Traces of memory: A contemporary look at the Jewish Past in Poland

Traces of memory: A contemporary look at the Jewish Past in Poland


1. Origins

The original exhibition was based on many years of research and photography. It began at the end of the 1980s when Professor Jonathan Webber arrived to Poland as a guest of the Institute of Sociology of Jagiellonian University in Kraków. Webber searched for the traces of the Jewish past that still randomly and unpredictably dotted the small market towns and villages of southern Poland as well as for the memories still lingering in the minds of local people. Working village by village and town by town in field trips that continued over a number of summers, Webber slowly assembled a significant amount of material. In 1993, he was approached by the brilliant English photographer Chris Schwarz, who asked him if he would share his findings so that he could visually document the subject. Thus began a multiyear creative collaboration. Thanks to Webber’s meticulous research, by 2002, a time when there was still relatively little interest in Poland about its Jewish past, Schwarz had created a collection of about 1,000 powerful photographs and decided to establish the Galicia Jewish Museum to house their exhibition. The two men worked closely together in choosing and arranging the photos for the Traces of Memory exhibition, which opened in Kraków in 2004.

Traces of Memory offered a completely new look at the Jewish past in Poland and included several unique features that distinguished it from other exhibitions dealing with Jewish Poland and the Holocaust, making this project truly remarkable. At the same time, it was one of the first such exhibitions in Poland.

Memory and responsibility

Chris Schwarz was not the first photographer to depict the ruined synagogues or abandoned Jewish cemeteries scattered through the landscape of southern Poland. Some of these locations were photographed already in 1970s and 1980s, although always in black and white. What made Schwarz’s photographs different was colour. By consciously choosing to document and present these places in colour, Schwarz and Webber depicted them not only as remnants of the past but also visible and important elements of the landscape of contemporary Poland, highlighting the connected challenges and responsibilities.

Diversity of places

Through the Traces of Memory, visitors could also see evidence of the diversity and richness of the Jewish world that existed in southern Poland, not only in major centres like Kraków or Tarnów, but also in smaller towns and villages located off the main routes and rarely visited by tourists.

Diversity of narratives

To avoid inappropriate, stereotyped generalisations, the exhibition was divided into five sections. It offers instead a multi-layered, multi-dimensional set of perspectives on the subject. This transferred into five simple messages which the exhibition would like to suggest; five ways or moods in which the tragic Jewish absence after the Holocaust could be approached: sadness in confronting ruins; interest in the original culture; horror at the process of destruction; and recognition of the problems in coping with the past, including both the erasure of memory and also the efforts to preserve and memorialise the traces of memory.

Presence of absence

In order to emphasise the absence of regular Jewish life in most of the towns and villages of southern Poland in the present day, it was decided not to depict any people in the photos of the exhibition first four sections. However, the last section reversed that by focusing instead on some of the people who are involved today, in different ways, in honouring the memory of the Jewish past in Galicia, celebrating its culture and so contributing to the Jewish presence here  coming back to life – today’s Jewish revival. The present-day realities encompassed by this exhibition contain all these five messages simultaneously: ruins as well as restorations, absence as well as presence.

From the very beginning, the exhibition was also surrounded and accompanied by a rich and diverse programme of events. Chris Schwarz strongly believed in the educational mission of the Museum, especially in its celebration of Jewish culture and life. But, tragically, he died in 2007 at the young age of 59. The exhibition he co-created became exceptional education tool, with over 20,000 students from Poland and abroad benefiting and learning from it every single year.

2. The Update

In the years that followed, it became clear that although Traces of Memory was the core permanent exhibition of the Galicia Jewish Museum, the subject had moved on. Synagogues once left in ruins had been restored, new monuments had been erected in honour of the Jewish past and there was a steady revival of Jewish life. In 2012, the management of the Museum decided to start a two-stage project to update the exhibition. In a first stage, the Museum invited Professor Jason Francisco, a highly talented American photographer, scholar and essayist with considerable experience with Jewish historical memory in Eastern Europe, to curate the Museum’s second core exhibition devoted to the former Eastern Galicia (present day Western Ukraine), an area not covered by Webber and Schwarz’s original project. The exhibition An Unfinished Memory: Jewish Heritage and the Holocaust in Eastern Galicia was opened in 2014. The exhibition complemented Traces of Memory and allowed the Museum to realise its long-held goal of extending its thoughtful and provocative approach to the Jewish past to the whole of historical Galicia.

At the same time, the Museum began to work on the second and main stage of the project: updating and expanding the Traces of Memory exhibition with Jason Francisco as a new photographer. Over the next two years, he took more than 600 photographs in dozens of locations, documenting changes that have taken place in the area of Polish Galicia since 2004. The updated and expanded exhibition was opened during the 2016 Jewish Culture Festival. The number of displayed photographs increased from 104 to 144, with more than 60 new photographs taken by Jason Francisco fully integrated into the exhibition’s narrative. Jonathan Webber revised the old captions and wrote all of the captions for Francisco’s photos as well as other accompanying texts in an effort to ensure continuity with the original mission of the exhibition. By merging the work of the two photographers– one depicting the reality of post-communist Poland in the 1990s and the second documenting the situation after 25 years of Polish democracy – the exhibition offers photos of what Jewish heritage in Poland looked 25 years ago and how it has evolved into what it looks like today. It is one of the unique strengths of this exhibition.

To underline the scale of the positive changes that have taken place in Poland over the last years, the name of final section of the exhibition was changed from People Making Memory to Revival of Jewish Life. This is a very strong and conscious statement. In order to depict the dynamic changes as well as the variety and complexity of these on-going processes, this section will include a number of photographs that will be changed every 12 months, with a new set being officially presented annually during the Jewish Culture Festival. The photographs will be sourced from museum visitors, members of the local community, professionals and amateurs. With the realities on the ground changing so quickly, only diverse images caught by the participants in these events can reflect the transformations and earnestly document the phenomenon of the revival of Jewish life in Poland.

To buy entrance tickets online, click HERE.

To buy tickets for the online 3d tour of the exhibition, click HERE.


Thanks to all of these unique and innovative features, the new Traces of Memory offers a contemporary and thought-provoking look at Jewish Poland, reflecting a great deal of issues and processes rooted in the past, but influencing the future.


Co-financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland.