March ’68: An Émigré’s Family Album
#photography & visual arts
default, March ’68: An Émigré’s
Family Album, A photo from 'Album Rodzinny: Zdjęcia, Które Żydzi Zabrali ze Sobą', photo: courtesy of the organiser, Praca z wystawy "Album rodzinny. Zdjęcia, które Żydzi zabrali ze sobą", fot. dzięki uprzejmości organizatora
These photographs could have been taken from any family's photo album. Their message is universal – they show the freedom of a normal life. The bleak events to come can only be seen in tiny details, such as the date the images were taken.
The ‘March events’ spanning 1968 and 1969 resulted in the forced exodus of around 15,000 Jews and people with Jewish roots, including nearly 500 academics and 1,000 students – not to mention journalists, writers and actors. Many of them represented the generation of baby boomers, born after the war. Poland was their birthplace, their home, the place where they grew up, with Warsaw, Szczecin or Wrocław the only places they had ever known.
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On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of March 1968, Warsaw’s Galeria Kordegarda presented an exhibition entitled Album Rodzinny: Zdjęcia, Które Żydzi Zabrali ze Sobą (Family Photo Album: Pictures That Jews Took With Them). It was inspired by Leszek Leo Kantor, a Polish Jewish activist who asked other March émigrés to share their photos from this tragic period. The showcased photos shed light on the life of Jewish communities in Poland between 1946 and 1949.
When leaving, people would take their carpets, crystal tableware or their old bikes, because you couldn't take a new one. And photos.
After the war
A photo from 'Album Rodzinny: Zdjęcia, Które Żydzi Zabrali ze Sobą', photo: courtesy of the organiser
One of the most symbolic pictures in the exhibition, this was probably taken during a geography or history lesson. A girl is studying the new borders of Poland, as they had changed after the war. With a pen, she's trying to show the Tricity area.
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A year after the war, Warsaw was still in ruins. It’s difficult to recognise the pictured figures, but it’s clear that not all of them knew that the photo was being taken. This puts the photographer at a certain distance. As a result, the photograph seems to be more focused on the depicted space. The émigré's choice to take this picture is like saying: ‘Warsaw used to be my city’.
In the text accompanying the exhibition, Agnieszka Bebłowska-Bednarkiewicz muses on the role that photography takes in rebuilding the social fabric of our societies. She also quotes Susan Sontag, who spoke about ‘dispersed relatives’ who are symbolically reunited in a photograph. This photo shows such relatives. It's the first day of school for the wartime and early post-war generation. The ruins of Warsaw's Old Town loom in the background.
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Here, we have a scene of student life. The man on the right seems to be the leader of the group. He sits firmly, confident, his shirt unbuttoned, his arm nonchalantly around his girlfriend’s waist. He’s reading something that must be of importance to the man sitting at the typing machine. Is it a poem, a manifesto or perhaps an application?
Not far from the Shtetl
Many of these pictures were taken in Lower Silesia. After the war, nearly 100,000 Jews settled there. Artur Hofman, the president of Jewish Social-Cultural Association in Poland, remembers:
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It was like coming back to our pre-war shtetl. Until the 1970s, the streets of my hometown, Wałbrzych, were dominated by Yiddish. Many Jews settled in other towns in the province: Dzierżoniów, Kłodzko, Zgorzelec, Świdnica and Legnica.
Important events are juxtaposed with scenes of leisure. Here we can see a group of people, mostly women and children, enjoying a boat ride on the River Wisła. The Śląsko-Dąbrowski Bridge is visible in the background. It was one of the first infrastructural investments in post-war Warsaw.
A checkers game is accompanied by a joint reading of the daily Trybuna Ludu (People’s Tribune). That day, it was the ninth plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers' Party that made it to the front page. It was May 1957. Władysław Gomułka, the party’s leader, spoke out against the so-called ‘revisionists’, that is party members seeking to continue the democratisation of the system, which was initiated in October 1956.
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The plenary meeting resulted in vetting all party members. Consequently, 15% of the members were thrown out, while Gomułka’s standing in the party improved. It was followed by the closing of Po Prostu (Simply), a magazine led by reformists. This marked an end of the so-called ‘Gomułka’s thaw’.
For the first of the post-war generations, a visit to Auschwitz must have been a deeply emotional experience. In this picture, students stand behind the gate, near the camp’s buildings. Most of the students look down, except for the girl holding the camera.
Ida Kamińska was one of the most famous actresses that Jewish theatre in Poland had ever seen. She was the first actress from the Eastern bloc to be nominated for Oscar. The Academy appreciated her performance as a button-store owner in The Shop on Main Street, a Czechoslovak film by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos from 1965. She later emigrated to New York, where she unsuccessfully tried to found the Yiddish Theater. In 1975, the performer came back to Warsaw for the 50th anniversary of her mother Ester Rachel Kamińska’s, death. Her visa application made it into the agenda of a high-stakes communist party meeting. Eventually, fearing a scandal, the authorities let her in.
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Anna Frajlich-Zając was born to a Jewish couple from Lviv, who came back to Poland from the USSR in 1946. She spent her early days in Szczecin. In the wake of the anti-semitic campaign, Frajlich, joined by her husband and son, emigrated to Rome and then to New York, where she worked as a Polish teacher, journalist and poet.
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Since 1982, Frajlich has taught Polish literature at Columbia University in New York. She once said in an interview:
This moment keeps on coming back to me, bringing with it a wide array of questions. Where’s home? Why are people who once lived on the same street scattered around the world? Who is entitled to define somebody’s place?
Originally written in Polish by Michał Dąbrowski; translated by MS, March 2018
history of polish jews
contemporary polish history
Sources: www.nck.pl, www.dzieje.pl, www.culture.pl