Behind the Headlines Poland then and Now

A double vision of Poland’s Jewish community, both before World War II and presently, will be on view at the midtown branch of the International Center of Photography (ICP/Midtown) until September 27. It combines the already known works of “Image Before My Eyes” gathered by Lucjan Dobroszycki and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, which are on loan from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, and a new photographic series by Tomasz Tomaszewski titled “Remnants: The Last Jews of Poland.” The exhibit, based on the book of the same name, is a provocative and poignant witness to the demise of what was once the apotheosis of Jewish culture.

The juxtaposition of the two series of photographs is an apt, but overridingly sad, overview of all that Polish Jewry once was and what it has become. The 49 photographs displayed from “Image” cast a loving look at the multifaceted world of Polish Jewry, whose standing was for nine centuries so overwhelming as to become for many in the West, both Jew and non-Jew, synonymous with the word “Jew.”

“Image” has fixed for posterity the all-pervasive world of the Polish Jew in his varied guises, from Hasid to political activist, peddler to industrialist, worker, actor, artist, musician. It is a voice and a cry, a look, a vision of a vanished world.

“Remnants” is something else: at once an almost spectral shot of the very old, puzzled survivors in whose eyes are mirrored memories and uncommon experiences, and a very surprising glimpse of an untold phenomenon — the resurgence in Polish youth of old-fashioned Yiddishkeit refurbished, ironically, by its contact with the West.

“Poland is a country of paradoxes,” says Malgorzata Niezabitowska, author of “Remnants” (Friendly Press. New York. 1986. 272 pages. $35) along with her photographer husband Tomaszewski, neither of whom is Jewish. Now, with no more than 5,000 Jews remaining of 3.5 million who lived in Poland before World War II, Yiddish has become a curiosity to be studied by more non-Jews than Jews.

STATE OF THE YIDDISH THEATER

The Yiddish theater — once many theaters, thriving and packed with eager audiences, some of them often poor and existing on a miracle in leaky, cramped quarters — is now one Yiddish Theater, funded by the Polish government and housed in plush surroundings.

Many of the younger actors, both Jews and non-Jews, are studying Yiddish to give laudable performances to appreciative Warsaw audiences of mostly non-Jews. The theater group also travels to villages and hamlets to perform for small Jewish audiences wherever a room can be found.

The relationship between Poland and its Jews was in part responsible for the non-Jewish couple’s desire to write the book and take over 7,000 photos, of which 68 comprise this exhibit, which was previously seen in Warsaw last winter. It is also so noteworthy a subject, the photos so magnificent, that National Geographic magazine has excerpted the book for its September issue.

Until 1981, Tomaszewski told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at the exhibit’s opening, he had never met a Jew as an identifying Jew. He remembers as a teenager about 100 apartments in his neighborhood suddenly emptying overnight, their tenants gone, and there was no clear explanation. It was 1968.

The Jews of Poland took special care to remain anonymous, faceless, voiceless since the anti-Semitic outbursts and government purges in March 1968 when outlandish accusations mounted in reaction to a student uprising. At that time, over 20,000 Jews left Poland. Those who remained, chiefly the elderly and the tenacious, lost their public Jewish identity. Many remaining Jews never told their children that they were Jews.

Niezabitowska writes in their book that it was plain to her that “Jews, even if they were often separate and exotic, constituted a part of Poland and were as natural a part of its landscape as the towheaded boy following the plow. Yet when I grew up and began to look around carefully, there were no more Jews.”

IN SEARCH OF REMNANTS

In 1981, the husband-wife team set out across the length and breadth of Poland in search of remnants.

Tomaszewski’s color photographs contrast dramatically with the sepia-toned and black and white shots from “Image.” In the old days, the viewer can see a group gathered around a well-kept old Jewish cemetery, in touch with their history. In present-day pictures, the cemeteries are abandoned, dilapidated, wind-swept. In Cracow, a wall of tombstones is a new “Wailing Wall,” but few come there to cry. It is more a museum of the past.

In Cracow, Roman Spira, descendant of the Cracow kabbalist Natan Nat Spira, has returned to his roots in his ’70s. Now he is the author of two books: a guide to the Remu Cemetery named for Talmudist Moisje Isserles, and a biography of eminent Cracow rabbis. Tomaszewski has photographed him looking at tombstones, alone, and the viewer gets the impression that it is the end of the line.

The Remu Cemetery is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Poland, and its preservation is Spira’s other devotion. Founded in 1551, no burials were made after the end of the 17th century. During World War II, the Germans used the graves for target practice. Only one matzevah (burial stone) survived intact — that of Isserles. Legend had placed a curse on its desecration — and it is said that the Nazis feared the threat.

In 1958, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provided funds for the excavation of graves long submerged. As a result, 700 graves were unearthed, the oldest being over 430 years old. Unfortunately, the excavation was a very mixed blessing, for in the nearly 30 years since, the heavy industrial pollution in Cracow has eroded the inscriptions which had remained intact and legible in the earth’s protective environment.

Now their slates are literally being eroded clean. “They must be saved immediately, because otherwise they will be irrevocably destroyed,” Spira told the authors. Spira’s guide to the cemetery, bound in portfolio, awaits a publisher.

The same may be said of the Polish Jewish community. In many ways, Niezabitowska and Tomaszewski have been their chance to be published, and a group of young Jews in Warsaw who are now keeping the Sabbath and studying Yiddish, seen in this exhibit, are helping to perpetuate the legacy.

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