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New film exhibit gives moving glimpse of pre-WWII Jewish Poland

‘Letters to Afar,’ on show at the Museum of the City of New York, uses films by Jewish immigrants who traveled from NY back to Poland in the 1920s and 1930s

Still from Polish home movie circa 1920s-30s. (From the Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York)
Still from Polish home movie circa 1920s-30s. (From the Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York)

NEW YORK – A Yeshiva student in Kraków glances shyly at the camera. A mother holds her child on her hip, trying to coax a smile from his chubby cheeks. A smartly dressed couple stands before a train at the Lodz train station, cheerily waving. The black and white home movies flutter across nine screens in “Letters to Afar: Installation by Péter Forgács and The Klezmatics,” a new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York.

The video art installation is based on films taken by Jewish immigrants who traveled from New York back to Poland during the 1920s and 1930s. With few exceptions, this is the only motion picture documentary record of Jewish life in prewar Poland. “Letters” invites viewers to visit a culture and a people – who unbeknownst to them – were on the brink of destruction. The Nazis murdered about 3 million Polish Jews between 1939 and 1945.

At the time these movies were taken, there were about 3.3 million living in Poland. That knowledge imparts an air of portentousness and poignancy to the show. And yet, the exhibit never mentions the Holocaust. It doesn’t need to.

“The power of this exhibition lays in the non-spoken,” Peter Forgács, 64, said. “I am not forced to talk about the Shoah because that association is borne in you. It is what you see and what you don’t see.”

The exhibit never mentions the Holocaust. It doesn’t need to

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, commissioned Forgács to make the installation. An internationally recognized filmmaker and video artist, Forgács specializes in working with archival footage. He sorted through more the than 75 films which had been gifted to YIVO from various Jewish organizations and from descendants of the filmmakers.

A fashionable woman with 'Betty Boop eyes' is seen in a Polish home movie circa 1920s-30s. (From the Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York)
A fashionable woman with ‘Betty Boop eyes’ is seen in a Polish home movie circa 1920s-30s. (From the Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York)

Only a handful of people could afford movie cameras in these years. Fewer still could afford to travel, making “these films rare treasures,” Forgács said.

Forgács wove together more than six hours of 16mm and 18mm film into a single work of art. The films document family and daily life in bustling Polish cities like Warsaw and Lodz and in small market towns like Kolbuszowa and Nowogródek.

One sees life at its most banal – walking down a street, and life at its most buoyant – lazing on a grassy meadow in the sunshine. Here a woman with Betty Boop eyes applies fresh lipstick. There a man waves from a window, a flower-filled vase by his side. Here a boy in short pants steps onto the sidewalk, his parents close behind. There a bearded man sits by his wares on market day; in the background dozens of horse drawn wagons are grouped on an empty field.

While amateur photographers made most of these movies, Gustave Eisner of Lodz was the most prolific cameraman featured in the collection. Eisner immigrated to the United States in 1920 and became a Jewish travel agent specializing in “going home” tours for Jews.

During the years Eisner visited Lodz, more than 500,000 people lived there, one-third of them were Jewish. Between 5,000 and 7,000 Lodz residents are estimated to have survived the Nazi concentration camps, according to Yad Vashem.

Shtetl life pre-WWII as seen in a Polish home movie circa 1920s-30s. (From the Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York)
Shtetl life pre-WWII as seen in a Polish home movie circa 1920s-30s. (From the Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York)

And while the viewer knows that death and danger lurks off camera, the films themselves are devoid of sentimentality. The films can’t be considered a documentary – there is no historical context given, no larger narrative, no newsreel footage, although captions and spoken text from memoirs, letters and literature accompany the images. In the background, music plays by the New-York based Klezmatics, a Grammy Award-winning band, that wrote the original score, evocative of traditional Jewish music.

“I’m not a teacher, I’m an artist,” Forgács said. “It is daily life as it happens. Even if I don’t talk about the monstrous times that await, the viewer is free to feel the imminent danger – like in a Hitchcock film.”

Big city Jews pre-WWII as seen in a Polish home movie circa 1920s-30s. (From the Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York)
Big city Jews pre-WWII as seen in a Polish home movie circa 1920s-30s. (From the Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York)

Gerold Frank, an American-born writer, was another New Yorker who wanted to trace his roots. In 1934 he and his wife Lilian traveled to Kamionka, a shtetl of 3,000. They saw his parents’ birthplace and visited with his wife’s family. His footage is a study in contrasts: the smart dress and pearls of his wife, the sheytls and loose frocks of her relatives.

‘”Letters to Afar” is a magical work of synthesis, both history and imagination, a window into a largely forgotten past whose vibrant and varied existence gave birth to American Jewry’

Other films were made by members of American landsmenshaftn, organizations of immigrant Jews who organized financial support for their birthplaces in Poland. These immigrants left Poland to escape the violent pogroms, increasing anti-Semitism and grim economic conditions. Many used the films of their hometowns to help raise money back in New York City.

“Drawn from the collections of the YIVO Institute, ‘Letters to Afar’ is a magical work of synthesis, both history and imagination, a window into a largely forgotten past whose vibrant and varied existence gave birth to American Jewry,” said Jonathan Brent, executive director and CEO of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

“It poignantly speaks to the complex dual identity that is fundamental to the New York immigrant experience and essential to our understanding of the dynamism, creativity and progress of New York City,” said Susan Henshaw Jones, the Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York.

In “Letters to Afar,” viewers are drawn into to a prewar life. For the briefest of moments, we experience the Poland that drew New York immigrants back to revisit family, friends and their homeland.

The Kronhill Pletka Foundation, the Righteous Persons Foundation, The Seedlings Foundation and Sigmund Rolat made the exhibit possible. The exhibit will be on view through March 22, 2015.

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