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Articles and Stories by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

My Visit to Piltz, Poland

by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

From August 12-25, 2001, I took an Elderhostel Jewish Heritage trip to Poland, during which time I visited my parents' shtetl of Piltz. My article on that experience, A Visit to Piltz, was published in the March/April 2002 issue of Outlook, Canada's progressive Jewish magazine, and in the Kielce-Radom Special Interest Group Journal of jewishgen.org, an issue about Piltz (Vol. 6, No. 2, Spring 2002). It was subsequently translated into Polish for the Polish Jews Forum, an e-zine for Polish Jews and Poles interested in things Jewish; the Polish version is at http://fzp.jewish.org.pl/spot7.html.

On that trip, there were 11 of us tourists, 4 of whom were non-Jews. I became friendly with these 4 and have remained close to 3 of them. These 3 are Steve and Helen Chambers, a Catholic couple from Minnesota, and Alex Oldfield, who is not affiliated with any religion. I am a secular Jew and wanted to visit the village where both my parents were born.

Steve, Alex, and I e-mail each other many times each day and have had several visits. I plan to go to Minneapolis June 2-5 to attend the conference of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs, during which time I plan to see Steve and Helen.

It has seemed miraculous to me that we met and became friendly on this tour and have since found that we have so many things in common. I thought our relationship was so special I decided to write an article about it. 

One of my questions was: Why did you, a non-Jew, take a two-week Jewish Heritage trip to Poland? I mentioned that I doubted that I, a Jew, would take a similar Catholic or Protestant Heritage trip to a foreign country. Alex's answer on his evolving interest in Jews and Judaism was longer than Steve's and will be incorporated into my article. I found Steve's comment marvelously uplifting and hope it will be similarly inspiring to you. It follows.

"Why was/am I so interested in Judaism as to sign up for the Jewish immersion trip to Poland? My first thought is `why wouldn't I be?' I remember Helen reading aloud to me the notice from the Elderhostel bulletin and both of us declaring 'Yes' without any need for discussion. A mutual interest in Judaism is one of the first topics that drew Helen and me together in our discussions when we met.

"The suggestion that a Jew would not be drawn to journey to places important to Catholic or Protestant history might open an avenue of interest. Perhaps the difference is that Helen and I see Judaism as far more than religion. It's a major, major foundation of our culture and history as a people, whatever religious or non-religious expression a person is following today.

"I remember being very young and having a visit from my Aunt Effie an assertive hawk of a woman who was a Christian missionary to the Armenians in Turkey for 20 years late in the 19th century up to about 1914. She was present when the massacres began and gave lectures about the events for many years.

"She was always reminding us that our `Christian' foundation begins with the Jewish people, and if we ever forget that, we are making a sad mistake. She expressed horror at the ignorance, dishonesty, and evil that spawned prejudice against the Jewish people, and didn't hesitate to speak up.

"This included taking on a couple of my uncles and another relative who made dreadful remarks against Jews, Blacks, and Catholics. I witnessed all that, and afterwards Aunt Effie and others would talk to us kids about it, telling us that those relatives were good people despite their mistakes, but that we should not discriminate against anyone because of their race, religion, or creed.

"Then the Holocaust occurred, the State of Israel was created, and I read dozens of books about the Jewish people. Perhaps more important, I have had the good fortune over the years of being friends with many Jewish people. So I am grateful for having these fine teachers who have opened my eyes.

"As I think about your question, Sonia, it hits me that going to Poland was even more than seeking to study Judaism. It was that of course. I felt an attraction to visit sacred places where vital people lived and were deeply wronged by our Western civilization- brutalized and murdered. How could civilization perpetuate such a sin? All of us in this civilization bear some of the stain, I feel, and by facing up to it, perhaps the civilization as a whole can grow toward wisdom and love.

"I doubt if I would have been interested in simply touring Poland. But by doing so with Jewish people who have become dear friends, has helped me grasp something powerful and beyond words, something that transcends Judaism, Christianity, nationalism, and all other isms."

Copyright 2005 by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

This piece -- a sequel to "A Visit to Piltz" -- was published in Der Bay," The International Anglo-Yiddish Newsletter, Vol. XV, No. 3 (Mar. 2005), p. 10.