Dr. Kamil Kijek of the University of Wrocław, in Poland. (photo from University of British Columbia)
For Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, the question of where to begin life anew after the cataclysm was not as clear as it might seem in hindsight.
Looking back at the successive tragedies of postwar life for Jews in Poland, it might seem obvious that the blood-soaked homeland held little hope for the future. The choices for survivors limited their options, though, and the faith that, surely, the worst had passed played a role in the decision by tens of thousands to try rebuilding their families on the soil of their ancestors.
The disastrous history of Jews in postwar Poland was the subject of a special presentation at the University of British Columbia by Dr. Kamil Kijek, an assistant professor in the Jewish studies department at the University of Wrocław, in Poland. Speaking virtually from Poland to students in-class and to a wider audience online, Kijek addressed the decision faced by Polish Jewish communities to stay in or leave post-Holocaust Poland. He was speaking to a class led by Dr. Ania Switzer, a sessional lecturer at UBC, who was born in communist Poland and who is a translator and historian specializing in Jewish studies and Holocaust education.
“Most of Poland did not become the desert of Jewish life right away,” said Kijek. “It happened over time.”
About 50,000 Jews survived the Holocaust in Polish territory. In early 1946, about 136,000 Polish Jews returned from the Soviet Union, where they had survived the war, and a few thousand others found their way back from other parts of Europe. By July 1946, there were about 200,000 Jews in Poland, compared with about 3.3 million in 1938.
The vast majority of Jews who remained in or returned to Poland after the war did not take up life in the places they had been born. The borders of the country had shifted enormously, with the Soviets taking large swaths of what had been eastern Poland and Poland being compensated with formerly German lands in the west. Jews, along with other displaced Poles, were encouraged to take up residency in these newly acquired places in the west of the country, replacing Germans who were expelled.
“It is almost impossible to understand the tragedy of the people the moment when they are freed,” said Kijek. “We need to understand that the end of the war and so-called freedom actually was a time of psychological collapse for most of these people.… These people, when they come back to the places [of their origin], they see their whole communities destroyed and it’s the first time they are sure that most of their friends and family were killed.”
Significant American and other Western funds flowed into the Jewish communities of the country, intended to rebuild Jewish society there. Hebrew schools, synagogues and other institutions were constructed and supported by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other international Jewish welfare and aid agencies.
The postwar period saw continuous upheaval in Poland, with civil war between pro- and anti-communist forces. It was not immediately clear that Poland would fall to communism, nor was it apparent at the time that, even if that did transpire, an Iron Curtain would fall across the continent. Polish Jews in the immediate aftermath of the war maintained close and supportive personal and institutional connections with family and Jewish organizations abroad. A degree of political pluralism revived before the country fell into the Soviet orbit.
Government oppression was not the only concern, though. On July 4, 1946, a pogrom in the southern Polish city of Kielce saw 42 Jews murdered and more than 40 injured. This was just the most deadly and well-known of a series of attacks against Jewish survivors after the war. The immediacy of antisemitic violence by their Polish neighbours disabused many Jews of the hope that they could rebuild a life in the country of their birth.
An exodus followed, but Kijek noted that, while contemporary observers might have seen abandoning Poland as an obvious choice, for people then, there were many considerations. They may not have had any money to facilitate relocation. At middle age or later, it might be natural to resist relocating to a place where one’s language is not spoken and one’s work experience is not transferable. And the prewar barriers that left European Jews to their fate remained largely in place: Western countries still did not open their borders to refugees.
Events unfolded quickly as the communists gained the upper hand in the country, the Cold War arose and the state of Israel was founded, providing at least a place where fleeing Polish Jews could find a welcome.
About 100,000 Jews were still in Poland in 1948, when an estimated 30,000 made aliyah. There was a tremendous amount of judgment, even suggestions of sedition, toward Jews who remained in Poland when Israel existed as an alternative, said Kijek.
“For Zionist leaders, any decision to stay in Poland was an act of a kind of national treason or an act of not understanding the lessons of the Holocaust,” he said, adding that those who remained were not all driven by ideological commitment to communism. The remaining Polish Jews represented a cross-section of Jewish society, including Orthodox, socialist and Zionist individuals. Eventually, even Zionist organizations accepted that not all Jews would make aliyah.
About one-third of Polish Jews who survived the war remained in Poland by 1950, but the emergence of the Cold War isolated them from Jews worldwide.
“All these ties are suddenly cut off in the end of 1948 and 1949,” said Kijek. The burgeoning of Hebrew schools and Jewish cultural organizations was stanched by a communist crackdown on “Zionist” institutions. The state nationalized much of the Jewish community’s remaining assets.
A liberalization occurred after the Stalin era and a number of Jews were able to flee Poland in the late 1950s. Those Jews who remained in Poland into the 1960s were, to a large extent, living a non-Jewish life and may have believed that their identity was no longer a barrier to whatever success they could attain in the country. However, following the 1967 Six Day War, in which Soviet-backed Arab countries were defeated by Israel, and 1968 student demonstrations that posed a genuine threat to the continued dominance of the communist regime, the scapegoat of “Zionism” emerged again, with Jews being accused of disloyalty to Poland, some being forced from their jobs, and the final mass exodus of Polish Jews occurred.
When the communist regime fell, in 1989, there were an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Jews in Poland, the last remaining of a millennia-old civilization.
Artist Anna Marszalkowska stands in front of “Levi,” which is part of her Tribes series, which is on exhibit at the Zack Gallery until May 4. (photo from Anna Marszalkowska)
The challenge of visually depicting the tribes of Israel has attracted many famous artists over the centuries. For example, on the 25th anniversary of the state of Israel, Salvador Dali, inspired by descriptions in the Torah, created a series of watercolours, “The Twelve Tribes of Israel.” Before that, in 1962, Marc Chagall made his famous stained-glass windows, “The Twelve Tribes,” for a synagogue in Jerusalem. Anna Marszalkowska, a local Vancouver artist of Polish origins, fits easily into this august company. Her solo show, The Tribes, opened at the Zack Gallery on March 29.
Marszalkowska grew up in Poland, but studied graphic design and worked as a graphic designer in London, England. “Diversity is what made my design path exciting,” she said in an interview with the Independent. “I started my career as a freelance web and graphic designer and then moved to video design and editing, as well as motion graphics and animation.”
Five years ago, she and her husband moved to Canada, but they lived and worked in the eastern part of the country. They relocated to Vancouver two years ago.
“We came here during the pandemic,” she said. “We wanted to try something different. For an outdoor person like myself, this is a great place. The nature is beautiful, and everyone is very friendly.”
She also changed the direction of her professional life. “I work with artists in the movie industry, but not as an artist myself,” she said. “I understand artists because of my past as a graphic designer, but I wanted less time at the computer screen. I wanted to free my creativity for more personal projects, which was hard to do while working as a graphic designer. Then, my creativity was fully engaged in my professional activity, but, on the other hand, I was limited by clients’ requirements. After a full day of work … I was often tired, I wanted to relax. Now, my creativity is freed. I have more time for my artistic experiments. I started abstract painting and I love it. Just me and a painting – it calms me.”
But even while working full time as a graphic designer, she still found energy to search for her individual style and themes. One of them was her Tribes series. “In 2010, I completed a print production course, and this series was the result.”
The series consists of 12 large digital prints, each one corresponding to one of the tribes of Israel. Although Marszalkowska’s version is an entirely modern take, it involves ancient symbolism, which originated in the Hebrew Bible. The artist conducted deep research for this project, and the end results are simultaneously stunningly simple and visually compelling.
“I had a blog before and, when I put the images online, many people expressed their interest. They wanted to buy one or several or all of the images.”
For the artist, this body of work has meaning beyond its commercial success. “It was a personal journey. I was searching for my Jewish ancestry. My grandmother grew up in a town in Poland where most citizens were Jewish before the war. She might have been part Jewish herself, but after the Holocaust, I had no one to ask.”
Instead, she studied the Bible and tried to interpret the narratives within a cultural context. “The symbols of the tribes are by no means fixed,” she explained. “Every artist could have their own interpretation, as the biblical texts describe the sons of Jacob allegorically.”
In her interpretation, the traditional symbols are given a contemporary, stylized appearance. “I explored the relationship between geometric shapes and lines,” she said. “I used repetition and symmetry to keep balance in each individual design and all 12 together.”
She also leaned towards a minimalistic approach, where a symbol of the tribe is centred on a one-colour background, with no other embellishments to attract a viewer’s attention. “In the original design, I had an ornamental frame around each image, but I got rid of them. I think less is more,” she said. “COVID made me realize that my focus should be the meaning, not the decorations.”
In most images, the background colour palette reflects that of the tribe, except for Benjamin, the youngest. “His symbol is a wolf,” Marszalkowska said. “He represents all colours of all tribes. To reflect that, I placed a ‘rainbow’ above the wolf. I think it is his spirit or maybe his song, Or his breath. It would depend on your own interpretation.”
In some of the designs, she incorporated photography for texture. “I used Adobe Illustrator to combine my photographs with my digital illustrations,” she said. For Simeon, her symbol is a tower, and she put her photos of bricks to good use in her pictorial tower construction. For Zebulun, whose symbol is a ship, she employed photos of water. “Issachar’s symbol is a donkey with a burden,” she said. “I used my photos of wood for the donkey’s load.”
When different sources offered different visual symbolisms for a tribe, the artist’s scholarly touch led her towards her own esthetic. For example, in the case of Levi, some documents don’t count him as a tribe and don’t offer any symbols for him. Historically, the Tribe of Levi wasn’t given any land, but its men served as religious leaders and teachers. Maszalkowska decided that Levi’s description as God’s Chosen Tribe warranted its own image: a breastplate of a high priest. The breastplate is embedded with 12 gemstones, each inscribed with the name of one of the tribes in Hebrew.
“Overall, the series is an invitation for everyone to embark on their own journey, to reflect on their own purpose and fulfilment,” said Maszalkowska. “Ultimately, I hope that my art will connect with the viewers and inspire them.”
Tribes runs until May 4.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
An archival photograph of Andrzej Jan Wroblewski explaining the mechanics of one of his kinetic sculptures, a predecessor of Opus 6. (photo from cicavancouver.com)
During the six decades of his professional life, industrial designer Andrzej Jan Wroblewski contributed to almost every area of artistic expression and human consumption. A list of his works includes cutlery for an airline, an excavator, tapestries, computer software, children’s books, kinetic sculptures, an iron, and a portable shower in a suitcase. His retrospective show, Andrzej Jan Wroblewski: Invisible Forces of Nature in Art and Design, opened Jan. 26 at the Centre of International Contemporary Art (CICA) in Vancouver.
Wroblewski graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Poland, in 1958. A year before, as a student, he participated in his first major sculpture competition – for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial. The committee received 426 entries from many countries. Wroblewski and his friend, architecture student Andrzej Latos, designed a way for a visitor to walk through the camp’s horrors, to understand them on a visceral level. Their design used the existing landscape, while the authors acted as composers of the visitors’ experience.
“Our submission was one of only seven selected for the short list,” Wroblewski said in an interview with the Independent. “Before I submitted, I didn’t even tell my sculpture professor. I thought he might have submitted his own concept and I didn’t want him to think I was competing with him, especially if I didn’t win. I was right. He did submit his own proposal and he was one of the seven shortlisted as well.”
After that, there was no more hiding. “But my professor was a wonderful man,” Wroblewski recalled. “He told me that my presentation was so good, I should use it as my diploma project. He also offered me the position of his assistant after my graduation.”
Wroblewski started teaching sculpture, but he doubted the artistic medium would be his future. “After my project didn’t win the Auschwitz competition, someone tried to comfort me,” he said. “They said I could use the idea for some other project, and it made me angry. Re-using that idea felt wrong. The whole concept was created for a special place and purpose; it didn’t belong elsewhere. And that led me to thinking that maybe sculpture wasn’t what I wanted to do. Artists rarely decide what happens to their creations; bureaucrats decide. But if I switched to industrial design, I would have many more chances to give my creations to people: industrial designers create with their users in mind.”
He switched to industrial design and became one of the pioneers in the field in Poland. He submitted proposals for several international competitions and worked on many objects on contract with production companies. An excavator, a scooter, and a set of thin steel cutlery for a Polish airline all originated from that period of his life. He became the first dean of the faculty of industrial design of his alma mater.
“Industrial design changes our behaviour,” he said. “If I design a cup and it goes into production, it could change how people drink. Good industrial design is supposed to make our lives easier.”
Wroblewski was one of the first industrial designers in Poland to use a computer, and even developed special software to help other industrial designers. By 1987, he was a rector of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. Cracks in the Iron Curtain were already emerging, and the academy started cooperating with one of the best schools of industrial design in the United States. In 1988, Wroblewski received an invitation to teach at the University of Illinois.
“I taught there for 13 years, before I retired,” he said. “After retirement, in 2000, my wife and I moved to Vancouver. Our daughter was already here, working at UBC. I taught at Emily Carr, but for one semester only. I still had too many ideas, too many projects in my head, and I wanted time. Retirement gave me that time.”
Some of his ideas are on display at the CICA gallery. All of these installations employ various forces of nature, which lent the show its name. “In the past,” Wroblewski said, “the division in the arts was much more rigid. You either did sculpture or you painted or you drew. Now, the dividing lines are dissolving. The artist uses what he needs to express himself. One installation might involve several artistic forms in various combinations.”
One of the pieces is an interactive kinetic sculpture called Opus 6. It explores kinetic energy and gravity. There is a moving part with a tablet and a stationary part with a suspended pen. If you put a piece of paper on the tablet and give it a nudge, it begins swinging, and the pen produces a unique abstract drawing on the paper underneath.
For Wroblewski, Opus 6 was a reconstruction. His original installation was called Opus 5 and it was bought by a museum in Poland. “I decided it was much cheaper to build it from scratch here, in Vancouver, than to transport the original from Poland and back,” he said.
Another installation explores gravity and viscosity and concentrates on water. “I studied music before the art academy [and] I used my own music for the water installation,” the designer shared. “I also built a special maze of Plexiglass to be able to see how a drop of water flows, and then I recorded it all in a light projector and created a video. This installation is a tribute to water, one of the most powerful forces of nature.”
In a separate corner, made dim by the enclosed walls, Wroblewski situated a series of light sculptures. His chandeliers hang from the ceiling or stand on the floor, their radiance interweaving. The shapes and sizes are all different, but the material used is the same: paper-thin strips of light-coloured wooden veneer.
Wroblewski’s desire to explore new materials and new approaches for his work always drove him towards experimentation, towards the unknown. “When I came to the States, I was fascinated by computers,” he said. “I used a program called Paintbrush to create some abstract compositions, but, at that time, there were no printers big enough to give me the large size I wanted. I decided that a tapestry would be the best medium to enlarge those digital paintings. I built a special loom and made a tapestry for each of those paintings. Every pixel in the digital paintings corresponds exactly to one knot in the tapestry. It took me about six months to complete each of the large tapestries. It is how I operate. When I have an idea, I find a way to achieve it.”
Demonstrated side by side with the printouts of his digital paintings on standard-sized paper, his couple-metre-wide tapestries look impressive.
One of his most recent projects is a series of 10 children’s picture books. Each book is about a specific animal, with the amusing pictures by Wroblewski and the text by his daughter, University of British Columbia professor Anna Kindler. “We did it when my great-granddaughter was born, three years ago,” he said.
His latest sculpture dates from about the same period, 2019. “I saw a tree grown through a fence, as if the wires sprouted from inside the tree. It was near UBC. I cut it down and installed it in a wooden frame. It demonstrates how nature could absorb civilization.”
In 2018, for his lifetime contributions to the field of industrial design in Poland, Wroblewski was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland. He was also named one of the three most influential Polish designers of the 20th century.
A scene from Site: Yizkor as it was performed in Sichów Duży, Poland, this past June. (photo from Chutzpah!)
Site: Yizkor is both an intensely personal work and a powerful, universally meaningful work. It is ever-changing and spans the past, present and future.
“For me, this project is a gesture of healing,” co-creator Maya Ciarrocchi told the Independent. “My goal for audiences and participants is that, through the process of shared commemoration, we may put aside our differences and look towards a reimagined future.”
Part of this year’s Chutzpah! Festival, Site: Yizkor is a collaboration between Canadian multimedia artist Ciarrocchi and American composer Andrew Conklin. It is an evolving “interdisciplinary project [that] explores the physical and emotional manifestation of loss through text, video and music.” It is an installation (of video, prints and drawings) and a performance, and includes workshops “where participants are invited to create their own Yizkor pages as a way to mourn and commemorate lost people and places.”
“Yizkor books are documents written by Holocaust survivors to commemorate the villages they lived in before the Second World War,” explained Ciarrocchi. “They capture the spirit of these places by describing the day-to-day life of their Jewish citizens. They include lists of the Jewish residents, the structure of political systems and where the best shopping could be found. They also include photographs and maps of the villages drawn from memory. They document a time and place that no longer exist but the traces of which are visible in the contemporary landscape.”
In introducing the project to workshop participants, Ciarrocchi said, “I tell them that, while Site: Yizkorexamines displacement through the lens of Yizkor, which is an inherently Jewish framework, the project is not limited to the Jewish experience. Site: Yizkor is centred on creating a space for shared commemoration and the universal experience of loss.”
For the local presentation, Conklin works with a local string quartet for the performance, while Ciarrocchi creates “video projections for the performance that include references to the known and erased histories of Vancouver,” and installs the exhibit in the gallery. She leads the workshops, which include both Jewish and non-Jewish community groups, and participants “are invited to read their text as part of the performances or share them as written documents or drawings as part of the exhibition.”
Site: Yizkor has been presented in New York City and in San Francisco. In June of this year, it was presented in Poland, from where Ciarrocchi’s maternal grandfather immigrated to Canada; Ciarrocchi was born in Winnipeg.
The project began in 2018, when Ciarrocchi was a fellow in the Laboratory for Jewish Culture program in New York City. “At the time,” she said, “I was working on a series of drawings depicting former Polish and Lithuanian wooden synagogues layered with memory maps sourced from Yizkor books. As part of the project, I gave a performance lecture where I read passages from Yizkor books, accompanied by projections of my drawings, maps and photographs from Yizkor books. I concluded the performance by prompting the audience to ‘describe a vanished place of personal importance.’ I collected these texts, and they were incorporated into future performances.”
She met Conklin around when she was in residency at Millay Arts in upstate New York. “He expressed interest in using my drawings of maps as a musical score,” she said. “We then started working on a sound/video project comprising his compositions and my animated maps and drawings.”
In 2019, Ciarrocchi was invited to attend an international meeting of interdisciplinary artists in Poland.
“The group gathered in Sichów Duży, a rural area not far from Staszów, a small town that was once an important centre of Jewish life,” said Ciarrocchi. “The site once belonged to an aristocratic family who lost their lands and titles during the Second World War. The buildings had been restored except for one and, one evening, I projected the video on its surface and played Andrew’s music from speakers inside. It was then I knew that I needed to return to this place and present the work live with musicians inside the structure. In June 2022, after three years, a pandemic and a war, I returned to Sichów with a team of musicians from the U.S., Germany and Poland. We presented Site: Yizkor inside the ruin to an audience comprised of Ukrainian refugees who were being housed on the site. The following week, we presented Site: Yizkor in another ruined manor home outside of Kraków. That iteration included dancers as well as musicians.”
It was an emotional experience.
“Gratitude and relief,” said Ciarrocchi about what she felt afterward. “Gratitude to Andrew and the incredible team of performers we assembled and to the funders who supported the work. Relief after all the planning and delays that we were finally able to bring the work to Poland. It was also exciting to see the project come together so beautifully. In many ways, my first research trip in 2019 was where I felt all the sadness and grief. This year, I was too busy to let myself go into the dark crevasses of my emotions. In 2019, though, I spent most of the three weeks I was there crying. I visited my grandmother’s shtetl, which was incredibly powerful. While sitting on the ground in the old Jewish cemetery there, I released all my grief. Poland is filled with ghosts. One does not help but feel their presence.”
It is in this context that the question asking workshop participants to “describe their dreams of the future” was added to the project.
“I added this part of the prompt in Poland,” said Ciarrocchi. “I realized that, understandably, so much of the Jewish experience there is about memory and the past. I’m two generations removed from the Holocaust and, while its effects are written into the code of my body, I am also interested in how we create something new from the residue of this loss. This also comes from these past years of the pandemic, when there has been such a huge loss of life. We’ve had to reimagine how we live now and in the future.”
The performance and exhibition of Site: Yizkor in Vancouver is the Canadian première of the work.
For a recent grant proposal, Ciarrocchi wrote about the première, “This event will also be a coming home. Site: Yizkor is rooted in research into the land and architecture of a place in relation to the known and mythological histories of my ancestors who fled Poland and Lithuania before the Second World War. My ancestors emigrated to Canada to form a new life for themselves and their descendants. On the surface, their story is one of success. My great-grandfather was a seminal figure in Winnipeg’s garment industry, and my family still benefits from his accomplishments. This story belies how the effects of trauma and displacement have persisted from their origins in Eastern Europe so many decades ago. Forming cross-cultural connections through Site: Yizkor’s performance and workshop model, first in Poland and now in Canada, irrigates ancient inherited wounds.”
Site: Yizkor is co-presented with the Zack Gallery and in partnership with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, with the support of the Jewish Community Foundation. The performance takes place Nov. 19, 8 p.m., at the Rothstein Theatre, and it will livestreamed and available on demand; it will include a facilitated talkback and a reception with the artists. The exhibition and workshops take place Nov. 12-19 in the gallery. For tickets and more information, visit chutzpahfestival.com.
Your editorial of Aug. 19 entitled “Does history matter?” recounts some of the terrain of recent right-wing Polish political machinations against an open, self-critical approach to Shoah research and discourse in the country. It is sad, unfortunate and, I dare say, stupid of many Polish politicians to think that avoiding rigorous debate will somehow improve the standing of Poland and Polish culture internationally.
I am a proud Polish Canadian, raised in an amazing, secular Catholic family, and now for the last decade-and-a-half (officially, anyway): a Jew. I love the choice I made and I love Judaism, however the world does look very odd from where I stand. I am often too Jewish for Poles and too Polish for Jews.
An artist by schooling and a software engineer by profession, I am not an historian. However, I have to be one just to muddle through my own life. Poland has always been a cultural floodplain between great powers. Most Poles, perhaps like most Israelis, have to be very finely tuned both to history and to current geopolitical rumblings. To be otherwise would be existentially precarious. Because of my conversion to Judaism, a significant portion of the last two decades of my life has been spent studying topics relating to Polish Jewish history, Polish/Jewish relations, Israeli history and contemporary Polish politics (especially as they relate to Israel, the diaspora and the history of the Shoah).
It is quite exhausting to sit between two communities that I love very much (the now thinly overlapping Polish and Jewish Venn diagram) and have to read occasional inaccuracies, such as the one sadly published in your fine publication in an otherwise excellent text.
When your editorial asserted that Poland is “the society that bears more blame for complicity with the Nazis than any other,” I got quite angry. It is simply not true. This claim is pernicious misinformation that Poles regularly have to dissipate. It is not true on the level of governance, nor is it true on the level of day-to-day street life at the time. Poland was the only Allied force to fight Germany from the very first day of the war to the very last. It never surrendered to Germany as did France. It never made any secret collaborative pacts with Germany as did Russia. Poland knew that Germany was planning the Shoah and it shared solid evidence with Allied command as early as 1942. That the Allies did not act upon this is another story.
Poland was a massive net contributor to the Allied war effort. One source I read suggested that over half of British wartime intelligence reports came from Polish field agents. The Polish army was very active outside of Poland as a key member of the Allied forces during the war, commanded from their government-in-exile in London. The Polish army under General Wladyslaw Anders in fact made a famous march all the way to Israel, where its Jewish soldiers were offered the option of decommissioning and settling down there. The Polish resistance effort was also very active throughout the war throughout occupied Polish territory, where they applied lethal punishments upon those who collaborated with the Germans – matching the brutality that the Germans applied to any Pole who provided shelter to their Jewish neighbours. It was a dangerous time for everyone.
To your editorial’s point about Poland’s historical reputational ranking, I submit here a few other societies that “bear more blame for complicity with the Nazis” than Poland: Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Greek, Romanian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Slovakian, Danish, Finnish, Burmese, Thai, Iraqi, Russian, French. Oh, and German.
Perhaps some of these are debatable, others much less so. I certainly agree with your editorial that history is important and should be open to public argument.
We live in different times today. To remember is important and we must remember well, but we must also be nimble enough not to get stuck in the ruts of history. One of my favourite Polish Jews, Shimon Peres, once said: “don’t be like us. Be different…. I have very little patience for history. I believe that to imagine is more important than to remember.” In that vein, I would like to echo the words of another Polish Jew I admire. Julian Tuwim, one of Poland’s best writers. He dared imagine: “I believe in a future Poland in which that star of your armbands will become the highest order bestowed upon the bravest among Polish officers and soldiers. They will wear it proudly upon their breast next to the old Virtuti Militari.”
I, too, believe in a future Poland. With criticism, I imagine that it could be something very good indeed.
The promise of the internet was that people could access unprecedented volumes of information for the benefit of themselves and society as a whole. What has regrettably proven to be the case is that it is a fount from which people draw to “prove” falsehoods they choose to believe – or, for nefarious reasons, claim to believe.
Amid the oceans of “information” online, it is sometimes difficult to tell what people genuinely believe as opposed to what they say they believe in public to mislead their audiences. For example, does the U.S. member of Congress Marjorie Taylor Greene actually believe that reliance on solar energy means the lights will go out when the sun goes down? Or is her apparent stupidity a deliberate foil for her support of polluting energy sources? If she believes what she said, this is misinformation. If she knows she is telling a lie, it is disinformation.
The terms “misinformation” and “disinformation” are sadly necessary to understand what is happening in our era, as we have said in this space before and feel moved to repeat. In few places is this difference as consequential as in discussions of the history of the Holocaust.
Correspondence between Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and right-wing journalist Bronislaw Wildstein (and two others) leaked last week defines some of the world’s foremost Holocaust scholars as “enemies of the entire Polish nation.” There is other chilling language in the back-and-forth, detailing how top Polish authorities are expending enormous energies to rewrite the history of Polish collaboration in the Shoah.
A 2018 law forbids any suggestion that the Polish state or Polish people participated in Nazi crimes against Jews. International pressure saw the penalties for breaking this law reduced from a criminal conviction to a civil matter potentially resulting in a fine. But the intent and impact remain clear. Prof. Jan Grabowski, a Polish-born Canadian academic, and a Polish colleague, Barbara Engelking, were victorious in a 2021 appeal that saw an earlier court decision order to apologize to a descendant of a Shoah-era perpetrator for betraying Jewish neighbours to the German Nazis. But this court decision has not quenched the thirst for revisionism.
The obsession among top Polish officials on this subject is unabated. The email exchange includes the suggestion that Polish authorities should strategically coopt the Jewish experience in the Holocaust to their own benefit, recasting Poles as the Nazis’ primary targets and victims.
Poland also recently extended its Holocaust-related legislation to explicitly forbid financial restitution or compensation to survivors or their heirs.
The Polish government has steadfastly asserted that Nazi atrocities catastrophically affected non-Jewish Poles, which is plainly true. But two things can be true simultaneously. Many Poles were victimized by the Nazis and many Poles collaborated with the Nazis – and, in some cases, both involved the same individuals.
Wildstein, the journalist who seems to have the prime minister’s ear, makes threatening noises about top Holocaust research and archival bodies, including the Jewish Historical Institute, in Warsaw, and the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and mentions “the possibility of introducing our people into their midst.” He accuses the Polish Centre for Holocaust Research of presenting “an almost obsessive hatred of Poles.”
There is paranoia in the idea that exposing historical truth is identical to hatred. Ironically, while Germany is the European country that has engaged in the most introspective contrition, as much as a society can hope to do for so unparalleled a crime, Poland has steadfastly dug in its heels. The society that bears more blame for complicity with the Nazis than any other is the one that is not only refusing to confront its grotesque past but most stridently whitewashing it.
All of this has led to strained relations between Israel and Poland. It should also be a source of friction with other countries, including Canada, partly because it is a Canadian citizen, Grabowski, who is among the most targeted objects of Polish scorn, and partly because all democracies should stand up to this appalling historical revisionism.
There is a grim silver lining in this “debate.” The Polish authorities understand, as too few in the world seem to, that history matters. What happened in the past informs our present and future. If they can recast the past, they can affect the future.
The question for us is whether we, as a society, have the same understanding of and commitment to historical power. Are those who seek truth as motivated as those whose goal is to subvert it?
Editor’s Note: For a contrary point of view, click here to read the letter to the editor that was published in the Jewish Independent’s Sept. 2/22 issue.
A friend described to me once what Warsaw looked like in the aftermath of the Second World War. A small boy then, he remembered vividly the ripped apartment buildings, whole sides of buildings missing. When you raised your head, he said, you could see a bed up there, one leg hanging over the precipice, the chimney, a chair stuck in half fall. The lives turned into ruins and exposed.
The “noble” war, as Russian President Vladimir Putin calls it, has killed thousands. Other thousands have been taken into filtration camps by Russians. The war has uprooted the lives of millions. It has separated wives from husbands, children from fathers. It has laid bare what is usually concealed from the eyes of a stranger: human attachments and loves, support for one another and acts of kindness. But also, the seismic faults running through so many families; their discontents, their arguments, and the way they cope with them in the time of crises.
Inadvertently, I became privy to the lives of many simply because I happened to be there at the time of their great vulnerability and need. Those I met (and, with rare exceptions, these were women with children) were going through the horrors and desolation of war. All, without exception, were traumatized. All needed practical help, advice, information and, above all, empathy.
But what they also needed, I discovered, was to talk about what they had gone through. That need was spontaneous and raw. They broke into stories easily and without invitation on my part. Each story was different, yet many followed the similar pattern: destruction and loss of property or homes; weeks in basements with scarce water, food supplies and electricity; the howl of air raid sirens; separation from loved ones and concern about their well-being; screams of traumatized children; and, then, finally evacuation, finally escape, over many days. Escape on foot, by trains, buses or sometimes cars, with detours necessitated by rockets and missiles; crossing rivers on boats where bridges were blown up.
I heard repeated gratitude to Ukrainian volunteers who facilitated the escapes, relaying families from one safe place to another; informing about the dangers on the way and how to bypass them. I heard stories of churches that sheltered families overnight; of people harbouring strangers in their homes; of volunteers who organized food that awaited fleeing families at different points of their long and hazardous journey to safety. I learned a new word – humanitarka, meaning clothing (and perhaps food) that poured into Ukraine from the West as humanitarian aid.
And I heard stories of the brutality of Russian soldiers towards civilians. I heard stories of looting, torture and rape. I heard stories of Russian soldiers leaving villages and shooting in their wake every cow, every chicken, so that the owners would be left with nothing; gratuitously smashing all the preservatives Ukrainians traditionally prepare for winter. I heard how Russian soldiers pretended they would allow villagers to run to safety, only to shoot them in their legs, and finish them off later like hunted animals. I heard stories of booby-trapped corpses, of Russians abandoning their dead.
In the two-and-a-half weeks I volunteered with the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) at a border crossing and in a refugee shelter several kilometres away from the Polish border with Ukraine, I met people of all walks of life – I met the Ukrainian Nation.
I met a grandmother who escaped missiles with her six grandchildren and made it to Poland while the parents of the children had perished.
I met a man, a welder, looking after his old and infirm mother. They couldn’t possibly live with any family, the man explained, because his mother became psychotic and incontinent, and he regularly had to clean up after her. The welder was now trying to bring to Poland his former wife with her new husband and their three children, one of whom was his.
I met 60 elderly Baptists from Zaporizhzhia who were on the way to Amsterdam, where a sister Baptist church was going to shelter them. Zaporizhshia is the site of the largest atomic plant in Europe and it had been overtaken by Russian soldiers. It’s the city where my relatives live. Talking to these refugees, I realized that my aunt had been concealing the truth from me all along: the rockets are falling 10 kilometres away from the city.
I discovered that the most painful subject and the last thing that came up in conversations was the fact that women had had to leave their loved ones behind. The worry for their soldier sons and husbands, their parents, grandparents and siblings, was a deeply hidden, yet constant, heartbreak. It was a breaking point for many. I will not forget those eyes, dozens and dozens of women’s eyes: blue, grey, greenish; eyes magnified by tears at the thought of the separation from loved ones. When a collective image of Ukraine comes to my mind, it’s women’s eyes. Embarrassed to cry in front of me, a stranger, they tried to look away. The older sister would often say to the younger, “Enough already, just stop it!” while breaking into tears herself.
Another move that caused tears was my offering of money to refugees, the generous donations that I had received while I was still in Vancouver. In Canada, I had packed lots of envelopes to put the money into, for a civilized handout. How naïve I was! In the chaos of a refugee centre, it was quickly handing over money from hands to hands. A scared look and the initial refusal to accept was universal. I had to come up with some strategy to overcome the mutual embarrassment. “This is not my money,” I would say. “This is from Canadian friends, people like you. Canadians care about you. They want to help you. But they can’t be here. They asked me to do it for them. Please take it.” A grateful look. Tears. A hug.
The refugee centre was a temporary shelter. Refugees could spend several nights there and then move on: to some city, some country.
The vast majority of the refugees I met were determined to return home once the war was over. But they had made it to Poland and many would have liked to stay there while the war was raging. Poland was familiar; it has cultural and historical ties with Ukraine, especially with the western part of Ukraine.
In the post-Soviet times, before this war, thousands of Ukrainians had gone to Poland for work: a member of the European Union, Polish standards of living and salaries were higher than Ukrainian. Besides, the Polish language was closer to Ukrainian than any others of the countries that came forward to help. It would be manageable somehow; it could be learned, if not by everybody, at least by the younger people. But Poland couldn’t take in any more refugees. Posters in the refugee centre read in Ukrainian: “We are happy to welcome you, but our cities are full. Our small rural communities are cozy and peaceful. Consider moving there.” But even small villages were full and couldn’t afford to welcome any more people.
The women who arrived at the refugee centre accepted with resignation the fact that they would have to be on the move again. The way they decided where to go next somewhat surprised me: it wasn’t on the basis of a better financial package or living conditions. Rather, the criteria was proximity to Ukraine. The first question that women asked me about various countries also seemed unusual: they wanted to know if they would be able to find work quickly. I would talk about the hardships they had just endured; the necessity to rest, to take a break, to look around first. But that didn’t register. They have worked all their lives, they said. They are used to work. Living for free at somebody’s expenses was a no-no.
Most of the Ukrainian women I met were mild-mannered and perhaps less assertive, less forceful, compared to North American ones. All were both surprised and grateful for the help and goodwill they’d seen from so many. They couldn’t praise enough what the Poles did for them. They were deeply touched by the smallest acts of kindness. And none took the help for granted. “If this happened to other nations and we, Ukrainians, would have to do this for somebody else, would we have done the same? I am not sure,” said one woman.
Few discussed the wider political implications of the war. They didn’t talk about Putin or his goals, or the future of their country. Their concerns were more practical and immediate: food, clothing and the well-being of their children, their elderly mothers.
But I remember one woman, Nina, and her fiery indignation: “What have we done to Russians? What do they want from us? We didn’t bother anybody. Nazi? What Nazi? We live peacefully with our neighbours: gypsies, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians. We all speak Ukrainian and Russian!”
Another, older, woman, while waiting for the bus to Germany, was even more emphatic: “You tell me why Russians believe Putin’s propaganda? Why do they have the mentality of slaves? We Ukrainians may have our problems. But we’re free people. Russians are slaves! Slaves.” (The word “slave” in Russian usage has strongly negative connotations, implying the qualities of subservience, fear, and the desire to please the master.)
I thought about these words. I don’t have an answer to her question. Nor do I have any convincing arguments against her harsh indictment.
* * *
I’m still trying to comprehend and, in some way, come to terms with what I experienced over 16 days. It began when I flew into Warsaw from Vancouver and was picked up at the airport by a JDC representative. Together with two volunteers from the United States, we were driven to the Polish-Ukrainian border, where a small group of Holocaust survivors was to arrive. The drive took four to five hours and, by the time we got to the border, it was totally dark and bitterly cold.
Arrangements had been made with Germany that it would take in the Holocaust survivors. The German Red Cross ambulance bus had traveled 13 hours. I learned later that everybody in the ambulance was a volunteer – the driver was a history teacher, the three women were professional nurses donating hours and hours of service.
I wondered how it was possible to find a few Holocaust survivors in a warring country and bring them to safety. It turned out that the Jewish Agency had used the lists of survivors receiving financial assistance before the war to contact and evacuate them.
What struck me most at the time was the sight of several empty white canvass stretchers on the dirt next to the bus. It started to drizzle; the Germans stacked the stretchers and covered them with a tarp. The stretchers, soon to be filled with people, were a menacing sign of the proximity of war, invisible yet close. When the bus from Ukraine finally arrived, one body was carried out on a stretcher. So emaciated and skeletal was this body that, for a moment, I wondered why they were transporting a corpse with the living. When I looked closer, I saw that it was a woman, wounded and emaciated to an extreme degree but alive. For the next while, the Germans administered an IV to the seemingly unresponsive body. I overheard a conversation between two nurses: one wondering if the woman would be able to make it to Germany. They asked her a question – I translated – was she in pain? The woman shook her head. The Germans proceeded to take care of others.
Six other women got off the bus with some help from the Red Cross people and us.
One lady clutched her battered black purse that was overflowing with some papers. She refused to board the ambulance bus. A nurse and I held her up against the bitter wind, while she told us that her son was waiting for her here, around the corner, that he was going to pick her up. We finally figured out what she meant: her son was in Germany and she believed that she had arrived to Germany, not Poland. Efforts were made to contact her son right there, and somebody got him on the phone or they said they did, I’m not sure. But somehow the matter was settled: the woman agreed to board the ambulance.
None of these old and frail women escaped with any possessions to speak of: a handbag, a sack, was all they managed to take. But that little something was now the focus of their attention; a symbol of their lost nests, and they feverishly clung to it.
One woman finally settled on a stretcher inside the ambulance, her purse sitting on top of her chest. Another plowed through her handbag in search of a watch, the only item left from her late husband, she said; she couldn’t find it, believed it was stolen and was distraught.
Yet another was worried about her frequent need to urinate. A nurse and I led her to the blue booths on the side of the road. She whispered in my ear, asking if I could take her alone: the nurse had accompanied her to the booth before; it was too embarrassing to need to go again.
None of the Holocaust survivors seemed to be clear about what was going on and where they were going next. Finding out that there would be another 13 hours of travel to Frankfurt on top of the hours of travel behind her, one of the passengers refused to go. “I won’t be able to take it,” she said. “I lived through German occupation once and now it’s the Russians. I’ve had enough.”
The last to arrive (I think in a separate bus) was a man. With nothing in his hands, he seemed to be unperturbed by the lack of any worldly possessions. He came from Kyiv. “I didn’t want to leave. But I’m an invalid. I live on the third floor and can’t go downstairs into the basement during the air raids,” he explained. “My son was worried and decided to pack me off to Germany. One way or the other, what difference does it make for me after all I’ve lived through? I remember the Germans. They didn’t do to us what the Russians are doing.”
For almost anyone, this would be the most stunning statement. The Nazis, the Germans, and their allies, committed terrible atrocities during the Second World War (“the Great Patriotic War,” as it was officially called in the Soviet Union, where I grew up). They were inhuman in their cruelty; they were beasts. I still remember the games of my childhood that we played in our yards: the good guys were Russians, the bad ones were Nazis, the Fritzes, as we called them.
I thought about it as I was watched the German nurses taking care, with utmost attention and patience, of the elderly Ukrainian Jews, the Holocaust survivors, escaping Russian atrocities in the 21st century.
Marina Sonkina is a fiction writer, and teaches in the Liberal Arts Program 55+ at Simon Fraser University. She immigrated to Canada with her two then-young sons, as the Soviet Union was breaking up. When Russia attacked Ukraine, she applied as a volunteer with the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. She arrived in Poland early this month and was a frontline responder for 16 days, offering refugees medical and psychological support.
Afterlife is Isa Milman’s first work of nonfiction. (photo by Shea Lowry)
Midway through Isa Milman’s Afterlight, which came out this week, the author cites Reb Nachman of Breslov, who said, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge.” In Victoria-based Milman’s new work, we encounter bridges of various sorts: those that serve as a crucial lifeline to the survival of the denizens of cities, particularly at a time of war, and the bridges that bring together people from different continents in the pursuit of understanding an unconscionably horrific time in Eastern Europe.
And then there are the bridges that link us poignantly to our past – to those we know through words and photos but have never met. In Afterlight, one such bridge connects Milman to her mother’s twin sister, her aunt Basia, who perished in the Holocaust, and who, like Milman, wrote poetry. (Milman is a recipient of the Canadian Jewish Book Award for poetry.)
Milman’s journey began in 2013, when, following her mother’s death, she sought to find Basia’s poems from the 1930s. The book alternates between the present and the past (the war years), as Milman tries to uncover a layered tale. She travels to Europe where, at times, her quest for information leads to dead ends and, at other times, she finds details in unlikely places – a photograph in Amsterdam, for example.
At one stage, Milman finds poetry written in a Polish publication from the 1930s. She writes, “Reading the children’s poems, I felt a terrible nostalgia rise up – a dangerous nostalgia. Even now it hurts too much, this intense longing for a conversation with Basia, for a meeting, a recognition that we’ve lived on the same planet, come from the same earth, share blood and bone. We share a love of poetry, but I shall never know her, not even as smudged ink on a page.”
At one point in her exploration, Milman pens a poem to her aunt. “How many tiny flowers make one lilac sprig? / How many stars in the night sky have names? / How many yet to be seen? They disappear with morning sun too soon but in darkness or in light tucked in their beds they remain,” the poem reads.
Basia’s story is but one piece of the book. Afterlight also traces the journey of Milman’s parents and her other surviving aunts through the Holocaust and examines questions about the trauma, displacement and identity caused by the Holocaust to succeeding generations.
“I’d lived my life in a black hole of absence, of never having the experience of grandparents, of feeling rooted and at home with extended family. And this was not because of a tsunami, an earthquake, forest fire or plague. It was because of tribal hatred,” Milman writes.
As well, she explores the issue of reconciling the Poland that Jews thought of as their home with rampant antisemitism and the brutality of the war years. “Why couldn’t I choose how to think about Poland, even if it meant going against most everything I’d learned?” Milman asks. “Why couldn’t I revise my notion and accept that Poland is a place that I can love as well as despise and fear? Why must it be either/or? Was it possible to live in the uncomfortable in-between, where both realities coexist?”
Afterlight is Milman’s first work of nonfiction. At first, Milman, whose collections of poetry include Prairie Kaddish, Between the Doorposts and Something Small to Carry Home, was reluctant to write a nonfiction account of the Holocaust. However, recent surges in antisemitism around the world led her to change her mind.
“The lessons of the Holocaust need to be taught, and not just by citing facts and reportage,” she said. “Telling stories about real people and their experiences is the most effective way of reaching and teaching people about how evil can happen, and how we must fight our worst human inclinations and speak out against hatred and inhumanity.”
A big part of her decision to write a memoir was realizing that her family’s story did not match a more common Holocaust narrative. Hers is a lesser-told account of Jews from eastern Poland, some murdered in what’s known as “the Holocaust of Bullets” and others, like her parents, who survived because of deportation by the Soviets to the Gulag.
“I loved entering the world of creative nonfiction,” she said. “Using my imagination to create scenes where I clearly was not present enabled me to inhabit the places and people I needed to describe. Everything became more real as I entered into the minds of my characters, who happened to be my parents and close family.”
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
A Polish court’s ruling that a Canadian Holocaust scholar must apologize for tarnishing the memory of a wartime mayor in Poland continues to reverberate around the world.
The case is being condemned by Jewish organizations and historians as an attack on free academic inquiry. Scholars warn the ruling could further chill an already touchy area of research: the role played by Poles in the murder of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland.
In a long-awaited ruling on Feb. 9, a civil court in Warsaw ordered two prominent Holocaust scholars to apologize to an elderly woman who claimed they had defamed her late uncle over his wartime actions.
Prof. Jan Grabowski, an historian at the University of Ottawa, and Prof. Barbara Engelking, a sociologist and founder of the Polish Centre for Holocaust Research, were accused of defaming Edward Malinowski, the wartime mayor of Malinowo, a village in northeast Poland, by suggesting in a book that he delivered several dozen Jews to Nazi occupiers.
The professors were ordered to apologize for a passage in Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland, a two-volume work they co-edited, which the court said “violated Malinowski’s honour” by “providing inaccurate information.”
The court declined a demand for monetary damages of 100,000 Polish zlotys (about $34,000 Cdn) but ordered the scholars to apologize to Malinowski’s niece, 81-year-old Filomena Leszczynska, who brought the case; publish a statement on the website of the Centre for Holocaust Research; and correct the passage in any future edition.
Leszczynska had argued that her uncle had actually aided Jews and was acquitted of collaboration in 1950.
Grabowski, whose father survived the Holocaust, called the outcome “a sad day for the history of the Holocaust in Poland and beyond Poland. I have no idea what will be the consequences as well as the implications of this trial. But I can say for certain this thing will be studied for a long time by historians,” he told the Globe and Mail.
Prior to the verdict, he warned that, if the lawsuit were successful, “then basically it will mean the end to the independent writing of the history of the Holocaust in Poland.”
The professors were sued under a Polish law allowing for civil action against anyone claiming that the Polish nation or state was responsible for Nazi atrocities. The law was amended in 2018 to drop plans to criminalize the offence.
In her ruling, the judge said the decision “must not have a cooling effect on academic research,” but that is how it is being perceived.
As a senior tenured professor, the verdict, Grabowski conceded in a Postmedia interview from Poland, is “unpleasant. But, imagine you are a 25-year-old graduate student of history. Do you think you’re going to embark upon discovery of difficult history? I don’t think so.”
Grabowski and Engelking said they will appeal the ruling.
Mina Cohn, director of the Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship at Carleton University in Ottawa, called the campaign against Grabowski and Engelking “ugly.”
“The Polish government’s attempt to discredit them, and to silence and distort the historical facts of the Holocaust in Poland is appalling,” Cohn told The CJN. “It endangers the basic right of the future freedom of historical research of the Holocaust in that country.”
She said that, as daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors with roots in Poland, “I find this blatant attempt by the Polish government to reject the reality of inherent antisemitism within Polish society before and during the Holocaust, and to discredit survivors’ testimonies, very offensive.”
For Prof. Piotr Wrobel, a specialist in Polish history at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, the case is an example of the current Polish government’s attempt to control the historical record.
“They try to shape the ‘official’ version and persecute people who do not share [it],” he told The CJN. “This is very sad.”
It was “very clearly” the intention of those behind the lawsuit “to freeze scholarly research into the Holocaust. This was supposed to be a warning. Young people should remember this. If your opinions [and] historical interpretations are different than the official ones, then do not touch the Holocaust,” Wrobel said. “There is a choice between comfort and truth.”
In a statement on Feb. 10, the University of Ottawa offered its “unwavering support” to Grabowski and his “widely respected” Holocaust research. The university called the verdict “unjust.”
“Prof. Grabowski’s critical examination of the fate of Polish Jews during World War II shows how knowledge of the past remains vitally relevant today,” said university president Jacques Frémont. “The impact his work has had in Poland, and the censorious reaction it has generated, demonstrates this truth.”
The university “emphatically supports” Grabowski’s “right to pursue historical inquiry unencumbered by state pressure, free from legal sanction and without fear of extrajudicial attack.”
In Israel, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum decried the ruling as “an attack on the effort to achieve a full and balanced picture of the history of the Holocaust.”
Even before the verdict, David Silberklang, a senior Holocaust historian in Israel, said the libel case intended for the two scholars to be “sued into submission.”
The decision “damages an open and honest coming to terms with the past,” said Gideon Taylor, president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which sponsors historical research on the Holocaust.
Taylor said Poland “must encourage open inquiry into its history, both the positive and the negative aspects.”
Canadian historian Frank Bialystok, who has written extensively about the Holocaust, sees the verdict against Grabowski and Engelking as a flipping of political extremes in Poland.
The murder of Jews in Poland, even after the war, was documented at the time. “This research was acceptable during the communist era as a weapon against nationalism,” said Bialystok. Now, the two professors are being “vilified” by the nationalist camp.
Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre said the ruling could have “a devastating impact on Holocaust research and education.” The organization said it is reaching out to senior government leaders, urging them to speak out against “Holocaust distortion in Poland.”
The American Historical Association went so far as to write Polish President Andrzej Duda, saying “a legal procedure is not the place to mediate historical debates” and urged Polish leaders to “uphold the rights of historians to investigate the past without legal harassment and with no fear of reprisals for making public their historical- and evidence-based findings.”
In 2018, Grabowski announced he was suing the government-funded group that backed Leszczynska’s libel case for allegedly libeling him. He claimed that the ultranationalist Polish League Against Defamation had itself defamed him by questioning his findings about the complicity of Poles in the wartime murder of Jews.
This article originally was published on facebook.com/TheCJN. For more on Prof. Jan Grabowski, see jewishindependent.ca/revealing-truth-elicits-threats.
This photo, called “Generations,” was taken by Tim Gidal in Tel Aviv in 1935. (courtesy Zack Gallery)
The current show at the Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery, Invisible Curtain: The 1932 Polish Photographs of Nachum Tim Gidal, was organized in partnership with the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival, which runs Feb. 20-25. Gidal (better known as Tim Gidal or Tim N. Gidal) was a renown photojournalist of the last century and the exhibit’s images come from the new book Memories of Jewish Poland: The 1932 Photographs of Nachum Tim Gidal. (For a review, click here.)
The driving force behind the book’s publication was Yosef Wosk, who wrote its preface. Wosk approached Zack Gallery director Hope Forstenzer and Jewish Book Festival director Dana Camil Hewitt about a year ago, Forstenzer told the Independent. “He suggested we have a Tim Gidal show at the gallery to coincide with the festival and his newly published book,” she said.
Both Wosk and Forstenzer curated the exhibit. “Together, we chose about 50 images for the show, as many as the gallery could fit. It couldn’t include all the images in the book, of course,” said Forstenzer.
The history of the photographs is best described by the photographer himself in the book’s introduction. In 1932, Gidal, then 23, traveled with two friends to Poland from his hometown of Munich, Germany. It was his first trip abroad. “My knowledge of the political, economic and social conditions of the Jews in Poland didn’t seem to square with my feelings about their spiritual life,” he wrote. “So I decided to go and see for myself.”
Gidal, who passed away in 1996, took numerous photographs of people and places, as he went from shtetl to shtetl on his three-week “little odyssey.” He wrote: “I encountered spiritual and material heights and depths: material well-being and abject poverty, rejuvenation and dissolution. Some were rich, but many more were very poor. It was a hopeless poverty, endured with an incredible humility. I met men of faith and hypocrites … atheists, socialists and communists, Zionists and Bundists, Orthodox and assimilationists. We also experienced the all-pervading Jewish humor.”
Everything the young photographer experienced was reflected in his images, including those now on display at the Zack. We see children laughing and women looking far older than their real years. We see ancient eyes and tired, worn hands. We see educated men reading in front of a synagogue, and broken windows and peeling walls the next street over. And we know something Gidal didn’t know at the time, which makes this book and the show all the more poignant: not many years later, most of these people would be murdered in the Holocaust, and they and their entire way of life would be lost. But, in Gidal’s photos, his subjects remain alive. According to Wosk, “Each photograph is a monument, a letter in light.”
Gidal’s 1932 Polish photo essay comprises only a small portion of the master’s body of work. His photography journey spanned almost seven decades and encompassed most major players and momentous events of the 20th century.
One of the pioneers in the field of modern photography, Gidal made his debut in 1929 with his first published photo report. He was a proponent of the style of the “picture story” and he captured most of his subjects unaware, instead of staging elaborate scenes. Very few of his subjects posed for his photos, and every image tells a story.
Four years after his trip to Poland, Gidal moved to Palestine. During the Second World War, he served as a staff reporter for a British army magazine. A wanderer and a chronicler of life, he traveled a lot and lived in the United States for awhile. He taught and illustrated books. He exhibited widely.
A portion of the Zack exhibition is dedicated to Gidal’s artistic photography after 1932. The pictures demonstrate his technical progress, as well as his breadth of interests and subjects. There is a lyrical photo, “Generations,” taken in Tel Aviv in 1935 and another – a dramatic portrait of the youngest survivors of Buchenwald, taken in 1945 upon their arrival in Palestine. There is a photo of Mahatma Gandhi at the All-India Congress in Bombay in 1940 and the fascinating picture called “Handshake,” taken in Florence in 1934, which shows two men shaking hands in front of a wall covered with multiple posters of Mussolini.
Half a century before Photoshop was invented, Gidal experimented with his images, compiling them in different combinations and creating something unique, like his triptych of Winston Churchill of 1948 or the Rhomboid photomontage of 1975.
As a photo reporter, Gidal used his camera to record the 20th century in all its glorious and painful contradictions, and his early 1932 Polish photographs serve as a symbol of his multifaceted canon.