Żydowska Warszawa

Henryk Rajfer

A Touring Cultural Centre

Henryk Rajfer – an actor of the Jewish Theatre, who is not a native Varsovian, but committed himself to the capital city of Poland in 1973, when he came here to work from his home in Silesia. A representative of that fraction of the Jewish community which does not link their identity with religious life. In times of the Polish People's Republic, the community binder was the Socio-Cultural Association of Jews in Poland (TSKŻ), a secular Jewish organisation founded in 1950 with the merger of the Central Committee of Jews in Poland and the Jewish Cultural Society. For many years now, Henryk has been of the Association's authorities, and as a long-time actor of the Jewish Theatre, the premises of which also housed the Warsaw TSKŻ club, had an opportunity to observe the differences between the activities of the organisation in Warsaw and in other Polish cities. And so his contemporary Jewish Warsaw is the  Grzybowski Square area, where both institutions could be found and Śródborów near Warsaw, a frequent destination for TSKŻ members. He gives an account of all of these with the help of Teresa Wrońska – a long-term musical director of the Jewish Theatre who, as he emphasizes, has much more vivid memories of their common history.

Henryk Rajfer. Photo: Marianna Sowińska

Henryk Rajfer says: I come from Katowice, but since 1973 I have been living in Warsaw. I am the last, eighth, child of my parents, the only one that has stayed in Poland. My mother worked in a canteen of the Jewish community, and my father was actually quite wealthy. He had a tailor's shop, and sponsored the community. The family was secular. My dad lost his faith during the war, and after the Holocaust concluded that God did not exist, though later on he had a religious funeral. I am not religious either, unlike my sisters who emigrated to Israel in the 1980s. However, I do celebrate all important Jewish holidays. Our life, like the lives of many other Jews at that time, was from the very beginning closely associated with a secular institution, the Socio-Cultural Association of Jews in Poland, and this is also where my professional affair with the theatre began.

Henryk Rajfer at the Jewish Theatre. Photo: Marianna Sowińska

When I was a child, me and my sisters participated in all of the activities organised by the Association. TSKŻ in Katowice was very active in the realm of culture: it cooperated with outstanding artists, such as Jerzy Duda-Gracz, who managed an art club, or Stanisław Brudny, responsible for a theatre club; it also organised music classes. Competitions were held at the Association branches – in Bytom, Sosnowiec and Będzin. All the holidays were celebrated. On such occasions, the Joint (the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) supported TSKŻ by sending parcels with fruit, coffee, tea and sweets. At that time, TSKŻ accepted as members both Jews and their spouses, regardless of origin. The Jewish Theatre, which at that time was still managed by its founder, Ida Kamińska, was a frequent visitor. Actually, their planned appearances always included performances in centres associated with Jewish culture so as to expose the community to the Yiddish language. So I used to go to see most of the performances, and I was very interested in them.

In 1968, when the witch-hunt against Poles of Jewish origin began, our father asked us if we wanted to go to Israel. My sisters wanted to, but I didn't. After graduation from a secondary school, I took an entrance exam to the Technical University of Gliwice. I failed, but now my son is successfully following in my footsteps. At that time, the Chairman of TSKŻ in Katowice was Aleksander Sapir. One day he told me that Szymon Szurmiej was looking for actors to join the Jewish Theatre in Warsaw and his daughter would like to take that opportunity. I had encountered Szurmiej before, in Berlin, where he directed the performance of the Roma ensemble in Friedrichstadt-Palast. My sisters were featured in the programme and I came to visit them. Then Szurmiej asked me if I could sing and when I admitted that I had been going to Professor Pospiech's choir classes in the Katowice Youth Palace, he just said: “How about joining us when you get a secondary school diploma?”.

Henryk Rajfer inside the Jewish Theatre. Photo: Marianna Sowińska

And so I turned up at the Theatre. He employed me right away, and so I stayed in the Theatre for 42 years. It's hard to believe it these days, isn't it? I was given a regular job immediately and started playing big roles. Starting with The Dybbuk, the play to which I actually feel the strongest attachment, and in which I have been Hasid, Enoch, Sender and finally I am now appearing as Tzadik. Simultaneously, I began to work in TSKŻ – the theatre and the organisation were like communicating tubes. The headquarters of the Warsaw branch of TSKŻ were located in the Theatre building, in the rooms that had previously belonged to the 'Bumet' cooperative. At that time, the Chairman of TSKŻ was Edward Rajber but soon afterwards he died and the function was taken over by Szymon Szurmiej. The secretary was Ruta Gutkowska, and the office manager – Halina Szymańska. The offices could be found in room number 101, which now houses the backstage of the small stage, next to the room in which Halina Szymańska used to 'hang out'.

Since then my life in Warsaw has revolved around Grzybowski Square, where most of the Jewish institutions and organisations were located in the post-war years.

1.12/16 Grzybowski Square

The address 12/16 Grzybowski Square was both the location of the TSKŻ Main Board and the premises of the regional office in Warsaw, one of seventeen such offices in Poland. The club that the Association managed served, as did other clubs, as the main meeting place for the Jewish community. To it came the Jews who had decided not to leave Poland in 1968, who spoke Yiddish (mame-loszn/“mother tongue”) and wanted to keep in touch with the language. Many arrived to Warsaw from the East, i.e. from the territory of the Soviet Union, where they survived the war, and then were scattered by history in different directions, often remote from their pre-war abodes. Natives of Warsaw were few, simply because few survived the Warsaw Ghetto. The regulars included many senior representatives of the intelligentsia, but young people visited Grzybowski Square too. A Holocaust syndrome had its stake: people wanted to stay together to feel safe, and also to find a shelter from antisemitism which was then their painful everyday experience. In communist Poland there were no alternatives for such people, i.e. those who felt a bond with Jewish culture, but not through religion. Indeed, religious life was non-existent. There were no Jewish political parties or numerous clubs, like before the war, either. The differences between TSKŻ and the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland were stressed a lot. It was said that contrary to the community, the Association was a secular organisation and that Jewishness did not have to be about religious activity at all.

Frequently, Room 101 was a place that hosted events, performances, lectures. Yiddish classes were delivered by Michał Frydman, a distinguished teacher and scholar – that is why the room now bears his name. Special-interests groups were active, including a chess club and a choir led by Edward Wołczewski, husband of Kazimiera Wołczewska, who was not a Jew, but very skilled at arranging songs in Yiddish. Zofia Banat-Fornal, a world-renowned Esperantist, organised lectures on her encounters with Esperanto, which her husband, Jerzy, had learnt especially for her and then performed monodramas in that language for the TSKŻ audience. Zofia survived the Warsaw Ghetto, and so we owe her the survival of many lyrics from the Ghetto, which can be classified as street songs. Contact with the club was also an opportunity to commune with some outstanding and interesting figures, listen to their stories, and explore the sometimes incredibly tangled human fates. TSKŻ in Warsaw, as well as all its branches, also had a well-equipped library, run by Stella Praszkin and Flora Kapulkin. Stella was a woman of inexhaustible energy and an avid music lover. By the end of her days she was buying a season ticket to see concerts at the Warsaw Philharmonic. She was just unable to resist the temptation and not go. She made decisions about buying new items to the library, and as she was proficient in Yiddish, she knew what the demand was and what pieces were missing. The club members also subscribed to the TSKŻ own newspaper “Fołks Sztyme”.

2.Otwock, 6 Literacka Stret

Śródborowianka building. Source: Public Domain

In Śródborów, near Warsaw, (“Śródborowianka” Training and Recreation Centre, 6 Literacka St, Otwock) there was a TSKŻ holiday home; where members of the organisation could spend their free time. Some people, especially the elderly, stayed there for longer, as in the pre-war summer resorts. Fees for the bed and board were low as the costs of the Centre's maintenance were mainly paid for by the Joint from charitable donations. A specific monthly pool of dollars was earmarked for Poland. A person who played a unique role in TSKŻ financing was Akiva Kahane – a delegate for Poland, who lived in the United States but often visited our country. Thanks to the Joint, older members of TSKŻ could receive quarterly grants. Their monthly amount was about 20-40 dollars, which was a lot at that time.

Seniors enjoyed the company of their peers and so “Śródborowianka” felt like home to them. It often hosted Jewish youth or veteran rallies. Actors of the Jewish Theatre came for holiday stays. The atmosphere at the resort was rendered by Piotr Paziński in his novel Pensjonat (The Boarding House). At the end of the 1980s, Halina Szymańska, in order to integrate young people who visited TSKŻ, founded the Youth Club. Every month they met in Śródborów on trips funded by the Joint. It was the relocation of TSKŻ activities to the summer spot, so numerous classes took place there, including those devoted to Jewish songs. The idea was to attract young people to Yiddish so that they would not lose contact with the language.

Henryk Rajfer in front of the Jewish Theatre. Photo: Marianna Sowińska

One of the responsibilities of the Jewish Theatre, similarly to those of TSKŻ located at 12/16 Grzybowski Square, were performances at regional centres. For that purpose, the Association formed troupes of 10-12 people known as artistic brigades, which could travel for as long as 14 days in a row, while touring the entire Poland in a dilapidated coach. Those were the days of adventure! And how we were welcomed! In Żary, Mr Grin, knowing about our visit, got up before dawn, and was waiting at the station at six in the morning to take us to his home where we received lavish treatment. He served us Jewish dishes, and in the wintertime he lit up the stove and prepared a potful of hot tea. It often happened that I did not book a hotel as I preferred to stay with the locals. In Katowice it was a must to visit my father, who was very proud that I, an alumnus of the local TSKŻ, appeared on the main stage of the Theatre. The local centre of TSKŻ in Lublin did not have its own hall for concerts, so it rented a room in the Lublin Community Centre or even a dorm... of the Catholic University of Lublin. It also happened that we performed in the main auditorium of the University and with a full house! Indeed, my involvement with the TSKŻ authorities started with planning the routes of such expeditions. In the 1990s I was elected to sit on the Main Board of the Association. I was an activist coordinating the Theatre operations, including trips to various centres. I was also responsible for the preparation of reports from such trips. I also got on excellently with TSKŻ members in individual centres. I often got invitations as a private person. Since I was a popular actor, people counted on feasting and storytelling together. So sometimes it happened that straight after the performance I got on the train and went to Szczecin, on occasion in the company of Michał Szwejlich who was 70 years old at that time and a favourite of the audience. On Tuesday, he would return to take part in a rehearsal.

We were preparing for artistic brigades' trips by developing scenarios of Jewish pieces in Yiddish. Despite appearances to the contrary, this was a very responsible task, because the TSKŻ audience who come to our shows knew some texts perfectly, and on the other hand, in the case of some actors learning Yiddish had not been part of their upbringing and they only learnt the language at Professor Frydrych's lessons. Reactions of the audience who understood the language were unique as they spontaneously responded to all jokes or idioms.

The difference between Warsaw and other centres was exactly that, here the Theatre was at home. Concerts held at TSKŻ were sort of closed, because information about them reached mainly to the members.

On April 19 it was a must to celebrate the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, irrespective of the Jewish Community's commemoration event. TSKŻ also commissioned the Theatre with the task to prepare a Ghetto Academy or compilation programmes based on source texts. We had – both the Society and the Theatre – our own delegation at the Ghetto Heroes Monument. For our community it was the most important red letter day.

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