Celebrating one’s bar mitzvah 13 years after learning of Jewish identity

Jerusalem is the site of Polish Jew’s belated coming-of-age ceremony
Jerusalem is the site of Polish Jew’s belated coming-of-age ceremony

Mariusz Aoflko becomes a bar mitzvah.  /Sasson Tiram | Courtesy of Shavei IsraelJERUSALEM – Mariusz Robert Aoflko, a 64-year-old Jewish attorney in Krakow, grew up thinking he was a Polish Catholic.

On May 30, he celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Kotel (the  Western Wall in Jerusalem)with friends and other hidden Jews from Poland.

Mariusz spent his entire life as a Catholic. However, 13 years ago, right before his mother died, she told him something that turned his whole world upside down and would change his life forever: That he is a Jew; not only a Jew, but a Kohen (a member of the Jewish priestly caste), as well.

Both of Mariusz’ parents were born to Jewish families who perished in Auschwitz. After the war, the fear of being Jewish in Poland led his parents to hide their religion and to live as Polish Catholics, which, in turn, was a lifestyle and identity they passed on to Mariusz, hiding the fact that he was Jewish.

After learning his true identity, Mariusz was in complete shock and did not know how to digest news of such epic proportions. But over the years, he decided he wanted to live a Jewish life. He contacted Shavei Israel’s emissary in Krakow, Rabbi Boaz Pash, and started to become involved with the Jewish community in Krakow. Shavei Israel is a non-profit organization that works to strengthen ties between the Jewish people, the State of Israel and the descendants of Jews around the world. Working with Jewish communities in nine countries, Shavei Israel currently has two fulltime emissaries in Poland.

Last month, he met Michael Freund, Shavei Israel’s founder and chairman at the entrance of Auschwitz in Poland and told him the story of how he discovered his Jewishness.

“When Mariusz told me his incredible story, I was deeply moved,” Freund said, adding, “I told him that since 13 years have passed since he found out he was a Jew, it is an appropriate time for him to have a bar mitzvah.” Freund then offered to arrange for the event to take place at the Kotel, all paid for by the organization.

“Since my mother revealed this incredible secret to me, I feel like I am reborn. By embarking on this journey into my heritage, step-by-step it all starts to become clear to me,” said Mariusz. “I am not doing this to prove anything to anyone. All I ask is to embrace the truth about my family and regain the lost identity that was hidden from me for decades.”

Today, approximately 4,000 Jews are registered as living in Poland, but experts suggest there may be tens of thousands of other Jews in Poland who, even to this day, are hiding their identities or are simply unaware of their family heritage. In recent years, a growing number of such people, popularly known as the “Hidden Jews of Poland,” have begun to return to Judaism and to the Jewish people.

JAKE SHARFMAN is a senior associate with Puder Public Relations, which handles public relations for Shavei Israel (shavei.org).