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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 5. Poles as the Other

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Remembering does not consist in faithful referring of historical events, but in the making of meaning out of those facts. Meanings evolve from complex interactions between the viewers’ perceptions of self and the cultural contexts in which their looking at events takes place. Accounts are systematized, adapted and controlled so as to ensure that the events chosen to be remembered as culturally significant fulfill contemporary needs. It is apparent that in representing contemporary Poland in photography its historical past and factual present, de facto distinct, are re-fashioned to appear to be one story, the leitmotif of which is the Jewish historical narrative of wartime trauma.

Paraphrased by a character in Aharon Appelfeld’s novel, a traditional identity blessing becomes “Thank God for not making me a Polish peasant”76. While Appelfeld’s character may have good reasons to abhor the Poles he meets, his words are an apt literary counterpart to how Poles are represented in Dayan and Lévy’s commentaries on Tykocin. When after a viewing of his Tykocin photographs Brenner tells Louise Steinman “We don’t have the intellectual capacity to process this”77 he reveals a sense of otherness vis-à-vis the Poles which is so profound as to preclude all effort at understanding. “We”, i.e. western Jews are unable to fathom what goes on in this Polish Purimspiel. The assumptions behind Brenner’s dismissal of the town’s efforts become clearer as one reads how “He shuddered at my mention of the town. Ewa, he said sternly,...

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