BLUE HILL — On Aug. 9, poet and part-time Blue Hill resident Helena Lipstadt spoke before a small gathering in Founders Hall about her experience reconnecting with her family’s roots in Poland.
Lipstadt’s parents, both Jewish, grew up in Poland and escaped the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. A Catholic woman sheltered the couple for a year and a half, before Russian troops pushed the German army out of Poland.
After the war, Lipstadt’s parents moved to Connecticut, but they were reluctant to speak with their children about what they experienced in Europe.
“What they had gone through carried with it so much weight and so much fear and so much horror,” Lipstadt said. “I knew there was something horrible that happened there, and they left it behind and so I did too.”
But after her parents died, Lipstadt started feeling more curious about the land they came from.
In 2011, she traveled there with her nephew, Isaac. The experience changed her life, to the point where now she is writing a book of poetry and prose about her family’s experience there.
“I go to a Warsaw pastry shop and I look through the glass,” said Lipstadt, reading from a passage “Our Dark and Radiant Land.”
“I see her cookies, the crescent-shaped butter cookies I rolled between my palms in our kitchen,” she continued. “I wonder…is this place mine? This reviled, cursed place?”
Until she went to Poland, Lipstadt wrote, she “didn’t know how much of Poland my parents had clinging to their skin, how much of it my mother put on the table in borscht, my father’s heated curses, the cantorial music he loved, and her Chopin.”
As she spent more time in Poland, Lipstadt writes, she became “drunk on this place.” She drinks Zubrovka vodka, listens to Chopin and even follows native Polish speakers around just to hear the “‘sh-sh’ syllables” of the language.
But despite Lipstadt’s love of the food, music and language of Poland, she can’t help but remember her parents’ experience there.
“Like a hangover, images of war intrude,” she writes. “It plays back and forth this way.”
Unlike many other countries in Europe, Poland had a policy of religious tolerance that made the kingdom a sanctuary for Jews dating back to the 11th century.
By 1939, Poland was home to 3 million Jews, one of the largest populations in the world.
That all changed forever after World War II. Many of the Nazis’ most infamous concentration and extermination camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Chelmno, were located there.
By the end of the war, only 100,000 Jews were still alive in Poland.
The numbers are staggering, but Lipstadt said there are many young people trying to preserve Jewish history in Poland.
One man she met, who was named Tomasz, helped clean up a Jewish cemetery and was inspired to become a genealogist. Now, he helps Jews such as Lipstadt find connections to their ancestors in Poland.
One young woman Lipstadt met grew up hearing Hebrew stories from her father, which inspired her to learn to speak Yiddish and study Jewish religion and culture at a university in Braslav.
Those kinds of encounters are part of what excited Lipstadt to start a story of her own in Poland.
“I imagine stepping into a new story, one where I let the sibilant syllables twine, paint the flowers of an old shul on new walls,” she writes.
“Peeling back layers of pain, I open myself to this land, to this people, to build a bridge and walk across.”
Lipstadt had a very real chance to do so five or six years ago, when she and many other volunteers gathered in Poland to recreate the colorful ceiling of an 18th-century Polish synagogue that had been destroyed, along with hundreds like it, during World War II.
The ceiling is now in Warsaw, at the center of the POLIN Museum of the history of Polish Jews.
“I walk in there and I say ‘there are my flowers,’” said Lipstadt, who recently became a citizen of Poland. “It’s just magnificent, and it gives you a real taste of a life that is no more.”
For those who missed her talk in Blue Hill, Lipstadt will also be speaking about her book at the Adas Yoshuron synagogue at 50 Willow Street in Rockland at 7 p.m. on Aug. 29.