This summer, my 94-year-old maternal grandmother and I shared our first Shabbat dinner together. It was also the first Shabbat dinner my grandmother had attended since before World War II.
My grandmother was born Krystyna Rosenwasser in Warsaw, Poland, in 1921. But I never even heard the name Rosenwasser until 2008, when I was 28 years old. Instead, we knew her by the identity that saved her life during the war, when she obtained fake papers in the Ghetto that claimed she was a Catholic Pole by the name of Krystyna Lipinska Rybinska. In our family, there were no Shabbat dinners. There were Easter egg hunts and my First Communion, for which my grandmother gave me the rosary she carried during the war. “It saved my life,” she told me. It would be another 20 years before I would comprehend exactly what she meant.
My grandmother only told us about her true identity after she suffered a stroke. Even then, her admission was full of ambivalence. “Leave the past in the past,” she said. At first, my interest in our family’s past was purely historical. I wanted to know where my grandmother came from, what her life was like, and what became of our family. Her admission took me to Poland, where I realized that the best way for me to maintain the memory of our family — all of which perished in the Holocaust except for my grandmother and great-grandmother — was to live as a Jew myself.
The problem was that I didn’t know where to start, and most American rabbis didn’t either. I was woefully ignorant about the finer points of Jewish life. Fortunately, in Poland, where my story is the quintessential Jewish experience, there were Hebrew classes to help people like me learn the traditions that many of our families abandoned decades earlier. We inflected the contemporary practices with distinctly Polish Jewish customs and styles of prayer that hadn’t been used since before the war. Ours was a strange new type of Judaism, unlike any that had come before.
My grandmother was wary of my choice to live as a practicing Jew. It terrified her. But despite her demands that I refrain from telling people that I was Jewish or that I “leave the past in the past,” my grandmother continued to feed me clues about our family. She implored me to locate the memorial grave she left for her family and arranged for me to meet with the son of the woman who had saved her and her mother, and who had been honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.
After years of my traveling back and forth from Poland and writing about the country’s Jewish revival, my grandmother’s fear began to wane. No longer did she dismiss my meetings with rabbis and attendance at synagogue. Instead, she asked me if I would prepare a Shabbat dinner for her.
So that’s what I did. She arrived at my house just as I was pulling the challah out of the oven. I held the hot bread in one arm while I embraced her with the other, doing my best not to crush either. “What an occasion,” she said, her accent more exaggerated than usual. After I lit the candles and we blessed the bread together, my grandmother remarked she felt fortunate that, at the end of her life, she could finally embrace this part of herself. Our mutual return to Jewish life gave her survival a purpose it hadn’t had before. Not only did it reinforce for her that the world she once knew would never be forgotten, it also allowed her to experience something new. My grandmother could finally feel proud of being a Jew.