From Alden Leonard. Contact him at alden[AT]borderstan.com and follow him @aldenleonard on Twitter.
A multi-year collaboration between photographer Chris Schwarz and scholar Jonathan Weber, the exhibition “Traces of Memory: A Contemporary Look at the Jewish Past in Poland” offers a new way of understanding a vibrant and extensive history left in ruins. The exhibition runs through May 21 at the D.C. Jewish Community Center’s Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery, 16th and Q NW.
In the decades following the Holocaust, images of its atrocities in Poland, most notably Auschwitz, overshadowed the rich Jewish history that began more than 800 years before the Nazis invaded Poland.
“Traces” provides a photographic response to the most infamous images to come out of Poland: those of death, destruction, and supreme evil. Schwarz and Weber make the case that, in order to fully understand what was lost in the past, we must confront it and compare it with what is left today.
As such, the exhibition feels less like art and more like history. Schwarz’s style of photography is journalistic and, because the subjects are all modern-day, the visuals provide little chronology or direction. It is Weber’s narration that gives the exhibit a sense of movement and a clear emotional arc. Weber provides context to a photograph of a ruined temple or anti-Semitic graffiti that mars a memorial — his narration gives us a fuller picture of the Jewish legacy in Poland than one image ever could.
That isn’t to say Schwarz’s photographs fall short — actually, they are stunning in both senses of the word. The contemporary nature of the images gives the exhibition gravity. While black-and-white historical photographs of atrocities might allow us to remove ourselves from the violence, images of the modern-day sites where these acts took place are somehow harder to ignore.
One memorable photograph shows Auschwitz’s barracks stretching to the horizon, where a very modern skyline awaits. Another image shows an idyllic pastoral landscape — perfect for a summer picnic — yet marred with a sign in the foreground bearing the bloody sword that denotes the site of a mass murder. I bet it didn’t look all that different back then, on that day, one thinks.
“Traces” fully transports the viewer away from Borderstan, making it an unusual exhibition to feature in this hyper-local blog. But the collaboration succeeds because it forces us to acknowledge the nearness of the Holocaust to our modern lives: how it happened in unassuming places, and how it caught most by surprise.
“Traces of Memory: A Contemporary Look at the Jewish Past in Poland” is showing at the Jewish Community Center’s Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery at 1525 16th (at Q Street) Street until May 21.