18 Oct 2013

Biographies of Things

POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Gifts in the Collection of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews
October 18th 2013 to February 17th 2014

[...] things created by man in society have a permanent worth and meaning, ... they will survive and eclipse death and decay, ... man and his creations are what really count.

Ernst Becker

Since 2006, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews has been creating its collections, pursuing a style of collecting which can be described as romantic.

The collections of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews are of an exceptional, highly personal nature.  This is not a collection of gifts, mementos connected to the history of Polish Jews, given in keeping to the Museum in the belief that it is the most appropriate place for them.

Objects (relicts of the past, souvenirs) help man describe who he is; an object becomes to man an Other; objects co-create, legitimise his identity, become its guarantor, and mark its changes. At the group level, however, they become the structural timber, connecting-pieces, intensifiers of inter-human relationships.

Ewa Domańska, Towards a Non-Anthropocentric History

Biographies of Things – the first exhibition of items from our collection – is an attempt to look at museum artefacts in a modern way. They speak much of themselves, but also of the condition of man, who helped to safeguard them.With this exhibition we want to introduce you not only to exceptional objects, but also to exceptional people: people who in donating or loaning items have invested their emotions, histories and their very fates in this new-born institution.

The exhibition is divided into seven parts, each one containing a strictly defined and thematically circumscribed group of objects. The histories of the individual items or groups of items form a universal history when presented together, symbolising the experiences making up the identity of the Polish Jew. 

To each group of objects has been dedicated a work of contemporary art. In a certain sense, art assumes the role of a medium between the ordinariness of things and the extraordinariness of the fates of the people connected with them. These works by Polish artists, known to the public from other exhibitions or art projects, supplement the main message of the individual narratives, using the language of art.

Biographies od Things. Gifts in the Collection of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Exhibition dedicated to our Donors

Space 1: the book

In Jewish tradition the Book is the source of laws and moral norms, the foundation on which the world’s order rests. The books shown as part of the exhibition are antiquarian books on religious topics printed in Hebrew, and non-religious books, mostly in Yiddish. They were all saved at different times and in varying circumstances: discovered in the attics of sometime Jewish homes, found in walls and foundations, bought at flea markets; preserved for years as anonymous testimonies of a former Jewish presence.

Stefan Żeromski, Walka z szatanem (Struggle with Satan), 2nd edition, [vol. 3:] Charitas. A Novel, Warszawa – Kraków: Publisher J. Mortkowicz, Printed by Towarzystwo Wydawnicze w Warszawie, 1921; print. Donated by Stanisław Kacprzyński

Stefan Żeromski’s novel “Charitas”, the last volume of the trilogy “Struggle with Satan”, copy from the Icchok Lejb Perec Jewish Association Library in Ostrołęka (library stamp has the spelling “Peretz”).The title page bears a stamp with the number 51,and the round library stamp in Polish and Yiddish. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, 15-year-old Stanisław borrowed the book from the Jewish Library in Ostrołęka. He wasn’t able to return it. He kept it safe for years, in memory of his prewar Jewish friends: Morys Wansztok and Izak Perhala. By donating the book to the Museum, he wanted “to return it after these long years”.

Krzysztof Gliszczyński, The Library, 2012. Books steeped in coloured beeswax. Property of the artist

The Library (2012) by Krzysztof Gliszczyński’s, that is a shelf with books painted over with red dyed beeswax , resembling a bloodied band, is painful to view. The encaustic painting fuses the books together. The colour red seals the books for all time.

Space 2: emigration, journey, wandering

Lives on the move, in the shadow or fear of yet another emigration – an experience that shaped an important component of the identity of Polish Jews. The indispensable trunks and suitcases. And the documents, without which a journey would be impossible. Objects which emigrated with their owners offered a sense of rootedness and continuity. Objects orphaned as a result of emigration were handed over to someone else for safekeeping or given in token of friendship and gratitude. Every one of us would take something different.  But that “something” means a great deal, and speaks volumes about its owner.

Dominik Lejman’s video-installation Skaters/Łyżwiarze (2003), a luminous frieze created especially for this exhibition, is a moving metaphor for a lonely journey.

Dominik Lejman, Skaters/Łyżwiarze, Kunsthalle Bern, 2003

Plywood suitcase, with a sticker: “3 MERC” next to the handle. One of several suitcases into which the Merc family packed their belongings before leaving Poland for Sweden on 8 September 1969. The suitcase was kept as a memento. Also kept was a precise list of the contents of suitcase number 3.

Plywood, Donated by Roman Merc

Images of pre-war Warsaw. Donated by Josef Weidenfeld, whose mother Joanna took them with her when she emigrated to Palestine in 1925. The postcards were not only a memento from her father’s Warsaw bookshop, but also reminders of her native city.

Postcards, On loan from Josef Weidenfeld

Space 3: signs of an absent presence

Objects whose presence marks the absence of their Jewish owners. Objects salvaged, kept safely, hidden, or – as Zygmunt Bauman would say “time-smuggled” artefacts, rescued through people’s care and devotion to multiple forms of existence.

A parchment scroll from amezuzah and a handkerchief in which the scroll was kept, found in the home of Aleksandra Bronisława Lutostańska (née Niedzielska) who was a paramedic in Suwałki. Her lawyer husband, Czesław, was killed in Dachau. Their son Tadeusz (alias “Rawicz”) belonged to an underground group in Suwałki called National Rebirth. He was 15 when the ermans arrested him in 1941, and he was executed in May 1943. After Aleksandra's death in July 1981, Andrzej Pic found the parchment scroll while clearing his aunt's home.

We know nothing of its origins, how it found its way into the Lutostański household, and why it was kept in a white handkerchief with Aleksandra's embroideredinitials.She clearly knew the nature of the object, and had an emotional attachment towards it. Andrzej Pic passed the scroll on to Wojciech and Barbara Turek, who in turn gave it to Helena Pawlisz-Oremus with the idea that the scroll should be donatedto an institution safeguarding Jewish heritage in Poland.

Parchment scroll; parchment/ink, Handkerchief; cotton/embroidery; Donated by Helena Pawlisz-Oremus

A handkerchief and a parchment scroll froim a mezuzah were donanted to the Museum in 2007 by Halina Pawlisz-Oremus. Watch the film where she tells unbelievable stories of anonymous things which had been rebuilt.

Halina Pawlisz-Oremus handkerchief and mezuzah parchment donated to the museum in 2007. The film tells the extraordinary story of an anonymous objects which stories to some extent were restored.

The negative reversal in the photographic image from the series Black Light (2007) by TomaszWendland turns bright areas of light into black, void patches.What we see, therefore, is not a frozen reality, but its lack, symbolising absence.

Tomasz Wendland, Black Light, 2007

Space 4: personal mementos, family mementos,  objects with their own narratives 

Thanks to them, we know who we are, where we come from, we know where our roots reach. In this part of the exhibition we have a unique opportunity to look at an object not just as a “thing-in-itself”; we have the chance to perceive within it a concrete human being and their individual history.

Magdalena Moskwa, Untitled, 2005; oil, silver, chalk ground, board, 23 × 79.5. Property of Miejska Galeria Sztuki in Łodzi

The hands separated from their body, depicted by Magdalena Moskwa (Untitled, 2005), resemble votive offerings. The silver-covered board on which they are portrayed serves to intensify their reality. It is precisely hands which have the most intimate contact with personal objects, and with the Other.

Pre-war safety razor belonging to Abraham Kirschbraun. This was the only memento of him left to Abraham’s brother Jakub after the Holocaust. Abraham had given it to Jakub as the latter was escaping from occupied Warsaw in 1939. Jakub had it with him in Siberia, and after the war as an émigré in Paris and Israel.

Donated by Jakub Kirschbraun

Space 5: Motherland

Natan Rapoport’s Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, unveiled in 1948, is an integral part of the exhibition. The objects in this space bear witness to the need of having aMotherland. For some, it is Poland, for others Israel, the world...

Natan Rapoport’s Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, unveiled in 1948, is an integral part of the exhibition.

Military uniform, so-called battledress, belonging to Halina Olszewicka, from the time of her service in the 2nd Corps, Polish Armed Forces in the West, also her Military Identity Book from May 1947. In November 1942 Halina escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto, hiding under the name of Maria Staniszewska. During the Warsaw Uprising she joined the AK (Home Army). After the fall of the Uprising, she was sent as a prisoner-of-war to a prison camp, probably Bergen-Belsen. After its liberation, she became a soldier of the Polish Armed Forces in the West. She served in Italy and England. After the war, she returned to Poland. She died in 1969.

Military Identity Book; paper/handwriting. Brown beret, 1945. Green beret, 1945. Shirt, 1945. Jacket, 1945. fabric, thread. Donated by Jerzy Olszewicki, Halina’s brother

Space 6: art

Art created by Jews, or with Jews in mind. Speaking its own language. Some of these works point to the fate of Jews, while in others the artists attempt to step out of their own cultural context. This is the only category without an accompanying work of contemporary art.

Ewa Kuryluk created her cycle “The Holocaust” in 1960, inspired by the stories of her friend Robert Schindel (born 1944) who today is a well-known Austrian writer; while he was a baby, his parents had been sent to a concentration camp – his father was murdered, his mother survived. These juvenile

works by Ewa Kuryluk were lovingly preserved by her mother Maria. Ewa Kuryluk, outstanding artist, art historian, writer and poet, author inter alia of the biographical prose works “Goldi” and “Frascati”.

Ewa Kuryluk,“Self-portrait” from cycle "Holocaust", 1960; gouache/paper, 20.5×13; MHŻP–A39; Donated by the artist

Space 7: hiding

For the Jewish community in Poland, during the war and in the period just following, hiding, or hiding one’s Jewish identity, was a general experience. It could have a literal, physical aspect, but it could also mean hiding one’s Jewish identity. The objects shown in this space testify to life in hiding..These objects, which took their beginnings in hiding, are exhibited in a glass display case within a space designed by Elżbieta Jabłońska (83 waiters and an assistant, 2006). Wojciech Łazarczyk has created a sound sculpture simulating different noises – the quiet pulse of everyday ordinariness, bound by an underlying rhythm. It is no longer noise, but not quite music.

For all of these objects, their symbolic reality, in which they were created and in which they endured, was an all-encompassing silence. Their display in this exhibition space breaks this silence.

Wooden chessmen, carved while in hiding in 1943 by Pola Najder. After the liquidation of the ghetto in Kołomyja, Pola, with her husband Marceli Najder and eight other people, hid (in 1942–1943) in Andrzej Śliwiak’s bunker in Kołomyja. There she carved the 32 pawns and major pieces. Playing chess helped to pass the time spent in their hiding place.

Wooden chessmen, carved while in hiding in 1943 by Pola Najder. After the liquidation of the ghetto in Kołomyja, Pola, with her husband Marceli Najder and eight other people, hid (in 1942–1943) in Andrzej Śliwiak’s bunker in Kołomyja. There she carved the 32 pawns and major pieces. Playing chess helped to pass the time spent in their hiding place.
Interview with Tomasz Najder about the history of the wooden chessmen
Credits: Story

Kuratorzy wystawy — Judyta Pawlak, Wojciech Leder
Kurator GCI — Radosław Wójcik

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions (listed below) who have supplied the content.
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