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Polish Photographer Documents Last Jews of Poland

November 22, 1985

WARSAW, Poland (AP) _ In a five-year voyage of personal discovery, Tomasz Tomaszewski and his wife Malgorzata Niezabitowska crisscrossed Poland to document the lonely survivors of this country’s once-vibrant Jewish community.

Photographs from their travels are on display this month at the Gallery of Polish Photographers in Warsaw and will be published in a book next year in the United States.

The 90 color pictures at the gallery show a forgotten world populated by elderly and impoverished Polish Jews who lack family and friends and a place to celebrate their religion.

The subjects include Sara and Rafael Ader, the last Jews in the village of Wlodawa, standing arm-in-arm in their apartment, her head resting against his shoulder; Mojzesz Szapiro, a bearded man who conducts prayer services in Warsaw in the absence of a rabbi, and Jonasz Stern, a painter who lives alone in a cluttered home in Krakow with a black cat he calls ″My Son.″

The one recurring theme is isolation.

Tomaszewski and Miss Niezabitowska, who were born in Poland and who are not Jewish, said they wanted to break stereotypes surrounding the Jewish community in Poland and show the conditions in which Jews live today.

″Most Polish Jews are old, sick and poor and are very sad people,″ said Miss Niezabitowska, 36, a Roman Catholic journalist who has written an accompanying text for the book.

″The idea was not only to show the faces but also to show the places where Jews live, to show the details of their existence,″ said photographer Tomaszewski, 32. ″Our pictures show the sadness of their lives.″

The couple began the project under the influence of the general cultural awakening in Poland fostered by the creation of the now-outlawed Solidarity free trade union movement in 1980.

″To most Poles, especially those born after the war, Polish Jews are as abstract and as remote in history as the mysterious Etruscan people to contemporary Romans,″ the couple wrote in an introduction to the photo exhibit.

″Jews lived here with us for 1,000 years,″ Miss Niezabitowska said in an interview at the couple’s Warsaw home. ″Normally, when a culture disappears, it takes a millenium, or more, but with Polish Jews it took only 20 years.″

In the 19th century, before the height of mass emigration to the United States, nearly four-fifths of the world’s Jews lived in Poland. Before the Nazi invasion in 1939, the 3.35 million Jews in Poland represented about 10 percent of Poland’s total population.

Poland was the world center of Jewish intellectual life, producing Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize-winning writer; Arthur Rubinstein, the pianist, and the founders of modern-day Israel.

More than 3 million Polish Jews were killed by the Nazis during the war. Most of those who remained fled the country in 1968 during an officially backed anti-Semitic campaign inspired by competing factions within the Communist Party.

Fewer than 5,000 people in Poland today are religious Jews. There are no rabbis and few operating synagogues.

″What was left on this soil from the great and luxurious Jewish civilization?″ Tomaszewski and Miss Niezabitowska wrote. ″Our attempt to answer this question was for us a temptation and at the same time a need to face a painful and complex problem.″

Between 1980 and 1985, the couple drove more than 48,000 miles in their car, interviewed more than 3,000 people, and Tomaszewski took more than 7,000 photographs.

Their book, titled ″The Remnants,″ is to be published next September by Friendly Press in New York. It will include 100 color photographs by Tomaszewski and a text by Miss Niezabitowska.

Dozens of visitors have written comments about the show in a guest book at the gallery. One, Craig Winauer of Kings Park, N.Y., wrote:

″As an American Jew whose family is from Warsaw and who knows what life was like here for the Jews it is so very sad to see what it is for them now. You have put me a step closer to the world my family came from.″

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