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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 4. Poland without the Poles

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In 2009 the Detroit Institute of Arts website exhibited Gusky’s photographs jointly with pre-war photographs by Roman Vishniac in an exhibition “Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky”. According to DIA website, Gusky’s pictures show “what remained of Jewish culture in Poland focusing on the ruins of synagogues, cemeteries—many of which were desecrated, and the empty and still streets”44. The DIA commentator reads the cognitive reality of Gusky’s representation as fact: there may live in Poland 38 million Poles, some of whom are Jews, but the country is empty indeed.

Showing Poland as deserted allows the photographing into it of the absence of the Jews murdered in the Shoah. Accordingly, in the photographs Jason Francisco took at the once-Jewish Kazimierz in the 1990s (but not in his later images45), all that we recognize of a human figure is a headless blur. In the background: the requisite rubble, the crumbling wall, and the bare trees46. In Gusky’s album Kazimierz is shown in a photograph of a corridor where “[a] scene in the movie Schindler’s List was filmed”: a dark, wet street running along a crumbling wall marked with bizarre and rather frightening black vertical rectangles, leading nowhere, in strong artificial light47. Compare a collection of photographs taken in Kazmierz by the Frenchman Guy Le Querrec: outside a hotel, David Krakauer, a Jewish clarinet player from the USA, stands with his arms held up, as if listening, ← 31 | 32 → the...

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