Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota can be reached at the editorial office of “Midrasz”, a socio-cultural monthly for Polish Jews, where she works as a journalist. She is an expert on Jewish women's issues, a topic she has devoted four books to. She considers it important to give women a voice and fill in gaps in current knowledge resulting from the dominance of stories told from men's perspective.
Bella was born in Uzbekistan. Her parents spent the war in the USSR and returned to Poland in 1946. Initially, they settled in Świdnica, a city in the western part of the country, in a region known as the Recovered Territories. They moved to Warsaw several years later because of Bella's mother's job: the headmistress of a Jewish school, she was transferred to the capital. Bella admits she did not speak Polish until she was three years old. She grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home and the language of instruction at her mother's school was also Yiddish. Everything changed when Bella went to a Polish school in Warsaw. The world of her childhood was the tenement houses and inner yards of Praga, a district where many Jewish families settled after moving to the capital. Initially, as Bella recalls in conversation with Irena Wiszniewska in the book “My, Żydzi z Polski” (“We, the Jews of Poland”), her mother would not let her go outside by herself, judging the local children playing in the courtyard all day long to be “inappropriate company”. Bella takes us on a walk through Jewish Praga, a place mostly made up of memories.
Before World War II the Praga district bustled with Jewish life. It was inhabited by ordinary people: craftsmen and petty traders. Tenement buildings and houses were built and synagogues were founded. The history of the old Jewish Praga was immortalized in “Sefer Praga”, a book formed of several hundred pages of memoirs and high literature, written with affection and nostalgia, published in Israel in 1974.
After the war, Jews found refuge in Praga North once again; Holocaust survivors and orphans, they settled in the least devastated district of Warsaw. This was also where the most important institutions of Jewish social and cultural life could be found.
Those wishing to study the remnants of the Jewish presence in Praga should start their route at the Vistula end of Ks. Kłopotowskiego Street. The history of its name is also a reflection of Polish history. In the old days – before the war and for a short time afterwards – it was known as Szeroka Street, then until the 1990s it bore the name of the communist Karol Wójcik, to finally be named after Rev. Kłopotowski, a social activist, but also a fierce anti-Semite, beatified in 2005.
For a short while, the building at 5 Szeroka Street housed the Provincial Jewish Committee (Polish: Wojewódzki Komitet Żydowski), a branch of an organization established after the war in Lower Silesia to “restore the surviving Jewish population to life within the Polish state”, which meant providing assistance to Jewish repatriates. By 1956, many Jewish families found their new home across the street. On the top floor at number 10 lived the Serlin family, who later migrated to Canada. Cywia and Iser Serlin were highly involved members of the Jewish community both in Poland and in Montreal. Iser Serlin worked for the Polish Radio, preparing Yiddish-language broadcasts aired exclusively abroad, in Western Europe, the Americas, and Australia. In Montreal, he organized performances at Jewish clubs and his wife Cywia worked at a Jewish library. Her voice can be heard today on the website of the Spielberg archive, where she reads classic Yiddish literature. “For a time, my mum also worked for the Polish Radio, in the department preparing Yiddish-language broadcasts for listeners from abroad: Western Europe, the Americas and Australia,” says Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota.
Neighbouring tenement houses on the same side of Szeroka Street were home to the Rawet family, who later moved to France, and the Kupfermans, whose first families perished in the Holocaust.
On the way to Jagiellońska Street, you pass a stately building at the intersection of Szeroka (Kłopotowskiego) and Sierakowskiego Streets. Before the war, it housed the Jewish University Dormitory (8 Sierakowskiego Street), which used to be the residence of, among others, the subsequent Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin and the distinguished translator of Yiddish literature Michał Friedman. In the early postwar years, it was the seat of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), then the Security Office (Polish: Urząd Bezpieczeństwa, UB). But those matters were not discussed with children.
Walking along Kłopotowskiego Street towards the junction with Jagiellońska Street, you can see another imposing edifice resembling the style of the Jewish University Dormitory; it was designed by the same architects, Stifelman and Weiss.
The building at 28 Jagiellońska Street, the current address of the “Baj” Puppet Theatre, for a short time after the war housed the Provincial Jewish Committee. Primarily, however, it was the seat of the Jewish Theatre. It was the venue of such legendary performances as “A Goldfaden Dream” directed by Jakub Rotbaum or “Mirełe Efros” by Jakow Gordin, starring Ida Kamińska as the title character. The same auditorium, which incidentally had been a prayer room before the war, saw celebrations and ceremonies organized by the Jewish Committee.
The building annexed to the theatre was home to several Jewish families: Vice-Chairman of the Central Committee of Polish Jews (Polish: Centralny Komitet Żydów Polskich, CKŻP) Marek Bitter with his wife Cecylia Federman-Bitter, a renowned economist, and his son Jerzy, who was first a chemist, and then turned out to be a very talented painter. The whole family survived the Warsaw ghetto – an extremely rare occurrence. There was also the stout Mrs Goldzak with her son Janek, currently an Israeli businessman, and the Kameraz family, whose daughter Ninel later worked at the Jewish Historical Institute until her death in 2011.
Both Jurek Bitter and Ninel attended the Jewish school with an entrance on today's Kłopotowskiego Street. This small school, with Yiddish as the language of instruction, was formerly located in the Praga district, first in a flat at 2 Wrzesińska Street, then at 22 Targowa Street, on the corner with Kijowska Street.
The school, originally operating under the aegis of the Central Committee of Jews in Poland, was later nationalized. The last headmistress was my mother, Maria Liberzon-Szwarcman. The school had a family atmosphere: it was small and the students knew one another very well. Among my schoolmates were daughters of prominent figures in Jewish culture: the outstanding poet Binem Heller and the long-time director of the Jewish Historical Institute Bernard Mark.
The school was closed down due to pressure from above: every year, there were fewer students, and the USSR considered Yiddish-language instruction an expression of nationalism. From the school year 1950/51 the same classrooms housed the school of the Society of Friends of Children (Polish: Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Dzieci); that was where the majority of children from the Jewish school continued their education, as religion was not taught as a subject there. The Jewish pupils were soon joined by the children of Spanish immigrants, driven out of their country by the French government during the Cold War. The number of students continued to rise as Jewish children born after the war were enrolled.
The Stifelman Building, which housed a Jewish orphanage prior to the war, survived the tumultuous time almost without damage. Shortly after the war it was renovated with the financial support of the Joint, but these days, unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly dilapidated. On the other hand, the rotunda building of the Lessel synagogue was completely ruined. The remains stood for some time at the junction of Jagiellońska Street and Wójcika Street (Kłopotowskiego Street) as a gloomy war memento, until they werepulled down in the early 1960s. To us children, the ruins were a fascinating yet scary place.
In the same block, closer to Kłopotowskiego Street, is a small building that used to house a mikveh before the war and afterwards a kosher butcher's shop, run by Zygmunt Warszower until the 1980s. On the street side of the building was the municipal nursery school, later replaced by the Jacek Kuroń Multicultural High School.
That brings us to Targowa Street, which was home to Jewish “aristocracy”: renowned activists and artists. At No. 44 lived Salomon Łastik (1907–1977), writer and educator, best known today as co-editor (with Arnold Słucki) of the “Anthology of Jewish Poetry”. Emanuel, son of Salomon and his Finnish wife Jenny, was a talented poet who died tragically in 1978. Aneta Łastik, daughter of Salomon and Jenny, currently living in Paris, is an esteemed singer, therapist, and book author.
On the same floor of this building, behind a thin partition wall, lived Lejb Olicki (1894–1975), writer, poet and educator, author of several anthologies of stories and parables. Together with Maria Liberzon-Szwarcman he wrote and published “Elementarz dla szkół żydowskich” (“Primer for Jewish Schools”).
The Olicki family left Poland in 1959 and on the same year, the building at 44 Targowa Street became the home of the great painter Rafael Chwoles (1913–2002), who during the wave of repatriation arrived with his family from Vilnius, where he belonged to the art group “Jung Wilne” (English: “Young Vilnius”). In Warsaw he became involved in the activities of the Social and Cultural Association of Jews in Poland, headed the Committee on Culture (Polish: Komisja Kultury) and collaborated with the “Jidysz Buch” publishing house. The Chwoles family was driven out of Poland in 1968 as a result of the anti-Semitic campaign and settled in Paris.
Another person who left the country in 1968 was the lawyer, Jewish activist and excellent public speaker Samuel Gurwicz (Hurwicz). He lived at No. 48 until the end of the 1950s, then moved to the other side of the Vistula like most Jewish residents of the Praga district.
The unusual building at 62 Targowa Street used to house a photography studio owned by Mr Byk, whose daughter Irena was the last of the family to leave Poland, as she emigrated in the 1980s. The next building in the direction of Warszawa Wileńska railway station, No. 60, held a prayer room in postwar years, mentioned in Chaim Szoszkes's memoir “Pojln”. “I didn't know anyone who went there. Until the 1970s I never knew there was a synagogue there. No one in my family or circle of friends practiced religion. Apparently it was not a good time to be a devoted Jew,” recalls Bella.
Some distance from the bustling centre of the Praga district was No. 19 Konopacka Street. The building used to belong to TSKŻ and was briefly the residence of a future star of the stage when she arrived in Warsaw from Łódź as a fledgling young actress: Gołda Tencer, founder of the Shalom Foundation and Deputy Manager of the Ester Rachel and Ida Kamińska Jewish Theatre.
Most Jewish residents of postwar Praga left Poland in the mid-1950s. The rest moved away after 1968.