Agnieszka Traczewska, an accomplished documentary filmmaker and photographer from Krakow, Poland, remembers the first time she saw a group of Chassidim – Jews who adhere to a branch of Orthodox Judaism and revere a particular rabbi who leads their community. The Jews were in Poland to visit the grave of a famous rabbi, and when Agnieszka caught a glimpse of the men in their long dark coats, black hats and long beards, she remembers being shocked. Growing up in communist Poland, Agnieszka had learned about the Holocaust and how it decimated her country’s Jews: “I didn’t expect that anybody survived from the Jewish community," she recalls.

In an Aish.com exclusive interview, Agnieszka explains how that early glimpse of Chassidic pilgrims sparked a decades-long interest in photographing Chassidic Jewish communities. Agnieszka’s exquisite, award-winning photographs give us a glimpse into the insular world of Chassidic Jewish life. Photographing these communities has also profoundly shaped Agnieszka’s ideas about Judaism and God.

"The Jewish identity of those places was totally forgotten, totally erased.”

“I come from Krakow,” explains Agnieszka. As a child, she learned about Polish history but without understanding the large Jewish community that called Poland home for over a thousand years. Before the Holocaust, Krakow was home to a vibrant Jewish community and the towns and villages around it sparked some of the Chassidic dynasties that still thrive today. “As a child, I travelled with my parents around many small villages and towns in Poland," Agnieszka explains, and went on numerous school trips. “Nobody even mentioned that most of those villages or towns were 50%, 60% Jewish – sometimes even 80% before the war. The Jewish identity of those places was totally forgotten, totally erased.”

Synagogue in Lancut, Agnieszka Traczewska

While the Jewish history of many Polish villages may have been forgotten within Poland, whole communities of Chassidic Jews outside of Poland remembered their names and honored the history of the towns their families came from. “That was the second surprise” of seeing groups of Jewish pilgrims visit Polish towns such as Bobowa (Bobov in Yiddish), Lublin, Lelow (Lelov in Yiddish), Radomsko, Krakow and Warsaw. “I realized how much these people inherited from these places, that I had no idea about.” Seeing groups of Chassidic men travel all the way to Poland simply for the opportunity to pray at the graves of great rabbis moved Agnieszka; she wanted to take photographs of these men and try to document their emotional visits to the towns and villages she’d so long taken for granted.

A friend told Agnieszka about an annual visit that Chassidic Jews made to the town of Lezajsk on the yahrzeit Rabbi Elimelech Weisblum (1717-1787), one of the founders of the Chassidic movement. Agnieszka went along and took photos of the men as they prayed and found herself very moved by their fervor and devotion. She decided to continue this work, taking photos of Jews who returned to Poland to pour out their souls in prayer at the graves of the great rabbis buried throughout the country.

Purim Tish at Lelov Shul in Bet Shemesh

“When I started to speak with Chassidim, they said ‘Oh, my zeidie was from Bobov, my bubbie (grandmother) was from Lublin,” Agnieszka recalls. She was blown away by the fact that so many Jews who’d grown up all over the world retained such intense feelings of connection to Poland. “I decided that if nobody else wants to remember this Jewish history in Poland, I will be the one. I didn’t want to conquer the world – this photography was just my private archeology project to remember the Jewish past, and to learn about it myself.”

Girl praying in the tunnel at underground part of the Kotel

Agnieszka’s beautiful photographs bring to mind paintings by the Dutch masters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer who bathed their subjects in light and captured a sense of serenity. Largely self-taught, she has a palpable sense of communing with her subjects, and helping the viewer to feel as if they have got a glimpse into the very soul of the people in her photographs.

In an interview with the Yiddish newspaper Der Forverts Agnieszka recalled visiting the Jewish cemetery in the Polish town of Radomsko, where the great Chassidic Rabbi Shlomo Chanoch HaCohen Rabinowicz, known as the Radomsker Rebbe (1882-1942), is buried. “I am the only woman standing outside the ohel,” (an open-air memorial for the Radomsker Rebbe) Agnieszka described, "and somehow I have to get there from the cemetery gate. What should I expect? Open confrontation? Admonishment that I do not belong here?” Agnieszka prepared to be yelled at by the black-clad Jewish men for invading their space.

Rabbi Elimelech’s yahrzeit in Lizhensk

The Jewish visitors did begin to shout – but with joy. “I told you she would come!” they said to one another. Somehow, Agnieszka had become a legend: the non-Jewish woman who wanted to photograph moments of beautiful Jewish prayer. “What kind of coffee do you want?” the visitors asked her. “Would you like a cookie?”

It did take years to break into the insular community and meet Chassidic Jews who’d help her. About twelve years ago, Agnieszka was in Bobowa, taking photos of Jews praying at the grave of Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam (1847-1905), the founder of the vibrant “Bobover” Chassidim. While many Jews who are Bobover Chassidim are intensely insular and unlikely to strike up a conversation with someone who’s not Jewish, particularly a person of the opposite sex, some Bobover Chassidim are more used to interacting with the secular world. (New York Criminal Court Judge Ruchie Freier, for instance, is a well-known Bobover Chassid whose high profile has defied stereotypes of what Chassidic Jews can do.)

One of the men praying at the site was Duvid Singer, from Boro Park, a heavily Chassidic neighborhood in Brooklyn. Duvid and his wife Naomi have visited Poland numerous times, leading Jewish heritage tours with their company Heritage and Discovery and helping to restore Jewish cemeteries and other sites around Poland. With his deep knowledge about Poland, Duvid was intrigued by Agnieszka’s work. The Singers got to know Agnieszka and began to collaborate with her. Agnieszka describes befriending the Singers as a “turning point” in her life; she describes Duvid Singer as her teacher and almost her “rebbe”, her spiritual mentor. The Singers, recognizing that Agnieszka was trying to be respectful in her work photographing Jewish subjects, gave her a helping hand.

Teaching a boy to read Meghille at Lelov Shul in Bnei Beraq

Through the Singers, Agnieszka got to know other Chassidim and began travelling all over the world photographing Chassidic Jewish families and settings. While her early photos in Poland were primarily of Jewish men, because the vast majority of pilgrims travelling to pray at the graves of rabbis were male, once she began visiting Chassidic Jews in their homes, Agnieszka began to get to know Chassidic women, developing a deep connection with the wives and mothers who hosted her.

Agnieszka’s parents both died when she was young, and she has no siblings and few other relatives. “It’s not so easy to be a lonely individual in the universe,” she notes. “The people I’ve had the closest connection to in recent years were Chassidim.”

Her photo won second place in National Geographic’s Photograph of the Year Award in 2014, beating out 18,000 other pictures.

Agnieszka published a book of photos of Chassidim visiting the graves of rabbis in Poland in 2018 called Powroty / Returns, and has exhibited her photographs in over forty shows worldwide. She’s working on another book of photos of Chassidic Jews all over the world.

She finds it amazing that whenever she enters a synagogue or a Chassidic home, whether it’s in San Paolo or Antwerp or Israel, the same timeless Jewish traditions are preserved and followed.

One of Agnieszka’s most celebrated photographs was taken in Jerusalem’s Meah Shearim neighborhood at a large Chassidic wedding in 2014. Agnieszka had got to know an extremely religious Chassidic family in Meah Shearim, befriending the wife and getting to know her eighteen children. When the family’s oldest son got married, Agnieszka was invited to the wedding.

"First Time” Groom’s mother’s leaves newly married couple alone.
As marriage was arranged by families, they never met without assistance yet.

The wedding was a grand affair, but Agnieszka’s most treasured photo is from a quiet moment right after the ceremony. In Orthodox Jewish weddings, it’s traditional for the bride and groom to spend a few minutes alone together right after the marriage ceremony. For many couples, these moments are the first time they have ever been completely alone together. As the bride and groom entered a room where they’d be secluded together for the very first time as man and wife, Agnieszka followed them, along with the groom’s mother, to the door. As the mother in law waved goodbye to the couple, Agnieszka snapped a photo of the beaming, happy young couple. Coming from a very Orthodox religious tradition, this couple had never been alone before and had never even held hands. This was a huge moment of transformation for them.

In the smoke of the fire. Lag Ba Omer in Meron

That photo, which she named “First Time”, won second place in National Geographic’s Photograph of the Year Award in 2014, beating out 18,000 other pictures. Agnieszka was shocked that her photo won, noting that most of the winning pictures in National Geographic’s contests are of the great outdoors. Agnieszka recalls, “With this photo, they said they loved it because it showed not a physical volcano, but a volcano of emotion, an eruption of emotions.”

Agnieszka Traczewska

When she heard that her photo had won such a prestigious prize, Agnieszka excitedly phoned the family and shared her good news. “They said they were so happy for me. I don’t think they understood that this photo would be so widely published.” The award-winning photo was reproduced all over, in newspapers and magazines, including in Israel. The family, so used to being modest and outside the public eye, was shocked to see the picture everywhere.

Since she’s started photographing Chassidic communities, Agnieszka has found that her own life has profoundly changed as well. Brought up Catholic, she used to consider herself not religious. Now, Agnieszka explains that she feels much more spiritual and regularly prays. Being exposed to such intense spirituality has made her feel much closer to God, as well.

“Very often when I accompany groups of Chassidic Jews coming to Poland – especially when I have an opportunity to be with them for a long time (as they pray) I observe a growing temperature of davening” Agnieszka explains, using the Yiddish term for prayer. “I see their attempt to communicate with Hashem” – the Hebrew term for God. “I sometimes had the feeling that there were some divine transcendental moments that I’d never be able to see otherwise.”

Agnieszka's exquisite photos can be viewed on her website http://www.agnieszkatraczewska.com/