WASHIGTON (Aug. 9)
The once thriving Jewish community of Poland is a skeleton of its earlier days. Only 5,000 Jews remain from the population that in 1939 numbered 3.5 million and was the Jewish center of literature and politics.
These remaining Jews were virtually forgotten until a Polish Catholic couple decided it was time the story was told. Tomasz Tomaszewski, a photographer, and his wife Malgorzata Niezabitowska, a journalist, spent five years traveling around their country capturing the remnants of the Polish Jewish community.
Their book, “Remnants: The Last Jews of Poland,” was published last year, and some of the photographs appeared last September in National Geographic Magazine.
“We wanted to know who and what remains of this big and splendid world of Polish Jewry because nothing was known about it,” Niezabitowska said at a slide show/discussion at the National Press Club, where an exhibit of the photographs is on display through Aug. 14.
“The history of Polish Jews ended with the Holocaust. And the more we worked the more we understood how important it was,” he continued “We hope our work is a long step in the reconciliation between Poles and Jews.”
Anti-Semitism is no longer a major problem for Polish Jews, but loneliness and alienation are Many of the photographs show elderly people living alone in their apartments, their relatives having emigrated or perished in the concentration camps. Although they are free to leave Poland, they nevertheless don’t want to go to a new country with a different culture and language, Niezabitowska said.
“They feel some moral obligation to stay. They think they should do something for the culture,” Niezabitowska added. Very little remains of this Jewish culture. A photograph simply shows a door with the indentation of a mezuzah, and there are several photographs of the some 500 Jewish cemeteries.
But several of the photographs show what little Jewish tradition still survives. No rabbis are left in Poland, but there are two synagogues and several prayer houses where religious services are performed by community leaders.
There are several photographs of the controversial 1985 Bar Mitzvah, the first there held in years. The female rabbi who accompanied them was barely allowed to participate in the service by an American Orthodox rabbi.
THRIVING JEWISH THEATER
Paradoxically, Poland still has a thriving Yiddish theater which performs in state-sponsored Jewish clubs across the country.
“When people tell us it’s nonsense to have a Jewish theater in Poland when there are so few Jews, we always protest. For the old people, performances are the only joyful moment they have. It’s the only moment when they can hear Jewish words,” Niezabitowska said.
Niezabitowska, a reporter for the newspaper of the Polish opposition group Solidarity, said she learned about Jewish culture from her grandmother. She was deeply affected by the emigration of two Jewish school friends in 1968, when 25,000 Polish Jews left the country in the wake of the Six-Day War.
In 1983, the Polish public became interested in the Jewish community, Niczabitowska explained. Memoirs of survivors were sold out in bookstores, and the documentary film “Shoah” was shown on television.
Nevertheless, the couple could not find a Polish publisher for their book, which was printed in English and has been translated into German, and soon will be available in French.