‘Bracha – Blessing Back to Polish Shtetls’

UNITED NATIONS -
The exhibit. (Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in New York)

Whatever criticisms observers might have of the effectiveness of the United Nations, this past Monday evening the organization unarguably succeeded in harmoniously drawing together a uniquely diverse crowd from different nations and cultures.

Chassidim visiting the grave of Harav Yissachar Ber of Radoshitz, zt”l, on his yahrtzeit. (Ms. Agnieszka Traczewska)

The event, sponsored by the Polish Consulate General of New York, presented an exhibit of works by Polish photographer and film producer Agnieszka Traczewska, “Bracha — Blessing Back to Polish Shtetls.” The works on display were chosen from the artist’s 2018 book, Returns, which features images of the trips of Chassidic groups and families to the gravesites of tzaddikim, historic shuls and other sites in Poland.

The exhibit, held as part of the U.N.’s observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, drew dozens of Chassidim from nearby Williamsburg and Boro Park, mostly individuals who have been involved in the restoration of Jewish sites in Poland or in organizing the very trips that Returns spotlights. The same hall in the U.N.’s cavernous headquarters was filled with Polish diplomats, Jews from other communities who have taken an interest in the preservation of heritage sites, and a varied group of representatives from other consulates and missions to the U.N.

Illustrative of the level of diversity of people who attended the event was one elderly East-Asian-looking man who wore an authentic, dark-blue “Mao suit,” the uniform of proletarian unity favored by late Chinese dictator Mao Zedong. He seemed comfortable mingling among the crowd of people dressed in long “reklach” and more modern formal attire.

Prior to the event, Maciej Golubiewski, Poland’s Consul General in New York, told Hamodia that the goal of the exhibit was to showcase Miss Traczewska’s unique work as a way of giving a voice to his county’s Jewish heritage.

“Today’s Poles are interested in learning more about their history,” he said. “A lot of it is very painful, but there is a lot of richness to what was a multicultural society of Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians and others. We thought the exhibit would be an interesting complement to Holocaust Remembrance Week, which of course tells a very painful chapter, but these pilgrimages highlight a living legacy of the vibrant world that Jewish Poland once was.”

In his address at the event, Consul General Golubiewski told the crowd that he hailed from “Wodge,” the Polish pronunciation of Lodz, and that “when I walk through [Orthodox neighborhoods of] Brooklyn, I think, ‘This is what my hometown looked like in 1932.’”

En route to the area where the event was held, attendees passed walls of posters and displays from other Remembrance Events which focused on the tragic events of the Holocaust.

Chassidim davening in Lelov, 2008. (Ms. Agnieszka Traczewska)

The focal point of the Polish-sponsored event was a display of 48 photographs of Chassidim at various holy sites in such places as Lizhensk, Riminov, Sanz and Lvov. Between and after the several speeches, chazzan Yaakov Lemmer sang several niggunim that have their roots in Polish Chassidus, including the Modzitzer “Prok yas Amech.”

As guests made their way along the wall on which the photos were displayed, and likewise in front of the kosher buffet, a mix of English, Yiddish and Polish conversations could be heard.

An integral player in organizing the event was Dovid Singer, who for more than 25 years has been heavily involved in the restoration of Jewish heritage sites in Poland, as well as leading tours of historic towns. For more than 10 years he has worked together with Miss Traczewska, advising on events of interest and filling in much of the background information that has formed her work.

Mr. Singer told Hamodia that bringing attention to the concern of international Jewry for the gravesites and shuls in Poland is integral to their preservation.

“Obviously we go to kivrei tzaddikim to daven and to connect to the ways of the tzaddikim, but it is also important for the Poles to see how many people care about these places, which is the most effective way of encouraging local governments to make sure they are kept b’kedushah,” he told Hamodia.

The final speaker of the was Miss Traczewska herself, who began her remarks lamenting how, while growing up in then-Communist Poland, the country’s nearly 1,000 years of Jewish history was all but ignored in her education.

“We were taught the history of kings and knights … but never about the Jews that lived in our own country … Even when we went to Auschwitz, they spoke of the Poles that were killed there, but never mentioned that most who perished were Jews,” she said.

Speaking of her first contact with Chassidim visiting Poland, Miss Traczewska said that she decided to dedicate herself to publicizing the nation’s Jewish history through her art as an act of what she called her “private archaeology.”

“I took up [an impossible] mission,” she said. “I felt a need to show this vision of what is truly part of my heritage … If I change anything for the better, that is the greatest gift.”

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A Conversation with Agnieszka Traczewska

Photographer Agnieszka Traczewska has spent significant time photographing chassidim who have made trips to Poland. She has great passion for this subject, and has even become quite familiar with many Yiddish and Hebrew terms.

Several days before the opening of her United Nations exhibit, the artist spoke with Hamodia about what attracted her to, and the significance of, this unique project.

What was your first exposure to Chassidic visits to Poland?

My first experience with Chassidim in Poland was when I traveled to Lizhensk for the occasion of Rabbi Elimelech’s yahrtzeit. A Jewish friend of mine told me about the crowd of Chassidim who come to this little Polish town every year to pray over the grave of the one of the most important Rebbes and founders of Chassidism.

I drove there from my home in Cracow, four hours in cold, rain. It was 11 years ago and roads in Poland were still in terrible shape. When I parked my car at the empty market square in Lizhensk at dawn, I saw the silhouette of a Chassidic man walking in a tallis. He approached the market square from a narrow street with architecture identical with old Galicianer shtetls. There was something particularly intriguing about the image, since there have not been Jews in talleisim in the streets of Poland for a very long time. Thanks to black-and-white photographs from before World War II, it struck me as an element that had been missing from the Polish landscape for over 60 years. He seemed as if he belonged in the square, which for me was both shocking and enlightening.

When and why did you decide to dedicate a large portion of time to photographing these events?

I don’t want to exaggerate, as it’s too easy to discuss the feeling of being an outsider in a chareidi crowd, which was not something I was prepared for.

At the same time, I was totally hypnotized by the strength of these people’s faith. They seemed totally in correspondence with G-d. Who were they? Where did they come from? Were they the lost tribe of Polish Chassidim known from old photographs? Why did they keep coming back? What drew them to old empty, neglected and abandoned cemeteries?

I realized that despite my adult age, when I thought I already knew it all, I faced unknown phenomena connected with the history and geography of my own country, full of spiritual, mystic vibes — a mystery. From the very beginning I knew I was ready to undertake a way from the darkness of this unknown to the light of knowledge.


How do you think modern-day Poles view the phenomenon of Jewish visitors to the graves and hometowns of ancestors and spiritual leaders?

Since 1989 and the fall of Communism, Poland has changed significantly. When I started my journey to great tzaddikim [on their] yahrtzeits, in most of the places I was the only outsider. Now in the most popular and known places, like Lizhensk, Rimanov, Bobov and Sanz, Chassidim meet other photographers, people from the media, or just locals who are interested in unknown customs of old-fashioned-looking people in the street.

In general, Poles smile, try to be helpful, and more and more of them are apparently fascinated with these exotic-looking guests. Many try to understand that Chassidim are not just tourists. They are descendants of Jews who lived in Poland for a thousand years.

What do you see as the significance of these trips to today’s Poland?

Jews traveling to Poland more and more often notice traces of vibrant Jewish life, which was so present in Eastern Europe before the Second World War.

The Chassidic presence, even if only temporary, is a fantastic impetus for Poles to dig into the rich Jewish history of their own villages or towns. There are many Poles today who organize Jewish culture festivals based on local Jewish tradition, organize small museums of Judaica, collect artifacts, preserve traces of former Jewish inhabitants, clean abandoned cemeteries, and organize Marches of the Living. Some have learned Yiddish to translate unknown Jewish poets and the like.

Jewish heritage was integral part of Polish heritage and can hardly be overestimated.

During the communist period, Jewish themes were almost a taboo, but thanks to contemporary education, historical publications, art projects and the personal interest of many individuals, knowledge of Poland’s Jewish past is becoming more and more widely recognized.