Gary Gelb Photography
Behind the Photos!

The Making of Who Will Say Kaddish?

I first traveled to Poland on August 15, 1995. I landed in Warsaw and took a taxi to an apartment I had arranged to rent. After getting in touch with the mother of the person I was renting from and somehow communicating to her who I was (she spoke no English and I no Polish) she gave me the apartment key and showed me around. Rabbi LieberIt was a single room studio that I was to share with Larry, who was to arrive a couple days later. We brought sleeping bags and as the room had only one single bed, luckily for me Larry found the bed to be so uncomfortable that he preferred the floor. Just as luckily I managed to get used to the bed after a few nights.

I stayed overnight and the following morning I made my way to the train station and followed the directions given to me by rabbi Michael Shudrich a week earlier. I was to visit some type of camp in Southern Poland. This week was for Children of the Holocaust and I was certain to meet some of the Jews I wanted to do a story about.

I boarded the train at Warsaw's Central Station and changed in Bielsko-Biala for a second train to Zywiec. Upon arrival I found a taxi to take me to Dwor Rychwald (pronounce the w's like v's and youÕve got it), or Rychwald Manor.

outdoor_prayerThe facility was centered around a big old building with a synagogue and some guest rooms upstairs. There were also a bunch of other dorm-like one-floor buildings with very Spartan guest rooms. I cannot explain the initial excitement as I approached in the taxi. I paid the driver, got my bags out and called out inquisitively to the very first male I saw (who happened to being wearing a yarmulke), "Rabbi Shudrich, Rabbiu Shudrich?" as if he had nothing better to do than be waiting art the edge of the camp for me. As it was not him I asked where I could find rabbi Shudrich, the New York City Rabbi from the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation who was only a few years older than me and had invited me to the camp. I donÕt remember many other details immediately following this, but the next 4 or 5 days that I spent there were simply incredible. With my excitement brimming I made some of the best pictures of my almost 4 months in Poland during these couple of days. I took 27 rolls of film with about 37 frames per roll (that's 1000 pictures!) during this short time.

outdoor_prayerOnce I found Rabbi Shudrich he got me hooked up with a room and I found my roommate, Max from the Ukraine, who seemed nice enough.

Since the text of Kaddish speaks to this initial experience in Poland it is important for me to point out that at no time, until the issue was brought up otherwise, did the thought ever enter my mind as to whether or not any of these people were Jewish or not Jewish. They were at a Jewish camp, some wore yarmulkes, some tzitzis, and they all seemed to be as observant as anyone I knew, more so than most.

footballUpon emerging from my room I probably took a camera with me but I am sure that I just had it slung over my shoulder, more towards my back to make it less noticeable, and just floated around awkwardly trying to talk to people. The exact details of the next couple of hours are foggy, but I remember that inside of being there 1 or 2 hours people were practically, if not literally, lined up to speak with me. One asked me if I knew Rabbi Weiss of Riverdale in the Bronx and could I pass a message to him. Incredibly I did know Rabbi Weiss as he was my brother's Rabbi for his Bar Mitzvah more than twenty years ago. Another wanted to tell me about some Jewish calendar she was designing but was very concerned that no one hear her telling me lest they steal her idea. An invitation to stay with a Jewish artist and her husband in Wroclaw was offered in these first few hours as well.

Normally when entering this type of community to take pictures of people you don't know, there can be a bit of a warming up period. After this multitude of rapid fire social interactions it became almost awkward to not take pictures. Everyone understood why I was there and I seemed to be almost instantaneously accepted. I donÕt know if Rabbi Shudrich gave everyone a warning about me in advance, although he very courteously introduced me at the fist meal we all had together that evening. It seemed to occur to me that the people I was meeting were at least as excited to meet me and have me take their picture as I was to oblige. I have never felt more accepted by a group of people in my life. In my first day (or really hours) as a serious photojournalist and I felt like I was born to do this and to do it in Poland with these people on this day.

Looking back I think the exuberance that I had, truly came through in my work. As I referred to above, it was an inordinately high percentage of pictures from these first few days in Rychwald that either made it into Kaddish, or were at least under serious consideration during the final edit. They are all captioned with either Rychwald or Zywiec.

Flash foreword: 3 years - April 1998. Many changes have taken place in the past 3 years. Personally and professionally I have never had a time in my life with more changes. I was now married with a baby on the way. That baby, much like the friends IÕve made in the Jewish community in Poland, will someday wrestle with her own issues of religion and what it means to be a little of this and a little of that. Although 50% Jewish, 50% Catholic and 24% Italian, the largest percentage of her heritage indeed comes from Poland as it was the homeland for both sets of my grandparents and my wife's paternal ones.

Rubin GelbIn 1998 I'm now living in California and working 100% as a photographer, two more huge changes. The first trip to Poland in 1995 enabled me to build a portfolio that resulted in the first assignment work of my career. The first jobs were with the New York Jewish Week and a small socio-political magazine called City Limits. Other assignments followed and all of a sudden I was a working newspaper photographer. I even leveraged the first Polish work to attract of more artistically sophisticated wedding clientele and started doing a large percentage of this work in black and white. The documentary style also seeped into the color work and before I knew it I was unintentionally riding the wave of wedding photographers now calling themselves "Wedding Photojournalists."

Benjamin NetanhayuSo I am on my way back to Poland and this time I am to work completely by myself. Thinking that I could never be more excited than during my first trip, this turns out not to be the case. Over and above the fact that just being back here and getting to continue on this project and seeing old friends would certainly be enough, there are many tangible things in terms of potential book contracts, and a recently published article in the Polish-Jewish magazine Midrasz, explaining in Polish exactly what IÕm doing there. This article came out just about the time I returned to Poland and it was a full page showing four photos from the '95 trip and explaining exactly what I was doing here --all in Polish!! Well while looking back this seems like the sort of thing I should have prepared being here alone with no partner translating from Polish, but it was an incredibly useful tool and having it in my breast pocket really pumped me up. I would just hand it to some of the older people who spoke no English, and I was often instantly accepted and could just start taking photos. A smoother path could not have been paved. The '98 trip turned out to be very successful, snapping the cover shot for the book in Lodz after thinking it would be extremely dificult to get photos as good as some of the ones I had on the first trip -- even though I had developed into a beginning professional by this time I don't think I took quite as many successful photos as the 1st trip but it was still a success and I was able to round out the story by capturing a part Jewish wedding, a Jewish birth...funeral, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the reclusive last surviving leader from the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Dr. Marek Edelman.


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