The subject of our exhibition, which is part of a series of projects celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, is research in the field of art history, motivated not only by a drive to uncover the truth, but also by a desire to commemorate the work of Polish artists of Jewish origin. The Jewish Historical Institute was founded out of a need to preserve the memory of the nearly annihilated nation and its culture, and this was to be achieved through research on both the Shoah and the rich history of Polish Jews that preceded it. One area that has always been important for the institution since the beginning is the contribution of Polish Jews (and Poles of Jewish origin) to the history of fine arts. At the beginning it was mainly thanks to one exceptional man, formerly an art dealer and social worker, who became a historian under the influence of the events of the war, and it was his unwavering determination that launched a new research area in Polish art historiography, which is still developing until this day. That man was Józef Sandel.
This exhibition is not meant as a tribute or an expression of maudlin sentiment. It aims to showcase the work of Józef Sandel as an important milestone in the history of not only the Jewish Historical Institute as a research institution, but also in studies of the culture of Polish Jews in general. We focus first and foremost on the legacy of the scholar because it is permanently etched into the living memory of the Jewish Historical Institute, as well as the entire milieu of researchers of Polish Jewish culture.
Based on the preserved archival materials and published works, we have undertaken a partial reconstruction of Sandel’s groundbreaking (because it was first of its kind) comprehensive vision of the history of art of Polish Jews. What is more, we approach it as a historical phenomenon in itself, setting it in the context of the era in which Sandel worked. Of course, his way of looking at the history of art, so important from our perspective because it is still inspiring, was not free from methodological paradigms prevailing at that time (particularly at the turn of the 1940s and 1950s), with strong undertones of political or outright propagandist nature. His work as a historian is therefore not only a testament of how one had to write about the past in order to be able to function in the scholarly circles at the time. Above all it helps us realize what kind of interpretation of the history of Jewish culture stood a chance of recognition, and therefore could achieve its commemorative purpose. At the same time, one should bear in mind that Sandel’s decision to follow the trail set by the Marxist mainstream of historical research was not dictated solely by circumstances. The age-old history of discrimination and prejudice against Jews naturally brought many of them to ideas that challenged the existing reality, hierarchies and social values. For Sandel, who had identified with communism before the war and who survived the Holocaust thanks to finding refuge in the Soviet Union (as many of his compatriots), leftism and Jewishness were strongly interlinked. Therefore, he claimed in his work that truly Jewish art was by the nature of things leftist in one way or another. It concerned those who waited for their social emancipation, which – as Sandel believed – they would find in a socialist Poland reborn after World War Two.
Mikolaj Getka-Kenig, Ph.D.