RE–GENERATION: Chuck Fishman’s photographs in the Jewish Historical Institute

43 years have passed between the taking of the earliest and the latest photographs of the exhibition, which makes Fishman’s project one of the most comprehensive photographic records of European Jewry in the second half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century.

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Kiddush after Shabbat service in the Warsaw Beit Midrash on Twarda Street. January 1979  /  Chuck Fishman

Chuck Fishman visited Poland for the first time in 1975. Photographs taken by him were published in the album Polish Jews. The Last Chapter. They were a record of the meetings with Polish Jews living in the realities of the People’s Poland, the last survivors of the Holocaust and the few descendants of a community that had once numbered three million and had been nearly wiped out in the Holocaust, and further diminished by subsequent waves of post-war emigration.

Fishman visited Poland several times more in the 1970s and 1980s. He worked mainly in large cities, formerly important Jewish centres, where Jewish life somehow still „smouldered”. He took photographs in Kraków, Wrocław and Warsaw, but also in Lublin, Łódź and Przemyśl, where only a handful still cultivated their Jewishness.

This is how the beginning of the Chuck Fishman project is mentioned by Ruth Ellen Gruber, a writer and journalist who has been involved in the history and present of European Jews for over 25 years: I first met Chuck Fishman in 1980, when we were young journalists covering Communist Europe, including the Solidarnosc revolution in Poland.(...) Back then was a time when anything written about Jews in Poland and indeed anywhere else in Communist Europe included some variant of the words “last” or “final.”(...) My own first encounter with Poland Jews came on the eve of Yom Kippur, 1980, when I searched for, and found, a makeshift group of Jews, mostly elderly Holocaust survivors, gathered in a shabby meeting room near Warsaw’s Nozyk synagogue, the only surviving synagogue in Warsaw, which then stood dilapidated and empty. There was no rabbi in Poland at the time; no organized religious life.

Photographs from the 1970s and 1980s are presented in the first part of exhibition. When viewed from today’s perpective, these images, now etched in the consciousness of people around the world, reflect the stereotypical ideas about the continuing realities of Jewish life in Poland. 

The systemic change of 1989 had an enormous impact on Jewish life in Poland – for many it meant the possibility of rediscovering their roots, reconstructing their Jewish identity, exploring their ancient traditions of being able to discuss openly the complex Polish-Jewish relations. The process of the revival of Jewish communities began. On leaving Poland in 1983, Fishman could not have imagined the photographs he would take 30 years on, in democratic Poland. His pictures from the 2010s often feature laughing young Jews of the third and the fourth generation after the Holocaust, involved in the post-communist Jewish revival in Poland.

As Ruth Ellen Gruber says, What’s more, “revival” means much more than numbers of people. In addition to regenerated Jewish communal life and rediscovered Jewish identity, there has been a revival of attitudes, of concepts, of possibility, of recognition – among Jews but also within mainstream society. A revival of awareness, of creativity, of possibilities. Most basically, perhaps, a revival of consciousness – consciousness of history, consciousness of heritage, consciousness of identity, consciousness of memory.

However, the earlier vision is as if deliberately supplanted by another one emanating from the photographs displayed in second part of the exhibition: one of a diverse and rejuvenated community pursuing their normal lives, though „in the shadow of Auschwitz”.

All the photographs are silver gelatin prints in black and white, hand-developed from the original negatives. The artist took a conscious decision to document contemporary Jewish life in Poland with the same artistic resources he used in the 1970s and 1980s. This treatment makes the entire collection visually coherent but also demonstrates that the atmosphere or significance of photographs is not driven by the chosen black-and-white tones: the new photographs emanate optimism, energy and hope.

Konstanty Gebert, translator and publisher: Fishman takes his photos standing somewhere on the side, but his attentive gaze remains in them. There is nothing particularly important about them — the fleetingness of the moment, the banality of the predictable, cyclic events: prayer services, meetings, funerals. On the mound on Miła Street in Warsaw children roll on the grass. You almost miss that not far away the are people laying flowers and lighting candles at the stone.

According to Ruth Ellen Gruber, Chuck Fishman set out more than 40 years ago to chronicle with his photographs the “final chapter” of the 1,000 years of Jewish experience in Poland. But he failed! Returning to Poland decades later, he has continued to photograph Polish Jews and Jewish Poland. But far from a final chapter, he is now chronicling an expanding, multi-faceted, ever-unfolding story – and long may he do so!

Curators of the exhibition|Teresa Śmiechowska, Tomasz Strug

Opening of the exhibiton will take place on 7.08.2018 at 6 PM in the Jewish Historical Institute, Tłomackie 3/5 Street.


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