Ninel’s Samovar

I first met Ninel in 1991 when I was introduced to Ninel by her son Mati. Mati was a young, charismatic student leader at the forefront of the resurgence of Jewish life in post-Communist Poland. Ninel’s renowned, book-lined apartment, which graced the pages of a 1986 National Geographic, had made her famous five years before I got to Poland. I felt that I knew her already. “Remnants” they had called them, “The Last Jews Of Poland.” Ninel was no remnant.

Ninel was a printer for the Solidarity movement and risked arrest under martial law for distributing hand-printed newsletters and books whose goal was to bring down the Communist regime that her parents helped establish. Her name Ninel, is Lenin spelled backwards.

During the anti-Semitic purges of 1968, when thousands of Jews fled, Ninel remained in Poland to tend to her sick parents. Ninel worked for 25 years at the Jewish Historical Institute, cataloging minute by minute more than 1,000 movies depicting Nazi atrocities during theHolocaust. Each film was like a dagger through her heart, but she felt “she owed it to them because she survived.”

Ninel’s tiny, pre-WWI apartment on Jagiellonska — my refuge in Poland during my first two summers there, and during my first year living in Poland — was a rendezvous point for artists, writers, revolutionaries, musicians, and actors who crowded around her wooden table and its shiny samovar, for strong tea and shots of peppered vodka.

Ninel became an accomplished Jewish writer. She authored Święta i tradycje żydowskie, Jewish Holidays and Traditions, still one of the best selling Jewish books in post-war Poland. Ninel’s respect for Jewish tradition rubbed off on her younger son, who had the first post-war public Bar Mitzvah in 1985. Currently, Rabbi Mati Kos, one of only a handful of post-Communist ordained Polish Rabbis, serves as a Jewish chaplain in Durham, UK.

Ninel’s kind eyes looked upon with compassion on all those who had suffered. In the meantime, she herself endured her own private exile in her own land, surrounded by a civilization that had been obliterated, and determined to keep their memory at the forefront of the world’s conscience. Her epitaph should read, “Died of a broken heart for the victims of the Holocaust and Communism.”

I will always cherish those days around Ninel’s samovar, translating for my mother and Ninel as they carried on great discussions about art and life, laughing till we cried. Ninel was a painter too, and her art hung from every corner of her home in solemn witness to her work.

Ninel passed away on June 4th, after loosing a long battle with illness, on the anniversary of the fall of Communism in Poland that she successfully fought. She is survived by her two sons and five grandchildren, and her samovar.

Rekindling Polish Jewish Life: A Video Compilation

Rarely seen footage from the rebirth of Polish Jewish life compiled into video in 2003.

Compilation of footage from programs created by Rabbi Yonah and Rachel Bookstein during work in rebuilding the Jewish community 1998-2001, as Directors of The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. Yonah, began work in Poland with the Jewish community starting in June 1991. He was sent back to Poland in 1992 by Rabbi Chaskel Besser to be song leader at the summer camp run by Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the new country director of the Foundation. After continuing to travel to Poland for community programming and holidays on behalf of the Foundation, Yonah travelled to Krakow for a year-long Fulbright Fellowship in post-war Polish-Jewish relations. In Krakow, with the help of local young Jews and the Lauder Foundation, he started the Jewish Youth Club in Krakow, and other youth activities in 1993.

Yonah commuted back and forth from Oxford, England in the ensuing years to help with community renewal, and then with his wife Rachel, starting in 1996 from Israel. In 1998 Yonah and Rachel moved to Warsaw to take over community building efforts that had been led by Rabbi Schudrich who was Directing the Lauder Foundation. There they established several key community institutions, and rebuilt or renewed others including: Warsaw Mikvah, Jewish Book Festival, Jewish Culture Festival of Warsaw, Moses Shore Centrer, Lauder Ulpan, Bak Buk, Tourist Information Center and others. They left Poland in September 2011. Many of their students today are leaders of the Jewish community of Poland.

Some places mentioned in the video:

Camp Lauder / Srodborow – summer and winter retreats run for families, teens, students, and child survivors of the Holocaust.

Warsaw – scenes from community programs

Final scene is from Lodz – Jewish youth club and kindergarten