As a Jew growing up in London, it was easy for me to avoid thinking about where my grandparents came from. Their recent history was, for the most part, etched in tragedy. At the age of sixteen, I went on a trip to Poland to see the remnants of the atrocities of the Holocaust and I resolved never to go back. It was a traumatic trip, after all.
However, when they spoke about Poland before the war, they spoke with nostalgia and longing, and for a long time I paid little regard to this. When they died, I regretted that I’d never asked them a little more about their early lives outside of the tragedies they experienced.
Then, a year ago, I found a promotion for DNA testing that would help you discover your Slavic origins, and I decided to give it a go. If the people who had lived a Slavic life couldn’t tell me about it, I would get my genetic makeup to do it for me.
What I learnt
One of the interesting things to come out of my DNA results was that I was more Polish than I thought. The history, as I’d been told it, was that the Jews had spread out after the Romans had taken over Palestine. My grandparents and their families lived in Poland but weren’t quite Polish. They were something else, never quite belonging in the country, even if they saw it as home.
However, while some of the mythology is certainly true, the facts exposed by my ancestry testing are that there was plenty of mingling along the way. While my heritage is dominated by Jewish Poles who kept insulated, there were definitely a few intermarriages or affairs. My grandparents may not have felt quite as Polish as non-Jewish Poles, but they had more in common than they thought.
Returning to Poland
With this in mind, I decided it was time to reclaim my Slavic heritage. One of the problems with defining your heritage and history on the tragedies is that you propagate that sense of not belonging. It’s an indirect consequence of the terrible pain of the traumas, but it keeps us from moving on and defining ourselves outside of what happened to us.
I had to return to Poland to see it from an entirely new perspective. I could not go on seeing it as nothing more than the land of concentration camps and ghettos.
Returning to Poland really was eye-opening. I saw some of the same places I had been through on my way to see ruins and cemeteries, and they were beautiful and vibrant and welcoming. They felt like exactly what they are – modern cities with diverse people. Cities of my ancestors, who grew up around others just like them, whether they knew it or not.
Not just Poland
But revisiting Poland and reclaiming my Slavic heritage did more than just bring me back to my ancestors’ homeland. It made me feel more at home in Europe in general. Unfortunately, the trauma my grandparents went through left a legacy of never quite feeling at home. Now, I feel like London is more of a home to me than it ever was, and that Europe is not just a place my ancestors had to settle out of duress.