In 1977, a set of photographs by a New York student, Chuck Fishman, appeared in a book entitled, Polish Jews: The Final Chapter.
All of the photographs had been taken in 1975, when Fishman visited Poland for the first time. The photographs depicted the Polish Jewish reality in People’s Poland – the remaining survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants were part of a community which had once numbered over three million, but had been decimated as a result of the Holocaust, and had been further diminished by subsequent waves of post-war emigration.
In his photographs, Fishman, who visited Poland several more times in the 1970s and 1980s, set out to capture the final chapter in the history of Polish Jewry. Fishman sought to perpetuate the memory of a community that was disappearing before his very eyes. 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.
The systemic changes of 1989 had an enormous impact on Jewish life in Poland. For many, it meant the possibility of rediscovering their roots, reconstructing their Jewish identities, exploring their ancient traditions, or being able to discuss openly the complexities of Polish-Jewish relations. The processes of the revival of Jewish communities began. Upon leaving Poland in 1983, Fishman could not have imagined the photographs he would take thirty years later in democratic Poland. His pictures from the 2010s often feature young, laughing Jews belonging to the third and fourth generations of Holocaust survivors.
There exists a forty-three-year period between the earliest and latest photographs presented in 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 early 21st centuries. The first section of the exhibition features photographs presenting the realities of the 1970s and 1980s. When viewed from today’s perspective, these images, now etched in the consciousness of people around the world, reflect the stereotypical ideas about Polish Jewish life.
However, as if almost deliberately, the earlier vision is supplanted by another, emanating from the photographs displayed in the second section: one of a diverse and rejuvenated community, pursuing their normal lives, albeit, “in the shadow of Auschwitz.”
All of the photographs are black-and-white, silver gelatin prints that have been hand-developed from the original negatives. The artist made a conscious decision to document contemporary Jewish life in Poland with the same artistic resources he used in the 1970s and 1980s. This treatment not only makes the entire collection visually coherent, but also demonstrates that the atmosphere or significance of the photographs is not driven by the chosen black-and-white tones. The new photographs emanate optimism, energy, and hope.
Curators: Teresa Śmiechowska (Jewish Historical Institute), and Tomasz Strug (Galicia Jewish Museum)
Each Monday at 11 AM, throughout the duration of the exhibition, we would like to invite you to join us for a free guided tour of the exhibition in Polish.