Karina Sokołowska lives in Warsaw. She is an activist of the Jewish community in Poland, a translator, and a director of the Polish branch of the American Jewish Distribution Committee JOINT. She grew up in Głogów in Lower Silesia. A graduate of Japanese Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies, as well as the Institute of Applied Linguistics at the University of Warsaw.
I have always been interested in the Jewish heritage. I am this person in my family who very much wants to actively cultivate it. For example, I initiated trips to Ukraine to the places where our grandparents came from. It never seemed to me that what I was doing was my mission, but I must admit it has become one now. Though perhaps a better word is “responsibility”. I want Jewish life to last and be visible in some form in Poland, to be based on who we are and where we are from. Even if it is recreated, it contains something which is ours, local, Eastern European. I grew up in Głogów in Lower Silesia, I have been researching the history of my family from the vicinity of Lviv, and I live in Warsaw. So this is a broad concept, this locality. But the point is not to transfer certain patterns, but to base them on what we already have.
In my high school, I was not the only person with Jewish roots, but the only one who was involved in Jewish life, its creation, rather than just passive reception. In terms of shaping identity, for our generation, the generation of our grandparents was much more important than that of our parents, who usually did not appear in the Jewish community in those times and circumstances. We would be coming back and searching, it was the turn of the 1980s and 1990s.
“There is a word in jidysz: „beszert” – „meant to be.”
Once, while I was studying Japanese studies, a German teacher noticed that my pronunciation of some phrase sounded Yiddish. I must have remembered it from home. Soon after, my friend from Hebrew studies invited me to the Jewish youth club. It was 1992. Two years later, I joined the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Warsaw. And this is how my activity began. There is a word in Yiddish: “beszert” – “meant to be.” Perhaps it was supposed to happen, and the Japanese studies were only to lead me there.
“With people with whom I used to go to Jewish camps, now we go with our own children on family trips. We bring up the next generation. I can see that our work makes sense and is needed.”
What we do in Poland is quite non-standard for JOINT (American Jewish Distribution Committee, which Polish branch I run), because it is mainly a charity organisation. This has changed in Poland. We built a community here. Interestingly, quite often people from outside the community reach out to us in an attempt to learn about their Jewish past they are discovering. They come to us because they are unable to find out more information in their family circles. These are usually not random people.
From the very beginning, JOINT has been organising Jewish colonies in Poland. Once, when my then 7-year-old daughter came home from a Jewish summer camp, I found out that she had learned Jewish blessings, prayers, and songs in Hebrew. Then I realised that it works, that our work is paying off. That we create certain worlds and take responsibility for them. With people with whom I used to go to Jewish camps, now we go with our own children on family trips. We bring up the next generation. I can see that our work makes sense and is needed.
I am more interested in the cultural aspect of the Jewish life, rather than its religious aspect. Jewishness manifests itself slightly differently in my children than in the families that are more religious and more homogeneous, where both parents are Jewish and cultivate Jewish religious practices. Certainly this shapes their children differently than my children, who are deeply connected with Jewishness, but do not feel that they are somehow different – not at all.
“Ja mówię o tym, o czym zazwyczaj się nie mówi, że w Polsce można prowadzić aktywne życie żydowskie, że ono istnieje, że się odradza. Jednak trudno jest się z tym przebić.”
In America, I always come across this question with the thesis: “How can you live there and do what you do? This is definitely not a place for Jews.” I am perceived as a kind of oddity, because Poland is not associated with active Jewish life. It is rather associated with death. I am trying to convey what is usually not said – that you can lead an active Jewish life in Poland, that it exists, that it is being reborn. However, it is difficult to break through with this message. A good starting point for trying to talk about Poland differently is to show how we continue to live this Jewish life that we inherited.
I am in favour of meetings and dialogue – especially between Jewish and Polish youth. The more such meetings, the more stereotypes we are able to break, or at least not to create the new ones. My colleagues and I organise encounters between Polish Jews and Poles, as well as with Jews from outside Poland so as to talk about our experiences. Dialogue is important. Our environment is, in a sense, a natural bridge between Poles and the Jewish world. To the extend it is possible, as our community is very small. Of course, culture and art create this bridge. The Jewish heritage in Poland is huge, and in many respects it is common, it is Polish-Jewish. This can be seen, for example, in the kitchen, where a traditional Jewish dish can also be a specialty of Polish cuisine. It breaks down many barriers.
I have a need to stay here in Poland. It is important for me, important for the world. I have never been tempted to leave for Israel or the United States. If I were to do so, I would have done it many years ago – I have always had this opportunity. I have a feeling that Poland is my place on Earth.