In putting together a collection of photographs of pillaged matzevots Łukasz Baksik set out on a mission which required boldness and integrity. His pursuit of lost traces of Jewish relics and remnants is one link in the chain of rediscovering Poland's Jewish past.
One have to be bold to be willing to enter on the premises of private-owned houses in search of Jewish tombstones that might still exist, to talk people into showing them to you and let you take photographs. But the driving force behind the whole project must be moral integrity.
Łukasz Baksik's album of photographs traces ways in which tombstones from Jewish cementeries in Poland had been recycled and re-used during and after WW2. They formed part of buildings, roads, and even children's sandboxes. Baksik started his project of photographing the forlorn matzevot around 2002 after having photographed Jewish cementeries all around Poland and realizing that many tombsones had disappeared. At the time it didn't occur to him to ask where they had vanished.
Around 2002, in Kazimierz Dolny Baksik came across his first matzeva of everyday use - a round grindstone made out of an old matzeva lying by a fence of a farmstead. He wanted to save it so he bought it and took it home (it's still there in his balcony). That's when his documentary photographic project started and with it traveling around Poland in search for places where one can still find Jewish cementeries which are often the last traces of Jewish presence in this land.
The Lost Matzevot and Synagogues
Baksik's project of searching out the forlorn matzevot burried before the eye in Poland's private and public sphere can be can be seen in the context of other recent developments in Polish society and culture. The task of dealing with the legacy of WWII and the Holocaust in Poland has been gaining momentum over the last twenty years after many decades of being swept under the rug by the Communist regime. This change is taking place on many fields - on the one hand Polish goverment has been consistent in endorsing research about the Holocaust (best exemplified by the Polish Centre for Holocaust Research), on the other hand the aftermath of the Holocaust and the present traces of antisemitism are being constantly addressed by contemporary artists. Baksik is one of them.
A similar, critical attempt to bring to the surface the attitude of Polish society to traces of Jewish past was undertaken earlier by Wojciech Wilczyk in his photographic cycle There's No Such Thing As an Innocent Eye. Wilczyk took photographs of buildings which before WW2 were synagogues but which later - in a similar fashion as with matzevot - were re-contextualized and are now cinemas, swimming-pools, libraries or simply dilapidated buildings falling into ruin. In either case the traces of their original function and appearance were deleted or disguised to the extent that to the innocent eye they might figure as just buildings.
The Matzevot for Everyday Use appears also in the wake of the movie Pokłosie (Aftermath) by Władysław Pasikowski, a much buzzed film which in 2012 ignited a national debate about Polish conscience and co-responsibility for the Holocaust. The protagonist of the film devotes his energies to reconstruct the old Jewish cementery, and in the course of his actions becomes subject of anger of his neighbors and the whole village. Thus the Jewish matzevot have become a symbolical factor in coming to terms with Polish past.
How to find a dissappeared matzeva? Baksik's field work may be at times reminiscent of detective work, following leads from internet forums, but also using professional knowledge of researchers like Krzysztof Bielawski from Virtual Shtetl and Jan Jagielski from Jewish Historical Institute. However, as Baksik himself explains, it was the direct method which brought the best results:
I would find a cementery in the area, check how many people were in the Jewish community before World War II, then I would know the cementery should have had several thousand tombstones, although there was not a single one. Where had they gone? They couldn't have sunk into the earth, they were there somewhere.
The process of "re-cycling" the matzevot from Jewish cementeries had already begun during the war. "Jews were forced by Germans to use matzevot as building material. The road to the labor camp in Płaszów was paved with them," explains Baksik in an interview with Agnieszka Kowalska. At first matzevot were used by the German soldiers in Polish houses in which they stationed. Poles started using matzevot probably already during the war, however the process didn't cease with its end. The matzevot were similarly recycled many years after the war.
But Baksik doesn't ask who did it, and that's where the detective analogy ends. He's not interested in finding guilty nor stigmatising the perpetrators. "It is easy to turn people into heroes, and equally simple to make them into terrible bastards", he says. He points to the fact that all questions like "who did it first?" or "inspired by whom"? often serve to relieve guilt and responsibility. Rather than asking those questions, he thinks of his project as a way of bringing about the debate which would change the situation and help to return the matzevot to where they belong.
"What can you make out of a matzeva?" asks cultural anthropologist Joanna Tokarska-Bakir in an article accompanying the book. And her answer is "everything that requires stone": matzevot as pavement slabs and curbstones, grind stones, building material of walls and foundations of houses and cowsheds, steps in stairs, matzevot in roads, and in children's sandbox, lastly matzevot turned into Christian tombstones. Not to mention matzevot as museum exhibits - all these usages have been recorded in Łukasz Baksik's book. And they all seem to be pointing to the fact that these tombstones should be where they belong - in the cementery.
All objects in the book are photographed according to a certain pattern: first - a long shot where you can see the object and its environment, landscape or immediate context (this first picture looks often very innocent). Then a second shot which lets you see what there really is. Only in the last picture, a close-up, can one discern the letters of the Hebrew inscription. No commentary, only the info about the location. No people.
What a Matzeva Can Do to Us
A seperate section of the book make the photographs of matzevot turned into grindstones - some of them lying on the ground, some still serving their new function. Their images are accompanied by a transcription of inscriptions and translation. These shreds of words and phrases help to realize the tragic aspect of the whole process.
Referring to Baksik's project and comparing it to Wojciech Wilczyk's project "There's No Such Thing As an Innocent Eye Joanna Tokarska-Bakir makes the point that "their wisdom comes in not beginning by asking what we can do with a matzeva. They ask what a matzeva can do to us".
The photographs from the book Matzevot for Everyday Use were taken between 2008-2012. Some of them were exhibited as part of the exhibitions in CSW in Warsaw (2010), Muzeum Etnograficzne in Kraków (2011), and National History Museum in Minsk, Belarus (2012).
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, March 2012.
The Matzevot for Everyday Use
Czarne and Foundation Uptown
Texts by: Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, Ewa Toniak, Jan Tomasz Gross
Interview with the photographer: Agnieszka Kowalska
Bilingual edition: Polish and English
Premiere: March 5, 2013