A Jew-“ish” Christian goes to Poland

Last month my family went on a trip to Poland to celebrate my mom’s birthday. Why Poland, you ask? My mother’s side of the family is from there. This trip was a deep dive into our Jewish ancestry, as well as a quest to find the best pierogies in every city we stayed in. 

It’s a lot for a birthday. But in my family, “relaxing” vacations are simply not a thing. We go to see, eat, and learn.

Of course, you can’t explore Jewish history in Poland without seeing the former ghettos and concentration camps. You can grow up reading about the holocaust in school, and hearing how your ancestors fled Poland by the skin of their teeth, but nothing prepares you for actually being there on the killing grounds.

Exploring this history as a Christian with Jewish roots is a strange thing. Interestingly, the Nazis defined Jewishness in the same way that most Jews do today: by parentage. Judaism is passed down through the mother. As an ethnicity, a culture, and a religious faith, one need not adhere to the religious practices of Judaism in order to be considered Jewish. 

This always presents a strange feeling for me when I mark down “Ashkenazi heritage” at the doctor’s office (I was recommended genetic testing for specific disorders while pregnant for this reason). On some level, my spiritual beliefs are irrelevant. My family is not observant, but it was common to hear growing up (with tongue very much in cheek), “We’re Jewish enough for Hitler.” 

That adage is true in the case of Edith Stein: a Carmelite nun who was arrested by the Gestapo at her convent because she was born Jewish. True, the Nazis hated Catholics as well as Jews. But in their hierarchy of hatred, Stein’s Jewishness was the central target. 

Treblinka has been turned into a memorial built on the site of the gas chambers, while Auschwitz is mostly preserved as-is, including the now-defunct gas chambers, which we stood in, realizing just how different our family story would be had our ancestors not left when they did.

There’s a collection of names of the dead from Krakow in one room at Auschwitz that is thousands of pages long (and likely doesn’t contain all of the victims). We spent a decent amount of time in there looking up every surname we could think of in our family tree. My maiden name likely isn’t “Caplin”; that’s probably a truncated version from Ellis Island. We think it may have been something like Czaplinski, but may never know for sure.

There are many variations of “Caplin” in that book, including this one…the birth date for “Sarah Caplun” is only a few days off from mine 😳 Whoever she was, may her memory be a blessing.

I’m not sure what our tour guide in Krakow knew about our spiritual and political backgrounds— my mom and brother are Jewish and liberal, my husband and I Christian and conservative— but from the beginning, her tour was filled with side comments about how Christians are destroying the Democratic fabric of Poland, while I nervously played with the saint bracelet around my wrist.

The oppressive history of the church is long and complex. Her criticisms felt personal and impersonal at the same time, but on many levels I shared her frustration. Many in the Church harmed my ancestors too: this I can’t ignore.

At some point, the fact of our faith slipped out. Josh tried to be casual about it: “We love Jesus, but we can make fun of ourselves.” I added something about taking responsibility for the monkeys in our circus, trying to keep the mood light. I expected the tour guide to be angry, perhaps thinking we deceived her. Instead, outside the gift shop of a Jewish history museum, she said “Wait here.”

She disappeared for several minutes and came back with this book. It was one I hadn’t seen when I had looked at the books; she had to ask the store clerk for a copy. It’s a collection of essays from the descendants of Polish Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. Many of them were born at the start of the war and were sent to live with gentile families or in convents for safety. Their families often did not return.

Most of the children were raised Catholic, the faith of their adopted families, and didn’t learn about their Jewish roots until adulthood. One essay was written by a man who didn’t learn about his Jewish roots until after he became a priest.

Obviously, I can’t relate to the trauma of these stories. Nor can I fully appreciate the struggle of learning your identity all your life had been a lie.

But wrestling with what it means to have a Christian faith and Jewish roots, never feeling like you belong anywhere completely? That I know intimately. And on some level, our tour guide did too…or maybe it was the only book in the gift shop that had something to do with Christianity in a way that was edifying. Either way, I’m glad she found it.

There’s so much more I can say about this trip, and may likely do so in future posts. But these were the highlights I wanted to share first. 


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