery in 2006. Restoration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in Poland is among the major activities of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland.

The foundation, known by its Polish acronym FODZ, was established in 2002 by the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, and is headed by Polish-Jewish attorney Monika Krawczyk. The organization works closely with Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, various expatriate organizations of Polish Jews and their descendants, Jewish philanthropic foundations, individual philanthropists and the Israel Embassy.

Among the individual philanthropists is American-born attorney Michael Traison, a partner in a prominent Chicago law firm that also has offices in Poland.

Traison, to the best of his knowledge, has no Polish ancestry. His parents were from Russia.

For years he had been surprised by the fact that so many Holocaust survivors harbored a greater hatred for the Poles than for the Germans. It was something that he, as an American Jew, could not fathom. So he decided in 1992 to go to Poland to find out for himself the reason for this.

As is so often the case in any number of situations, the positive reality did not coincide with the negative image. Traison got to know many warmhearted and generous Poles, who voluntarily gave of their efforts and time to preserve what little remained of Jewish heritage in their villages, towns and cities.

A teacher before he became a highly successful prizewinning attorney, Traison was naturally inclined toward research, and the more he learned about pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Poland, the more he became associated with projects designed to perpetuate the memory of Polish Jewry and the contributions of Polish Jews in almost every sphere of activity.

His name is now linked with more than 100 projects, including a Holocaust studies summer institute for teachers at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.

In 1998, Traison, who now divides his time between his homes in Chicago, Poland and Israel, established the Preserving Memory Award, which is co-sponsored by the Israeli Embassy, and which annually honors non-Jewish Poles who are active in any aspect of preserving Jewish heritage. So far, there have been close to 300 recipients.

The awards ceremony is usually held during the annual Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, which in 1988, when Poland was still under Communist rule, was established by non-Jews Janusz Makuch and Krysztof Gierat, who wanted to introduce Poles to the Jewish past of Poland.

Since then, the festival has grown to amazing proportions and is attended by thousands of Jews and non-Jews from around the world and all over Poland, and includes mainly Jewish but also non-Jewish performers and lecturers from Poland and other parts of the globe.

Traison and Glebocki met in 2006 at the rededication of the Jewish cemetery in Wysokie Mazowieckie. They bonded immediately, and Traison asked Glebocki whether he would be willing to keep the cemetery clean throughout the year. Glebocki saw the request as an educational opportunity to introduce his students to the Jewish history of their town.

Helping to keep the cemetery clean and tidy and to ensure that it does not become overgrown with weeds as it was in the past, Glebocki brings his students to the cemetery to help him with his work there, and gives them an informal history lesson.

As far as the students are concerned, it’s all voluntary. Most of them join in, but there are a few who, under the influence of their parents, have developed an anti-Jewish bias without ever having met a Jew.

With the support of the city council, Glebocki has also established a small Jewish museum, before which the only remains of anything Jewish in the town were the cemetery and the synagogue.

Thanks to Traison, he has also become the address for descendants of the Jewish community, which during the 19th century accounted for 55% of the town’s population.

Passionate about history, he studies numerous archives and has discovered documents and photographs, the contents of which have long been hidden from public view. He brought copies of much of this material with him to present to Yad Vashem.

“From these different archived documents, I’ve been able to learn when people were born, married and died, what they did for a livelihood, how many children they had, and much more,” he says.

When this information is imparted to grandchildren and great grandchildren it’s like giving them a winning ticket in the lottery. All of a sudden, they have roots, names and biographies to which they can relate not only genetically, but intellectually and emotionally.

AMONG THE people who have benefited from Glebocki’s intensive research is Tel Avivbased, American-born attorney Dr. Deborah Sandler, who is a member of the California and Israel bar associations.

It was Sandler who – together with her partner, Michael Ullmann, a professor of entrepreneurship – brought Glebocki to Israel.

Sandler confesses that until she turned 60, she wasn’t particularly interested in her Polish background, but she found that the older she got, the more interested she became, and googled every scrap of information that came her way, so that she could put together a comprehensive picture to share with her family.

Sandler’s grandmother was one of nine siblings. She moved to America before the war and urged the others to join her.

Three brothers who were slightly younger than her refused and, during the war, joined the Bialystok partisans and survived.

Another brother died, but the circumstances of his death are uncertain. It is believed that he may have shot himself to avoid capture by the Nazis. Everyone else in the family was murdered in Auschwitz.

In her younger years Sandler found the Holocaust too disturbing a subject to discuss. But when she had an opportunity around a decade ago to take a roots trip to Poland with a group from Kibbutz Ein Gedi, she said that she would go only if her grandmother’s shtetl was included in the itinerary.

Even though there was so little left to see, and despite the fact that she knew so little of her family’s background despite her Internet delving, Sandler felt a connection.

Through Traison, she met Glebocki, and asked him if he could find some concrete information for her – and he did, as he subsequently did for several other people whose roots are in his town. He gave her documents related to her great-grandfather.

She was ecstatic, and decided to bring him to Israel to participate in the Holocaust remembrance ceremony at Yad Vashem and a memorial ceremony at the Holon cemetery with Israeli descendants of his town, most of whom had met him in Poland, and were eager to welcome him to Israel.

IN ADDITION to tracking data, Glebocki takes people on guided tours, pointing out where Jewish sites used to be, and participates with them in memorial services . Much of the town was burned to the ground by the Nazis. In August 1941, all the Jews, including those brought in from elsewhere, were confined to a ghetto, which was destroyed in November 1942, after which the Jews were sent to a nearby forced labor camp and, in January 1943, to Auschwitz.

Glebocki would love to spend a year studying and researching in Israel, but the salary of a Polish teacher is even worse than that of an Israeli teacher. If he could get a scholarship of some kind, he would be delighted.

He might have been able to take a year off, if he had asked for payment for all the research he’s done, but he never asks for money. He doesn’t refuse it if someone offers, but he never asks.

Both Poles and Jews are convinced that he has a Jewish skeleton in the family closet, but he assures them that this is not so.

“I’m Catholic. I don’t have any Jewish roots,” he says.

On the subject of the current crisis between Poles and Jews, or more accurately, the Polish government, Glebocki says: “The new law is not good for building Polish-Jewish relations. We had something positive, but it has deteriorated.”

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