by Jennifer Karami
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(A version of this article originally appeared in the Seattle Globalist.)
“I know your grandmother’s real name.”
Those were the words of Denise Grollmus’ mother on her 28th birthday — the day she found out she was Jewish.
The Holocaust destroyed most of the Jewish population in Poland before 1945. Jews that survived did so by physically going into hiding or by renouncing their Jewish identity.
That’s what Grollmus’ grandmother did. In Nazi-controlled Poland, the family begun masquerading as Catholic to avoid persecution … and kept the charade going for generations.
“Jews like my grandmother were stuck in a silent shame about who they were,” said Grollmus, a communication studies professor at South Seattle College.
The family was able to “hide” behind false papers stating they were Catholic. After World War II ended, Poland fell under communist rule, and so the charade continued. After communism fell, and even after they moved to the United States, the family didn’t feel they could rightfully reconcile their Jewish roots, having not shared the plight of other Jews.
“It finally filled the gaps in my childhood,” Grollmus said during a Holocaust Remembrance speech she gave at the University of Washington a few years ago. “It explained her strange behaviors, like the way she hoarded food or bought challah bread every Thursday.”
This revelation led Grollmus, less than a year later, to study in Poland on a Fulbright scholarship, where she realized that she wasn’t the only one with such an unlikely story.
It was actually quite a phenomenon: Many young people whose families had kept their heritage secret for generations were suddenly rediscovering that they were Jewish.
“How do you rebuild a community that was so thoroughly destroyed?” Grollmus says, reflecting on her research. “There will never be the same Jewish life there was. It’s complicated. We live in a new century. It’s sort of a new thing, but it borrows from its traditions.”
Finding My Own Hidden Jewish Heritage
Hearing Grollmus’ story made me recall a few months prior, when I had been at brunch with my dad and a friend. We were discussing the Birthright program, which allows Jewish students to travel to Israel to discover their roots.
“You know your great-grandma Joyce was Jewish, right?” my dad said.
“No!” I was incredulous. “Someone should throw me a Bar Mitzvah!”
“Bat Mitzvah,” my friend corrected.
Katka Reszke, author of Return of the Jew, is a Polish Jew who discovered her heritage in her 20s.
“I actually had a hunch that I was Jewish since I was 15, but I had very little to support that hunch,” says Reszke.
She asked her family members and was brushed off or given unusual answers. It wasn’t until her grandmother passed that her mother confirmed the family secret. Finally, the hints that had been accumulating her whole life made sense.
“My great-grandma called me ‘meshugene,’ or ‘crazy,’” says Reszke. “My great-grandpa would hide in a closet with a cloth over his head and sway before my grandmother saying ‘Shalom aleichem! Shalom aleichem!’”
You Might Be Jewish If …
Danica Bornstein, a clinical counselor at Hillel UW (the main Jewish student organization on campus), has witnessed these cases of newfound heritage firsthand. She gives examples of circumstances that lead people to believe they are Jewish.
“Sometimes they have certain practices they realize are Jewish practices,” Bornstein says. “Sometimes they find family heirlooms left in the home. Sometimes they get a lot of feedback on their appearance or discover Judaism through a friend and think, ‘It feels so right to me.’”
Grollmus says in the beginning, her grandma was ambivalent and critical of her research. But she’s become increasingly supportive recently. She says she’s beginning to feel safer in her own identity.
“I think it’s a huge source of comfort for her,” Grollmus says.
Grollmus is currently working on a book. She stresses the importance of not allowing the Holocaust, as a specific moment in time, to erase Jewish culture.
“We talk a lot about the Holocaust, but not Jewish life,” Grollmus says. “History gets written in black and white, tidy beginnings and endings. I’m trying to complicate that narrative a little bit.”
So, when was the last time you rifled through your family history? What you find may surprise you.
Jennifer Karami is a University of Washington alum and the co-founder and editor of femmezoner.
Featured Image: Holocaust Day of Remembrance (public domain).
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