Describing Who?

Poland in Photographs by Jewish Artists

by Joanna Auron-Gorska (Author)
©2015 Monographs 167 Pages


«Describing Who?» reveals the significance of photographs taken in contemporary Poland by professional American, French and Israeli Jewish photographers. Writing critically from the vantage point of her Polish and Jewish background, Joanna Auron-Górska argues that while visual representations of Poland and the Poles may appear atemporal, they are neither ahistorical nor apolitical. They are, instead, influenced by the culturally conditioned construct within which Poland serves to maintain the memory of the Shoah, by war trauma, and by post-war politics. The attitudes of foreign Western Jewry to non-Jewish Poles and Poland have so far received limited scholarship; this analysis is a contribution towards enlightening the conversation between Poles and Jews from outside of Poland.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Demonstrations of Intent
  • Chapter 2. Empty Scene
  • Chapter 3. Poland without the Jews
  • Chapter 4. Poland without the Poles
  • Chapter 5. Poles as the Other
  • Chapter 6. The Same as the Nazis
  • Chapter 7. Hatred Personified
  • Chapter 8. Have You Killed and also Taken Possession?
  • Chapter 9. Tainted Ground
  • Chapter 10. Postcards from Auschwitz
  • Chapter 11. The Inside Story
  • Chapter 12. Biblical, à Rebours
  • Chapter 13. Side by Side
  • Chapter 14. Slivers of Light
  • Chapter 15. Poland Freed
  • Conclusion
  • Illustrations
  • Bibliography
  • Internet Sources
  • Magazines
  • Websites
  • Other Sources
  • Articles in Magazines
  • Books and Book Chapters
  • List of Illustrations
  • Index


Grateful acknowledgement is made for permission to reprint the following photographs:

“Park in Former Jewish Enclave,” “Swastika Graffiti on Izaaka Street in the Former Jewish Quarter,” and “Auschwitz in Winter #1” from Silent Places: Landscapes of Jewish Life and Loss in Eastern Europe by Jeffrey Gusky. Copyright © 2004 by Jeffrey Gusky, reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc., on behalf of the author.

“Auschwitz Concentration Camp. A display of thousands of spectacles that were confiscated from the victims” from POLAND. Auschwitz camp “victims” visit camp by Micha Bar-Am. Copyright © Micha Bar-Am/Magnum Photos, reprinted by permission of Micha Bar-Am/Magnum Photos.

POLAND. Warsaw. 1994. First grade at the Ronald Lauder Foundation Jewish School taught by Piotr Kowalik” from 1994, CZECHOSLOVAKIA & POLAND. Vestige of Judaïsm in Eastern Europe by Leonard Freed. Copyright © Leonard Freed /Magnum Photos, reprinted by permission of Leonard Freed /Magnum Photos.

„Untitled” from Ojczyzna by Matĕj Stránsky, galeria 113 w Białymstoku, 2002. Copyright © Matej Stransky, reprinted by permission of the author.

“Outside the Tykocin Synagogue”, Tykocin, Poland 2013, by Andrzej Górski, used by permission.

“The Hagbah at Beit Warszawa Synagogue”, Warsaw 2013, by Judyta Avigail Sulicz, used by permission.


Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. The publisher apologizes for any errors or omissions in the above list and would be grateful for notification of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book. ← 7 | 8 → ← 8 | 9 →


The history of East European Jewry firmly connects Israeli, American and West-European Jews with Poland. David Ben Gurion, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir; Alfred Tarski, Zygmunt Bauman, René Goscinny, Arthur Rubinstein, and Boris Kaufman–to name just a few–all have or had roots in Poland. But the Jewish history in Poland as it was before World War Two is over. Most Jews nowadays live in Israel and the USA; in Poland, merely a handful. So this book does not focus on Poland but, rather, on foreign Jewry’s attitude towards it. Being that, it is, after all, also a book about Poland, because it records the ways I, both a Jew and a Pole, see foreign Jews portray myself, my country, and non-Jewish Poles. In other words, I use images made by Jews to find out what Poland is to those Jews who do think about it (Poland is important to some, but not to all). I access relevant imagery through visual representation produced in contemporary Poland by professional western and Israeli Jewish photographers. The choice of professional over amateur photography is dictated by the need to find research material whose formal features do not result from stylistic and technical errors. To exclude photography driven by family narrative I choose as research material the work of photographers who do not have close family roots in Poland and who do not live and/or have not lived permanently in Poland.

Here I encounter the first problem: while giants of photography such as Russia-born Roman Vishniac or Poland-born David Seymour “Chim” took photographs in Poland before the Shoah, it is difficult to find works made in Poland by professional Jewish photographers of today. Professional interest is scant. Does it mean that Poland has ceased to matter to world Jewry? Why is it that among the themes one can convey in photographic images most photographs from Poland published in albums and on professional websites show not childhood and family life, entertainment, art, study, travel, work or love, but the destruction of Jewish heritage? Why such striking disinterest in visualizing the Poland of today?

The dearth of images available makes extant research material all the more precious. My study focuses on the oeuvre of four professional, contemporary ← 9 | 10 → Jewish photographers: Leonard Freed1, Micha BarAm2, Frédéric Brenner3 and Jeffrey Gusky4. The late American Leonard Freed was a reporter, author of socially engaged photo-essays on topics as diverse as the life of African Americans, portraits of members of the American Nazi organizations, and Asian communities in Britain. The Germany-born Israeli Micha Bar-Am is also a reporter, but unlike Freed he devoted the majority of his career to war reportage and to history of photography. Both photographers are members of the elite photographic Magnum Agency, and their photographs are available from Magnum website. The Frenchman Frédéric Brenner, who spent 25 years of his life photographing Jews all over the world for his Diaspora: Homelands in Exile, and whose work receives the support of organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Yad Vashem, and celebrities such as Jacques Derrida and Steven Spielberg, is an anthropologist. Jeffrey Gusky, a medical doctor living and working in rural Texas, published his Silent Places after four self-funded stays in Poland, but his photographs, written about by critics such as Menachem Wecker, equal the work of professionals. Seeing that these four photographers differ in origins as well as educational, social, and professional backgrounds, I assumed that their perspectives on Jewish memory, culture and identity are also likely to differ, and their photographs from Poland may reflect these differences accordingly. Research material is stylistically varied, ranging from landscape photography to staged portraits to traditional reportage. The images discussed are available in albums and/or on websites (mainly the Magnum Agency website).

Not only is there scant photographic material to examine, but I know of no scholarship analysing such images. While research into the portrayal of Jews in non-Jewish (mostly Christian) iconography is popular, analyses of visual representations of Poles and Poland in the works by Jewish visual artists do not exist. My book is therefore probably the first attempt to scrutinize such portrayals. Lacking secondary material, I make use of photographic captions, relevant photographs by other Jewish and non-Jewish reporters, journalists and artists, as well as film, memoirs, blogs, and fiction writing.

Production of images abroad involves a triple filtering of the subjects photographed: material reality is translated into the language of photography ← 10 | 11 → (the mechanics of which dictate the form of representation), into an external culture (which enforces meanings according to a set of its own uses for what is photographed), and into the photographers’ personal characteristics and technical abilities. That is why Lotman and Uspieński’s concept of a cultural “machine for remembering”5 as a mechanism which controls our perceptions of the past, present, and future is a handy tool for analysing visual imagery. As proposed by Lotman and Uspienski, having produced a model of itself the said machine imposes it upon actual accounts to introduce order and remove contradictions. The aim is to maintain the perception of culture as cohesive, immutable, and virtually eternal. Were the perception of its essential immutablity broken, culture would be perceived as discontinued, ergo, having ceased to exist. The photographic image is as dependent on the visual features of the photographed as it is derivative of the above described culturally-evolved and self-perpetuating matrix of perception and representation. Still, one must account for a certain independence of mind, that is, the fact that the image is mediated by how the photographer feels about the object and how he means to show it. The latter depends on the former… and on the use the photograph is to serve the sponsor of the photographic shoot.

The photographer’s gaze is as influenced by culturally conditioned constructs as anyone else’s, and s/he may at times draw no more from the photographed reality than the physical presence of objects in front of the camera. That is why I refrain from discussing photography by for example Clifford Lester6, whose work in Poland constitutes overtly promotional material for Chabad. Lester advertises Chabad’s good works with an especial emphasis on the Chabad rabbi in Poland, Shalom Dov Ber Stambler, whom he portrays showing off the new mikveh, assisting the old, and overseeing the young in donning tefillin, these marvels complimenting the requisite photographs of a Holocaust survivor and an Auschwitz cattle car. Since my aim is to see foreign western Jewish perceptions as they manifest themselves in photographic representations of Poland and the Poles I must refrain also from focusing on the work of authors such as Chuck Fishman, whose excellent while elegiaic 1977 book of photographs Polish Jews: The Final Chapter7 focuses on Polish Jewry to the exclusion of virtually all else.

Perceptual selectiveness is related to the selectiveness of self-image and memory. How we see ourselves and what we remember is influenced by visual ← 11 | 12 → representations, being in turn crucial in their further construction. Choosing which images to keep in this repository we choose who or what will continue to be important to our lives. To ask what Jewish photographers retain and what they discard from the material Polish realities they see is to question the nature of the relationship between the Jewish cultures these photographers come from and contemporary Poland.

A few words regarding terminology. Conceptually and historically, defining Jewish photography falls within the framework of research aimed to define Jewish art, a task closely related to the defining of Jewish identity. To define Jewish identity, Polish-Jewish identity, and Jewish art and photography would require separate studies. Since my aim is to learn what mechanism regulates cultural relations between Poles and Jews I need only to know which images can be analysed together as belonging to the category of Jewish culture(s) or as work by Jews as well as which can be classified as depictions of Poles – all the while bearing in mind the fact that treating Jews and Poles as homogeneous entities is arrant nonsense. Therefore, aware that simplifications cannot satisfy stakeholders, I opt for the simplest terminology: the photographers of Jewish origins whose images are studied here will be referred to as “Jews” and their work as “Jewish photography”; the inhabitants of Poland of indeterminate religious affiliation will be referred to as “Poles”; Polish Jews/Jewish Poles who are distinguished as such will be referred to as “Polish Jews” or “Jewish Poles”, while the Poles defined as “Catholics” will be referred to as “(Polish) Catholics”. Where needed, further descriptive terms will be used.

One final remark. I function within the framework of what I analyse; by virtue of its internal positioning, and despite my efforts, my perception is fragmentary and biased. After all, deciphering meanings plotted into these photographs I must decipher myself. I could not in good faith claim otherwise. A fuller picture could perhaps be attained by an utterly external observer. This condition, however, can not be satisfied by a Jewish, Polish, or Polish-Jewish researcher.

*   *   *

An earlier version of Chapters One and Two were published as “Empty Spaces. Representations of Poland and the Poles in Professional Jewish Photography from Western Europe and the USA”, in Reconstructing Jewish Identity in Pre- and Post-Holocaust Literature and Culture, edited by Lucyna Aleksandrowicz-Pędich and Małgorzata Pakier (Peter Lang, Frankfurt Am-Main 2012); parts of Chapter Six as “On Inspiration: Poland and Four French Photographers”, in Inspirations: English, French, and Polish Cultures, edited by Dorota Guzowska and Małgorzata Kamecka (Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu w Białymstoku, Białystok 2011). ← 12 | 13 →


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (December)
Zweiter Weltkrieg Nachkriegspolitik Trauma Shoah
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 167 pp., 1 coloured fig., 9 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Joanna Auron-Gorska (Author)

Joanna Auron-Górska is a scholar and practitioner of Jewish-Polish relations, a writer, an artist, a photographer, an interpreter, a translator and a lecturer. Her main interests include Polish and Jewish identity, visual representation, cultural studies and interfaith dialogue.


Title: Describing Who?
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170 pages