Photo that connected Marysia Galbraith to her Jewish heritage. Taken around 1916 in Poland, her grandmother is seated on the left, with her parents, siblings, and nephew.
By Richard Friedman
Heritage. Holocaust. Homecoming.
These three words course through the unusual story of Marysia Galbraith, a thoughtful and engaging University of Alabama anthropology professor. In fact, her saga is the kind of narrative that academics in her field and other disciplines can learn from and teach, as she has done with her own UA students.
Galbraith has navigated two discoveries in her life which have helped shape who she is today. In her 20s, despite being raised in what she calls a “secular Christian” home, she learned almost by accident that her family on her mother’s side had been Jewish before they became Catholic.
Then in 2013, thanks to the Internet and a website that connected them, Galbraith by chance discovered that she had a Jewish cousin living in Israel. This was another turning point that, depending on your point of view, unlocked a whole new world for Galbraith or brought her life full circle. In fact, it probably did both.
As a young woman in Poland, her maternal grandmother left her Jewish faith and converted to Catholicism, Galbraith explained in a recent interview. She had divorced a Jewish man and would marry a Catholic man. “I believe my grandmother’s religious conversion was sincere. But I think it also was motivated by what she saw as the constraints of her traditional Jewish family.” Also, Jews at that time were converting to Christianity because they began to see the handwriting on the wall for European Jewry.
Jews throughout Europe already were facing persecution. But the situation began to darken considerably in the 1930s as Adolf Hitler and his Nazis ascended to power. Within 10 years, Hitler, his Nazis and their collaborators would murder 6 million Jews, one of every three Jews in the world at that time, in what came to be known as the Holocaust.
Galbraith’s research suggests that upon her grandmother leaving her Jewish heritage behind, the family, as was not uncommon in that era, rejected her, not unlike the portrayal in “Fiddler on the Roof.” This created a breach that was never repaired in that generation’s lifetime.
Nonetheless, her grandmother and her well-connected Catholic husband still helped her sister and her sister’s daughter escape from the infamous Warsaw Ghetto where the Nazis had imprisoned large swaths of Poland’s Jewish population. They got them false identification papers and found a place for them to live outside the ghetto, then eventually forged papers to let them escape to Switzerland, after which they went to Israel in 1949.
This UA professor’s research and journey — and, in particular, her reunification with Jewish relatives in the United States, Canada, Europe and Israel — has been widely covered in the media recently. Publications such as People magazine and the Jerusalem Post have told her story, focusing in particular on her relationship with a Jewish cousin who lives in Israel who has embraced her warmly and played a role in connecting Galbraith with her larger family.
She and that cousin, the grandson of Galbraith’s grandmother’s sister, became connected through an ancestry website when they discovered that a picture of their grandmothers’ families was identical. They were astonished to realize that both of their grandmothers were pictured in the photo.
Galbraith grew up on Long Island, sensing there was a hidden secret within her family. She remembers vividly when she first learned it. “I was in my 20s and at my parents’ home for Christmas. One of my cousins who was there had a little too much to drink. After dinner, the cousin said to the family, ‘I don’t know why you are celebrating Christmas — you are all Jewish’.” What she also remembers is the reactions of her mother and grandmother. “My grandmother was furious; my mother was devastated because we were being told.”
Learning her family’s secret made a profound impression on Galbraith. Yet, she didn’t pursue it at that time but filed it away, thinking about it off and on over the years. “Why? That’s a good question,” she answers. “I have wondered myself. I think it was because people I loved didn’t want me to explore it and I didn’t want to hurt them.”
In 2011, as she was moving into her late 40s, Galbraith began thinking about it differently. She was traveling to Poland frequently as part of her academic research. “I was working on my book (“Being and Becoming European in Poland: European Integration and Self-Identity”) and it finally just struck me that if i wanted to know anything about my heritage, I needed to ask questions about what I had been told.”
So on her way home to Tuscaloosa from one of her trips to Poland, she stopped at her mother’s house in Long Island. “At that point my mom had what appeared to be dementia, and for some reason that gave me ‘permission’ to begin inquiring — me knowing more about our family history wasn’t going to hurt her.”
Her brother mentioned that he had seen some old photographs at their mom’s house, and the way her brother described the people in the photographs seemed to indicate they were Jewish. “The photographs clearly were of a Jewish family.” One of the people in the pictures, for example, had on a head covering and a long black coat and had a beard, markings of religiously-observant Jews.
“For me, seeing the photographs was a connection with the past that I hadn’t had before. They were proof of the hidden past, which compelled me to pursue it further.” Thus began a kind of a homecoming which Galbraith believes has enriched her life immeasurably.
Embracing her Jewish heritage also has added a dimension to the life she leads in Tuscaloosa — a life that began on a spring day in 1998. She vividly remembers coming to Alabama as a young academic for her job interview. UA New College professor Ed Passerini, who picked her up at the airport, was driving a convertible, Galbraith recalls, smiling as she recollects a great memory. Now 57, she remembers clearly that “it was a beautiful spring day, the sky was a glorious color, the afternoon sun was shining brilliantly. I felt at home right away.”
Growing up on Long Island, outside of New York city, she was constantly among Jews and her best friend was Jewish. So she feels as if she always has been on the “periphery” of Jewish life. However, since being in Alabama she has become even more deeply engaged in Jewish life without being a practicing Jew. She has been to the synagogue in Tuscaloosa and a Bar Mitzvah in Birmingham, and clearly has developed a deep attachment to her Jewish roots.
As this interview came to a close, Galbraith was asked if she felt that her narrative reflected tragedy or triumph. She paused, pondered the question then answered deliberately.
“It’s both — absolutely,” she said. An expert on Poland as a result of her scholarly research, she laments the Holocaust’s destruction of the rich and vibrant Jewish life that was a hallmark of the country for 1000 years. At the same time, though uprooted, many members of her Jewish family did survive. Yet, even these reconnections are bittersweet because she came to discover that, unbeknownst to her, she had Jewish relatives living 20 miles from her as she was growing up.
She also discovered that she lived near a cemetery where a lot of her Jewish family members had been buried. Though saddened that she never knew any of those who were buried there, “it fills me with a sense of connection and joy to know the descendants of the people in the cemetery,” she says.
Over the years, she has asked herself why this was such a well-kept, deep secret within her family. “I think my family was trying to protect my generation. They believed that if we didn’t know, we wouldn’t inadvertently say something that would expose us to possible persecution.” Adds the anthropology professor, “I think this is in part a reaction to trauma — not only the Holocaust, but also the prejudice they experienced in the 1920s and 30s.”
One of the highlights of connecting with her family came in 2015 when she visited Israel for the first time. “My cousins embraced me from the get-go. I was moved by a visceral sense of being embraced. Plus Israel is one of those places where there is so much, there are layers. Even though I was only there for a week, I keep thinking about it and coming back to that time.” Before the Covid pandemic, she was planning a trip to go back. “I fully intend to go back.”
Heritage, Holocaust, Homecoming: Delving into her Jewish heritage and embracing her family’s history has brought this UA professor a sense of contentment and completeness. “My ancestry odyssey has been very fulfilling. When you live in a family where there are secrets, you know you are not being told something, even if you don’t know what it is. Learning this history has filled in this place of absence for me. It has helped me to have a fuller sense of who I am.”
(For more information and updates on her family’s Jewish heritage and her journey of discovery, see Marysia Galbraith’s blog at https://uncoveringjewishheritage.com/)