The Warsaw Jewish History Museum on Thursday opened an exhibition featuring works by a renowned Polish artist that confront the lingering and melancholy presence of the Holocaust in Poland, where Nazi German forces destroyed the Jews of Europe and other atrocities.

“Wilhem Sasnal: such a landscape” opened its doors Thursday at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The dozens of paintings and drawings on display confront the Holocaust in the physical and mental landscape of the nation and the difficulty of addressing an unstable past.

Sasnal, who is not Jewish, has grappled with this story for two decades. The 48-year-old described a generational need to confront the past, also because parts of Polish society refuse to recognize that while Poland was a victim of Nazi Germany, there were also Poles who fell apart. added to the plunder and murder of the Jews of the nation.

For decades after World War II, such discussions were taboo, with themes of Polish sacrifice and honor dominating historical memory. But with the new openness that came with the fall of communism in 1989, academics and artists began to study and speak openly about anti-Semitism and the involvement of some Poles in German crimes. Each new book or movie has struck a chord.

“The history of WWII was obscured until 1989,” Sasnal said.

It was then “extremely shocking”, he said, when researchers began to reveal the wartime misdeeds of the Poles, including the 1941 murder of hundreds of Jews by the Poles in the town of Jedwabne. .

“At first I felt anger and shame,” he told The Associated Press.

“And it’s always so hard to see that people don’t want to recognize it. People totally refuse, and this is the dominant attitude of the Polish government. “

Sasnal is one of Poland’s most prominent living artists. His works are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Tate Modern in London and the Center Pompidou in Paris, among others.

Sasnal also acknowledged that Poland is often judged unfairly – that sometimes those outside Poland lose sight of the bigger picture.

Poland was occupied by German forces who killed millions of Polish citizens – some 2 million Christian Poles as well as 3 million Jews. Many Poles fought the Germans at home and abroad, and the state never collaborated with Nazi Germany. Thousands of Poles have also been recognized by Yad Vashem for risking their own lives to save Jews.

Still, Sasnal thinks that the Poles must recognize the bad with the good.

“If we do not accept such a complex past, we will be judged and we will be badly judged,” he said.

The exhibition includes two decades of works that touch on the Holocaust in one way or another – works that Sasnal made while dealing with other subjects.

The older ones were inspired by cartoonist Art Spiegelman s Holocaust stories from his books “Maus”. The most recent were created this year especially for the exhibition.

There are paintings of ancient death camps, but they are still contextualized, with Sasnal’s bicycle or his wife looking out from inside a car at the gates of Auschwitz – because representing the death camps to him. alone would be too trite and brutal, he said.

The Auschwitz paintings were produced after he and his wife drove past the memorial site on their way home from a New Years Eve party on January 1. Millions of people visit the site from all over the world. But for many Poles – including Sasnal, who lives in the nearby city of Krakow – the presence of genocide memorials is part of the landscape of everyday life.

A painting of an imaginary map of Poland on the border with Israel recalls the long coexistence of Jews with Poles in Poland, a Jewish homeland for centuries.

A portrait of Hitler was covered in black paint and crossed out with a wooden bar, an evil too extreme to be represented figuratively.

The paintings that are inspired by images originally created by French painter Edgar Degas, an anti-Semite, are reminiscent of the pervasive anti-Semitism in Europe that created fertile ground for the Holocaust. One evokes a woman in the bath on the model of a work by Degas superimposed with a swastika.

Paintings of Gypsies or stereotypical images of Africans in the popular imagination, how other groups, along with Jews, have long been considered “the other” in society.

Ahead of the opening, curator Adam Szymczyk braced for the possibility that this exhibit, too, could spark the ire of nationalists and right-wingers.

But now that a right-wing party is ruling the country – and is a co-partner of the museum, which is a public-private partnership – he said he expected the reaction to be more low-key.

He said he and Sasnal were motivated by the need to express remorse.

“I think it’s our way of saying sorry on behalf of others,” he said. “Other people don’t say ‘I’m sorry’ so we have to. It’s a duty.”

The exhibition is open until January 10.


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