Without Earphones

While in Poland as a guest of the government’s Ministry of Culture and Education in 1969, I attended a performance at Warsaw’s historical Estera Kaminska  State Yiddish Theatre (Teatr Zydowskie) located in a main square in the center of Warsaw, Plac Grzybowski.

The play scheduled for that night was “Skarb Cezara” (The Emperor’s Treasure) written by the famed Yiddish writer, Sholem Aleichem.

The theatre was filled by Polish men and women, all wearing earphones to listen to the translation of the Yiddish-speaking actors into Polish. Several of the actors were non-Jews who were fluent in Yiddish.

I happened to notice one young man seated in front in a row opposite me. He was not wearing earphones. Neither was I. We were the only two people in the theater without earphones.

At the end of the play he approached me and began speaking in Polish. “Ja nie mowiem dobrze po polsku” I replied immediately, informing him that my Polish was not very good. He smiled and continued in Yiddish.

As we approached the theater’s exit doors he asked me “du host zeit zu kummen mit mir zu eine café?” Did I have time to go with him to a café? I did. And we walked along the Marszalkowska and entered a charming café where he had taken morning coffee several times.

He introduced himself as Zygmunt Sanowicz. He was in his early forties and was a survivor of the Holocaust.

Handing me a menu of desserts (all in Polish) listed under the menu heading “Ciastka”, cakes, he made recommendations to me, things traditionally Polish.

Kremowka (a cream pie of two layers of puff pastry filled with whipped cream), Sernik (a popular Polish cheesecake) and Paczki (which looked like donuts and filled with custard).

I ordered the kremowka and he chose the sernik. Both of us ordered steaming herbata (tea).

Over our munching, he told me a few things about himself. He had been born in Warsaw. His parents and an older brother had been deported to Treblinka and perished there. He was taken into a Catholic convent where the nuns sheltered him until after the war had ended,

By profession, he worked as a printer earning enough money to pay his rent and food expenses and had left-over zlotys for theatre and entertainments.

I asked him how he could remain in Poland, especially during that 1969 year of immense anti-Semitism. I asked why so many Jewish survivors remained in Poland.

He replied to my second question first. “Older Jewish people are often married to non-Jewish Poles. They are accustomed to their lives in Poland. Polish is their mother-tongue and because of their age they would not be able to find work in another country. So they live quietly on pensions from the government”

Responding to the first part of my question, he leaned over and said very quietly “I have applied for an immigration visa to Denmark. Hundreds of younger Poles my age are already there. And I would be able to work.”

After a very pleasant evening, he walked me back to my Hotel Europejski. I gave him my address and he promised to write.

Several months later I received a postcard from Copenhagen, Denmark. Zygmunt wrote that he found work and was living in one small room but was very happy. He was learning Danish and had several friends among the Polish emigres.

There was no return address on the postcard so I was unable to reply. It has been 48 years since our first and only meeting.

And all because the two of us were without earphones.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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