[ An End to Intolerance (Volume 5 -- June 1997) ]


Polish Student Wins
Essay Prize


Thanks to Marek Sawicki, I*EARN Coordinator, Poland,
and Robert Szuchta, history teacher at Lyceum 63, Warsaw,
Poland, for their help in sending student Julia Butrym's
winning composition to <iearn.hgp>.

Thanks to Marek Sawicki, I*EARN Coordinator, Poland, and Robert Szuchta, history teacher at Liceum 64, Warsaw, Poland for their help in sending student Julia Butrym's winning composition to the <iearn.hgp>.

Marek wrote, "Julia Butrym is now studying in the Philosophy Dept. at Warsaw University. She finished our school last year (June '96). Julia's work was awarded in the Polish Jews' History and Culture Competition (1995) by the Israel Minister of Education. The Competition is organized every two years. Her paper was sent to the International Competition about antisemitism and racism as one of five students' work from Poland."

[ Julia Butrym ]
Julia Butrym,
Polish Prizewinner

When I was a little girl, my parents took me to see the first staging of Fiddler on the Roof in Poland. The spectacle made a great impression on me. Not only the artistic form but also the rites and customs shown in the spectacle fascinated me. The most wonderful was the wedding ceremony.

"Will I have such beautiful ceremony?" I asked my mother. She was rather surprised but answered, "Maybe -- if you marry a man of Jewish origin who is attached to his tradition. . . ".

It wasn't enough for me. I wanted to know what the tradition was from the area of Tewije, tradition on which my coming under the canopy was dependent. Then for the first time I heard about Jews, always wandering, living in the Diaspora but surviving as a nation thanks to observing their culture, religion and customs.

Later, I saw an American film revision of Fiddler on the Roof with Chaim Topol. In our house appeared books written by Isaac Beshevis Singer, just published in Poland for the first time. I read them also. My fascination with Jewish tradition was developing.

When I was on my holiday trips, I was looking for remainders of Jewish tradition. Unfortunately, in little towns, which Singer described in his books, there are no Jews anymore, and nobody takes care of their temples and cemeteries. Many synagogues and cemeteries were thoughtlessly devastated. Buildings which escaped destruction are used for different aims. In Kazimierz, the Dolny Synagogue was converted to the cinema. Maybe those who made it didn't realize that they were profaning somebody's religion. Maybe adaptation was the last chance to save the old building from destruction.

When I was in Kazimierz, my parents showed me the Jewish cemetery -- a kind of monument like the wall made from sepulchral plaques from the devastated cemetery. I learned that in this formerly rich, commercial town had lived a large Jewish society which was annihilated in WW II.

My holidays in Kazimierz gave me a lot to think about the historical, complicated Jewish fate in Poland. My grandpa from Lublin told me about his school friends, Jews who later perished in Majdanek. I was looking at the tenement houses in the Lublin Old Town, where those Jewish boys from the beginning of our century lived and places where my grandpa played as a child. I wanted to know about the old, former Jewish district in Warsaw, and then I learned about the tragedy of the Warsaw Ghetto. The monument of the Ghetto's Heroes and Umschlagplatz are the symbolic places. I can't pass by indifferently. Usually, Jewish tourists come to see them. All of them are very solemn and full of concentration, which spreads to other foreign visitors. But not all people behave like that. There are, in Poland, people who admitted they never thought about this. It's a pity and shame.

When, during the Middle Ages, Jews were persecuted and expelled from some countries in Western Europe, many of them found refuge in Poland. Poland had the biggest Jewish population in the world and was the main centre of Jewish culture. Thanks to open access and tolerance, we enriched our culture and, as the time was passing, also science. A lot of Polish Jews were and are famous, eminent personalities. And today, when only a small group of them lives in our country, sometimes I see on house walls the inscription, "Down with Jews."

I think that people who write such words feel themselves unworthy, powerless and scared. Why do they aim their aggression against people who are not here? Because they know that Jews can't threaten them in anyway. When I'm reading those inscriptions I think about the situation from before pogroms during the thirties and, of course, about the Holocaust.

I think that every minority in some circumstances can become "Jews," doomed to extermination. That's why, in my opinion, the real knowledge about real Jews is very important and necessary for us, as a reminder and as a warning. In Poland, the Jews were an important part of the population in the XIX and XX century. How did they live? What did they do? What kind of work did they prefer? What did they like?

I've been looking for the answers in the several books written by Jewish writers. I've searched the analogies and the differences in the visions of life commemorated by them. The Jewish books allowed me to pour over the ordinary life, holidays, ceremonies, and historical traditions. Each writer turned his attention to another kind of event and to another sphere of life. For one of them, the most exciting moment was an examination to the school, for another one, his first article written for a newspaper. They had different interests and different possibilities of personal development. But there was one very powerful and important factor in common -- their Jewish origin.

The Jewish population of Warsaw at the turn of the XIX and XX century belongs to the past irrevocably. The houses and streets exist no more, though lots of their names survive. We can find plates with Jewish designations, on the new houses in post-war districts. "It's difficult to imagine that this entire life which pulsated and was full of radiance perished. This giant amount of human oddities was razed to the ground," wrote I.B. Singer in 1944.

That which was razed to the ground by the felonious fanaticism, survived on the pages of books by Jewish writers. Each one of them described Warsaw from the turn of centuries as seen by the prism of individual sensitivity and interests, but all of them fruitfully recreated the realities. Thanks to writers' reliability in describing material and the social background of literary characters, the description of the Jewish population in Warsaw society came into being. Writers supplied evidence in their commentaries and consolidated, on the pages of their books, everything which no longer exists: people, tradition, the mood of everyday life and the festive atmosphere. In Jewish writers' books, we can "hear" voices from the Jewish street, "smell" scents from Sabbath kitchens. Their realistic writing gives us an illusion of participation in described events. The books written by Jewish authors join the past and the present.

"I came 'back home' through the pages of books written by Jewish authors. . . ."

Nowadays, there exists many ways of recording the times: films, tapes, radio and TV recordings, computers. In the past, the writers had only one way of presenting their impressions and reflections, by words. But maybe the magic power of the books arises from the writer's emotional commitment. Because a book isn't only a description of the pictures, but a synthesis of people's fates and the author's reflection and commentaries. We can find there a writer's personal impressions and feelings. Nothing is artificial or false. Books written by Jewish authors are, for me, a very special guide to the town which is now mine, but (a several dozen) years ago was a town where lived Sosha and Arewa -- characters from stories by I.B. Singer. I walk through the streets and try to imagine the old world, a city where there coexisted such different cultures and customs.

I feel sad that this world doesn't exist anymore. Warsaw, described by Jewish writers, died. In a way, the Holocaust hurt also my generation. A lot of my contemporaries know nothing about old Warsaw. It seems we were robbed of a part of our common, cultural heritage and social interactions, a part of our common family home. I came "back home" through the pages of books written by Jewish authors.



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