For Svi and Sherry Shapiro, a recent trip to Poland was far from a vacation. It was a way to connect with their heritage.
Both are Jewish, and Svi’s grandmother is from Poland. So they were interested to learn how the former Nazi-controlled country was dealing with its Holocaust history.
The couple live in North Raleigh, and both are academics, Svi is a professor of education and cultural studies at UNC-Greensboro, and Sherry is a professor of dance at Meredith College.
The impetus for the trip came from a personal genealogy project. Research revealed that Svi’s grandmother was from Gabin in Poland, near Warsaw.
Gabin was a village of 4,000 people prior to World War II. Half of the area’s population was Jewish, and almost all were killed during the war.
Today, there is a restored Jewish cemetery and memorial in Gabin. The Shapiros wanted to visit, but they had deeper questions.
“I was interested in going to Poland, knowing the terrible history that occurred there ... to get a feel for how modern-day Poland was addressing this history,” Svi said.
In addition to visiting memorials and other historic sites around Poland, the couple also tried to talk to Polish residents to get a sense of how they recognized their history.
Sherry said many of the younger Poles they talked to seemed interested in moving forward and, perhaps, closing the door on the past.
“Which was somewhat concerning to us,” she said. “Because this idea of closing the curtain on the past is somewhat forgetting.”
But as they explored more, they saw other ways of dealing with the country’s dark history.
“I think that one of the other things we saw a lot of was young school children being taken around to synagogues and Jewish memorial sites and learning a lot about the history – their history,” Sherry said.
She said some people in the country seem to understand that the horrors inflicted on Jews were in a sense inflicted on Poland itself.
“Rather than the separation of ‘those were the Jews and these were the Germans,’ it’s a different kind of telling the story,” Sherry said. “Trying to retell the story as, ‘The Polish Jews are us.’ ”
So, what the Shapiros first worried would be a country turning its back on a dark history was, at least in part, a population recognizing and dealing with its troubled past.
There was a third purpose for visiting Poland, though it happened largely by accident.
Years ago, a young Polish academic visited Svi in Greensboro to talk to him about his research. In preparation for the trip to Poland, Svi decided to reach out to the man to see if he could visit.
It turned out that the academic had become the dean of the school of education at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan and invited Svi to talk and receive an award for outstanding work in the field of education.
“We spent a week in Poznan as guests of the university. ... During that, they had a wonderful ceremony where they gave me a medal and flowers and made a big fuss,” Svi said. “They were just really wonderful to us.”
The couple returned home in October, bringing with them far more than they had anticipated: honor, hope and a deeper understanding of their history.