Book offers a snapshot in time of Jewish life in prewar Poland

TORONTO — A major genealogical work is giving new life to the largest Jewish community decimated in the Holocaust.

"Many people have this mindset that since their ancestral towns were wiped off the map and there's nothing left, no records could have survived," says Miriam Weiner. "The fact is that millions of people died but some survived, and millions of records were destroyed but many survived."

A specialist in prewar Jewish records from Eastern Europe, Weiner recently published "Jewish Roots In Poland: Pages From the Past and Archival Inventories," a landmark volume that contains the first comprehensive, town-by-town listings of Jewish records in Poland's national archives system.

The book, which was compiled over the past seven years with the cooperation of the Polish State Archives, details an astonishing array of documents pertaining to the Jewish experience in Poland: civil records, censuses, army and tax lists, hospital and school records, police files, land records — even Jewish community records, many dating back centuries.

The book contains the fullest inventory ever assembled of extant Jewish records in the country that for centuries was the center of the Jewish world.

As such, its publication "is an event of signal importance both to genealogical researchers and to the scholarly community at large," says Zachary Baker, the head librarian for YIVO, which co-published the book.

Many of the materials listed predate 1808, the year in which Polish Jewish communities were obliged to register births, marriages and deaths with the civil authorities.

Since many genealogists and historians had long viewed the year 1808 as a brick wall beyond which their research could not penetrate, the book offers the exciting promise of fresh discoveries.

Even Polish archival authorities are beside themselves.

"It far exceeds anything I could have imagined," says Daria Nalecz, director of the Warsaw-based Polish State Archives, which became accessible to American researchers after the fall of communism.

"Jewish Roots in Poland" is much more than a dry archival catalog. Hundreds of full-color photographs and antique-postcard reproductions of town squares, synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish sites illustrate the volume.

Besides being a fundamental tool for genealogists, it is a visually stunning memorial to the 3 million Polish Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

Since it provides capsule descriptions of more than two dozen Polish towns that once held sizable Jewish communities, it also can serve — despite its weight of about five pounds — as a travel guide for the increasing numbers of American Jews who make roots-oriented pilgrimages to Poland.

Weiner has "offered us a peek at the treasures" contained in the Polish archival system, says Michael Berenbaum, president of the Los Angeles-based Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

"She has empowered fellow pilgrims, scholars and novices alike to begin their own searches, to commence their own journeys."