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Describing Who?

Poland in Photographs by Jewish Artists

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Joanna Auron-Gorska

«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.
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Chapter 2. Empty Scene

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In Brenner’s Diaspora, an almanac of Jewish communities around the world, Poland occupies two pages. Unlike Gusky, Brenner does not ignore the existence of Polish Jewry (conversely, his photographs of Polish Jews precede those of non-Jewish Poles); but why does he photograph a Purim skit in which the Poles dress up as Jews rather than an actual Purim celebrated by actual Jews? Brenner’s representation visualizes the notion that there are no Jews in today’s Poland; in doing so, it casts suspicion upon his Jewish models’ claim to Jewishness (and, by association, that of all Polish Jews). As Brenner opens his album with the Purim narrative, its message of survival must be important for the reading of his work. Yet out of Polish Jews’ survival he fashions a choreography of desolation.

How is the staging arranged? For one, it is accomplished through sequencing. Photographs from Poland follow a series of images from Germany and Austria; it is in Austria, several pages ahead of the photographic sequence from Poland, that Brenner’s otherwise monochromatic album erupts with sudden colour. A photograph of the infamous Nazi yellow patch with the Jewish star and the inscription reading Jude (captioned in a way that is factually correct and symbolically deceptive “Vienna, Austria, 2001”), primes the viewer for the image on the next page: an interior filled with symbols of high culture, wrapped Christo-style in the now familiar yellow, Nazi fabric, and inhabited by a female figure swathed in the same yellow cloth....

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