Arts & Culture Exhibit on Polish City’s Jewish Past Reverberates Beyond Museum Walls

An exhibit on pre-war Jewish life in the Polish city of Czestochowa, a Catholic pilgrimage site with a tiny Jewish population, is taking on a life of its own. “Coexistence, Holocaust, Memory” opened last spring displaying photographs and stories depicting pre-war Jewish life in Czestochowa, which on the eve of World War II was home to 30,000 Jews, or about a third of the city’s population.

Just 37 Jews live in Czestochowa today.

After a successful run in Czestochowa, during which more than 11,000 people viewed the exhibit, it moved to Warsaw, where it reopened at the Jewish Historical Institute last fall.

But the effect of the photographs and the stories they told did not stop at the museum doors.

Anna Maciejowska, principal of Czestochowa’s Malczewski High School of Fine Arts, saw the original exhibit and wanted to find a way to incorporate its lessons into students’ art projects.

Maciejowska decided to involve her students in their own multidisciplinary exhibit, called “From the Inspiration of Jewish Culture.” The show opened this month at the National Library in Warsaw.

Approximately 250 students from the school viewed the Czestochowa exhibit and studied artists such as Chagall and Bruno Schulz, producing artworks ranging from paintings and photographs to collages, sculptures, linoleum prints, jewelry and metal bas relief carvings.

Students also studied the work of famous Polish Jewish and Israeli writers such as Julian Tuwim, Henryk Grynberg and Amos Oz, and created small books illustrated with the writers’ words in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish.

Szymon Szurmiej, longtime director of the Yiddish Theater in Warsaw, came to Czestochowa to direct students in an adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Dreadful Inn.”

Many of the students were reluctant to speak about their projects, preferring to let their work speak for itself.

Katarzyna Polus, who made a painting based on a photograph she found of an old Jewish building, said she read Singer stories, histories and other texts to prepare for the project.

“I know more than I knew, and I know I’ll try to have more contact with Jewish things in the future,” she said.

Justyna Rumik, who designed and crafted a pair of earrings subtly shaped like a Jewish star, said she was “fascinated with the delicacy of Jewish ornaments” and had read and heard lectures about Jewish history.

A friend of Rumik’s said the project had helped him discover his Jewish roots.

His great-grandfather died in Treblinka and his grandparents had taught him bit by bit about what it means to be Jewish, said the student, who declined to give his name.

Maciejowska’s daughter, Julia, said she always remembered her mother being interested in Judaism. During the course of the project, Maciejowska realized she was interested in Jewish history not only as an observer, but that she also was on a quest for her roots.

She now is proud to say that she is one-eighth Jewish, a fact she sensed but never confirmed until the exhibit shed light on the Jewish background of her city and — as she began to do research — on her own Jewish heritage.

In November, “Coexistence, Holocaust, Memory” will come to America, including the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

It also will make stops at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio, which is near the city of Panna Maria, home to the oldest Polish community in America.

Interest in things Jewish among Poles has grown in recent years. In fact, for many Poles, Jewish history and culture are a fascinating part of the country’s past that they have had the chance to explore freely only in the past 15 years.

Until World War II, Czestochowa was home to a flourishing community that consisted of all kinds of Jews from Orthodox to secular, a well-respected Jewish high school, Jewish artists and workers.

The Nazis invaded in September 1939 and built the Hasag concentration camp. Most of the town’s Jews perished there or were sent from there to Treblinka.

Sigmund Rolat, a Czestochowa native whose parents and brother were killed in the Holocaust, was a co-creator and sponsor of the exhibition, along with his cousin, Alan Silberstein, who was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Europe but raised in the United States, and whose parents took in Rolat after the war.

Rolat had returned to Czestochowa over the years on infrequent visits. Recently, after scaling back his business, he found himself with more time and wanted to reconnect with his hometown, he told JTA.

Since the exhibit opened last year, he said, “I now spend 95 percent of my time on these projects.”

Piotr Stasiak, a longtime friend of Rolat’s from Czestochowa, said many people in Poland who get involved in Jewish things begin out of curiosity, which later leads to commitment.

“They do this not because of their roots but because of their hearts,” he said.

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