Scientist, activist of the Polish democratic opposition, for political reasons forbidden from working at universities in Warsaw and Kraków; he was allowed to lecture at the Białystok Branch of the University of Warsaw. He wrote articles for the underground press. After 1989, he co-created the Polish-Israeli Friendship Society (Polish: Towarzystwo Przyjaźni Polsko-Izraelskiej), Polish Council of Christians and Jews (Polish: Polska Rada Chrześcijan i Żydów), where he was co-chairman from the beginning, and the Jewish Forum Foundation (Polish: Fundacja Forum Żydowskie), where he initiated the “Jewish telephone helpline”. His published works include “Czy matematyka jest nauką humanistyczną?” (“Is Mathematics a Branch of the Humanities?”) and “Tajemnica Izraela a tajemnica Kościoła” (“The Mystery of Israel and the Mystery of the Church”). In the 1970s he and his wife Monika, an artist working with Jewish papercuts and Jewish sepulchral art, discovered their religious identity in Judaism.
In the second half of the 1970s we moved to Waliców Street, near Grzybowska Street. We lived in a neighbourhood of 15-floor tower blocks. It bore no resemblance to the prewar architecture of the district, which had served as the backdrop for the kind of Jewish life immortalized in books by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Only a handful of relics from those times survived to our postwar reality. They impeded progress but also emanated mysterious truth about prewar Warsaw. Some of those houses were inhabited, with shops on the ground floor. They gave our neighborhood a nostalgic atmosphere. Even many years after the war, our district was known as the “Wild West”. To someone without a knowledge of history, there was nothing Jewish about it. The greater part of the neighbourhood of blocks stood in the area of the former ghetto, but we did not give it much thought.
The most important phenomenon in the religious explorations of the aforementioned group of young people was the Jewish Flying University (Polish: Żydowski Uniwersytet Latający, ŻUL). The name was a joke and a reference to a popular institution modelled on clandestine schools from the partition period: lectures at the underground Flying University moved from flat to flat. Our initiative emerged during a workshop in humanistic psychology organized for Polish therapists in Łaskarzew in 1979, taught by the American psychologist Carl Rogers. The participants started working on their “Jewish problem” and decided to continue their explorations outside the workshop. Others like me joined the group right away. Meetings were held, among other places, in our flat and at the home of the initiator of the project, Konstanty Gebert, who was then a psychologist, and afterwards a well-known journalist and writer publishing under pseudonyms, among others Dawid Warszawski. He lived on Elektoralna Street, near its junction with Waliców Street. Of course, we also met in many other places, for example at the house of Rysia Zachariasz on Puławska Street.
Some members of the group did not have Jewish roots, and even the Jews had either a minimal knowledge of their tradition or none whatsoever. Initially our meetings had the form of group therapy, but quickly changed aim to the study of Jewish history, religion, and culture. Soon, some of us embarked on the gradual process of incorporating the principles of Judaism into their lives.
Everyone in the group had some connection with the opposition, so it was no wonder that we got involved in “Solidarity” and, from December 1981, underground activity. ŻUL meetings continued throughout the period of relative freedom in 1980-81 and even afterwards, when it became difficult to arrange a meeting at all: we were afraid to mention any details, such as addresses, over the phone; many of us did not have phones anyway...
As I mentioned, the neighbourhood had been deprived of any outward signs of its former Jewishness. There was, however, a notable exception. Walking east along Grzybowska Street, you can reach Grzybowski Square with its surviving Jewish Theatre. Adjacent to it is the Nożyk Synagogue, next to which stands a nondescript structure known as the “white building” at 6 Twarda Street. It was not white at that time. It was a hovel, but it held Jewish religious life. The synagogue was under renovation for years and could not be used until the reopening in 1983.
The prewar buildings and the theatre, built in the 1960s with the help of the American Jewish charitable organization Joint (official name: American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), were the centre of Jewish life in Warsaw. So it was then and so it is now. However, although today both the synagogue and the “white building” are renovated and full of activity, at the time Jewish life was focused on the theatre building, which was – and still is – the seat of the Social and Cultural Association of Jews in Poland (Polish: Towarzystwo Społeczno-Kulturalne Żydów w Polsce, TSKŻ). Back then it was the only legal Jewish organization. TSKŻ was controlled by the communists, completely dependent on the authorities, and for that reason alone it was not attractive to us. We knew some of the members, but the profile of that organization was not compatible with our group: it was focused on remembering the past and avoided current problems. Most importantly, the programme of TSKŻ was emphatically anti-religious, as decided by the founders and the ruling party. The theatre was an island of Yiddish culture, but had a policy similar to TSKŻ – turned towards the past, it focused on the folklore aspect of Jewish culture. Both institutions were headed by Szymon Szurmiej.
The only interesting event in those years connected with the theatre was the 1989 performance by the “singing rabbi” Shlomo Carlebach. The charismatic teacher dazzled the audience and proved his legend. He visited our small group in our flat and strengthened our belief that Judaism can be a good choice for the modern world.
The second Jewish centre in those years, the (not yet white) building in 6 Twarda Street was unattractive for other reasons. The ground-floor prayer room was dingy and broken-down, decidedly unappealing if you were not accustomed to the atmosphere. At the same time some people were drawn to the fact that the prayers followed the timeless order of Jewish liturgy. What happened there was meaningful for us, even if at first we understood very little. Those who attended the prayer room had received religious education before the war and were unqualified to talk about it to young people who had never been to a cheder.
Even those with a thorough secular education, for example colonels discharged from the army in 1968, did not know how to pass on their religious knowledge: they did not have the language skills to share it with Polish-speaking university graduates. They had been educated in Yiddish and Hebrew, in a traditional and rather naive way, and never learned how to relate their knowledge to postwar life. In fact, they could not shake their amazement at seeing young people in the synagogue. They would ask us repeatedly, in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English: “Where did you come from?”.
The cafeteria with its kosher meals attracted more people than the prayer hall, but we mostly avoided it, with the exception of a Seder dinner I attended with Monika in the second half of the 1970s. We found the atmosphere exotic, but it was also educational: it encouraged us to learn about tradition, and not just the aspects necessary for the study of Jewish cemeteries that Monika photographed. Later, inspired by “Solidarity”, she created the album “Time of Stones”, a unique work in terms of that period. Ultimately published under martial law, it quickly gained enormous popularity.
During the martial law period, the authorities decided to take advantage of Jews to overcome international isolation. April 1983 marked the round, fortieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Guests were invited from all over the world, ceremonies were organized, renovation works at the synagogue were completed and the temple was opened with great fanfare. Our group was not happy about that. We did not want to express support for the authorities, so we boycotted the official events. Marek Edelman publically called for boycott in an open letter: “To commemorate our anniversary now, when the whole society suffers humiliation and servitude, where words and deeds are being completely falsified, would be a disgrace to our struggle”. We did not go to the opening of the synagogue either. We were disappointed, but we felt we had no other choice. At the same time we were aware that to foreign visitors, our internal disagreements were unquestionably less important than the possibility of honouring the memory of Holocaust victims and insurgents in this historic place. For the Israelis, it was the first opportunity to visit Poland after 1968. Our public statement, signed “Society of Polish Jews”, contained both a call to boycott and reassurances for foreign Jews.
From then on, we attended the remodelled, refined Nożyk Synagogue on Twarda Street. Both the liturgy and the atmosphere gradually became familiar, something that was our own. The synagogue was formally orthodox, but almost nobody strictly observed the requirements of orthodoxy. There were notable exceptions, for example Mojżesz Szapiro. We also became close to community leaders, especially Dr. Szymon Datner, historian and Zionist, and Dr. Paweł Wildstein, a colonel and communications specialist. Both had been universityprofessors, later relegated to the sidelines. Still, they did not offer us what we needed, as we were oriented towards modernity and the future instead of remembering prewar times. Although contact with Datner was important, almost all of our knowledge about Judaism and tradition came from books, mostly American works. Sometimes we hosted lecturers from abroad. We wanted our Judaism to be contemporary; it turned out mostly American. The situation did not change substantially after 1989, although contact with Israel intensified and some of our younger peers attempted to revive the prewar style, e.g. the Ashkenazi approach to prayer.
Walking north from Grzybowski Square, you reach Bankowy Square. In those times, 30-40 years ago, at the site of the Blue Skyscraper which replaced the monumental synagogue in Tłomackie Street, was the unfinished “Golden Skyscraper”, under construction for as long as anyone could remember.
Rumour had it that it could never be completed because of “a rabbi's curse”. Behind that building was – and still is today – the Jewish Historical Institute, located in the surviving prewar building of the Institute for Judaic Studies. To us, that place was not without significance. It was the workplace of our friends, and the reading room offered a chance to peruse old and new publications. Some people associated with the institution, such as Jan Rochwerger or Adam Bielecki, spoke foreign languages and were knowledgeable about tradition. Even there, however, virtually no one had a personal relationship with religion. The legendary “rabbi's curse” was the only living religious aspect of that place.
Walking further north, you arrive at the famous Monument to the Ghetto Heroes designed by Natan Rapoport, unveiled in 1948.
Opposite, you can see the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. When the monument was erected, it stood amidst a sea of ruins.
At that time no one could even imagine how different this place would be in the future. By the 1970s the monument was surrounded by streets and houses. Invariably, it remained the centre of Jewish remembrance. Our group visited it each year around 19 April to hold our own ceremony for the victims of the Holocaust. In a small group consisting of people from different generations, we said psalms and prayers. One year Monika painted a ribbon with a message proposed by Kostek Gebert “We are your children” in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish, which was Datner's idea. From the beginning, we took into account all the victims, not just the insurgents. Therefore, we deliberately speak about the Monument to the Ghetto instead of using the official name, Monument to the Ghetto Heroes.
We attended an official ceremony only once. The year was 1981, a time of freedom (relative but definitely palpable), a time of “carnival”; we thought it was a good time to join public life, which was becoming less hypocritical, more authentic. We were sorely mistaken: in a line of delegations laying flower wreaths in the presence of an honour guard, we ended up standing right next to a delegation from the “Grunwald” Patriotic Union, an openly anti-Semitic organization connected with the party apparatus. Never again – until 1989 – did we consider participating in any official ceremonies.
The atmosphere in 1988 was different. The communist system was on the verge of collapse, the terror dissipated, and large numbers of people participated in unofficial anniversary ceremonies. The leader of the events was Marek Edelman, a remarkable man, but so uninvolved in any religion that, even though there were no objective obstacles, the religious dimension of Jewishness remained almost undeveloped. The ceremonies were held not only at the Monument to the Ghetto and the Umschlagplatz monument, but also at the Jewish cemetery, which had been a significant place for us for a long time.