Remembering Ninel Kameraz-Kos

For many years, Ninel Kameraz-Kos had worked in the Jewish Historical Institute. On 4th June, it was 2 years since she had passed away.

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Ninel Kameraz-Kos

It is not necessary to explain to people who knew her who this extraordinary person was. She would cast a spell, pull others into her orbit; she was a trendsetter. She was characterised by a great elegance of spirit, though in life she really had to struggle. Her childhood (she was born in Moscow in 1937) was marked with: hunger, Stalin’s terror, lack of father’s presence due to his imprisonment in Soviet camps. After the war, she had to find her feet in the new, Polish reality in which the Jewish repatriates from the Soviet Union were not really welcomed. She graduated from Wroclaw University of Technology, but her sensitivity and talent made her gravitate towards the arts. She painted, made jewellery, ran one of a kind art exhibition in Praga during the grey era of the People’s Republic of Poland. 

Men of the theatre, literature and film used to come there. In the times of opposition, Ninel joined the underground and printed illegal publications. For many years, until the very end, she had worked at the Jewish Historical Institute, where she found her next, perhaps most important calling: the preservation of the memory of the Jews, their history and traditions. She worked at the Documentation Department and explored the secrets of Jewish rituals. The fruit of this research and her lectures were both the honorary citizenship of Tykocin and a book „Jewish Holidays and Customs”, which became a publishing bestseller and had eight editions.

Olga Zienkiewicz

For many years, Ninel Kameraz-Kos had worked at the Documentation Department of the Jewish Historical Institute. On 4th June, it was 2 years since she had passed away. On the occasion of today being Ninel’s birthday, we wanted to collect memories of her and remind you what an extraordinary person our Friend was.

Ninel, we miss you so much

About Ninel Kameraz-Kos talks Jan Jagielski

When did you meet Ninel?

I met her when I started working for the JHI. She was already working there, but not in my department — the Documentation Department, but in the Library. So it was really a long time ago, probably in the 80s.

What first impression did she make on you?

My first impression was that she seemed very nice, very pretty and above all, always smiling, open to people. It looked so great, when she pondered on something, engrossed in thoughts, then it seemed as if she had not been from this world. 

After leaving the Library, for many years, Ninel had worked with you at the Documentation Department. Could you tell us, what was her work based on?

When Ninel came to me, the board of directors decided that the Documentation Department would start dealing also with films, especially because I had a lot of them at home. As a result Ninel was given an assignment to describe the films: to establish their subject matter and how the films were related to the Jewish culture and history. At first, it was a very pleasant and quiet work: Ninel would watch old Jewish films, which had been made before the war, or some things related to the Jewish culture or customs. At some point, there were also films related to the occupation, war, murder, destruction. Ninel was taking it very emotionally, because she watched the films not only to write down how long they were, the cast, the director, but she started to become emotionally involved in them. She was shocked by the magnitude of the human suffering and in many cases she would pause the watching. However, this is our job and we have to show both the nice and the horrible things.

Did Ninel go back to her childhood memories, did she talk about her filmily, the war?

Ninel was probably born on the territory of contemporary Lithuania, but during the war she found herself in the Soviet Union and that was the reason why she and her family survived. She rather did not go back to those days. The problem was that, as many Jews, her father supported communism and as a result he had many troubles, because even in the USRR, he was being persecuted for being a Jew. About such things people almost do not talk at home. Nowadays, we are not aware of the fact how difficult it was to live in those days. Ninel with her parents and sister got to Warsaw and settled down in Praga in a house in Jagiellońska Street — it was already after the war. Ninel’s father, who had always believed in justice, at some point saw that it all was not so real. He along with his family was trying to find his feet in the new reality. Ninel said that it had not always been possible to talk about what was going on at home or what had happened in the USRR. Ninel’s father tried to believe in socialism. He was an idealist. Ninel called him beautifully „papa”.

Is Ninel a real name?

Yes. In the USRR, they did not always give names that were popular. They would rather look for names that would somehow correspond to the new political ideas and so, for example, my friend was called Stalina, and other friend Lenina. And Ninel? What kind of name is Ninel? If we read this name backwards, we end up with Lenin! However, for her it was a beautiful name and with her also beautiful philosophy she used to say that Nin El means Angel of God, because in Hebrew nin means angel and El means God. Ninel interpreted her name in such a way. 

She had imagination worthy of an artist, but Ninel was an artistic soul anyway, wasn’t she?

Ninel went to a Jewish school, later to college, but not to study humanities but technology (she graduated from the Faculty of Electronics of Wrocław University of Technology), which she did not always enjoy. It was not easy for Ninel to find her feet in the new reality, so she would often escape it, for example, through painting. She started painting strange creatures; she created her own world, a world of strange things, strange birds and she even had an exhibition in Tykocin. Tykocin was a very Jewish city. There was a beautiful synagogue there. Ninel was in love with this city. She was given a honorary citizenship of Tykocin.

Not only did Ninel paint, but she also wrote. What I have in mind here is her book „Jewish Holidays and Customs”.

Ninel was not a writer. She started studying Jewish traditions. She came from a communist family. It was a family, where there was no God, and she was looking for some kind of truth and at least she wanted to maintain tradition. If religion was not closest to her, Jewish tradition was, so she started studying the history of Judaism. Later, she met her husband, who was also interested in Kabbalah, spiritual subjects, so they had common interests and hobbies. Ninel read in Russian. She never learned Jewish even though she tried a bit. She read Judaist encyclopaedia and she studied religious subject matter in depth.

Can we say that over time Ninel became a religious person?

No, but she was a spiritual person in some way, she understood that synagogue and religion were part of her nation and heritage, therefore, you could not neglect it. She wanted to get to know her culture, so she learned what to do, and how to do it. For example, how to prepare the Sabbath — how and when to light the candles. Ninel saw the Sabbath as a holy day. She went to the synagogue on such important days like Yom Kippur, or even here at the Jewish Historical Institute — due to the fact that we were here: me, Ninel and Ula and sometimes Lenka and we celebrated Hanukkah, we lit candles here and here with us she could be herself. Here she could engross in thoughts.

Ninel was also a mother...

Ninel had two sons, of slightly different personalities. I know that when she had to rush to work, work related to technical stuff, she had to leave her children somewhere, so she would leave them at the Baj Theater. For these few hours, they would walk around the theater, listen to what was happening there. I don’t know if it’s just my imagination but I always say that the one, who sat down where the stage was became a theatre director, and the one who sat where there used to be Aron Kodesh, became a rabbi. 

What kind of friend was Ninel?

I remember when once I came to the window of the house in Jagiellońska Street, where she lived. She was already sick then. She saw me through the window and of course she ’pulled’ me into her house. She ordered her son to buy a bottle of vodka and then we sat together for a few hours talking about everything and nothing. She knew how to lead conversations, how to talk to people. People asked Ninel for advice, even a priest who was writing a thesis on circumcision. He wrote twice to Ninel, so I had to inform him that Ninel had died of cancer.

Why was Ninel exceptional? What made her different?

Ninel had always liked people. Even with her ex-husband, though they had different personalities, she was able to live in friendship. Bogdan used to come here to the JHI and they went together for a coffee, they had topics to talk about. Ninel was also one of those naive ones, which is terrible in this world. In some way she did not live on earth, but she was always a little bit beyond it. Anyone having serious troubles could find Ninel’s understanding. Sick people, homosexuals, all those who thought differently always had her support. What is extremely important here is the fact that she wanted to listen to people, for what people do not have time nowadays. They are in a constant rush, they run, and she wanted to sit down, slowly, have a drink, listen to Okudżawa. She believed that life should have its own rhythm, peace. Ninel was able to communicate with anyone: be it a priest or someone with a problem, who needed faith, and having their spirits risen. people could find all that while meeting Ninel and talking to her. 

Paweł Fijałkowski about Ninel

I met Ninel Kameraz-Kos just after starting work at the JHI, so in late 1988. I remember her from that time as a person able to enjoy the smallest trifle, such as candy bar divided into four pieces, because exactly that many people were sitting at the table, and there was nothing else to have with tea or coffee.

I have to admit that there were periods when we did not like each other, we did not talk to each other for months, and also periods when we would meet every two or three days. Our meetings and talks became especially often during the last years of her life. We would begin them with serious matters, which were drinking morning coffee and debates on Judaism, and after some time we would change the place and atmosphere. We went to a coffee bar „Przy Grubej Kaśce” and there, drinking vodka, we talked about Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple in the films based on the novels by Agatha Christie, about life in the Soviet Union, where Ninel had spent her childhood, and finally about Russian language. One time our discussion on film and language focused on the issue of whether the word кот from „Улыбка Бога” (”Smile of God”) is generally a cat or a specifically male cat, or vice versa, whether кошка from the song in the movie „Стиляги” (”Stilyagi”) is generally a cat or a female cat.

From late 2009 to early 2011, we worked together on the collective work entitledCykl życia. Święta i obrzędy Żydów polskich [The Cycle of Life. Holidays and rituals of Polish Jews]. We had at the same time very different views on Judaism. Ninel presented mostly orthodox views, while I stubbornly demanded all that Reformed Judaism contributed to Judaism. The fruit of these discussions was the following piece of publication, which is soon to be released as an e-book:

Judaism is characterised by great diversity, both in terms of its approach to religious laws and the customs. Its aim is not conversion, but ensuring that all believers can pursue their individual choices. Humanity according to Judaism lies in the fact that human beings are endowed with free will and can make choices according to their nature.

They are probably ones of the last written words by Ninel, a kind of spiritual message that she left us.

And that is how Helena Datner remembers Ninel

Do you remember your first meeting with Ninel?

My first meeting with Ninel was actually a meeting with a photograph by Mateusz, Ninel’s son, in a book by Małgorzata Niezabitowska and Tomasz Tomaszewski entitled „Remrans”, which was published in the mid 60s and later in Polish in the 90s. It was a kind of a collection of essays written by Małgorzata Niezabitowska and photographs taken by her husband Tomaszewski about Polish Jews at the beginning of the 80s. The image was sad. It looked as if they had been the last Polish Jews, but there was also some swallow, some otherness and newness: it was a photo of 13-year-old Mateusz Kos, who was having a bar mitzvah. The photo was accompanied by a text saying that this person is the son of Ninel Kameraz and Bogdan Kos and that is probably how I heard about Ninel. Then, I can’t remember it precisely, it must have been in her house, in this house that everybody is telling about, which was this special place, uniquely beautiful, uniquely because it was not the beauty of middle-class, but it was the beauty of art and it was something extremely cool, so I guess that was the beginning.

What was Ninel’s attitude towards Judaism? I know she grew up in a communist family, but her son had a bar mitzvah...

Ninel was raised in a communist family. Her father Chaskiel Kameraz, with very strong communist convictions, was a communist activist in the Jewish community. Ninel did not know Jewish tradition as we understand it as a religious tradition, because it was a completely secular home. It was not important to Ninel for a rather big part of her life. And then it happened to her, what has happened to many of us. At some point it began to be important to her. Jewishness began to be important to her, or as Wojdowski says — Judaism as a fate. I think that Ninel is here a very characteristic example for a moment in the Jewish post-war history, which was, let’s say, in the 80s. At the time, some of us being more or less the same age (usually born after the war, though Ninel was born just before it) began to be interested in the Jewish subject matter, but not necessarily in terms of religion. Ninel’s attitude towards Judaism was based on very emotional and deep interest in Judaism as a civilisation, not as a religion but as a world. 

However, what I wish to say about Ninel in terms of the Institute, because here was the real beginning of our friendship, is that she was a wise person. About many people who have passed away you want to say good things, we say that they were wise people, but Ninel was a really wise person and it was her dominant feature. It was a kind of wisdom of a person who can see a lot, understands, who does not easily judge others, who likes people a lot, who lives because of people and for people. Ninel, in a way, did not exist outside social context. She just loved people and loved spending time with them. She lived because of people and without people you cannot imagine her.

Ula Fuks about Ninel

Ninel was very hospitable and her house was open in the full sense of the word. She never locked the door. Why would you do so? There are only friends around. With an open heart she waited for her guests and she always divided food into numerous pieces no matter how many people she was expecting. She was afraid that it might not be enough for everybody. She followed the rule corresponding to the philosophy of Albert Schweitzer that if you divide something, it always multiplies. 

Her house in Jagiellonska Street was full of people, but not always household members. If someone overstayed, they did not have to worry. They would find a good place to stay over night at hers. And if it turned out they did not have a place to live, they stayed there. She did not want anything in return. But actually yes, she did. She desired attention, hope for an interesting conversation, being remembered. Those who lived at hers were her friends for whom her house or fridge were open. Thanks to this philosophy she had a lot of friends, because you know, what is divided, is later multiplied.

Photographs are from the archive of Mr. Piotr Wójcicki.

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