In his new book, “In Search of Polin: Chasing Ghosts in Today’s Poland,” Dr. Gary Schiff, an adjunct professor of history at Washington College in Chestertown, and the cantor and religious leader of the Chestertown Havurah, has successfully created a work that documents the history of Poland from both an academic standpoint and a personal one. Not an easy feat.
For the past several summers, Schiff has made trips to Europe, where he has studied the Jewish histories of countries including Spain, Germany, France and England. But perhaps no trip was as personally and professionally significant than his 2009 visit to Poland.
“Most people don’t know that the Jewish population in Poland was the largest Jewish population in the world for five centuries. In the 18th century, 80 percent of all Jews worldwide lived in Poland. Ninety percent of all American Jews are Ashkenazi and have roots there (80 percent worldwide). Three million of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust were from Poland,” said Schiff.
Schiff has been able to trace his own family roots to the 1700s.
“My family was among the first 20 families to settle in a small rural town called Ostrow-Mazowiecka, or Ostroveh in Yiddish.
The fact that Schiff’s adult daughter, Rina Goloskov, senior communications associate at Beth Tfiloh Congregation and Schools, accompanied him on his journey, made the trip all the more personal. In 2008, Goloskov accompanied her father on another deeply personal trip to Germany, the birthplace of her mother.
Like his trip to Germany, Schiff anticipated the trip to Poland with a great deal of apprehension.
“Poland was the site of the murder of the most Jews in Europe,” he writes in the book’s first chapter. “It is not surprising that for many Jews, especially for Holocaust survivors, Poland looms as one big Jewish graveyard, a place of bad memories, a place to be forgotten, a place never to visit.”
It’s also not surprising that Schiff’s academic pursuits could not shield him from the inevitable sadness he would experience upon seeing the actual sites where the Nazis perpetuated their unspeakable evils.
One of Schiff’s most chilling memories was of an interview with an elderly Polish couple (not Jewish) who told him about what they witnessed when the approximately 7,000 Jews still living in Ostroveh attempted to flee their hometown after being given an ultimatum on Oct. 30, 1939.
“When the Germans and Russians agreed to divide Poland roughly in half, there was a line of demarcation that passed by the eastern edge of Ostrow-Mazowiecka. There was a bridge over the tracks connecting the town, held by the Germans, to the Russian side of the bridge. Most of the Jews were pushed across to the Russian side. On the day the Jews were supposed to leave, they all had to line up on the bridge. The Germans opened their suitcases and stole all their valuables. Then all the women from the girls to the elderly were made to undress, [and they were] poked and prodded to make sure they were not hiding any valuables on their bodies and finally pushed over,” Schiff was told.
The elderly woman told another horrific story.
“Her parents owned a dairy farm. On Nov. 11, 1939, a year after Kristallnacht, she was milking the cows and looked up to see a long line of hundreds of people with their hands in the air. There were German troops and dogs, and the people were being led into the woods. She knew what was happening,” he said.
The woman’s husband took Schiff and his daughter into those woods where the Jews his wife had seen were made to dig their own graves and then shot to death. There, said Schiff, was the last and only standing Jewish gravestone in Ostroveh.
“I felt so close to my Jewish ghosts,” said Schiff. “We said kaddish for them. The only picture of me in the book is at the gravestone, standing there communing with them.”
Schiff was amazed to find that despite the devastation that had taken place in Poland, many synagogues and cemeteries still remained. In Ostreveh, he discovered extremely complete records of the Jewish community that had once existed there. Determined to learn more about his family’s history, Schiff asked the archivist at Ostroveh’s City Hall if they might have a record of his grandparent’s marriage.
“Five minutes later, she came out lugging a big book and an index fell out. The label said ‘Jewish marriage in Nov. 1910.’ There was a full page handwritten document of my grandparent’s marriage certificate. My interpreter was able to read it. Could you imagine? One hundred years later, they still have it!”
Although Schiff left Poland with little hope that the Jewish communities there would ever resemble the once lively cultural and religious centers they were, his exhaustive book provides a lasting tribute to the country’s lengthy and rich Jewish history and a terrific reference for academics and non-academics alike.