I first met Ninel in 1991 when I was introduced to Ninel by her son Mati. Mati was a young, charismatic student leader at the forefront of the resurgence of Jewish life in post-Communist Poland. Ninel’s renowned, book-lined apartment, which graced the pages of a 1986 National Geographic, had made her famous five years before I got to Poland. I felt that I knew her already. “Remnants” they had called them, “The Last Jews Of Poland.” Ninel was no remnant.
Ninel was a printer for the Solidarity movement and risked arrest under martial law for distributing hand-printed newsletters and books whose goal was to bring down the Communist regime that her parents helped establish. Her name Ninel, is Lenin spelled backwards.
During the anti-Semitic purges of 1968, when thousands of Jews fled, Ninel remained in Poland to tend to her sick father. Ninel worked for 25 years at the Jewish Historical Institute, cataloging minute by minute more than 1,000 movies depicting Nazi atrocities during theHolocaust. Each film was like a dagger through her heart, but she felt “she owed it to them because she survived.”
Ninel’s tiny, pre-WWI apartment on Jagiellonska — my refuge in Poland during my first two summers there, and during my first year living in Poland — was a rendezvous point for artists, writers, revolutionaries, musicians, and actors who crowded around her wooden table and its shiny samovar, for strong tea and shots of peppered vodka.
Ninel became an accomplished Jewish writer. She authored Święta i tradycje żydowskie, Jewish Holidays and Traditions, still one of the best selling Jewish books in post-war Poland. Ninel’s respect for Jewish tradition rubbed off on her younger son, who had the first post-war public Bar Mitzvah in 1985. Currently, Rabbi Mati Kos, one of only a handful of post-Communist ordained Polish Rabbis, serves as a Jewish chaplain in Durham, UK.
Ninel’s kind eyes looked with compassion on all those who had suffered. In the meantime, she herself endured her own private exile in her own land, surrounded by a civilization that had been obliterated, and determined to keep their memory at the forefront of the world’s conscience. Her epitaph should read, “Died of a broken heart for the victims of the Holocaust and Communism.”
I will always cherish those days around Ninel’s samovar, translating for my mother and Ninel as they carried on great discussions about art and life, laughing till we cried. Ninel was a painter too, and her art hung from every corner of her home in solemn witness to her work.
Ninel passed away on June 4th, after loosing a long battle with illness, on the anniversary of the fall of Communism in Poland that she successfully fought. She is survived by her two sons and five grandchildren, and her samovar.
Yonah Bookstein, a leading voice of the Next Generation of American Jewry, is an internationally recognized expert in Jewish innovation, founder of Jewlicious Festival and Executive Rabbi at JConnectLA. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiYonah.