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Describing Who?

Poland in Photographs by Jewish Artists


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 9. Tainted Ground



Among photographs taken by non-Jewish professionals in museums of Nazi death camps in Poland one finds snapshots of the borderland zone that lies between the former camps and the surrounding area. The Briton Mark Power photographs a drink and snack stand in full color just outside the camp, a brightly lit restaurant in its immediate vicinity, and a white mini-van with two bikes against the background of the camp gate; the Moroccan-born Frenchman Bruno Barbey photographs a farmer looking after his cows and people gathering potatoes right at the camp fence230. (One should note the photograph of two young boys grazing cows against the camp fence taken in 1959 by a British photographer Gerard Howson as part of his phenomenal A Very Polish Affair231). Assorted amateurs ad nauseum photograph bouquets stuck in campwire fences. Amateur Jewish photographers pose their family members against Auschwitz or Majdanek’s camp backgrounds as evidence of their engagement with immortalising, in image, the continuity of Jewish life. Professional Jewish photographers, conversely, ignore scenes where daily life intrudes on the meta-imagery of camp grounds. References to banality are absent not only from photographs taken in camps but also from photographs taken outside them, to the effect that it becomes impossible to see that Poland today is a country like all other countries. Instead, reversing the perspective that would have what happened in camps stay in camps, photographers seek out evidence of destruction and murder outside them.

The perception is correct historically: murdering Jews...

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