rediscovering roots

A sentimental stop in Krakow for White House Jewish liaison

Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff wasn’t the only U.S. official to visit a relative’s home in Poland


White House Jewish Liaison Shelley Greenspan at a home where her grandmother once lived

Before Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff traveled to Poland last month, he turned to genealogy experts to research his family history, ultimately tracing his great-grandmother to Gorlice, a small town two hours from Krakow. On his visit to the town, he hopped out of the motorcade to take a photo of the house in which he believed she once lived.

The moment was a poignant one for many American Jews, two-thirds of whom trace their ancestry to central or eastern Europe. Emhoff was in Krakow on a five-day trip to Poland and Germany focused on antisemitism and Holocaust education.

Shelley Greenspan, the White House liaison to the Jewish community, accompanied Emhoff to Europe, and she had a similar personal experience in Krakow, but hers was much more low-key, without the cameras and security that followed the second gentleman. With the help of the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation and a Warsaw-based genealogist, Greenspan found an address for the apartment where her grandmother, Esther, grew up — and went to visit.

Enlisting a local Polish-speaking guide, Greenspan met the apartment building’s owner and knocked on every door, curious to see who was home and what they could share about their lives. One family, the only Orthodox Jews in the building, invited her in, and asked Greenspan to stay for Shabbat. (She declined; Greenspan and Emhoff already had Shabbat dinner plans with local Jewish leaders.)

“I was able to truly envision what my Bubbie’s apartment would have actually looked like back then: a traditional Jewish home,” Greenspan told Jewish Insider on Sunday. 

Esther was sent to a forced labor camp in Siberia, but she survived, eventually meeting her future husband at a Displaced Persons camp in Germany after the end of World War II. They lived in Israel for a time before coming to the United States. She was 91 when she died in Aventura, Fla.

“Seeing the traces of the mezuzah that was once affixed on her doorpost was a sobering reminder of the Jewish family, my own family, that once lived there and was forced out,” Greenspan said. Her grandmother’s mother, sister and brother were all killed in the Holocaust. “And yet, standing there I was filled with so much pride, both as a Jew and as a representative of the U.S. government.”

Many of the government officials and aides accompanying Emhoff to Europe were Jewish, including those on the team tasked with arriving early and scouting out all the sites — in Poland, those were mainly memorials and museums — that he would visit. For Greenspan, visiting the building where her grandmother had grown up and had “a very happy childhood” was “emotional and surreal,” she said. 

“As the second gentleman said, everyone wants to know where they are from,” Greenspan said, referring to a comment Emhoff made outside the Gorlice Holocaust memorial. Now, she pointed out, there are few Jews left in Gorlice, a town that was once more than half Jewish. “I think this somber reality furthers our commitment to combat antisemitism around the world and support Holocaust remembrance.”

Neither Emhoff nor Greenspan’s relatives likely could have suspected their descendants would return to their birthplace decades later, Secret Service in tow.

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