Jewish Life in Poland Shown by Polish Jewish Painters
#photography & visual arts
Jews have lived in Poland for around a thousand years, creating a vibrant community and culture which were tragically interrupted by World War II. Culture.pl takes a look at Poland’s pre-war Jewish life manifested through paintings by outstanding artists from Polish Jewish communities.
‘Jews Praying in the Synagogue on the Day of Atonement’ by Maurycy Gottlieb
The artist behind this painting, Maurycy Gottlieb, is described in his Culture.pl bio as ‘the most prominent representative of Jewish culture in Poland of the second half of the 19th century.’ The immensely talented Gottlieb was born in 1856 in the town of Drohobycz (today in Ukraine) and studied under the celebrated Polish historical painter Jan Matejko. Despite having died at only 23 – due to complications after throat surgery – Gottlieb became one of Poland’s most important painters, known for his stylistic references to Rembrandt and deep interest in Jewish history and culture.
The 1878 painting Żydzi w Bożnicy (Jews Praying in the Synagogue on the Day of Atonement) is among Gottlieb’s most recognisable works. It shows a group of worshipers at a synagogue during the holiday of Yom Kippur, which is ‘the day of atonement and fast, considered the holiest and the most solemn day of the year in the Jewish calendar’ according to the Jewish Historical Institute.
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Gottlieb’s impressive piece is said to show the interior of the synagogue, no longer there, in his hometown. Many of the male figures in the painting are wearing tallits or traditional prayer shawls. Interestingly, the artist portrayed himself among the characters here, and more than once:
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Maurycy himself stands, in a colourful exotic-looking tallit, with head in hand. On the left we have the artist as a small boy, wearing a medallion with his initials written in Hebrew. On the extreme right is a young male figure, perhaps again Maurycy, reading from the prayer book alongside a man who might well be his father.
From the 2002 book ‘Painting a People: Maurycy Gottlieb and Jewish Art’ by Ezra Mendelsohn, published by UPNE
‘Sukkot’ by Leopold Pilichowski
Shortly after Yom Kippur, which takes place in autumn, religious Jews celebrate the week-long holiday of Sukkot. It commemorates the 40-year-long journey of the Israelites through the desert, which brought them from Egypt to the Promised Land.
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The holiday is the theme of Sukkot, a painting created by Leopold Pilichowski between the years 1894 and 1895. Pilichowski, an important Polish Jewish artist, was born in 1869 in the village of Rzeczyca near the town of Sieradz, and studied painting under the acclaimed realist painter Wojciech Gerson. Pilichowski went on to become a realist painter himself, one that often employed Jewish themes in his art.
At the time of the creation of Sukkot, Pilichowski was living in Łódź, so it’s highly probable that this splendid painting shows a scene from that city. In the artwork you can see a group of men at a synagogue. The one to the left is examining a lulav or a traditional festive bouquet consisting of palm leaves, willow shoots and myrtle, which is waved during certain Sukkot prayers. In the painting’s centre, you can see a worshipper holding an etrog or a fruit similar to a lemon, which is also waved (or held) during Sukkot ceremonies.
‘Blessing of the New Moon’ by Artur Markowicz
This beautiful piece shows another Jewish ceremony:
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A thankful blessing (prayer) for the reappearance of the moon in the sky. It can be said, starting from the third night after the moon appears […] until it becomes full. […] The blessing is usually said at the end of Shabbat, after the evening prayers (maariv), in the outdoors, for example in front of the synagogue, when the moon is clearly visible.
(Quoted from the website of the Jewish Historical Institute, trans. MK)
Poświęcenie Nowiu Księżyca (Blessing of the New Moon) was created by the noted painter Artur Markowicz in 1933. The artist was born in 1872 in the town of Podgórze (which became part of Kraków in 1915) and studied under Jan Matejko. Markowicz lived in Kraków for many years, often portraying its Polish Jewish inhabitants. The artwork at hand may very well show a scene from the city or its area.
Markowicz is especially valued for his skilful use of colours. In Blessing of the New Moon he fabulously contrasted the black of the portrayed figures’ garments with the blue of the night enveloping the whole scene.
‘The Final Hour of Rabbi Eleazar’ by Jankiel Adler
This intriguing artwork was created by the exceptional Polish Jewish painter Jankiel Adler who was born in 1895 in the town of Tuszyn. Over the years, Adler’s painting style evolved, shifting from expressionism to cubism and later to abstractionism. The painting here, created between the years 1918 and 1920, was created at a time when the artist was employing expressionism and was fascinated with Hassidic mysticism and Jewish folklore.
Ostatnia Godzina Rabiego Eleazara (The Final Hour of Rabbi Eleazar) shows the dying moment of a Rabbi surrounded by his family. Its elongated ephemeral figures seem to reference the works of El Greco.
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The spiritual character of the scene is conveyed by the half-closed eyes of the characters. The faces are shown schematically. Behind the rabbi an angel of death awaits for the right moment to take him to the other side; we can see the angel as it gives the rabbi the final kiss, before carrying him to the Creator’s throne.
In Jewish tradition, angels accompany every person during their entire earthly journey. They’re a sign of God’s everyday presence near man. […] Their calling is to realise God’s commandments.
From Culture.pl’s Polish description of ‘The Final Hour of Rabbi Eleazar’, trans. MK
The painting was part of the collection of Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, but was stolen from there in 1981 and has remained missing since.
‘Jewish Family Making Toys’ by Mojżesz Rynecki
Religion and spirituality were an important topic for Polish Jewish painters but so was secular life. This charming painting, whose exact date of creation is unknown (it’s believed to be before 1939), shows a family making toys together in what looks to be their home. The manufactured toys will quite probably be put on sale at the family’s store or market stall.
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Rodzina Żydowska Robiąca Zabawki (Jewish Family Making Toys) was made by Mojżesz Rynecki, a recognised painter born in 1881 in the town of Międzyrzec Podlaski. Rynecki studied at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts and often painted genre scenes showing the ordinary life of Polish Jewish communities. He often depicted people at work, in urban landscapes or at home (although one should add that he employed religious themes as well).
His works are characterised by vivid, lively colour schemes, strong linear contours, deformations and expressions of the figures often portrayed in an almost caricature manner.
From the website of the Jewish Historical Institute, trans. MK
Sadly, Rynecki was murdered in 1943 in the Nazi German death camp Majdanek.
‘Street Fiddler’ by Herszel Danielewicz
Ordinary life is also shown in this piece by the valued illustrator and painter Herszel Danielewicz. Part of an undated series of lithographs titled Z Dawnego Życia Żydów (From the Past Life of Jews), it marvellously portrays a street performance given by what appears to be a travelling folk musician. The curious villagers gather around him to witness his performance.
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Danielewicz was born in the village of Koło near Łódź in 1882 and grew up there. His art, which has been described as realistic and social, often portrayed the life of the Polish Jewish community in his home village. It’s quite probable that the scene shown in Uliczny Skrzypek (Street Fiddler) takes place in Koło. In 1939, Danielewicz moved to America where he became known by his English name Harry Daniels.
‘Dybbuk’ by Henryk Berlewi
Here’s an artwork that points to an important part of pre-war Polish Jewish artistic life. In 1920, the Elizeum Theatre in Warsaw hosted the world premiere of the play The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds, written by the Jewish playwright Szymon Anski. Staged in Yiddish, the play became extremely popular among Jewish audiences and went on to be translated into other languages and put on abroad.
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After learning that his loved one was promised to another man, Chonon dies struck by a supernatural force. It turns out, however, that he appears at Lea’s wedding and enters her body as a dybbuk – a folklore demon. The outraged lover takes control over the girl’s body; a tsaddik from Miropol tries to expel him. He succeeds, but it turns out that the fate of Lea and Chonon had been sealed even before their birth by an agreement between their fathers. The men decided that if they’d ever beget a boy and a girl, the children would get married. Eventually Chonon’s dybbuk takes over Lea’s body again. She dies and joins her loved one in the afterlife.
(Quoted from ‘Dybuk - Metafora Polsko-Żydowskiej Pamięci’ on histmag.org, trans. MK)
The lithograph Dybuk (Chonon i Lea), whose title simply means ‘Dybbuk (Chonon & Lea)’, was created in 1920 by the renowned painter and art critic Henryk Berlewi as a poster for the aforementioned play. Berlewi was born in 1894 in Warsaw and studied at the local Academy of Fine Arts. His magnificent poster showing the main characters of Anski’s play testifies to his early fascinations with expressionism and Marc Chagall. Later in his artistic career Berlewi turned toward the avant-garde.
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‘Art Colony of Kazimierz Dolny’ by Chaim Goldberg
Finally, we have a colourful painting that also refers to Polish Jewish artistic life in Interwar Poland. It shows the picturesque town of Kazimierz Dolny which in pre-war times was a shtetl, namely a hometown for a large Jewish community. Due to its charming architecture and natural surroundings the town became a popular destination for pre-war painters, including plenty of Polish Jewish artists. The town gained the reputation of an art colony; the writer Jacob Glatstein who came to Kazmierz Dolny from America in 1934 wrote in his book When Yash Set Out: ‘In Kazimierz every third person is a painter.’
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The town’s atmosphere as a painter’s haven is the theme of 1974’s Art Colony of Kazimierz Dolny by the eminent painter and sculptor Chaim Goldberg. Goldberg was born in Kazimierz in 1917 and studied at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. He often portrayed his hometown in his paintings, even after he left Poland in 1955 to live in Israel and later in America. The painting is executed in an expressive style that showcases Goldberg’s attention to detail.
polish jewish artists
Art Colony of Kazimierz Dolny is the last of the notable artworks on our list. If you’d like to get in touch with more Polish Jewish culture, check out our virtual tour of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Author: Marek Kępa, June 2020