“Re-Generation. Jewish Life in Poland.” Exhibition of photographs by Chuck Fishman
In 1977 a set of photographs by an American student, Chuck Fishman, appeared in a book entitled “Polish Jews. The Final Chapter”.
All of them had been taken in 1975, when Fishman visited Poland for the first time. They were a record of his meetings with Polish Jews living in the realities of People’s Poland: the last survivors of the Shoah and the few descendants of a community that had once numbered three million and had been nearly wiped out in the Holocaust, and then further diminished by subsequent waves of post-war emigration.
The photographs by 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 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 Przemysł, where only a handful still cultivated their Jewishness.
The systemic change of 1989 had an enormous impact on Jewish life in Poland. For many, it meant the possibility of rediscovering their roots, reconstructing their Jewish identity, exploring their ancient traditions or being able to discuss openly the complex Polish-Jewish relations. The process of the revival of Jewish communities began. Upon leaving Poland in 1983, Fishman could not have imagined the photographs he would take 30 years on in democratic Poland. His pictures from the 2010s often feature laughing young Jews of the third and the fourth generations after the Holocaust.
43 years have passed between the taking of the earliest and latest photographs the exhibition presents, which makes Fishman’s project one of the most comprehensive photographic records of European Jewry in the second half of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries. In its first part, 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 stereotypical ideas about the continuing realities of Jewish life in Poland.
However, the earlier vision is seemingly deliberately supplanted by another one emanating from the photographs displayed in second part of the exhibition: one of a diverse and rejuvenated community pursuing their normal lives, albeit “in the shadow of Auschwitz”.
All of the photographs are silver gelatin prints in black and white, hand-developed from the original negatives. The artist took a conscious decision to document contemporary Jewish life in Poland using the same artistic resources he used in the 1970s and 1980s. This treatment makes the entire collection visually coherent, but also demonstrates that the atmosphere or significance of photographs is not driven by the chosen black-and-white tones: the new photographs emanate optimism, energy and hope.