Letters to a Dead Jewish Child

Aviva Lori
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Aviva Lori

LUBLIN, Poland - "Too bad we don't live near each other anymore. I miss you. I miss you so much. I am sending you a picture. It shows me giving you the letter and you giving me flowers. Write me back if you like this letter. I am waiting. 122 kisses. Gabrysia."

This is a little girl's letter to a little boy. The boy is 8 years old, as is the girl. He is a head taller than her. Her braids are decorated with bows. In the background, the girl has drawn a broken heart, a butterfly and several cats. It is a cheerful picture, done in reds and pinks. The girl has even added a date - March 1941 - as if she were alive at that time and the letter were genuine.

This is one of thousands of letters sent between 2005 and 2007 to Henio Zytomirski, the boy in the picture, at 11 Kowalska Street in Lublin. But the letters never reached Henio. They were returned with a postmark: "Unknown."

Henio Zytomirski doesn't live there anymore. He doesn't live anywhere. On November 9, 1942, he perished in the gas chambers at Majdanek concentration camp - a 9-year-old boy who went to his death entirely alone. Kowalska Street was his last address in the Lublin ghetto.

Last photograph

"Dear Henio, I don't understand myself why I am writing to a dead child. My childhood was very different from yours, but I think we would have a common language. Your childhood friend, Alek Lewicki."

In 2001, Neta Avidar-Zytomirski packed a suitcase in Israel and boarded a plane for Poland. Slipping some old family letters and photographs in among the clothing, Avidar-Zytomirski, an artist from Netanya, joined her colleagues, not all children of Holocaust survivors, on a tour organized by the Israel Association of Lublin Jews. During her visit, she met Tomasz (Tomek) Pietrasiewicz and Witold (Witek) Dabrowski, directors of the local cultural center, Brama Grodzka City Gate Theater NN, which is largely devoted to reviving and preserving Jewish heritage.

Avidar-Zytomirski was born on Kibbutz Amir three months after the death of her cousin Henio. Her father, Yehuda Zytomirski, was the only member of the family to immigrate to Palestine before the war, and thus survived. Henio's father, Shmuel, was his older brother. "When I met Tomek and Witek, they asked me if I had more family photos, letters and papers at home," says Avidar- Zytomirski. "When I got back, I decided to pick up the gauntlet."

Trained as a teacher, Avidar-Zytomirski prepared a slide show of Henio's brief life from the photographs in her possession, added the four-year correspondence between her father and uncle from 1939 to 1943, and sent it to Lublin. One of the photos was taken on July 5, 1939, two months before the war broke out. Henio, 6, is standing at the entrance of a building (today, Bank PKO), smiling and dressed in his holiday best. It was the last photo to arrive, along with a letter in Hebrew from his father. "Henio will be starting Tarbut school [a network of Jewish schools in pre-war Poland] in two months, and he can already ride a two-wheeler," his father wrote. "He is a very mischievous little boy but in my eyes, he is the most wonderful child imaginable. I am enclosing his last photograph." Henio's father did not know how horribly right he was.

Tomek Pietrasiewicz, 50, grew up in Lublin. Before the war, a third of the city's population was Jewish, but at home his parents never said a word about Jews or the Holocaust. Except for one incident in his childhood, the topic never interested him. "In elementary school, we had this old teacher. One day, when she was very angry at us for something, she told us about a 9-year-old boy in her village who was dragged out of the house by a German soldier and paraded through the main street until his hair turned white. She told this dramatic story as a way of getting us to calm down.

"It made a great impression on me - not because he was Jewish, but because of the white hair. When I began my Jewish research, I went back to my classmates and asked if they remembered the story. None of them did. I realized that I was the only person left with any memory of that boy, and if I didn't do something about it, no one would know he ever lived."

Pietrasiewicz completed his master's degree in theoretical physics and joined an avant-garde student theater group. The group underwent several transformations before assuming its final form in 1992 and moving to its current home at the Grodzka Gate - the gate which, up until the war, marked the border between the Christian and Jewish quarters. The Germans deported all the Jews to the ghetto and blew up the Jewish quarter. Today, apart from a well, a streetlamp and a few stones, hardly a trace remains. Most of the land was turned into a park. The gate is a massive medieval structure with arches and flights of stairs going up and down in every direction.

Pietrasiewicz, director of the theater group, brought in Dabrowski, a musician, and together they looked for artistic material. "We asked ourselves what was here before, who occupied this space before us, and little by little we realized that it was the Jews," Dabrowski says. "Until 1989, no one talked about such things. Lublin was a city without history. In the old guide books, it says 'Jews also lived here' - but in actuality, 42,000 Jews lived here. There were more than 100 study halls and 10 synagogues, among them the Maharshal synagogue where 3,000 Jews prayed on Yom Kippur. There were newspapers and theaters. Jewish boys fell in love with Christian girls, and vice versa. But Lublin was also the site of one of the largest Nazi death camps, Majdanek. For me, it was a great revelation that most of the people killed there were Jews. Out of 79,000 victims, 60,000 were Jews."

One day, Pietrasiewicz looked out at the nonexistent Jewish town and made the decision to bring these voiceless souls back to life. "This is my fate," he says. "There's a secret here, and my job is to reveal it." Since then, the building at Grodzka Gate has become a research and documentation center for the Jewish history of Lublin. The house has undergone massive renovation. The center's staff of 30 interviews survivors and their Polish neighbors about life before the war, curates photography exhibitions, restores streets and buildings, holds seminars for teachers and schoolchildren, records Yiddish songs and organizes Friday night dinner for members and about 30 Jews who still live in the city. A special bakery bakes them challah, they make kiddush over kosher wine, they recite prayers welcoming the Shabbat and sing Shabbat songs.

Monument to the children

"Dear Henio, I have never written to a dead person, but I will try. My brother will be eight soon, and it's a little scary. You died like many others, and for what? For being a Jew? For being Polish? We have to make sure this doesn't happen again. Ever."

In 2001, Pietrasiewicz and Dabrowski received the photos of Henio sent from Israel. "They sat here and no one knew what to do with them," says Pietrasiewicz. "But all of a sudden, I felt a powerful sense of mission. For many years I didn't want to deal with the Holocaust. Suddenly, like a river rising and overflowing the riverbank, I understood that I couldn't ignore it anymore. I had to do something.

"I grew up in a neighborhood on the outskirts of town, about two kilometers from Majdanek. To me, it was a horrifying place, crawling with ghosts. Then I saw the pictures of Henio and it was like a sign. I'm not supposed to say such things, because I'm a physicist, but it's true. Suddenly I knew that I wanted to do something for these children. The European Union gave us tens of thousands of euros to organize an exhibit at Majdanek, and I decided to use it to create a monument to the children."

Not one monument, but two. With the money, Theater NN put together an exhibition and inaugurated the "Letters to Henio" project, which has been going on for the past four years. The exhibition, "Elementarz" ("primer" in Polish), is mounted in Bloc 53, and dedicated to the children of the camp. "The first words children learn to write are 'mother,' 'father,' 'house,' 'dog,' 'cat,'" says Dabrowski. "In the Majdanek primer, they learn words like 'roll-call,' 'crematorium,' 'bloc,' 'gas chamber,' 'transport,' 'number,' 'camp' and 'selection.'"

Another project, which began six years ago, is "Letters to the Ghetto." Schoolchildren in Lublin wrote letters to children their own age and sent them to addresses in the ghetto. These letters were also returned with the postmark "Unknown." "We went into classes of 12- and 13-year-olds, and gave out addresses. We told them it was connected to the Holocaust. Some of them wrote about themselves. Others handed in blank sheets of paper, or wrote: 'The teacher told me to write, so I'm writing.' Some wrote very moving personal letters. Over 1,000 envelopes were mailed, among them letters to Henio."

Three years ago, the center decided to focus on Henio to concretize the concept of victimhood. They created a Web site and published the photographs sent by Avidar- Zytomirski in a booklet. This was preceded by study days for teachers and educators, who learned about Henio's life and then taught classes on the subject. On April 19, 2005 - which is Holocaust Day in Poland, and the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising - a special mailbox for letters to Henio was set up outside Bank PKO, where the last picture of him was taken. The postal authorities, which processed the letters like ordinary mail, were inundated with thousands of letters that had to be returned to their senders. A walking tour was organized that day to the places where Henio had lived, including his home in the ghetto. The day ended with a silent prayer beside the one streetlamp left from the Jewish town.

The project was repeated in the same format in 2006. In 2007, passersby were asked to write letters on the spot. Again, the response was extraordinary. Since then, Henio Zytomirski has become an icon of the Holocaust - not only in Lublin, but all over Poland. Today, he is part of the school curriculum. The national and local press have run many articles about him. The story of Henio appears in school newspapers and is used to teach the significance of the Holocaust, which was merely an abstraction beforehand.

"We have turned the theater into a place where history is told," say Pietrasiewicz and Dabrowski. Today, their theater is a one-man show: Dabrowski acts and Pietrasiewicz directs. Their repertoire includes Jewish folktales, Yiddish songs, and stories by Jewish authors accompanied by accordion. They tour Poland and appear at festivals around the world. "For me, this is not work and not theater. It's an adventure," says Dabrowski. "I spend hours here every day. My work is my hobby. People in Lublin ask me if we hire only Jews. But there's not a Jew among us."

When asked if perhaps they have Jewish roots, they answer: "Ich bin a goy mit a yiddishe neshome" ("I'm a goy with a Jewish soul").

So what do you do, actually?

Pietrasiewicz: "Cry."

Dabrowski: "And remember."