Thursday, January 26, 2012

Poland publicly commemorates Holocaust victims

What is a monument? How do we remember? How do we honor? How do we proclaim that these people were once here, and they are no more? They lived, were a part of the rich tapestry that makes up this community, right here, and they are now gone. How do we show that? These are some of the questions that have motivated Polish community members to come together and memorialize victims of the Holocaust as individuals, to declare their personhood, cut short. 

The caption under Adam Galicia’s image of a building featuring sepia-toned, full, window-sized photographs of men, women, and children reads: “Holocaust remembrance advocates plastered images of Polish Jews on buildings in Warsaw that were part of the Jewish ghetto before WWII wiped them out.” Although this caption seems a little curt and almost cold, the image is stunning. With the choice of the word “plastered” as the verb, the sentence suggests an arbitrary thoughtlessness. In contemporary parlance, to “plaster” is to slap-dashedly affix with a cheap adhesive, without much previous thought to placement, or much concern for permanence. It’s a temporary announcement, like a bill board layer. This photo, on the other hand, suggests quite the contrary. It depicts lovely, larger-than-life portraits that have been carefully attached in seemingly “just right” places on the building’s surface. The placement of the photos flows with the structure of the building itself. Some pictures cover the bottom half of windows, suggesting the very power of story itself, behind the shades; evoking a time and place once rich with vitality, dignity, and love. The architecture literally frames the people because of the way the photos have been thoughtfully selected and arranged. And in turn, the people built the structure, not the literal building maybe, but the community itself. The installation of the photographs creates a monument that declares ‘there is a plan here.’ The end result creates a kind of beauty that is at once tender, dear, and chilling.

Most of the original photographs, which are reproduced and attached to the building, were taken in studios, by professional photographers, to record someone at his or her “best.” The photographers were paid to create likenesses that would last as reminders of how someone looked at a particular age, in a particular outfit, or at a specific event like a wedding. The act of committing these loved ones to film declares that each and every individual mattered; was loved, valued, and cared for; and the photographs themselves would likely have been treasured. Perhaps they were framed, hung on walls; or maybe printed from negatives on to paper and positioned in intimate, hand-held, icon-like keepsakes, small hand-tooled leather folios where they could be opened, closed, gazed upon and tucked away for safe keeping. Maybe they were collected in scrap books. Maybe they were taken at school, or after some significant ceremony. These are not candids of people in the middle of an activity, unaware of the camera. They are posed, the subjects are looking the photographer in the eye. They are precious. And now, they have been enlarged, reproduced and lifted up, quite literally some of them, several stories, to monumentalize. They look us in the eye and, by virtue of where they are positioned, within what was the ghetto, they ask – Why?

Asking some of the same questions, Zuzanna Radzik represents an increasing number of Poles who believe that Jewish heritage is an integral part of the history of Poland, and must be taught as well as preserved. She wants her fellow citizens to know that killing during the Holocaust was not limited to places with names so many people are familiar with: Auschwitz and Treblinka. She wants people to remember that, in small communities like Stoczek Wegrowski, where 188 Jews were murdered on September 22, 1942, during Yom Kippur; vital community members perished. As supervisor for The School of Dialogue, sponsored by The Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, a Polish non-profit organization, Ms. Radzik is hoping to also combat antisemitism by creating a better-informed citizenry. Her group sends out educators; through schools in the villages, cities, and towns in Poland, to give students an idea of where Jews lived, worked, and worshiped before their numbers were reduced to less than one half one per cent of what they were before the war. Radzik hopes to make history real, and literally “bring it home” to places where today, the community members have never met a Jew or seen a synagogue. “When we show them where the ghetto was in their town and that Jews were killed there, it all becomes real.” Radzik reminds us. Her organization highlights shared religious traditions and teaches about Jewish holidays and their connections to other calendars.
On the sight of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of April, 1943, in the neighborhood of Murnaow, murals have been painted by Adam Walas. They are in the entryway of an apartment and feature prominent Jews who lived there before the war. Ludwik Zamenhof is one of them. He created Esperanto, the common language that he’d hoped would unite peoples of many cultures. One of the neighborhood’s residents, Beata Chomatowska, has designed an education project involving thirty other local individuals who are also interested in educating citizens about the district’s past.

Zbigniew Nizinski rides his bike through small villages and towns in eastern Poland to talk to elderly people who remember where Jews were buried. He is a 52-year-old Baptist who then places memorial stones on graves that have not been marked, just so that murdered individuals can be remembered. Radzik, Chomatowska, and Zbigniew all hope to help people continue to remember what made the places in Poland sacred – the people who lived there – the citizens who were individuals, who inspired, who worked, who created community and whose memory must be preserved.

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