A Photo Waiting to Be Seen

There’s a photograph of a little boy taken in 1939. It’s black and white. He’s standing on a step in front of the concrete facade of a building in Lublin, Poland. His shirt is white. The stiff collar is buttoned to the top. He’s wearing shorts, short white striped socks with black stripes and white shoes. He has a tentative smile on his face, like maybe he’s happy but unsure about getting his photo taken.

Henio Zytomirski, “The Last Photo.” (1939)

The little boy’s name is Henio Zytomirski. He was born in Lublin in 1933. His father, Shmuel, took a photograph of him every year. This is the last photograph because Henio was a Jewish boy, and on September 1, 1939 the Germans invaded Poland. Eventually, Henio’s family was forced to move to the ghetto. After that we believe that he was sent the death camp Majdanek and murdered there. Most of Lublin’s 43,000 Jews (out of a pre-war population of 120,000) were murdered during the Holocaust.

Henio, unlike many who perished in the Shoah, has people who remember him. His uncle had left Poland and moved to Palestine before World War II. Henio’s father in Poland sent photographs to his brother in Palestine.

But it’s not only Henio’s family who remembers him. There is a remarkable group of fifty non-Jewish Poles in Lublin who comprise a center called Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN. It is a cultural institution and theatre dedicated to preserving Jewish memory.

I was first introduced to them while accompanying my mother on a book tour in Poland thirteen years ago in 2005. She had been born in Lublin but had painful memories associated with the city. Though hers was one of the three intact nuclear Jewish families who had managed to survive World War II, she had lost over 100 members of her extended family, her friends and her whole childhood. In order to survive she and her sister had been forced to take on false Catholic identities and to leave the city. When they returned after the war, much of the Lublin she knew had been destroyed. The only other time she had visited Lublin (though as a Holocaust scholar she had been to Poland a number of times) since leaving in 1946 with her family, was in 1978. That was a painful visit. The street she was born on, Szeroka Street, was no longer there — it had been turned into a parking lot. The street that she had lived on when the war broke out, Pijarksa Street, was also gone — a bank stood where the entrance to the street used to be.

Thus, Lublin for my mother was a painful prospect while for me it was a blank slate. Some of the people who came to hear her speak in 2005 worked in Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN. I saw their passion for preserving Jewish memory and I was intrigued that non-Jews would want to do this, but I had only gotten a glimpse and I wanted to see more. Two years later I returned for several weeks to do just that. It was then that I got to know two men: Tomek Pietrasiewicz and Witek Dabrowski the Director and Deputy Director of Brama Grodzka. Originally they were planning to start a theatre group in the space that houses Brama Grodzka, but when Tomek discovered that Brama Grodzka (or “Town Gate”) used to also be called Brama Zydowska, (or “Jewish Gate”) he began asking questions. He found out that the space where they were planning to house a theatre used to at one time be the dividing line between the Christian and Jewish worlds in Lublin. The Jewish world on the other side of the gate was gone. And so he changed his mission. Instead of starting a theatre company he founded an “Ark of Memory”–a centre dedicated to preserving the sights, sounds, memories and facts about that lost world. Slowly Brama Grodzka grew. Now there are fifty people who work there day in and day out remembering the Jews of Lublin — those, like Henio who have a name, and those who do not. NN stands for Nomen Nescio or Name Unknown in Latin.

The story of Henio Zytomirski is part of the permanent exhibition at Brama Grodzka. Everyone who takes a tour there will learn of Henio. And there are other ways to learn of him as well. Every April 19 — Holocaust Remembrance Day in Poland — people gather at that spot where the last picture of Henio was taken. They walk together to the place where the Zytomirski family lived before the war and in the ghetto. And then they walk to where Tomek has set up an eternal lamp that burns all the time in memory of the Jews of Lublin. Then people are asked to write a letter to Henio. You write the letter, fold it, put it in an envelope and address it to Henio and put a stamp on it. Of course the letter gets returned to sender because Henio no longer exists. Brama Grodzka has hundreds (perhaps more than a thousand) of these returned letters. I once wrote one with my home address as the return address. I was at my home in Massachusetts getting the mail on my porch one day and saw my writing on an envelope. When I saw the name, “Henio Zytomirski” I started. It made me think of Henio, but of course Henio stands in for so many children who were murdered, many whose names we will never know.

Witek Dąbrowski, Deputy Director of Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN, was recently visiting the States. During his visit I got out my grandmother’s photo album. I was about to embark on a journey of several months to Poland and wanted to make sure that I had a scan of one particular photo — the only photo of any of my grandmother’s sisters, all three of whom were murdered in the Holocaust. This sister — Golde — had four boys and had moved to Kovel during the war. When my grandmother saw the photo in the album in the 1980s when I was visiting her in her Ramat Gan apartment with a friend, she had quickly stopped chatting, gasped and slammed the album shut. I now opened up the album to scan this precious photo. Witek noticed another photo on the same page,

“Isn’t that Henio’s father?” he asked, pointing at one of six men seated in a meeting with a caption that said, “Po’alei Zion” in Yiddish.

“I don’t know.” I answered, not being as familiar with the images of Henio Zytomirski’s family as Witek.

He looked online and found an image of Shmuel Zytomirski. It sure looked like the same guy.

I emailed Henio’s cousin Neta in Israel, “Is this your uncle?”

“Y e s ! ! !” Neta replied back via email.

“This man is absolutely Shmuel Zytomirski, my uncle, Henio’s father!!!

He was the chairman of the Poale Zion (Z.S.) party in Lublin.

This picture is all new to me. I am so happy to have it.

Thank you Leora and Witek!”

This was a magical moment for me. I believe the work of Jewish remembrance is strongest when we do it together — me together with my non-Jewish friends at Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN and elsewhere in Poland. The fact that my non-Jewish, Polish friend was able to recognize a Jewish man from 1930s Lublin in my grandmother’s photo album attests to the connection that the people who work at Brama Grodzka have made with my ancestors. I would have never taken a second glance at that photo. To me it was just a boring picture of a committee meeting. I have known Henio’s story for eleven years but not until now have I known that I had a picture of his father waiting to be discovered in my home! It was Witek who enabled me to see.

Leora Tec is the Director of Bridge To Poland, an organization that she founded to engage people in topics related to Jewish Poland through small group travel, talks and workshops. She is interested in questions of identity and memory and in uncovering the unexpected hope that is present in modern day Poland. Her mother, Nechama Tec is a Holocaust survivor and Holocaust scholar whose focus is on rescue and resistance. Leora sees her work as the second generation of her mother’s work. She is currently working on a book about her experiences finding identity and unexpected connections in Poland, and has recently received a Fellowship from Wellesley College to spend seven months in Poland exploring Jewish memory.