Poland - Extensive Interview with Michael Traison

Michael Traison (c) looks on at ceremony presenting awards to non-Jewish Poles who preserve Jewish heritage, July 2009. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

My friend Michael Traison is the subject of a lengthy and detailed profile in the Chicago Jewish News. The article, by Paul Dubkin Yearwood, includes a long interview with Michael -- and discusses the important work he has been doing in Poland -- some of which I have written about here, including the annual awards to non-Jewish Poles who preserve and promote Jewish heritage and the Shabbaton weekends in disused synagogues he sponsors.

Michael and I met in January 1995, at ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. We bonded instantly over our mutual feeling that Jewish experience in Poland should not just be defined in terms of death.

I'm delighted to see him and his work get this recognition.

"When you mention Poland, most Jews feel it is a forbidden land, nothing but a cemetery," he says. "People have created the idea that Poles were responsible for World War II and the Holocaust."

Why do so many Jews in some ways "have more powerful, passionate feelings about Poland than about Germany?" he asks. "You have the strongest feelings about those to whom you have the closest ties. When a family member betrays you, it is worse than when a stranger does."

Traison wanted to find answers for himself on these matters, and for that, he had to visit Poland. He flew to Warsaw, alone, intending to stay for four days, then go on to Israel.
"I couldn't speak a word of Polish and few Polish people knew how to speak English," he says. "I was basically on my own, communicating by body language, isolated, yet knowing the streets, the places, almost like I had been there before."

The connection to the land was instantaneous. "I feel like the month I was born, October 1946, there must have still been smoke from the chimneys of the camps, and I must have inhaled the souls of some of our people," he says.

On that first visit, "for whatever reason, I had positive experiences," he says. "I encountered Poles and they saw me walking, wearing a kippah. People would offer to show me the local cemeteries or synagogues. They viewed it as part of their own Polish history and culture." He also met others "who were afraid I was coming to take back my property. There was a certain amount of fear and anxiety, but many people were very hospitable."
That visit was "a life-changing experience" for Traison, he says. Soon he found himself visiting there four times a year, then every month. Eventually he combined the journeys with his law practice - he is a principal in a large Chicago firm, Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, that has three offices in Poland, and practices commercial law.

[...] his trips to Poland grew more frequent and his involvement in projects relating to the Holocaust and the country's Jewish population more intensive. (He notes that a Google search of his name and "Poland" yields dozens of entries.) Today he spends about 25 percent of his time there - about a week out of every month - and is now engaged in 75 different projects.
Read full article