Professor, Cantor Schiff Shares Jewish History
CHESTERTOWN, MD—Each summer for the past several years, Washington College adjunct professor Gary Schiff has traveled to a European country to study the history and fate of its Jewish populations, experiences he later shares with the Washington College and greater Chestertown communities through slide-show lectures. In 2007, it was Spain. In 2008, Germany. Most recently, he traveled throughout France (2010) and England (2012).
But his 2009 trip to Poland with his grown daughter sparked not only the expected hour-long lecture, but also a 286-page book, In Search of Polin: Chasing Jewish Ghosts in Today’s Poland. It is the inaugural book in a new series called Washington College Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture, published by the distinguished, peer-reviewed Peter Lang Academic Publishing Group Press.
The story of Europe’s Jews has always been a compelling topic for Schiff, who teaches Jewish and Middle Eastern history at the College and serves as cantor and religious leader for Chestertown’s Jewish community. He grew up in a Jewish home, was educated in Jewish schools, earned his undergraduate degree from Yeshiva University (and then received master’s and doctorate degrees at Columbia University), and served as president of an independent college focused on Jewish studies, Philadelphia’s Gratz College, before moving to the Chestertown area in 1997.
But the trip to Poland was especially significant for Schiff on several levels. As he states in the first line of the book’s introduction: “It is difficult, if not impossible to exaggerate the importance of Poland in Jewish history.” Up until the early 1900s, Poland was for centuries home to the largest Jewish population in the world. Three million of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust were Polish Jews, while many other Jews also were murdered in its death camps or ghettos, having been transported there by the Nazis from their homes all over Europe. “For many Jews, … Poland looms as one big Jewish graveyard, a place of bad memories, a place to be forgotten, a place never to be visited,” he writes.
But Poland also was where Schiff’s own family tree had deep roots. His father’s ancestors were among the first families to settle in the rural town of Ostrow-Mazowiecka (or Ostroveh in Yiddish) in the 1760s. “I had heard many stories about the homeland from my grandmother’s family, the Feinzeigs,” he says. “But it was hard to imagine these stories were from real places.”
During his travels Schiff was able to visit the surprisingly numerous remaining Jewish sites in Poland such as synagogues and cemeteries, interview local Poles who had known Jews and who had witnessed their destruction during the Holocaust, and examine public records to confirm many of the tales he had heard as a child from great aunts and uncles. It helped his research immensely that, among all the towns of Poland, Ostroveh had preserved the most complete records of its Jewish population. Along with his grandparents’ 1910 marriage certificate, he found evidence of the expulsion of Ostroveh’s 7,000 Jews by the town’s German occupiers in September 1939. He also heard how some 500 stragglers who refused to leave were later executed en masse in the woods outside of town, a site now marked by a monument in their memory.
Schiff mixes the intimate stories from Ostroveh with broader historical research to paint a portrait of the thriving Jewish communities that had contributed to Polish life for centuries, the patterns of both tolerance towards and prejudice against them, and the horrors of their ultimate eradication.
As was the case with his trip to Germany the previous year, he began his trip to Poland with great trepidation, fearing the raw emotion it might unleash. “At every step I found myself having to re-balance my scholarly, historical objectivity with my personal and emotional involvement, not always an easy task,” he writes. But by immersing himself in the land and finding the physical traces of his own ancestors and millions of other Jews, Schiff has created a valuable addition to the historical record. “By combining the academic discipline of history with an intimate family story and my illustrated travel experiences, I hoped to give the reader a more nuanced understanding and appreciation of the thousand-year history of this once-great Jewish community. I’m so glad that I confronted my own anxieties and witnessed for myself some of the triumphs and tragedies of the Jewish people there.”
The Washington College Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture book series under which In Search of Polin was published is a joint project of Peter Lang Academic Publishing Group and the College’s Institute for Religion, Politics, and Culture (IRPC). The director of the IRPC, assistant professor of political science Joseph Prud’homme, serves as general editor. A variety of other books by scholars from major universities are under contract for publication.
Dr. Schiff spoke about his book at the upcoming Chestertown Book Fair on Saturday, Nov. 3 at the Parish Hall of Emanuel Episcopal Church in downtown Chestertown. He also presented a PowerPoint talk on his 2012 trip to England on Nov. 15 in the Casey Academic Forum at Washington College, 300 Washington Avenue.