Two commentators have authored thoughtful takes this past week on Jewish heritage, display, and tourism. We have cited both of them in the past — journalist Liam Hoare and photographer/writer Jason Francisco — but these two most recent articles touch on important themes that will form the focus of the upcoming conference Oct. 23-25 on Jewish Heritage Tourism in the Digital Age (of which JHE is one of the organizers).
Both are worth reading — and worth reading in the context of each other.
Hoare reflects on a recent Jewish heritage tour of Poland by American students that he accompanied, and Francisco reflects on his the message and meaning of the permanent exhibit of photographs at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow — created through a process of “posthumous collaboration” with the late British photographer Chris Schwatrz, and which the students Hoare accompanied probably visited.
In his article for eJewish Philanthropy titled Finding the Value in Jewish Heritage Tourism in Poland, Hoare describes his experience traveling with a group of Jewish and non-Jewish students on a trip organized by Stanford Hillel in conjunction with Taube Jewish Heritage Tours. He quotes the reaction of the students (many of whom had “no preconceived ideas about Poland whatsoever”) and also quotes some of the people they met with — at the POLIN museum in Warsaw, for example, and at JCCs in Warsaw and Krakow.
He argues that “Jewish heritage tourism, being another form of tourism, does not have an intrinsic value. There is good tourism and bad tourism, and therefore, there must be good and bad Jewish heritage tourism too.”
“Valuable” Jewish tourism,” he writes, “should in some fashion change how visitors understand Jewish Europe. Poland itself is a special case. It has a place in the American Jewish imagination all of its own, on the one hand because occupied Poland was the staging ground for the Holocaust’s network of death camps and on the other hand because around 75 percent of American Jews can trace their origins back to Poland.”
A Jewish heritage tour to Poland, he concludes,
“can be a wonderful safe space where conceptions of Poland, both truths and prejudices, inherited and informed, are discussed and argued out. [The] question, “Why are there any Jews left in Poland?” is one every tourist who enters Poland on a Jewish heritage excursion should be trying to answer or consider by the time they leave. Visitors ought to come closer to comprehending the complexities, compromises, and contradictions of Jewish life in Poland today. There is no singular Polish Jewish experience, after all. Jewish Poland is polyphonic.
Francisco’s article, Traces of Memory: A Contemporary Look at the Jewish Past in Poland, is subtitled “Notes on a Posthumous Collaboration,” and in it, he discusses how his own photographic work was added to, complements — and comments on — the photographic work by the late Chris Schwarz, the British photographer (who died in 2007) who founded the Galicia Jewish Museum and whose photos of Jewish heritage in Poland until recently formed the entirety of the museum’s permanent exhibit.
Most of Schwarz’s images were from the 1980s and 1990s — and Francisco’s photos have been added to update the collection and to demonstrate the changes that have taken place in Poland in the past three decades.
Actually this project represents the second of two posthumous collaborations I have undertaken with Chris Schwarz. From 2014-2016 the Galicia Jewish Museum showed my exhibition An Unfinished Memory: Jewish Heritage and the Holocaust in Eastern Galicia, for which I was photographer, writer, designer, curator, and researcher. An Unfinished Memory considered the contemporary meanings of the Jewish past in the eastern half of the historical province of Galicia, today in western Ukraine––something Traces of Memory does not address. My task with An Unfinished Memory was to build on Traces of Memory but not duplicate it intellectually or aesthetically, as appropriate to the differences between contemporary Ukraine and Poland vis à vis Jewish history. As a companion exhibition, it formed an indirect collaboration with Schwarz’s work.
Francisco writes that the team preparing the new exhibit “wrestled with the hazards of the task at hand.”
We all understood that we were breaking or breaking-into the integrity of a mature artist’s work, arguably his finest work. As a photographer, I especially understood what that integrity consists of. I know from the inside that the art of documentary photography demands all the intellectual engagement, emotional courage, and aesthetic curiosity that any artistic practice demands. In addition, it requires a special responsiveness to that which the artist precisely does not invent––the actualities of the world itself––and it involves a hard-won working method made of improvisation and discipline in equal parts, capable of courting luck, probing circumstance, and stubbornly negotiating with visual possibilities large and small. From the first time I saw Traces of Memory in 2010, it was obvious to me that this was a project built painstakingly over many years, resulting in a work of great conceptual and aesthetic harmony. That harmony induces a certain contemplative focus––I have felt it myself and seen it over and over while watching visitors to the Museum––namely a prolonged, searching encounter with the past and the future by way of the surfaces of the present.
He writes that changing the exhibition “raised difficult questions about how documentary pictures do and do not age.” Mostly, his
posthumous collaboration with Chris Schwarz happened not by way of technical confluences, but something harder to name––an inner dialogue I sustained with him as a figure of my imagination (we never had the benefit of meeting before his death) but not from my imagination. Having studied Schwartz’s work carefully, I continuously tested my own responses against my intuition of the way he would have handled various pictorial situations and challenges. Very often I would begin with my own native response to a site, and move in stages toward a photograph that I felt to be touched by Schwarz’s consciousness as I carried it in myself. The best analogy I can make for this experience is the relationship between a writer and a translator, the latter channelling and transfiguring the former, except that in this case, I as translator was responsible for the primary act of creation. I count it as a success if the viewer has trouble distinguishing my pictures in this book from those of Chris Schwarz, and as a greater success if the reader can indeed distinguish them. Voices singing in harmony do, after all, remain discernible and distinct.