Participants on the YAD trip to Poland dine at the Warsaw JCC. (Photo/Oleska Gro)
Participants on the YAD trip to Poland dine at the Warsaw JCC. (Photo/Oleska Gro)

‘Unexpected’ past and present on young adult trip to Poland

Like many Soviet-born Jews, San Francisco resident Victoria Karp grew up in an assimilated family. So assimilated, in fact, that she only found out she was Jewish by accident when she saw her grandparents’ “nationality” on their Soviet passports.

Even at age 8, she knew not to mention it. “I kept it to myself and did not dare to ask my family any questions,” she said.

That personal history made for a powerful backdrop this summer when Karp, who is in her early 40s, traveled to Poland with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Young Adult Division, along with 18 of her peers from the Bay Area. Most were visiting for the first time or had family roots in the country. And all were ready to experience “unexpected Poland,” as the trip promised.

The YAD group toured Warsaw and Krakow, met with scholars, Jewish leaders and cultural activists, went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, visited the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, attended the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival and were guests at a Jewish wedding.

“One of the main reasons I went on this trip was to learn and explore the history and culture of prewar Jewish Poland and to bear witness to the Holocaust,” said Karp, who came to the U.S. as a teenager in the early ’90s.

YAD trip participants walking through the Okopwa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw (Photo/Oleska Gro)
YAD trip participants walking through the Okopwa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw (Photo/Oleska Gro)

Poland was part of the Soviet bloc from World War II until 1989, run by a communist government. “Another important reason for me as a former Soviet Jew and an immigrant to the United States was to see and understand what kind of Jewish life exists in today’s Poland,” Karp said.

That was one of the overarching goals of this inaugural YAD venture, which was conceived by Sean Taube, who is on the advisory board of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture and a member of the Jewish Federations of North America’s National Young Leadership Cabinet, among other organizations. The trip was subsidized by the Federation and the Taube Foundation and coordinated by Taube Jewish Heritage Tours.

“We wanted to bring a group of Bay Area Jewish young adults to experience the Jewish Poland of today while reflecting on the 1,000 years of Polish Jewish life,” said Sharon Siegel, 33, JCF manager of Young Adult Engagement and Philanthropy. “It was important to Sean to show his Bay Area contemporaries that Poland is not just a gray page in our history books, but a budding flower of Jewish renaissance.”

Taube, 38, who has been to Poland at least seven times — his father, philanthropist Tad Taube, has been promoting the Jewish rebirth in his native land for well over 15 years — had been on previous Jewish-oriented trips around the world that he said skewed to an older demographic. “I wanted to engage young Jewish community leaders,” the San Francisco resident said. “I thought it was important to bring a younger contingent to Poland and show them the work that is being done there and the appeal of Poland being more than just Holocaust remembrance.”

The trip attracted a diverse array of participants, from a former IDF soldier with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics to a UCSF pediatric nurse to a self-described “free spirit and student of life.”

The YAD trip participants in front of
The YAD trip participants in front of Wawel Castle in Krakow (Photo/Oleska Gro)

The group also included San Francisco equity investor Robert Kaufman, 33, whose Jewish activism dates back to his student days at UC Berkeley. Since graduating, he has continued his involvement with Berkeley Hillel, the Israel Action Committee and the campus AIPAC group and has become a Birthright Israel leader.

Kaufman’s interest in the weeklong trip was in part a desire to learn about the country’s Jewish life and origins, since “half my family is from Poland. … I didn’t know much about [their] history. This trip motivated me to find out more … where they lived, what they did for a living, how they survived the war.”

He also said he was “intrigued by the relatively recent renaissance in Jewish life in Poland and wanted to see this revitalization firsthand.” That opportunity presented itself in a tangible way at the Jewish Culture Festival, an experience Kaufman called “unexpected and exciting. Seeing thousands of non-Jewish Poles express an interest in Jewish life made me feel optimistic for the future of the Jewish community in Poland.”

That optimism is a byproduct of efforts by people like Tad Taube, who are determined to kindle the sparks of Jewish life in Poland. “The more you do, the bigger the challenge,” the 82-year-old philanthropist said, describing his organization’s successes. “Once you hit a home run, in order to beat it you need to hit another home run, out of the park. We’ve hit a lot of home runs out of the park.”

For Karp, one of the more uplifting moments of the trip came after a difficult one. “I was choking with tears when we celebrated Shabbat in Krakow after a somber day in Auschwitz, the biggest Shabbat gathering in Krakow since before World War II,” she said. “The scale of destruction of Jewish lives [during the war] is beyond my comprehension, but it felt empowering to be there in large numbers celebrating everything that is Jewish, ours.”

The reporter visited Poland in June, traveling with groups from the Jewish Federation of the East Bay and the S.F.-based Federation’s Young Adult Division.

Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is J.'s managing editor. She can be reached at sueb@jweekly.com.