'Jew' was a swear word in Lublin. Now we fight to tell truth about this city

'Jew' was a swear word here. Now we fight to tell truth about this city


When Polish tour guide Magdalena Pokrzycka-Walczak arrived at work one day in 2012, she was shocked to be told of a complaint against her.

"Two Polish women on one of my tours claimed that I focused too much on the Jewish history of Lublin," says Ms Pokrzycka. "They told my boss to watch out for me because I was probably a Jew."

Widespread antisemitism continues to exist in Poland, and Poles who try to educate others can be the butt of it. So what motivates non-Jews such as Ms Pokrzycka to devote their lives to raising awareness?

At school during the Communist era, when Jewish history was suppressed, Ms Pokrzycka thought the term "Jew" was a swear word describing "a bad person". Later, as a guide, she refused to believe a Jewish community had existed in Lublin. "I would argue about it, insisting it was impossible."

This changed in 1994 when Ms Pokrzycka accompanied two Orthodox Jews to the Jewish cemetery in Lublin, as their guide. "I hadn't known about the cemetery. It was dark and cold and the men prayed at a tomb - it was the most beautiful moment, really haunting. I had an immense emotional reaction from the heart."

Ms Pokrzycka's attitude towards Jewish history altered. "What happened in the cemetery was a revelation. I became hungry for information, I wanted to know about the Jews."

Ms Pokrzycka now specialises in Jewish history and is one of Lublin's leading authorities, writing about Judaism, leading tours and helping Jews search for information.

Her voice trembles with anger at the history withheld from her and the antisemitism she sees. "The problem is ignorance," she explains.

She describes the Majdanek concentration camp on the outskirts of Lublin. "People think it's a pleasant place to go at weekends," she says. "I can't believe it. I've had Poles shout at me on tours when I tell the truth."

There are others like Ms Pokrzycka in Lublin. Witek Dabrowski, deputy director at the Grodzka Gate Theatre NN centre, spends his days reconstructing Lublin's Jewish history. In 1990, he and co-founder Tomasz Pietrasiewicz set out to establish a theatre at the gate. When they discovered that it originally linked the city's Jewish and Christian areas and that the huge empty space on one side had once been a bustling Jewish district, their plans shifted.

"We were astonished to discover this fact about the gate and we knew we could not use the building without acknowledging it," says Mr Dabrowski, who has now learnt Yiddish. "We discovered theatres, newspapers, schools; a bright, busy community. We realised that our culture is full of Jewish references and Yiddish words. It was exciting and incredibly sad."

Theatre NN now employs 50 people and receives funding from the Lublin municipality to teach this history. It goes into schools, runs exhibitions and has assembled a vast body of information, including many first hand accounts of Jewish Lublin.

Mr Pietrasiewicz has been the target of violent antisemitic attacks because of his work. However, Mr Dabrowski insists that neither of them would change what they do. "This is much more than a job for me," he says. "It's a passion."

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