Seventy-seven years after Jewish dissidents mounted a historic rebellion in Poland, Jews and non-Jews, tethered by common interests and internet links, marked the Warsaw Ghetto uprising through conversation and education. An April 22 Zoom program, supported by Classrooms Without Borders, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Partnership2Gether and the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, enabled participants to hear from Canadian-born filmmaker Eric Bednarski and Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich.
Bednarski, whose documentary “Warsaw: A City Divided” was available for at-home viewing one week prior to the event, discussed the film’s genesis as well as current life in Warsaw.
“About 15 years ago I unearthed unique and hitherto unknown 8 millimeter amateur found footage from 1941 that was shot in the Warsaw Ghetto soon after its creation by the Nazis,” said Bednarski. “When I took the footage to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center and memorial in Jerusalem, scholars there described it as the missing link in the visual history of the Warsaw Ghetto.”
For Bednarski, a Warsaw resident, the city had long been of interest. The area had served as his father’s and grandparents’ home, and as a child, Bednarski’s father recounted haunting tales of Warsaw and its inhabitants during World War II.
What became especially intriguing to the cinephile was that for years there had been rumors within Bednarski’s family that a distant relative had recorded images of the ghetto during the war. Shortly after film school, Bednarski confirmed the material’s existence and that it had been recorded by Alfons Ziolkowski, and contacted the latter’s descendants.
Bednarski, who isn’t Jewish, was given access to the footage.
“You can imagine what this discovery was like for a young filmmaker,” he said.
Little is known regarding Ziolkowski’s intentions or the circumstances surrounding the material, but Bednarski appreciates Ziolkowski’s approach. “The material he produced differs in significant ways from the well-known footage later produced by Nazi German propaganda film crews in 1942. We are shown different locations. We discover the ghetto in a much earlier phase of its existence. We are not seeing it through the eyes of the occupiers and the perpetrators,” said Bednarski.
Ziolkowski, Bednarski continued, “is an outsider but also a part of Warsaw and I think he has got a sympathetic approach.” He goes to “specific places and wants to show what is happening,” and the footage serves as “a kind of documentary.”
Even in the reaction of those filmed, their awareness differs from that of subjects depicted in the “Nazi propaganda film footage many of us have seen over the years. People in Ziolkowski’s 8 millimeter footage appear a little more at ease, I think, probably because it’s just him, and apparently the story goes, he shot much of the footage using kind of a hidden camera technique and would take it out occasionally so he wasn’t there with a big film crew.”
Following Bednarski’s presentation, Schudrich posed several questions to the filmmaker, including inquiries as to current life in Warsaw.
“It is a very painful place to live, but also a very amazing place to live,” said Bednarski. “When I first came here, I have to say it was overwhelming especially because I was immersed in this subject, and then you have an additional layer of the communist system — especially the early years, the Stalinist years were very brutal — so there’s so much pain and suffering in Warsaw. But there’s also an amazing city of incredible people, dynamism, energy, wonderful young people, so it’s a city with many faces.”
Because of its history, and the reality that there remain residents directly tied to its dark moments, “I think people who live in Warsaw somehow learn to deal with what happened here. I think remembering is very important here. And life goes on in a way in Warsaw, but we can’t forget and we’ll never forget, I hope, what happened here.”
Warsaw’s ties to Pittsburgh grew last year following the former’s inclusion in the Federation’s Partnership2Gether program, which originally linked just Pittsburgh and Karmiel and Misgav in Israel.
“Adding Warsaw to our partnership will enable us to truly put global Jewish peoplehood into practice,” said Jan Levinson, chair of the Warsaw Connection, in a 2019 statement. “Having another Diaspora community that is outside of the United States can put a mirror up in front of our faces, both here in Pittsburgh and in Karmiel/Misgav, and help strengthen our Jewish identities and strengthen our relationships with each other.”
Reflecting on the past year, and the growing relationship between the communities, Debbie Swartz, Federation’s overseas planning associate, said, “We’re very excited to be holding this Zoom today, and it’s one of many that we hope that we will continue to hold to educate all of our partners within the partnership about our respective locations. We have a lot of learning to do about each other’s narratives, and this is the start of that process.”
Although the April 22 program represented an initial collaboration between Federation’s Partnership2Gether and Classrooms Without Borders, the latter has held multiple online events in recent weeks, said Daniel Pearlman, CWB’s program manager.
An April 21 webinar with educator Rachel Korazim covered the Holocaust in modern Israeli literature. An April 6 Zoom program introduced attendees to Rwandan genocide survivor and human rights activist Jacqueline Murekatete. And on March 31, Classrooms Without Borders welcomed academician David Hirsh for an online lecture titled “Anti-Semitism, Populism and Politics Today: Learning from the British Experience.”
“Classrooms Without Borders has had, for the past five weeks, at least one to three programs a week on Zoom, and most of those programs have had over 100 people in attendance,” said Pearlman.
With schools, synagogues and institutions shuttered due to COVID-19, “it’s important to provide educational resources at this time,” said CWB founder and executive director Tsipy Gur.
“We have a responsibility to keep supporting our educators. That’s the main thing,” but beyond providing “professional development through hands-on classes and support, there are students who are joining us through Zoom,” and as a result, “we’re tailoring Zoom specific lectures to different groups.”
Whether it’s cultivating a weekly book discussion or finding opportunities for community members to view important films and enjoy follow-up discussions, like the April 22 event with Bednarski and Schudrich, or the April 30 program with Israeli filmmaker Udi Nir (whose 2019 documentary “Golda” includes rare archival footage of the late Israeli prime minister), Classrooms Without Borders is continuing to “bring Israel to the forefront,” said Gur, who credited the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh with supporting the charge.
“Our vision is to be a strong and vibrant connected Jewish community with Israel at our heart,” said Vicki Holthaus, Partnership2Gether’s co-chair. Peering across the screen and seeing people from Warsaw, Pittsburgh and Israel united in learning, “I feel like the silver lining for this is that we may not have had the opportunity to do this if we had not had this unfortunate thing happening now, but with that we’re able to introduce our partnership together.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.