The Past in Translation: Piecing Together Jewish History in Rural Poland

Shoshana Weiner didn't know that her trip to Europe would culminate three generations of Jewish history. But stepping off a bus in Poland, she meets the family who made her Jewish journey possible.

By Shoshana Weiner - JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellow, 2016-2017 | March 9, 2021

On a trip to Poland, Shoshana Weiner, right, visted Josefa, the daughter of the woman who saved her grandmother during the Holocaust.

I was questioning the merits of my trip.

My intrepid travel partner Noa and I missed the first two buses to Bielsko-Biała due to our inability to navigate the bus station. Fittingly, our bus then broke down in the middle of the Polish countryside, and of course, international cell service was nonexistent.

I remember thinking, why did I even invite myself to this town? But then there was a second thought: How could I not visit this town and the family of Maria Zurawska, a woman Righteous Among the Nations, who saved my Grandma Julie during the Holocaust?

As we reached our destination, the bus driver had barely opened the doors when Anna, Maria’s great-granddaughter, surged into the bus, preventing all other passengers from exiting and ensnared me in an embrace. It was emotional whiplash; I had just toured Auschwitz the day before.

For the first time in 70 years, two families linked by a shared history were reunited on Polish soil.

For the first time in 70 years, two families linked by a shared history were reunited on Polish soil. As I stood in Maria Zurawska’s post-war house, I was showered with love and warmth. I met Josefa, Maria’s daughter who was 12 years old during the war and remembered my grandmother. Josefa had refused to believe any member of my family would return, but here I was. My soul surged between devastation — my grandma was not alive to be with me, and joy — Maria’s family expressed effusive gratitude for my presence.

I remember thinking, wasn’t it me who should be grateful? After all, I wouldn’t exist without Maria’s selfless bravery.

Shoshana, left, visits Maria’s grave with Anna, Maria’s great-granddaughter.

Josefa passed away last month, leading me to scroll through my computer’s photo album and discover several lengthy videos from that 2015 visit to Poland where she recounted her memories of the war and of Grandma Julie. The only catch? The videos were in Polish. Needing an English translation, I turned to the one organization that’s been the true center of my Jewish journey: JDC. I was quickly connected to a current JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellow in Poland who used his network to assist in translating the videos. Though I wasn’t physically in Poland, JDC gave me a way to continue connecting with members of the global Jewish community and further deepen my Jewish identity.

JDC is at the core of my Jewish journey and has been ever since my freshman year of college, when I traveled to Haiti with JDC Entwine and my college Hillel. That experience convinced me that people — meeting them and getting to know their stories — would always be a major part of how I’d cultivate my Jewish identity. I was also intrigued by my family’s historic connection to JDC. In 1938, an agricultural settlement was set up at Sosua, Dominican Republic under the auspices of JDC’s Dominican Republic Settlement Association (DORSA), which provided a haven for over 700 refugees. After the war, JDC rescued my grandmother from Europe and resettled my family in Sosua.

I’m also driven to continue participating in global Jewish experiences because tikkun olam and mutual Jewish responsibility are values that are deeply ingrained in me — they are simply how I was raised and taught to view the world. As a direct recipient of Maria’s unconditional kindness, my Grandma Julie dedicated her life to improving the lives of others around her. One of her dear friends wrote in a posthumous letter: “How best to help friends and other people- (what to do for anyone, in any kind of need) was Julie’s constant concern.”

Shoshana, center in plaid, poses for a photo with Jewish Community Center (JCC) staff in Tallinn, Estonia.

So, why was the Zurawska family so grateful for my presence in Poland? I’ve come to realize that they, too, were shaped and deeply influenced by the legacies of Maria and my grandmother. Between my JDC Entwine trip to Haiti and my experience in Poland, I began to define my Judaism through community, relationships, and connecting with others. Fueled by the desire to further develop my identity, give back to the organization that gave my family so much, and honor Maria’s legacy, I applied for the JSC Fellowship and spent a year serving with JDC in Tallinn, Estonia.

I’ve never felt more connected to my identity and religion than I did in Tallinn. Despite the cultural and language barriers, I felt like I fit into the Estonian Jewish community, which, to my eyes, places great value on the importance of relationships.

I experienced a community that welcomed members regardless of their Jewish origins, crafted marvelous and popular community events, and hosted programs for every age group. I encountered many in the community who, like me, didn’t necessarily find connection to identity in a weekly parsha (Torah portion), but through foosball games in the JDC-supported Jewish Community Center (JCC) and challah baking sessions. Even though I was a volunteer in the Estonian Jewish Community, I remain indebted to this community for their role in shaping my whole being.

As a tried-and-true Midwesterner, Shoshana migrated to the East Coast in search of a better bagel. Inspired by a JDC Entwine trip to Haiti in college and her family’s historic connection to JDC, Shoshana served for a year with the Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) in Tallinn, Estonia. There, she brought her passions for Jewish culture, values, and practices to a community still feeling the effects of Soviet rule. Driven to bring her global experiences stateside, Shoshana currently works for Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America (HWZOA) in the Organization Division in New York City. You can reliably find Shoshana training for her next marathon or strolling through the streets of New York in search of the best borscht.

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