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Arts & Culture in Poland, Floating Art Exhibit is Testament to Jewish History

January 26, 2004
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A floating art installation by a Polish artist in a former synagogue provides a dramatic counterpoint to the now-infamous installation in Stockholm about a Palestinian suicide bomber.

Israel’s ambassador to Sweden made headlines earlier this month by unplugging an artwork that featured a portrait of Palestinian suicide bomber Hanadai Jaradet floating in a white boat in a basin of blood-red water.

In the western Polish city of Poznan, however, artist Janusz Marciniak made far different use of a symbolic watery backdrop for an installation symbolizing Jewish loss, hope and renewal.

Marciniak shaped 600 burning memorial candles into a huge Star of David and set it floating on the surface of the pool located in Poznan’s former synagogue.

Called “Atlantis,” the work was presented Jan. 15 during the annual “Days of Judaism” initiative sponsored by the Roman Catholic church. The Poznan ceremony was the central event among a number of related initiatives around the country.

The glowing Star of David floated on the water, creating eerie shadows and echoes in the darkened hall.

Some 600 people, most of them holding blue torch lights, crowded into the once-grandiose structure that was turned into a swimming pool by the Nazis.

Organizers ran out of torches and had to turn people away for lack of space.

Catholic officials and Warsaw Rabbi Michael Schudrich gave speeches, followed by a concert by the Poznan University Choir which included Hatikvah, the Yiddish song “Papirossen,” the Eric Clapton song “Tears in Heaven” and other pieces reflecting hopeful themes.

At the end of the ceremony, Poznan’s small Jewish community placed a commemorative plaque on the synagogue wall.

“It was really a fantastic atmosphere, which was enhanced by the wonderful acoustics of the building,” Marciniak told JTA by telephone. “For me, it was an unforgettable experience.”

Marciniak, who is not Jewish, said he sought to convey a deeply symbolic meaning by creating the star with yahrzeit candles and setting it adrift in a building whose history reflects the tragedy of the Shoah.

Jews arrived in Poznan in the 14th century, if not earlier. The community numbered about 1,500 on the eve of World War II. Today, there are several dozen Jews in the city.

The synagogue was built as a grandiose domed structure a century ago, when Poznan was part of Germany. It was turned into a swimming pool by Nazi occupiers, who sheared off the dome and eliminated Jewish symbols and ornamentation.

Some 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland before World War II — and 3 million were murdered in the Holocaust. Under the postwar Communist regime, knowledge and discussion of Jewish history, culture and religion were suppressed.

When taboos against investigating the Polish Jewish past began to be lifted more than two decades ago, many Poles compared their discovery of prewar Jewish culture and history to the discovery of Atlantis, a mythical sunken world.

Atlantis “is the symbol of a destroyed civilization, like the destroyed world of the Jews in Poland,” Marciniak said.

The water in the pool built by the Nazis represented the attempt to drown memory, he said.

“The swimming pool in the synagogue isn’t a metaphor but a fact,” Marciniak said. “With my installation, I tried to create a moment of mood and reflection. I was motivated by sympathy and ethics, not by ideology.”

Marciniak, whose installation was accompanied by an exhibition of paintings inspired by Jewish memory, also has written about the Jewish experience in Poland.

He said his interest in dealing artistically with the memory of Polish Jewry is rooted in his childhood, when he lived near the site of a devastated Jewish cemetery.

“I used to see bones in the sand there,” he said.

Lena Stanley-Clamp, director of the London-based European Association for Jewish Culture, said the idea of a re- emerging Atlantis permeated Jewish-themed art in former Communist Europe.

“We are talking about submerged Jewish culture,” Stanley-Clamp, herself a Polish-born Jew, told JTA by telephone.

“We are seeing examples all over the region of efforts by artists like Marciniak, who are inspired by submerged Jewish culture and employ memory and exploration of this drowned world to create new art.”

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