KRAKOW, May 10 (JTA) — A new museum in Krakow hopes to fill a void in Jewish cultural sites in this city and offer a new perspective on the Jewish past. The Galicia Jewish Museum in Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish district, opened with an exhibit by Chris Schwartz, a British photojournalist who has worked in Poland since the early 1980s. Schwartz collaborated with British professor Jonathan Webber, who provides text for Schwartz’s photos, and a team of researchers on the project, which they said has been “10 years in the making.” The 135 color photographs display scenes from contemporary Polish life that are connected with the Jewish past. In five sections, the exhibit shows modern streets, farmers’ fields, buildings, synagogues and graveyards that once were centers of Jewish life in Galicia, the eastern part of Poland. The structures that represented Galicia’s Jewish life now are all in ruins or completely remodeled. A book accompanying the exhibit, “Traces of Memory,” published by the Littman Library and University of Indiana Press, will include 400 color photographs and more of Webber’s text, and will be out in the fall of 2005. In the exhibit, one photo shows faint Yiddish writing next to a modern city street sign. Another depicts a ruined synagogue, the roof long gone and trees sprouting from the top. A third photo shows a field in which a Jewish cemetery once stood; farmers have taken care to plow around the cemetery, leaving the site untouched. At the opening for the museum, which is located in an old furniture factory that has been transformed into a hip, new art space, Schwartz said people were “universally knocked out” by his exhibit. He also said it was Krakow’s only contemporary treatment of its Jewish past in the form of a museum. Most relics of Jewish life in Poland exist in the form of centuries-old synagogues. Schwartz, whose father is Jewish but who considers himself “post-denominational,” said history can be viewed in two ways: “We can either compare everything to the prewar glory, or we can realize that it’s amazing that anything survived at all after the ferocity of the Nazi destruction.” His photos, he said, strive to preserve what survives. Schwartz said he and Webber focused their research on Galicia because it was the heart of Jewish Poland. “Galician Jews were proud to be Galician, as were the non-Jews, and this was one of the most exciting, thriving areas of Jewish culture in the world,” he said. Przemek Piakarski, chairman of the Jewish studies department and professor of Yiddish at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, said he initially had low expectations for the museum. “I thought, ‘Once again, something useless,’ ” he said. But instead, he said he was pleasantly surprised and enthused when he visited. He said the organizers should translate the captions, which are in Polish and English, into Hebrew and Yiddish and run educational events that incorporate Yiddish music and explanations. Schwartz agreed that the next step for the museum will be to develop educational programs, with everything from dialogue programs to debates on topics such as “Where was God during the Holocaust?” Gilad Roth, an Israeli musician living in Krakow, said he found the museum realistic and moving. “Most Israelis want to continue living; they don’t want to go to the past,” he said. Roth pointed to what he said was a common problem among organized trips to Jewish historical sites in Eastern Europe by Israelis, Americans and Western European Jews: They often have a very rigorous schedule, are heavily guarded and have little time to meet Jews who still live in Poland and other Eastern European countries. The Galicia Jewish Museum, he said, gives them an opportunity to see beneath the surface of contemporary Polish cities and town to find the roots of their Jewish past. The museum’s sponsors hope the museum will prompt a new generation of Poles, Jews and Polish Jews to learn about and grapple with this history. “No one tries to understand what happened through contemporary photographs. This generation has to look at it and understand it for ourselves,” Schwartz said.
Jewish past seen via Polish present