PIOTR KOSIEWSKI: In 1948 “The Exhibition of Jewish Artists, Victims of the German Occupation 1939–1945” took place. Its organization is inextricably tied to the very beginnings of the Jewish Historical Institute. The cataloge of that exhibition has been, very intentionally, brought back in the “Salvaged” exhibition.
PAWEŁ ŚPIEWAK: The Institute’s inception is connected to the creation of the Central Committee of Polish Jews (CCPJ). The Jewish Historical Committee began operating as part of the Central Committee and then, in 1947, was transformed into the Jewish Historical Institute. Form today’s perspective we recognize that creating the Historical Committee was one of the CCPJ’s biggest achievements. It immediately began collecting any and all materials connected to the Holocaust. In a short amount of time they gathered 7500 testimonies as well as hundreds of journals and other documents. It was in Poland, in the building that was once the Central Judaic Library at Tłomackie Street (today the JHI’s headquarters), that Holocaust research on a global scale began. The Institute quickly published some of the fundamental literature on this topic. Sadly, most of the Institute’s founders emigrated in later years. Other researchers took their place and the Institute itself changed.
However, since the very beginning the JHI was more than a center for historical research. Anything that survived the conflagration of the war ended up at the Institute. The collection of the Jewish Society for the Advancement of Fine Arts, reactivated in 1946, also found its way here. The Society salvaged around one thousand works of art, which now form the core of the JHI’s collection. We later received further pieces. “The Exhibition of Jewish Artists” served as a sort of public announcement of the existence of the Institute and the Jewish museum functioning alongside it.
Another important element of the JHI’s structure was the Library and — even more significantly — the Ringelblum Archive which also includes works of art. The Institute was created by people for whom remembering those murdered in the Holocaust held great significance. It was and is an opened wound, an inextricable part of their identity. However, the creation of the JHI and the museum itself was, in a sense, the fulfillment of Gela Seksztajn’s will in which she wrote: “I offer my works to the Jewish museum which will be created in the future”. I consider the establishing of the Institute’s Art Department the fulfillment of the last will and testament of Seksztajn and many other Jewish artists lost in the Holocaust: their wish that a Jewish museum be created. A wish held not only by those who survived but also by those who did not. That does not mean that all these artists created Jewish art. That is a separate term. However, all these artists were deeply immersed in the Jewish community.
And what is the JHI’s function today?
It hasn’t changed since the Institute was created. The JHI should represent and continue, though probably through different methods considering the changing reality, the Jewish world. The Research Department has been expanded, scientific programs are being conducted (research into the CCPJ, the Judenräte, Yiddish language culture and intelligentsia, Jewish spirituality; varsavianistic studies) works of art and literature are being restored and preserved. We have created theCentral Jewish Library. I hope that our publications are becoming increasingly more visible: journals, wartime poetry, treatises on the Shoah and historical memory. It is an intellectual collective of sorts, one in which everyone: archivists, librarians, researchers, genealogists — all preserve and describe the heritage of Polish Jewish that has been passed down to us. It is an extraordinary place which cooperates with the majority of Polish centers focused on researching Jewish culture, including The Museum of the History of Polish Jews. We value our cooperation with authentic social initiatives working on local memory like the Galicia Jewish Museum, the Cukerman’s Gate Foundation form Będzin, the Grodzka Gate organization from Lublin.
Works of art are part of this heritage. However, the question remains: who is their inheritor?
Of course, this issue is always present in the case of art with its complex provenance. The JHI’s collection includes the works of Polish Jews but also a small part of the collection that used to belong to the old Jewish Museum in Berlin. It also includes ritual objects, which belonged to Greek Jews who were murdered in Poland, for example. I made decided that they should be returned to Greece despite the fact that European law does not demand it. They are part of the Greek heritage. Handing them over is the right thing to do. I hope the Minister of Culture will accept this solution.
It will be the restitution of a part of their heritage, though we will probably face the question: who is the heir of the culture crested by European Jews? And how do we preserve it?
We face this dilemma constantly. For one thing, we have to answer the question of where Poland starts and ends. The JHI is in possession of the archives from the 18th century up until 1940 belonging to the Jewish Community in Wrocław. Who should inherit them? They ended up at the Institute and, like other documents, they should be researched and published. For example, we have published a number of wartime journals together with the Center for Holocaust Research. We are now working on the translation of Chaim Kapłan’s notes, the most fascinating journals from the Warsaw Ghetto written in Hebrew. And of course we will publish the Ringelblum Archive — we intend to finish work on the entire series in the next three years. It will consist of over thirsty volumes. Preserving Jewish heritage means constantly working through it, including by way of exhibiting it. The JHI has an incredible collection of photographs. The photographic archives of Julia Pirotte with images taken in Marseille during the war and during the Kielce pogrom. We also have over twelve thousand works of art. There is no way to present all this in one exhibition. Part of our collection has been presented during the exhibition about the history of Polish rabbis since the 16th century or the “ Polish Art and the Holocaust” exhibition, among others.
One of the most extraordinary parts of the collection are works created during the Holocaust.
The JHI’s task is showing both the art that perished and the art that was created surrounded by death. The “Salvaged” exhibition includes art created in ghettos: in Warsaw, Białystok, Łódź. And we don’t judge them based on beauty but truth. The power of their message — “A Family in the Ghetto” by Roman Kramsztyk or portraits of starving children by Witold Lewinson — is unbelievable. They show the tragedy of this experience. Just like he photographs from the Ringelblum Archive, which include iconic images of the Warsaw ghetto, for example.
“Salvaged” also touches upon the problem of how to talk about the lives of Jews in Poland. We inevitably perceive their history through the prism of the Holocaust.
I do not want to choose between a museum of life and a museum of death because that is a false dichotomy. By exhibiting the works of Jewish artists we want to show how rich and diverse the Jewish artistic culture was. How intense and yet short-lived. The exhibition includes works of the first generation of Jewish artists: Maurycy Trębacz and others. They began creating at the end of the 19th century. Secular Jewish art did not exist before that. At the same time this first generation and their successors die in the ghetto. It is a very short history. It is difficult to imagine culture in Poland without remembering this world. In a way we bring these artists back to life.
They are shown though their commonalities, including their shared fate. The Holocaust was an experience shared by people from many groups. But the exhibition also illustrates the great diversity of art created before 1939.
That is why showing this lost world in its entirety would be important. Showing this disrupted past. But that’s the future and such an exhibition should not be limited to the collection of the JHI. Our task is to unceasingly work on memory.
The building of the Institute is in itself a medium for that memory.
It is a time capsule of sorts. Before the war the building held the Central Judaic Library and the Institute for Judaic Studies. The Great Synagogue stood across from it. It was said that the Messiah was to appear in nearby Nowolipki — where the highest number of European Jews lived. It was this building which held the first symphony after ghetto was closed. This was the wartime headquarters of the Jewish Social Self-Aid (Żydowska Samopomoc Społeczna) and –most importantly — the meeting place of Oneg Shabbat (Joy of the Shabbat), Emanuel Ringelblum’s group.
Today, anyone entering the building sees the jagged floor. It was left this way purposely. These are the traces of the fire set to the building by Germans on the 16th of May 1943 (the same day the Great Synagogue was blown up). Here we can physically touch the, possibly last, remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto. The building itself could be a museum exhibit.
The building should hold a permanent exhibition connected to the place, the people who worked here. I mean Ringelblum’s group of course. Today it is part of the world’s heritage according to UNESCO. The archive is absolutely unique because no other nation in occupied Europe created such a testimony of their fate.
PAWEŁ ŚPIEWAK is a sociologist and historian of ideas. Director of the Jewish Historical Institute, professor at the University of Warsaw. He writes a weekly column on the Old Testament for “Tygodnik Powszechny”