It’s a big shift from the solitude of the page to a roomful of faces. I gave a talk at Pepperdine University in Malibu yesterday to celebrate the opening of an exhibition of photographs (titled TRACES OF MEMORY: A CONTEMPORARY LOOK AT THE JEWISH PAST IN POLAND) by the late photojournalist Christopher Schwartz, the permanent exhibition at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow. The photo exhibit is in the Payson Library, and sponsored by the Glazer Institute of Jewish Studies at Pepperdine.
I first encountered Chris Schwartz’ photographs at the Galicia Museum in Krakow in 2004. Chris, a genial host, told me how he’d originally come to Poland in the early eighties to photograph the Solidarity movement. He was struck by the lack of documentation of former Jewish sites in Poland, how “an 800 year-old culture had been destroyed in six years.” In 1990, he set himself the challenge of “photographing absence.”
I remember looking at Chris’ impressive photographs in the museum’s main gallery. One photo in particular captured my attention and I’ve pondered its implications over the years I’ve been writing THE CROOKED MIRROR.
It’s a very simple image taken outside a small Polish village called Stary Dzikow: a large field with a stand of tall pines in the center of spiraling plowed furrows. To understand what you’re looking at you have to read the caption: “This clump of trees is the site of the Jewish cemetery here. It is unmarked. There is no boundary fence, nor are there any tombstones. But the local peasants remember that it is a Jewish cemetery and have left it as it is.” Think about that. The presence of the past is kept alive by the observance of absence in the plowed field.
[photo credit: Chris Schwartz, Galicia Museum]
I looked up the word traces, which goes back to the Latin tractus, to draw or drag. “any mark or slight indication of something past or present.”
There is nothing tangible at the center of the field in Stary Dzikow, in Christopher Schwartz’ photo… but the older Polish inhabitants remember what had been there. By literally tracing their furrows around that empty center, they honor Jewish memory in their own way.
On my many trips to Poland over the past decade, I’ve discovered many poignant examples of ways in which Poles observe and honor the absence of their murdered Jewish neighbors– in villages, small towns, big cities. Today was the first time I’ve shared some of those stories with an audience, faces looking back at me, responding. It was energizing. And beyond the room, the Pacific shimmered. My dear rabbi Don Singer was in the audience. It was a phone call from Don eleven years ago inviting me to attend the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau that launched this project. Who knew? I never intended to write a book about Poland.
After the talk and the energetic Q&A, I had time to watch the last rays of the sun over the Pacific, sitting with Rabbi Singer and Ken LaZebnik (who organized the show at Pepperdine), to talk about our lives, to exchange hopes and worries about the protests in Egypt, to simply savor the moment of putting the work out into the world, the last traces of the day.