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Arts & Culture Photography Museum in Poland Documents the Country’s Jewish Life

September 14, 2006
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In the heart of what once was the Jewish Kazimierz district sits a photojournalist’s memorial to a once-thriving Jewish Poland. Images of ruined synagogues in the Polish countryside hang against a bare brick backdrop in a spare building that once housed a Jewish-owned factory.

The Galicia Jewish Museum was established by British photographer Chris Schwartz as the repository of his photographs of Jewish Poland.

More than 3,500 visitors a month passed through the museum this summer. Recently, 40 Israeli youths sat on the lobby floor while Schwartz spoke about learning the lessons of the Holocaust and making them relevant in today’s world.

He pointed to the photos on the wall behind him, each depicting Righteous Gentiles from the Krakow area, and spoke about the importance of being ethical in an often evil world.

The museum opened two years ago in the city’s restored Jewish Quarter, a small area that is fast becoming one of Poland’s top tourist draws. Each summer it hosts a growing international klezmer festival, and street cafes abound with kreplach and stuffed cabbage — but the synagogue museums, restaurants, Jewish-themed hotels and klezmer groups are largely staffed by non-Jews.

Schwartz, 58, first visited Poland in 1981 to cover the rise of the Solidarity trade labor movement that helped topple communism. On subsequent visits he sought out evidence of the country’s Jewish past.

In 1991, Schwartz visited Kazimierz and was drawn to the crime-ridden, prostitute-infested, rundown quarter of the medieval city. Below the surface, there was a Jewish past begging to be documented, so he started taking pictures.

Eventually Schwartz visited 180 sites throughout Galicia, which extends east from Krakow through southern Poland and once was a place of heavy Jewish settlement. It’s a mission of “discovering traces of Jewish culture,” Schwartz said.

He has taken thousands of pictures, of which 150 are displayed at the museum.

Schwartz is still taking photographs, and the work can be grueling.

“Going from derelict synagogue to derelict synagogue to site of execution” has left him “physically and emotionally wrecked,” he said. He has photographed nearby Auschwitz in brutally cold winter.

Why focus on Poland?

“You cannot study Judaism without studying Poland,” Schwartz said. “It’s absolutely impossible. This is where the great rabbis developed their most powerful work. Up until the 1880s, 70 percent of the world’s Jews lived in Poland. This was the capital of Jewish life. If all you concentrate on is six terrible years, you have negated 600, 700, 800 years of Jewish life — and Hitler has won.”

Schwartz said he also is eager to capture Jewish life in Poland today. When contingents of the Israeli army periodically visit to clean up Jewish cemeteries, he is on hand to photograph their efforts.

He also seeks out opportunities to shine a light on neglected episodes in Poland’s recent Jewish past. The museum soon will open an exhibition of the lithographs of Bruno Schulz, whom Schwartz called “the Polish Goya.” Schulz, also an author whose works include “Street of Crocodiles,” was killed by the Nazis in 1942.

Schwartz said he’s creating a DVD of his photographs for use in Polish public schools. In the future he hopes to tackle projects in Ukraine, as well.

While his photographs delve into the past, Schwartz is convinced the images have a role in the present and future.

“You cannot build a life unless you are aware of the past,” he said.

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