April 20, 2011
Search for Polish past inspires film, education
“I made the most amazing discovery of my life!” Sarah Golabek-Goldman says in her documentary, “Finding Leah Tickotsky.”
She was speaking of a monumental event that occurred during her first trip to Poland, in 2007, when she was a student at Stanford University and got the opportunity to teach English abroad over the summer. She chose to teach in Poland because her family had come from towns and villages in the eastern part of that country.
“I had always heard about the Poles in the context of deep anti-Semitism,” she said in a recent interview. “I had heard such phrases as, ‘Poles drink anti-Semitism in their mothers’ milk,’ and I really wanted to confront these stereotypes with which I had grown up and try to learn about my family history and also about the country in general from a more complete and full perspective.”
In addition, she explained, she grew up haunted by the Holocaust. Her maternal grandmother had been saved by the Kindertransport, a London-based organization that brought Jewish children from all over Europe to safety in England, but her grandmother’s parents and entire extended family were murdered in Auschwitz.
“When I was growing up and had piano lessons from my grandmother, she would often start talking about her family. I also remember that, when I was very young, I would have sleepovers with her, and she would sometimes cry out in the middle of the night, ‘Mommy! Mommy!’ in Yiddish. So, from the time I was very young, I realized that my family had a strong connection to the Holocaust.”
After Golabek-Goldman’s teaching assignment was completed, she set about delving into her family roots with the help of historian Tomek Wisniewski, who became her co-director on the documentary. He accompanied her to Jasionowka, a village where some of her relatives had lived, and took her to a small Jewish cemetery in the area.
“The cemetery is a complete wreck,” she said. “There’s moss everywhere; there’s snails everywhere, and that’s because no one is taking care of it, like many, many [Jewish] cemeteries throughout Poland. Tomek and I had a lot of other towns and villages on our itinerary, but it was so disturbing to see the cemetery in such a state of disarray that I really wanted to spend the rest of the day just cleaning it up and trying to pay respect to the Jews who lived in this village. So we spent the whole day cleaning the cemetery.”
It was when they were almost finished that something astonishing took place.
“Tomek was cleaning one more, and he said, ‘Come over, come over, Sarah.’ And, in Yiddish, it said, ‘Leah Tickotsky, wife of David.’ We knew that was my [paternal] great-great-grandmother. It was one of the most incredible discoveries of my life.”
Tickotsky had heard about a pogrom taking place nearby, and she died of a heart attack. It was right before World War II.
“I have to tell you that we were driving away after we had just made this discovery, because it was night,” Golabek-Goldman continued, “and we were about an hour away from the cemetery when I said to Tomek, ‘Please go back. I have to do something.’ So we drove another hour to go back. We went to the cemetery, and I said Kaddish for my great-great-grandmother. It was the most incredible feeling to be this girl from California and be able to say Kaddish for my great-great-grandmother.”
Two years later, when she was granted a Davis Projects for Peace Fellowship, Golabek-Goldman returned to Poland with Phyllis Pollak, a special-needs teacher at the New Roads School in New Jersey, and the two set up a Holocaust Educational Project between students in New Jersey and in Poland. Every student chose a photo of a child who had been in Auschwitz.
“We had no idea who these individuals were,” she remembered. “Each student had to write a story about the hopes and dreams of the individual in the photo. As part of the project, Polish schoolchildren also had to clean up a Jewish cemetery in Bialystok that had fallen into a state of disarray, because there are no Jews left to care for and clean it.”
That project led to the film, in which Golabek-Goldman depicts both her personal quest and her examination of the historical and current relationship between Poles and Jews. What she discovered was both heartening and disheartening. It was particularly important for her to explore the anti-Semitism for which Poles have been notorious. Out of more than 200 interviews she conducted with Poles from all walks of life, she did meet a few who were extremely anti-Semitic.
“I met one man named Gregory, and he had no idea I was Jewish. None of my interviewees knew I was Jewish. He was a very nice fellow, and, during the interview, he said that Hitler did a good job by killing the Jews and that he wishes the Nazis had finished the job. This was really shocking for me, when I encountered such horrible anti-Semitism, but, for the most part, that was very rare.”
There were also many uplifting experiences.
“What was so surprising for me during my interviews was that I met so many young Poles who were fascinated by the Jewish heritage of their country, who, in their free time, are organizing Jewish festivals, forming Jewish historical societies and really trying to learn about the Jewish presence in Poland before the war. And I also made a number of really incredible Polish friends with whom I am still in contact; they were so eager to help me learn more about my family history in Poland and about the Jewish people in their country. So, yes, I encountered anti-Semitism, but I also encountered some of the kindest individuals I ever met who knew I was Jewish and welcomed me with open arms.”
One of those welcoming her was an elderly woman named Regina, who had known Golabek-Goldman’s family before the war and who recounted warm memories of her friendship with the family. In the documentary, the exchange with Regina becomes particularly moving as she and the young filmmaker open their hearts to each other and embrace.
The film also reveals that, since the fall of Communism, during which the memory of the Holocaust was downplayed, numerous Poles are discovering that they have Jewish ancestors.
“There are more and more Poles who are starting to go to synagogue and learning about their past,” said Golabek-Goldman, “because during the war, and under communism, it was often very dangerous to say that you’re Jewish. So, families frequently hid their Jewish heritage from their children, and now, years after the fall of communism, the children and grandchildren are discovering their roots.
“I was actually at a Jewish festival in Krakow, and I was doing interviews there for my thesis. I asked one lady why she came to this festival, and she said that she was having a conversation with her grandmother a few months ago, and her grandmother revealed that she was Jewish. She had absolutely no idea. This happened very frequently. I had a number of interviews with young Poles who just discovered they had a grandparent or great-grandparent who was Jewish. So there isn’t a way to know how many Jews are living in Poland right now, but the Jewish community is becoming more active.”
Golabek-Goldman said she worries about the Holocaust becoming a footnote in history, and she hopes her film will stimulate young people to think about the issues she covers.
“I believe it’s important for kids at a very young age to talk about the dangers of apathy and intolerance and how they can try to make the world a more humane place for everyone.”
And, she has another goal.
“I had read books about pogroms, but I knew very little about almost 1,000 years of shared history between Poles and Jews before the war. I didn’t know that Jews flocked to Poland after their expulsion from Spain because it was considered a haven for Jews. I want people to also think about Poland as a place where Jews made significant contributions to the economic development, where they contributed to the culture. I want the Jews who were victims of the Holocaust to be remembered; I want their lives to be remembered as well, not only their deaths.”