Well, we already knew we’d lucked out when our old friend Prof Jonathan Webber agreed to show us around the Galicia Jewish Museum, in Kraków, which he jointly founded with the late photographer Chris Schwarz. Little did we know what great insight he would provide into this museum.
Jonathan’s idea was to present the extremely delicate and complex subject of Polish Jewish life in a series of ideas – five, to be precise. This would be done by photography only, all taken in colour from the present-day – often employing a device in which two contrasting images are juxtaposed, to emphasise some tension or other. A yin and yang, if you will. So, without further ado, let’s explore the five sections…
The photos in this first section capture the destruction wrought on Poland’s pre-war community of 3.3 million Jews, the vast majority of whom were murdered in the Holocaust. The gravestone you see was mentioned in Polska Dotty. It is particularly poignant because it reveals there must have been a cemetery in this part of Plaszow (the Kraków suburb where the Nazis established a concentration camp for the city’s Jews), but only one Chaim Abrahamer’s headstone remains. In addition, in this first section, there are pictures of synagogues open to the elements, or propped up by scaffolding, or with bushes growing from them. As Jonathan evocatively puts it, it is as if time just suddenly stopped – and makes a painful sight.
On a personal note, this opened my eyes. I knew Jonathan had been instrumental in restoring many places of Jewish heritage in Poland, and had in my head, somehow, that the job – if not complete – was well on its way. Whilst much has been done, I now realise there must be a huge number of such sights still abandoned, to which no-one has yet raised a restorative pick or shovel.
In contrast to the first section, in part 2 we see remains of Jewish life that escaped the Nazi destruction. These include exquisitely decorated synagogues and tombstones. The image you see is of a prayer-room within a house in Dabrowa Tarnowska. It is still preserved today, years after its owner (who survived the War) passed away. I describe in Polska Dotty a surreal moment when a group of us visited the room during a field-trip led by Jonathan, in the summer of 1994. Suddenly, the owner, who was still then alive, began wailing. “Two years and four months! Two years and four months! My sister survived the Holocaust by hiding under the boards of this house for two years and four months!”
Whilst the museum’s approach makes it clear that the history of Polish Jewry is a rich and lengthy one, much more than only the Holocaust – evidently, the Holocaust must be tackled. Indeed, I don’t suppose this museum would exist without it. The image you see is of a last remaining part of the ghetto wall in Podgorze, Kraków. The Jews were herded into here, until being carted off to their deaths. You can easily enough find the wall. With its tombstone-like arched tops, and what it represents, it is – though just a wall – strangely moving, even upsetting. A plaque describes its significance. As you can imagine, the photographs in this section of the museum, though they don’t directly show human suffering – there are no humans in the photos until the last section – are harrowing.
A very interesting section, showing the great variety of remembrance. From a local library housed in a stunning, restored synagogue in the small village of Niebylec, to another synagogue used as a furniture store, with no hint of its origins – and everything in between. The picture I have included is of Belzec concentration camp. Visiting here was one of the most moving aspects of our field-trip with Jonathan all those years ago, largely because he read us an incredibly moving account of one of only 10 individuals ever to go into the death camp, and come out again alive. 500,000 Jews perished in Belzec. They have been remembered by irregular shaped boulders covering a site the size of four football pitches. In a way like the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, this seems to me an attempt to commemorate the monumental scale of the destruction by something that is also vast. When we visited Belzec all those years ago, there was virtually nothing to remember those who died there.
Jonathan had promised us there would be a meaningful coda to all this – and here it was in the last part. A series of images capturing the continuation of Jewish life in Galicia, though evidently, on a much smaller scale than once was. We see images of a Jewish wedding, a concert in Tempel Synagogue (see my previous blog, Jewish Kraków – Part I, for more on this synagogue), and a Polish primary school teacher who has published 20 articles on Jewish culture. Amongst other things, the exhibition reveals how many Poles, in the past and now, have done much to protect and preserve Jewish life in Poland, in contrast to Poles who collaborated during the War, or carried out pogroms against Jews.
The photo is of a stall in Sukiennice – the old cloth-hall that bisects the central square in Kraków’s old town – selling carved Jewish as well as Polish figures. The picture intentionally shows both, continuing a key theme of the exhibition – the interplay between Polish and Jewish life in Poland. But I need to tell Jonathan: when we tried to find a Star of David pendant for my daughters in Sukiennice, there were almost none, whilst crosses abounded. Maybe that’s just good old fashioned commercialism…
I hope this blog has given you a small insight into the Galicia Jewish Museum. What it doesn’t do, for sure, is offer the full experience. There are many more photographs than I have shown, and they are brilliantly shot – including by the late Chris Schwarz, who also founded the museum, and of whom I have fond memories from that field-trip back in 1994. The museum is also spectacularly housed – in an old mill, all high ceilings and exposed beams – incorporating an avant-garde design. Take a visit.