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Jewish/Polish eatery opens near old Warsaw Ghetto

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WARSAW, Jan. 23 (JTA) — “Wicked people make wicked things, good people should make good things,” said Ehud Brunicki. “That’s what my mother used to tell me.”

Brunicki’s mother and father were both Polish survivors of the Holocaust who lost their families, including their spouses, in the Shoah. They met and married in Poland after the war and made aliyah to Israel in 1957, when their son was 10 years old.

This month, Brunicki, now an Israeli businessman, launched what he hopes will be a very good thing in his native city: an Israeli/Polish/Jewish restaurant.

Called Warszawa-Jerozolima — Warsaw-Jerusalem in Polish — the restaurant is located in the area of the prewar Jewish quarter, the once-vibrant district that the Nazis turned into the notorious Warsaw Ghetto.

Poland was the cradle of European Jewish life before World War II, and Warsaw was the most important Jewish center in Europe. Its 350,000 Jews made up one-third of the local population. Out of all the cities in the world, only New York had a bigger Jewish population.

Some 3 million out of Poland’s 3.5 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. The Jewish quarter of Warsaw, like most of the rest of the city, was reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble. Only about 300 Jews remained alive in Warsaw when it was liberated on Jan. 17, 1945.

For Brunicki, the restaurant is a labor of love that reflects his attachment both to Israel and to his native city.

It was conceived, he said, as a way to pay tribute to Poland’s destroyed Jewish past, as well as a way to bring Poles, Israelis and other Jews closer together. The logo depicts Warsaw’s Royal Palace, and Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock and Western Wall as if they were part of one city.

“I decided I wanted to commemorate things in a living way,” Brunicki told JTA.

“I decided to make a nice place where people can come, enjoy themselves, see views of Israel, listen to Jewish music, and taste both the delicious food that was served in Warsaw before the war as well as Israeli Middle Eastern cuisine,” he said.

“Many people in Warsaw have a lot of feeling for the Jews, who lived in Poland for 1,000 years,” he added. “Many people now come here from Jerusalem to seek their own lost roots. I want to make it easier; to make Warsaw closer to Jerusalem and Jerusalem closer to Warsaw.”

Brunicki’s family history makes him feel this closeness in a particular way.

His mother and her small son survived the war on phoney papers. She herself helped Polish Catholics escape from a Nazi camp. Her son survived with the help of Polish priests, although the little boy was killed by a drunken driver soon after the war.

“One of the priests who hid my mother’s child is still alive, a very old man,” said Brunicki. “I have met him.”

The decor and the menu of Warsaw-Jerusalem pay tribute both to Israel and the 1,000-year history of Polish Jewry.

The restaurant is located in a basement setting, but it seems light and airy. One section of the restaurant is enclosed by murals of the desert, so that it resembles a Bedouin encampment, and diners are encouraged to linger after the meal and play chess or backgammon.

Chef Alex Geller presides over a kitchen equipped with a special pita oven and also an oven to bake fresh challah. Geller, like Brunicki an Israeli, is the retired owner of a restaurant in Tel Aviv.

The menu features Middle Eastern specialities such as falafel, tahina, humus and kebabs, plus traditional Eastern European Jewish cooking — from gefilte fish and chicken soup to stuffed chicken necks and tzimmes. Polish specialties are also served.

The restaurant is non-dairy, but not kosher. This, Brunicki said, is because there is no permanent shochet, or ritual slaughterer, in Poland, so it is not possible to obtain the necessary quantity of kosher meat.

But he and Geller have set aside one part of the establishment for kosher diners, and can provide sealed, strictly kosher meals, prepared and packaged in Israel — making it the only restaurant in Warsaw where kosher food is available. There is also an ample selection of vegetarian or fish dishes.

Warsaw-Jerusalem is located on Smocza Street — a street in the Jewish quarter immortalized in the haunting “My Sister Khaye,” sung by popular Israeli singer Chava Alberstein and the Klezmatics on their recent CD “The Well.”

Brunicki’s eyes filled with tears as he played the song, which recalls the lost world of Warsaw Jewry, on the restaurant sound system.

“You know,” he said, “when they rebuilt Warsaw after the war, they didn’t remove the rubble first. So, when you are sitting here in this basement restaurant, you know that behind these walls are the ruins of the ghetto.”

He was silent for a moment.

Then a patron opened the door, and a burst of other music filled the room. The song the restaurant played on loudspeakers outside its door to welcome its guests: “Am Yisroel Chai.”

Warszawa-Jerozolima is located at ul Smocza 27 in Warsaw. Their telephone number is 838-3217.

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