The Chris Schwarz Memorial Art Award
2019 PRIZE – “DOORS”
DESCRIPTION OF THE COMPETITION’S CONCEPT
The objective of the Chris Schwarz Memorial Art Award is to promote and develop contemporary art as well as to create a field for dialogue on history and Polish-Jewish relations. It is intended to be a triennial Competition, with each edition devoted to a different theme, concluding with an exhibition at the Galicia Jewish Museum.
Chris Schwarz was a British photo journalist and the founder and first director of the Galicia Jewish Museum. His intellectual courage, willingness to ask the most difficult questions and efforts made to answer them, brought countless people together and gave them a new understanding of Polish-Jewish history.
The first theme of the Prize is inspired by a story told by Stanislaw Aronson, a Holocaust survivor and veteran of the Polish Home Army, which serves to present the wider context of Polish-Jewish interactions during the Holocaust and to encourage comprehension of the wartime occupied Poland.
It aims to help viewers grasp the emotional nuances and uncertainties accompanying and motivating people living in extreme circumstances and facing dramatic choices. Built around the symbolism of the door and the eye-hole in the context of Aronson’s story, the “Doors” project also seeks to create a universal message to encourage mutual empathy and understanding.
Born in 1925, Aronson is a Polish Jew who enjoyed an idyllic childhood growing up in Lodz. He was aware that anti-Semitism existed, but did not feel it in his own life, and saw no contradiction between being Polish and being Jewish. When World War II broke out, his family fled east, to what was then Polish Lwow. There, he witnessed the Soviet occupation.
When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Aronson family volunteered to move into the Warsaw Ghetto, at the advice of family members. In 1943, after some time in the Ghetto, the family was deported to Treblinka from the Umschlagplatz. Aronson escaped from a gap in the train carriage, but never saw his family again.
On the run outside Warsaw, Aronson experienced a wide range of treatment from non-Jewish Poles. There was the man in the countryside who offered generosity and protection for a night, and family friends who found him somewhere to stay in the city. But there was also the youth in a homeless shelter who realised he was Jewish and blackmailed him for his watch and leather coat.
Paradoxically, he ended up being sheltered in the apartment of a German woman that his friend knew, who introduced him to leaders of the Polish Home Army. Offered the opportunity to hide or to fight, Aronson chose to fight, joining the Home Army’s elite Kedyw special operations unit. In August 1944, he was back at the Umschlagplatz, but this time as a soldier liberating it from the Nazi occupiers on the first day of the Warsaw Uprising. A few years later, he would be fighting for his second homeland in the Israeli War of Independence.
Aronson tells a story about how when he was acting as a soldier on special operations in occupied Warsaw one year before the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising, he was wounded and sought shelter in an apartment building in Warsaw:
In ’43 I was slightly wounded coming back from an [operation]. The Germans tried to stop us and there was a little bit of shooting, and I got a [bullet] that just scratched me here [points to his eyebrow], and I was bleeding. I went into a building in Warsaw, an apartment building, because I wanted to wash my face, and to put some plaster or something on this. And I started ringing at the door… It was not a matter that I was Jewish or not Jewish—no-one opened the door. I went four floors up and down, three floors up and down, no-one opened the door. They looked probably, and they didn’t open the door. So you know, everybody was a hero in 1945… But I am not so sure that everybody was a hero in 1943 and ’44. What altogether is a hero? Why should anybody be called a hero?
Aronson was not condemning the people who refused to open the door for him. He told the story to illustrate that people were afraid. But he was also saying that by acknowledging this widespread fear, we also need to accept something else, that one cannot claim that the Polish nation—or any other nation—is somehow collectively heroic or always did their utmost to help those whose lives were in danger. Heroes are, by definition, rare, exceptional, and unrepresentative.
The locked door is such a universal and powerful symbol because of the number of different scenarios and possible human reactions it represents. It represents two people standing face-to-face, but with an obstacle—whether it be physical or something symbolic, such as fear, suspicion, prejudice, or even hatred—standing between them.
Who is knocking on the door? Is it a member of the Polish resistance who needs somewhere to clean up, or a Jewish person on the run and in need of shelter? A German policeman or officer looking to take someone away, or a neighbour asking for something benign like a cup of sugar? While the person knocking on the door could be asking for help, or demanding entry so as to take the occupants away, the person inside might be in a position to help you, to extort you, to kill you, or to save your life. These are the dilemmas faced by people living under occupation.
The eye-hole in the door is also of great symbolic importance, as it represents the way in which we lack a complete picture of one another, and the less you know of someone else, the more prone you are to be suspicious of their motives.
This is a lesson that has universal value, but it is of particular importance in the field of Polish-Jewish relations at the present time. Both Poles and Jews need to have a greater sense of what it was like to stand on either side of that door. With knowledge comes empathy, and vice versa.
Indeed 2018 marked a moment of crisis in Polish-Jewish relations, highlighting mutual incomprehension and difficulties in facilitating communication, which have led to a lack of sympathy that threatens to undo the achievements in Polish-Jewish relations and reconciliation of recent decades. As Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, told the Observer in a recent interview:
What has been very disappointing to me is that we’ve re-entered a kind of a mindset where too many people are not listening to each other. Where we have been successful over the past twenty-five years is to have an increasing sensitivity to what hurts the other side, and what I’m seeing now is a complete lack of sensitivity, both from the Polish to the Jewish and from the Jewish to the Polish side.
It is often suggested that the problem is a lack of knowledge, both about the destruction of the Polish Jews during the Holocaust and about the realities for non-Jews in wartime Poland. But the way in which we look at the events of the past is often just as important as what we may or may not know. One of the great challenges for the present generation is not necessarily that we are not aware of the basic facts (though many are indeed ignorant of these facts), but that we choose to see and interpret them in particular ways.
The most obvious way in which people often choose to interpret the events of wartime Poland is through the prism of nationality—focusing on the experiences and attitudes of members of one’s own nation at the expense of understanding the experiences and attitudes of others.
But the consequences of this natural instinct are exacerbated by a shared tendency to interpret the events of the past by imposing rigid and simplistic moral categories—“heroes,” “traitors,” “victims,” and “perpretators”—on a wartime situation that often (though not always) defied straightforward moral judgement.
As Danusha Goska wrote in an op-ed for Ha’aretz, this leads to a debate characterised by a kind of crude point-scoring:
Polish-Jewish relations are [often] reduced to a calculation performed with black and white beads on one rod of an abacus. The black beads represent the bad, anti-Semitic Poles. The white beads represent the exceptional, prejudice-free Poles. A "true" historical retelling is only achieved when the black beads far outnumber the white beads.
This is, of course, a two-way process, with many Poles responding with their own attempts to prove that the “white beads” did in fact by far outweigh the “black beads,” (unfortunately, the Righteous Among the Nations are often called upon to perform this role), or to attempt to point out that other nations, including the Jews, had their own “black beads”: hence the recent resurrection in Polish discourse of the żydokomuna concept in an attempt to bring attention to crimes of oppression committed by Jewish members of the Communist security services in post-war Poland as a kind of political counter-attack.
As Rabbi Schudrich points out, common to both sides of the resulting slanging match is a lack of empathy and imagination in understanding the perspective of the other side. Or as put recently by Anna Stupnicka-Bando, honoured as Righteous Among the Nations for saving a Jewish girl from the Holocaust:
What is it now with all this counting—checking how many of us were good and how many were bad? We are not some potatoes planted in a field that can be counted. We are people. Let it go.
Moreover, the obsession with proving “guilt” or “innocence” ignores what one might call the “grey beads” on the abacus: those who neither committed terrible crimes nor performed any great heroics. That has a distorting and damaging effect: while it may be natural for us to focus on the extremes—whether the Righteous or the blackmailers or murderers—this means that we lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of people were in neither category. To really understand life in occupied Poland, we need to understand the dilemmas of those people we neither celebrate nor condemn.
The symbol that seems to reflect the problem most accurately is that of an apartment’s front door with an
eye-hole, inspired by the above story told by Stanislaw Aronson, whose background and experiences embody the ambiguities and complexities of the period.
Though DOORS (and its eye-hole) serve as the starting point for this project, we are also receptive to various interpretations: so long as they are consistent with the theme, aims and values of the project. We do not impose any particular artistic field within which the work should be carried out. Indeed the Prize is open to artists working in any medium including painting, photography, print, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, installation and moving image.