Katarzyna Winiarska

Białowieża

Leaders

In 2002, I moved from Warsaw to Teremiski, a small village close to Białowieża, to help create an informal education institution, Uniwersytet Powszechny in Teremiski (“Open University in Teremiski”). Among other things, I was in charge of running an intercultural education program for the University’s students, of which Jewish culture and history were an integral part. During this period, I realized that very little was known and written about the prewar Jewish population of Białowieża, and after several years in the community I understood that very little is also said about it. At a certain point, I started to notice that remnants of the town’s Jewish past were all around us: we learned that the building that housed our University, a former village school built after World War 2 by the local citizens, had been constructed using the materials from what used to be a Jewish school in Białowieża. In the yard of an old farm that I bought with my husband we found a piece of a broken matzevah. As the years passed, and as I grew to be a part of the Białowieża community, I felt more and more the silent void that was left by the Jewish community in this region. It became clear to me that if I did not address this void, nobody would. For this reason I applied to the Ministry of Culture for a grant to collect and edit the stories of the Jews of Białowieża, which I later published on a website called The Virtual Museum of History of the Jews in Białowieża www.jewish-bialowieza.pl.

I work as an organizer of cultural events. I am a graduate of the Institute of Polish Culture at the Faculty of Polish Studies at the University of Warsaw, with a major in Culture Animation, and I hold a post-graduate degree in Jewish Studies at the Institute of History at the University of Warsaw. I co-created the Uniwersytet Powszechny im. J.J. Lipskiego in Teremiski near Białowieża, which I co-managed throughout the years of its activity. In the years 2002-2008 I worked as a youth educator in one of the University’s programs; I also authored and taught an intercultural education program called ‘Oikoumene’. I participated in the writing of a book called ‘The Teremiski Stories’ and a theatrical performance based on it, as well as in the creation of the Teremiski Museum. I arranged the space in my wooden barn to host a theatre in Teremiski, where I have been receiving theatre groups from Poland and abroad. I created and ran long-term cultural education programs at a kindergarten and primary school in Białowieża. I work under the umbrella of the Jacek Kuroń Educational Foundation, of which I am a member. I have been living in Warsaw since 2018, and I regularly visit Teremiski and Białowieża.

photo by J.Szkarłat

For several years now I have been gathering materials on the history of the Jews of Białowieża. I search archives and online resources, interview the oldest witnesses in Białowieża and find descendants of Białowieża’s Jewish families. I have published this material on The Virtual Museum of History of the Jews in Białowieża website www.jewish-bialowieza.pl, which is updated regularly. In 2016, I brought to Białowieża the ‘Museum on Wheels’, a mobile exhibition from the POLIN Museum. I found David Waldshan, one of the survivors from Białowieża, and recorded and published a video interview with him. This is the only existing testimony of a Jewish resident of Białowieża in the world. At the Jacek Kuroń Educational Foundation, with the help of theatre director Joanna Troc and with the participation of children from Białowieża, we made a play entitled ‘Neighbors who are no longer there’. The play is based on the stories of the Jewish population of Białowieża, collected from the oldest residents of the town. We have performed it in Białowieża and in various locations in Poland, including the POLIN Museum in Warsaw. In 2019 I carried out a project entitled ‘From Białowieża to Israel, from Israel to Białowieża’; its purpose was to collect stories from descendants of the Jewish families of Białowieża, whose ancestors had left before the war. In 2018 I was nominated for the POLIN Museum Award. For the past year I have been working on a monument in Białowieża to commemorate its Jewish inhabitants. I also work as an educator at the School of Dialogue program run by Forum for Dialogue.

I believe that the Jewish history of our towns and villages concerns not only Jews. It’s our common history. We should make even more effort to protect it in places where very few Jews were saved, where very little of this history is visible and only scarce traces of the local Jewish past remain. We need to preserve this heritage not only for those who are no longer there, but also for ourselves. When I started uncovering the past and bringing back the memory of the Jewish community of Białowieża, I was doing it with the present Białowieża in mind and thinking about the children who live there, including my own. I believe that our identity is related to the identity of the place where we live. The identity of a place is shaped by its history and the personal stories of all of its inhabitants. I wanted to bring back to Białowieża the Jewish part of its history. Gradually I started finding descendants of the Jews of Białowieża, and sometimes they would find me. For them my work has a different meaning: thanks to the stories I collected from the inhabitants of Białowieża I often know more about their ancestors than they themselves do, and these testimonies are important for them on both a historical and an emotional level.

Activism

Katarzyna Winiarska

Białowieża

mail: katarzyna.winiarska@liderzydialogu.pl