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Poland Is Becoming a Global Capital of Chutzpah
As the government cracks down on Holocaust remembrance, the country’s Jewish art scene is thriving like never before.
In Poland, on the former site of the Great Synagogue of Warsaw—the largest house of worship for what was, until World War II, the largest Jewish population in the world—there now rises a tall azure skyscraper. Known simply as Blekitny Wiezowiec (“Blue Skyscraper”), the building with its all-glass facade has lately served as a kind of screen for a unique public art project. Twice in the last two years, most recently in April 2019, the artist Gabi von Seltmann has projected an image of the synagogue, long ago destroyed by the Nazis, onto the contemporary skyscraper: a grayish translucent ghost, hovering all night over the Warsaw streetscape.
Von Seltmann is one of a small number of artists and designers, both Jewish and not, who currently live in Poland and are actively engaged with the legacy of the Holocaust and the lost world of Polish Jewry. “It’s a topic I always try to address,” said von Seltmann, who has collaborated on similarly themed film projects with her German-born husband. Growing up outside Krakow, Poland, von Seltmann said there was a “silence” surrounding anything to do with her community’s missing Jews. For her, and for other like-minded artists in Poland, uncovering the country’s hidden Jewish heritage is a crucial act of remembrance, an effort to “bring back the past,” as von Seltmann puts it.
That kind of artistic time-traveling seems especially relevant in today’s Poland. 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps, the largest of which (Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, and Belzec, if reckoning by numbers killed) were all located on Polish soil. At the same time, under the leadership of the populist right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the Polish national government has passed restrictive legislation that threatens serious penalties for anyone, artist or otherwise, who suggests Polish complicity in the slaughter. Roundly condemned by the international media, the 2018 Act on the Institute of National Remembrance continues to be zealously executed, albeit with mixed success. This past November, the government finally dropped a case against the esteemed U.S.-based academic Jan Tomasz Gross, who was threatened with jail time for purportedly “insulting the Polish nation” after documenting violence against Jews perpetrated by Poles.
How to make art in such a repressive environment? Yael Wisnicki Levi is one artist whose multipronged practice confronts the problem of Jewish identity in modern-day Poland. “I’m in a privileged position,” she said—born in New York, educated in Israel, she was able to claim Polish citizenship thanks to her family’s roots in the country, from which her grandfather escaped just prior to the Holocaust. Since emigrating, Levi has staged assorted exhibitions and performance pieces with various international collaborators; one of them, a 2015 theatre work called Six Verbs Movement, was an abstract exploration of collective memory and civic action as part of a six-day festival in the heartland town of Lublin. As something of a novelty for Polish audiences, Levi said that she feels at times “like a kind of Jewish ornament”; yet while she is alarmed by what she calls PiS’s “whitewashing” of Polish history, Levi described Poland as “a really comfortable place” for an artist of her stripe. “That the government is nationalist, right-wing—everyone knows this,” she said. “But in fact it’s much harder to be a woman than a Jew.”
A surprising bullishness seems common among Polish artists engaged with Jewish issues. “Every city in Poland wishes it could a host Jewish cultural festival,” said Aleksander Prugar. A designer based in Warsaw, Prugar and his partner Helena Czernek are the founders of Mi Polin, a design collaborative specializing in contemporary Judaica. The business, which bills itself as the first of its kind in postwar Poland, began five years ago with a photography project documenting the traces of long-removed mezuzahs—the markers traditionally placed on the doorposts of Jewish homes—often found in older buildings throughout Poland. From merely observing the outline of the vanished objects, the pair moved on to making their own and now produce a full line of menorahs, candles, and assorted jewelry, largely sold online. And while the buyers for much of their work come from abroad, and especially from the United States, clients have sprung up at home as well. “There is a space for Jewish art now,” Czernek said; the country’s politics, she added, “don’t feel connected with our practice,” at least not in a way that inhibits their creativity or their sales.
The contradiction between this lively artistic subculture and the stifling political atmosphere grows only deeper when one recalls that, in Poland, art and government are deeply intertwined. Many if not most artists are subsidized through generous grants, and financing for work on Jewish themes has been robust: Levi has benefited from such funding, while von Seltmann’s most recent projection was financed by the city of Warsaw. The government has continued to bankroll museums, such as the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, whose exhibitions on prewar Jewish artists have helped feed a brisk private marketplace—at the major auction houses Agra Art and Desa Unicum, pieces by 19th- and early 20th-century Jewish painters such as Chaim Goldberg and Maurycy Trebacz fetch substantial sums, and at least one prewar Jewish artist, Moshe Rynecki, has even become a popular subject for forgers. His great grand-daughter Elizabeth Rynecki, who released a documentary in 2018 about her search for her forebear’s work, has made multiple journeys to Poland, trolling flea markets awash in what purported to be Jewish art. “I couldn’t tell if it was all legit or not,” Rynecki said. Much of what she saw, locals assured her, was of very recent vintage, neo-Jewish kitsch catering to nostalgic Poles.
That these same Poles returned PiS to power in October 2019 with the largest majority since the fall of the communist regime may seem hard to fathom. On the other hand, the nation’s philo-Semitic populace and its anti-Semitic policies may be not be so unrelated. “It’s all about preserving the myth of Polish innocence,” said Jan Grabowski, a Polish-born professor of history at the University of Ottawa. Grabowski discerns a distinct pattern in attitudes toward artistic remembrance of the Holocaust. At the planned Warsaw Ghetto Museum, for example, the government has proposed what Grabowski calls “monuments to Polish virtue”—statues of Poles credited with saving Jewish lives—nearly surrounding the building. “The idea is to stress the bravery of the Aryan population,” said the historian, with Poles embracing Jewish misery in order to further a narrative of national victimhood. It is a logic not entirely unfamiliar to Americans; in the United States, the anti-racist Black Lives Matter movement has been met with chants of “All Lives Matter,” an analogous attempt to appropriate minority suffering and efface majority guilt.
“The situation is more or less the same” for all cultural actors in Poland, said Monika Krajewska. The artist, a specialist in Hebrew calligraphy and gravestone inscriptions, feels that the general impact of the PiS has been “negative,” though she cautions that any broad assessment risks “oversimplification.” Individual artists have indeed thrived—yet he institutional sphere in which they operate has been in constant tumult. The Polin Museum, Warsaw’s Center for Contemporary Art, and the National Museum have all been caught in leadership struggles, all instigated to some degree by political interference. The pervasive government presence may be one reason that, despite the evident appeal of Jewish-oriented art, official recognition of this year’s anniversary of the liberation of the country’s concentration camps in 1945 appears to be fairly minimal. The very phrase “Polish death camp” is considered, by Polish authorities, to constitute a form of slander.
Among the few bona fide artistic commemorations of the anniversary year, open through Oct. 31, is an installation on the grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, now the single most highly trafficked historical site in Poland. A collaboration between the architect Daniel Libeskind and the photographer Caryl Englander, the piece consists of a long ramp faced on either side by portraits of Holocaust survivors, the images laser-cut into aluminum panels alongside brief testimonials from each subject. Titled Through the Lens of Faith, the project examines the religious life of those who escaped the camps. “Spirituality as an aspect of survival hasn’t really been explored,” said Henri Lustiger-Thaler, a Brooklyn-based curator and historian who helped organize the exhibition. Intriguingly, the proportion of Jews to non-Jews in the show is almost exactly commensurate with the population murdered at Auschwitz: 18 to three, or roughly 85 percent Jewish. At the debut of the exhibition in June, despite suggestions that government officials would be in attendance, none were in evidence.
Polish leaders did see the show months later, on Jan. 27, when they appeared at Auschwitz alongside survivors and foreign dignitaries there to mark the date of the camp’s liberation. Not present on that occasion: the nation that did the liberating—Russia, whose representatives were excluded from the ceremony after President Vladimir Putin made disparaging remarks about Poland’s Nazi collaborators.
Notably, Through the Lens of Faith is the product almost exclusively of artists and designers based outside Poland. (Libeskind, though born in Poland, left the country when he was 11.) For artists based in Poland, the prevailing political winds may be only one factor in avoiding the Holocaust as a subject this year: There was a swell of artistic output last year in remembrance of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, including the second of the two synagogue projections at the Blue Skyscraper. For the artist who created that project, however, 2020 is no less crucial—von Seltmann said she’s planning another projection for this spring. “I worry that the darkness is coming again,” she said. “You have to try and do something.”