Week in the Life: Konstanty Gebert, Journalist - Silk screen expert helps Poles and Jews heal ancient wounds

WRITING UNDER the Jewish pen-name of "David Warszawski", Konstanty Gebert was one of the best known underground journalists during Poland's Communist dictatorship. A founder member of a free trade union in 1980, like the rest of the opposition, he spent years dodging secret police tails and flitting from safe house to safe house, while distributing hand- printed samizdat sheets.

Now 46 and editor of Midrasz, the Warsaw-based magazine of Poland's 10,000 strong Jewish community, he faces another uphill struggle: to disentangle the web of stereotypes that has corrupted the intense, centuries-old relationship between Jews and Poles.

GEBERT'S OFFICE is a sort of open-house for anyone who has an opinion about Jews and Poland, which is most of the population. The week starts at 8am on Mondays, when he opens up the office, and waits for the first reader to walk in.

"I get a lot of visitors, the readers come straight in. On a Jewish newspaper everyone wants to do your job for you. They tell me `OK, now I'm going to explain to you what this newspaper should look like'. I get buttonholed all the time."

And there are always surprises. "Recently a very military looking man, formally dressed, with a gravelly voice came in. He is a reader of one of the far-right papers. He told me that the paper had run an attack on me, and he had written a reply defending me which had been published. He barked that he didn't want the money, put the fee on the table, and left. Another visitor, an elderly gentleman from Israel brought me material that appears to show that a Polish MP had been part of a gang killing Jews during the war. That was something that I take very seriously and will follow up."

MANY HOPE that the Pope's visit to Poland this month, and the recent removal of the crosses at Auschwitz can help heal the historical wounds. That relationship between Jews and Poles is still so abnormal that the Jewish community even runs a help-line for Poles who have discovered that their ancestors were really called not Kowalski, but Cohen and don't know how to cope.

As a trained psychotherapist, Gebert can help. Mid-week evenings are often spent on the help-line.

"We are listed in the newspapers with the other problems: battered wives, alcohol abuse, Jews. Sometimes I hear a story that chills me to the bone. A woman called me with a very composed voice, speaking in the kind of flat monotone that shows she is on the verge of hysteria. She had been born Jewish but didn't follow the religion or even identify herself as Jewish.

"She had met a guy at university, they had married and had kids. She never felt comfortable at family parties, because the in-laws were very rich but very uncouth and unsophisticated.

"One day they got drunk and revealed how they had got their money: from robbing Jews during the war and turning them in to the Gestapo. Her husband had known all along.

"She divorced him and immediately broke with the family. She called the helpline because she has a new man now, but each time he took her to meet his parents she could not enter their house.

"It's a terrifying story, like a rape. You cannot rebuild a person after that because their trust in the world is lost."

AS A religious Jew, Gebert does not work on Friday night or on Saturday. This is a holy time, devoted to the family and to God. "Friday and Saturday are the most important time for me, the Sabbath. This is a truly sacred time, we turn off the telephone and we don't travel. I go to the synagogue on Friday evening and Saturday morning. My children usually watch television. I don't approve but I don't argue with then. It's a `don't ask, don't tell situation'. On Saturday afternoons I read or study."

OTHER WEEKDAYS are spent travelling, often to the United States, to lecture on Jewish-Polish relations, or teaching Judaism to Catholic Poles. "Jews do not have the right to be as prejudiced as everyone else and the kind of prejudice many Jews have against Poland is unwarranted and misinformed. So I always enjoy it when people see there are other ways of looking at things.

"Sometimes I teach Talmud [commentary on Jewish law], almost exclusively to non-Jewish audiences. Talmud has a bad reputation in Poland but it's a very exciting intellectual discipline. Non-Jews are very interested, because attitudes here towards Jews have changed.

"Until recently the very word `Jew' could not be pronounced, we were described as being of `the mosaic faith'. Now it is possible to have a rational discourse about Jews."

TEN YEARS on from the collapse of Communism, Gebert has mixed feelings about his dissident days. Sundays, a quiet day away from both the office and synagogue can be a time to reflect on the massive changes that have transformed Poland.

"All of us expected to end up in prison. The greatest fun was that we wrote what we thought and nobody stopped us. But there was so much wasted time. The most intelligent people used their brains for the most mindless purposes, university professors working out how to avoid a police tail.

"Our newspaper had a circulation of 15,000, with seven regional editions as well. We printed it on silk-screen because you don't need any spare parts and you can hide everything easily. I still think that it is the obligation of every citizen of a democracy to know silk-screen printing. Just in case."

Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Esteban Cambiasso makes it 3-3
premier league
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
people'I hated him during those times'
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleFirst memoir extracts show she 'felt pressured' into going out with the Sex Pistols manager
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late
Lewis Hamilton in action during the Singapore Grand Prix
Formula OneNico Rosberg retires after 14 laps
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam