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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 13. Side by Side

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By representing Poland in the context of the Shoah, antisemitism, and the death camp, photography and commentary help maintain cultural homeostasis. Such are the Poles (un)photographed by Gusky: they walk streets paved with Jewish gravestones; they deface synagogue walls; they paint swastikas; they build homes on Jewish cemeteries. They express contempt, appropriate Jewish material heritage, and contribute to the forgetting of Jewish fate. The portrayal is accurate: there are many such Poles. That said, there are many others. There exist images, both in Gusky’s album and otherwise (especially in that strand of Shoah literature which is concerned with discourse on help) that show Poles as sympathetic to Jews. There exists also a mode of looking which constructs Poland as an object of longing: an idyllic Jewish world from before the Shoah.

In the narrative layer of Gusky’s Silent Places there are two Poles who preserve Polish Jewish memory: his Polish tour guide Renata Zwodzijasz and a “Christian with a noble pastime” from Pinczów who returns to the former synagogue building in his town fragments of tombstones built into barn walls, and rebuilds those barns with “his own hands”278. Gusky does not photograph Zwodzijasz, this man, or his work. Like “an ancient artist [who] applies his drawing (…) onto some other picture without rubbing it out – as if the latter was not visible to the viewer”279, in his personal introduction to the album Gusky creates a sympathetic, tender portrayal of Zwodzijasz against a visual...

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