What is identity?

They say if you continuously bring up a topic, it is either  important or troubles you. I think this can be said in regard to my identity as a Polish Jew.

You see I was born and raised in Canada, however when people ask me where I am from, I respond that I’m “Polish.”

It is not because I am proud. I am not proud about the fact I can speak Polish. On top of that I speak Polish with a heavy Canadian accent. I have come to realize that my constant mention of my Polish Jewish heritage is due to the fact that my parents never speak about it publicly. My parents left for North America in the 1980s and received their formal education in Poland. My older brother was born in Wroclaw and carries a Polish passport. Three out of four of my grandparents are buried in Poland. Despite all of this, my parents will not go back. My father once told me that to hear anti-Semitic slurs in your mother tongue is probably one of the most painful experiences you can ever have. He is right. I heard this once at the Kotel and it remains with me until this day.

I feel ashamed that country that used to have millions of Jewish civilians will not acknowledge their involvement in the Holocaust. Instead of making amends and standing up for their once Jewish brothers and sisters, they have turned and become more anti-Semitic. I cannot comprehend this. Every religion teaches us to be good to one’s neighbour. Why are many Eastern European countries failing to do so? Have we not learned anything from history?

I will acknowledge that  Poland suffered many civilian losses during the Holocaust and were a people occupied by two countries. The borders of Poland of course changed dramatically as a result. I have empathy for them. If I were in their shoes, I am not sure I would risk my family to save a life. I hope I will never have to make such a  choice. However, all the countless comments of Jews being dirty and greedy, hurts me. It is a completely different emotion when you hear those remarks in Polish, my mother tongue.

So why do I continue to tell people that I am a Polish Jew? Why do I try to communicate with people from Poland in Polish?

People may say that Polish Jews are the most confused when it comes to their identity. We do not know whether to be proud or ashamed. We do not if we are liked or respected. I had a great-aunt in Haifa who once told me that everyone is just jealous of the Polish Jewish heritage because of what we overcame and what we accomplished.

When many survivors first arrived to Israel, they were greeted with many comments of why did they not do more to fight the Nazis. My great-aunt explained this is why many Polish Jews were perceived as “cold” as they just kept their head down and worked hard. And worked hard they did. Any Eastern European Jewish kid will tell you that education is the only thing that their parents care about. They would have received the speech “no child of mine will go to school for anything other than Science or Business” countless times. Of course, their parents will deny every saying that. Polish Jews get made fun of their bland food to the point that they will put hot sauce on everything to prove a point. Maybe I am speaking form my point of view as you see my family is pretty much a unicorn family. My mom was one of five graduating students from her Jewish day school in Wroclaw. My father had to have his Bar Mitzvah in a dark basement. They were kicked out of movie theatres and almost couldn’t complete university simply because they were Jewish. They went through discrimination that only other fellow Eastern European immigrants can comprehend. I am not saying all Polish people were bad. My grandmother and her parents were hidden by Polish farmers during the war and that was how they survived.  If it was not for them, my father and myself would not be here today. This does not change the fact that my grandmother did not receive remarks like, “You are still alive?” while walking down Polish streets.

I was always raised to be patriotic to the country you live in. Embrace the culture, the language, the food, etc. But, to what extent? If you feel a mix of pride and shame, what is the point? Should you move away? Forget where you come from? Take a new identity?

Many Polish Jewish elders I met in my life claimed to not know how to speak Polish. I think they chose to forget and block the memories. My parents couldn’t forget their mother tongue since they left so late in life. Hence their constant battle between pride and shame.

I think you can choose to hide from who you are, but what does that solve? Those who are anti-Semitic will continue to be so. Instead of dwelling on the negatives of where you come from maybe it is best to remember the food within your own community. My childhood was full of Polish parties; full of klezmer music, alcohol, dancing and laughter. This is what I think true Polish Jewry once was before the Holocaust. Yes, I am ashamed of how some Polish people behave, but I can’t change them. I can change how I see my community. A community of great minds and peacemakers like Shimon Peres. Yes, I will always throw his name into the mix and how he never lost his accent. [Insert Polish joke here]

I think the point I am trying to make is that I may be confused about my feelings regarding being a Polish Jew, but what I am most proud of and what I ultimately am: a Jew.

About the Author
Anna Kos is an Alumni of McMaster University, where she spent two years as the President of the local Hillel. She continued to fulfill her Zionist dream by establishing JNF University in 2014 while working for JNF Canada. As a Polish-Canadian, she has found her home in Israel in July 2018 and continues to work in the non-profit sector.
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