Separate Trips to Poland Brought My Mother and Me Closer
I’ve been fascinated with Jewish history and culture for most of my life. In college, I decided to make it the focus of my studies. So the chance to go to Poland and Lithuania for my senior Jewish Studies seminar felt like fate—I was finally going to go to this place I’d built up in my mind as the key to unlocking the secrets of the past.
Unsurprisingly, the trip didn’t quite live up to these expectations; I didn’t discover any hidden mysteries of my ancestors or universal philosophies about life. But the trip confirmed that my Jewishness is more important to me than I ever expected it to be. Going to Poland, where my mother’s side lived before immigrating to the US, wasn’t necessarily the moving “return” I’d anticipated—it didn’t feel like going home—but it did feel momentous.
One reason this trip was so meaningful is that, as I touched down in Warsaw, my mother’s plane was taking off from the same airport. She’d spent the past week exploring Poland, and now it was my turn. This was helpful for tips on restaurants and places to visit, but it also created a kind of connection that I hadn’t anticipated.
The timing was entirely a coincidence; she’d planned her trip not knowing that mine was a week later. She went to Poland with her partner to celebrate his birthday (his parents were from Poland), while I was there to study the concept of “Yiddishland.” Yet we found a link between our separate experiences, and I don’t think I would’ve had the same impression of Poland if my mom hadn’t been there so soon before. She left little messages and gifts around the city—a souvenir at the front desk of my hotel, a shoutout in the guestbook of a Chopin performance (a tiny note among dozens of other scribbles, “I was here and now you are too! This is a beautiful concert and a beautiful city. I hope you are having a wonderful time. <3, Mom”).
These were more than fun “Easter eggs” or a scavenger hunt: they were proof that we’d walked the same streets, experienced the same place through different eyes. It’s like when you look at the moon and find yourself smiling, knowing that a loved one is looking at that same moon, even if they’re far away.
I’d call or text my mom at the end of the day, rambling about all the incredible synagogues and cemeteries and other bits of Jewish life my class explored. We compared our impressions of the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto, the little plaques on the sidewalks that delineated its boundaries. Considering how many Jews were once trapped inside its walls, it was strange to stand “in the ghetto” one moment and then simply step over a line and be on the outside.
We spoke about the Old Town of Warsaw, which had housed most of the city’s Jewish population. Decimated during the war, it had been completely rebuilt, an exact replica of what once stood there. Majestic, European buildings, none of them authentic. “It’s like Universal Studios with that trippy recreated Hollywood movie set,” we agreed. We were both struck by the fakeness of it all, the feeling that we were walking through a carefully curated exhibition, meant to simultaneously preserve the past and erase it from our collective memories. Building over the ruins felt like willful ignorance of the destruction, the change that took place after the war. There’s no way for people to return exactly to who they used to be; time changes us, and we should acknowledge that change. My mom and I had this same thought, in the same place, at different moments. To share that with another person is a feeling that is beyond words. We now share a piece of history, a little pocket of the world.
My mother and I share many other traits. Everybody tells me I take after her: dark hair and dark eyes and the same bridge of the nose. Many of our passions are the same, interests and hobbies I picked up from her. My mother was the first woman I knew, the first woman I saw getting ready in the morning, and singing along to the radio, and experiencing anger and joy and struggle. I learned it all by watching her.
Sometimes it’s confusing, to feel like my interests aren’t truly my own. But there are times when it helps to be known so intimately. My mom also spent many years interested in Jewish studies, taking religion courses in college and even going to the Jewish Theological Seminary for a time. She discovered a passion for Jewish literature, just as I have. What strikes me is that, even though I used to push back against the Jewish part of our family life, it became one of the things that connects me most to my family.
It’s taken me years to figure out how to be Jewish in my own way. And, perhaps unsurprisingly to many, it’s in a similar manner to my mother. We share Jewish book recommendations, dissecting themes of the Holocaust and growing up Jewish in New York City. We’re both drawn to Jewish perspectives in media, politics, and history. We talk about what being a Jewish woman means to us, how it defines our roles within our family, in school and the workplace, in the world.
Mother-daughter relationships are complex. Jewish mother-daughter relationships can be exceptionally complex. Combine the intergenerational trauma of Judaism with the intergenerational cycles of womanhood, and you’ve got quite the powder keg, a lit match lying not far off. There’s so much to argue about—so much to heal from—on both sides. I’ve always been close to my mother, but we also argue and butt heads often.
Something about Poland, though, brought us closer together on a deeper level. It’s no longer just our musical theater opinions and the funny chipmunk voice we both do that connect us, but an understanding of the Jewish world we came from and how it affects the Jewish life we live today. We’ve seen the same destruction and the same effort to rebuild. We’ve walked streets that our ancestors likely walked a century ago; the places our blood used to flow, the beginnings of what made us into the people we are. I’m cut from her cloth, and she from her own mother’s, back and back and back through births and deaths, times of war and times of peace, settling down and traveling far from home.
How to cite this page
Kianovsky, Isadora. "Separate Trips to Poland Brought My Mother and Me Closer." 20 July 2023. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 9, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/traveling-poland-separately-brought-my-mother-and-me-closer>.