National Geographic : 1986 Sep
On Assignment AS EVERYONE KNOWS, a good hug works wonders. In the case of author Matgorzata Niezabitowska (right,at right) and her friend Sara Adar an embrace helped bridge the vast difference between a young Polish writer born after the Holocaust and a Polish Jew who survived it. It was not always this easy for Malgor zata and her husband, award-winning photographer Tomasz Tomaszewski, to get close to the last Jews in Poland for the article in this issue. Most of them are lonely old people, haunted by wartime memories and anti-Semitism, who shun attention-espe cially from journalists. "I never dreamed how difficult it would be," says the author, who holds degrees in law and journalism from the University of Warsaw. "It meant overcoming mistrust and gaining acceptance in the closed circles where a goy is always an outsider and every Pole is an anti-Semite." The idea for the project had its roots in Malgorzata's childhood. Raised by her grandmother, she grew up hearing tales about "the good old times" before the war and about the family's Jewish neighbors: "the grain merchant Bergson, almost a member of the family; Zylberstein, in whose shop one could buy all the confec tions of the East; Dr. Lewicki, who saved my father from a violent childhood attack of whooping cough." Her grandmother also spoke of a Jewish family who had been con cealed during the war in a special closet in the family home. "When I wanted to know more, she would say, 'I will tell you some day. These are tragic matters.' I never learned of their fate. And when I grew up and looked around, I realized there were no more Jews." Thus the couple set out on a five-year search for the few remaining Jews in Po land. "The first two years we spent just being with them," says Tomasz. "I didn't take a picture; Malgorzata didn't make a note." They eventually traveled some 50,000 miles back and forth across Poland, interviewing more than a thousand people. Their ultimate success, Tomasz says, was a TOMASZTOMASZEWSKI matter of patience and professional team work, refined by nine years of marriage. This fall Malgorzata and Tomasz will take a break from their respective posi tions in Warsaw as a writer and editor and as a photographer and vice president of the Polish Art Photographers Union. They will come with their eight-year-old daughter, Maryna, to Harvard University, where Malgorzata has accepted a yearlong Nieman Fellowship to pursue advanced studies.