Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Ghosts of Lublin

I don’t usually like to write about related topics on consecutive weeks, but I’d like to make an exception to that rule and write about a truly unique art project undertaken in the Polish city of Lublin last June by Israeli artist Ronen Eidelman.

First, let me tell you something about the artist. Born in New York, Eidelman—known on the web and, I suspect, professionally as well mostly by his first name, Ronen—grew up in Jerusalem and now lives in Jaffa. Hebrew readers may know him as the founder of the very hip on-line journal called Erev-Rav ( or the one called Maarav (at; click on the tab marked “English” for a big surprise), but he will be mostly unknown to American readers. That is a shame, because his projects are uniformly provocative, interesting, and, in my personal opinion, incredibly cool. I could write about any number of them too, but the one I want to write about here today is his street-art project called “Coming Out in Lublin.” (You can find a whole list of other projects to inspect and enjoy at The title is a bit unfortunate—I’m guessing the artist left the States before the expression “coming out” came to mean what it’s come to mean in contemporary American English and the exhibition has nothing at all to do with gay people or issues—but that’s an unimportant detail that should not be allowed to distract viewers from the artist’s truly amazing achievement.

Most of my readers will know more about Lublin than about the contemporary art scene in Israel, but let me present some of those details anyway. The first Jews came to Lublin in the fourteenth century at the invitation of King Casmir III. By the sixteenth century, the Jewish community ran a kind of autonomous city-within-a-city in Lublin and was the third largest Jewish community in Poland. As a sign of how integrated into public life the Jewish community was, the king of Poland granted the rabbis who headed the great yeshivot in Lublin the same rights as university professors in 1567. The Jewish community knew its share of violent troubles too, but it always seemed able to come back to full strength after even the most devastating attacks. By 1862, there were nine thousand Jews in Lublin. But just forty years later as the nineteenth century drew to a close, though, there were nearly 24,000 Jews living there. And by 1941 there were about 45,000 Jews in Lublin, which figure included many refugees from outlying villages and towns whom the Nazis forced into the Lublin ghetto. But far worse horrors than cramped living quarters were coming. The deportations to Belzec, Sobibor, and Majdaniek, the latter only two miles away, began on March 16, 1942. Others were not deported at all, but merely murdered in nearby forests. The final deportation took place on November 3, 1943—as far as I can tell there were no survivors of these deportations—and with that the story of Jewish life in Lublin drew to a temporary close. It is true that about five thousand survivors settled in Lublin after the war, some of whom were apparently hoping to resume some version of their pre-war lives as Polish Jews, but almost all fled for good after the post-war pogrom in Kielce. There are today about twenty Jewish residents of Lublin, all fifty-five or older.

And that brings me back to Ronen Eidelman’s work. The concept was simple enough. The artist created life-sized black-and-white photographs of Jewish people who lived in Lublin during the years leading up to the war. He included people of all sorts—religious and secular, young and old, traditional and modern, communists and Zionists, bundists and nihilists, hasidim and yeshivah types, and whomever else he could find to represent some identifiable group within pre-war Polish Jewry—and then he pasted these full-sized portraits on the buildings in Lublin in which the people in the pictures actually lived during the years leading up to the war. Mostly, these houses were in the oldest part of the city. Some were in the actual ghetto. Others were in what was then, in the 1920’s and 1930s, the newer part of town. Where the buildings themselves no longer existed, Ronen pasted the photographs in nearby alleys or on fences, utilizing whatever available flat surface was closest to where that specific family or person lived. And beneath each of the pictures, he pasted a large poster bearing one of four questions specifically designed to make modern-day Polish residents of Lublin highly uncomfortable. (That is the point of art, isn’t it? To make uncomfortable the complacent and creatively to irritate? Surely that is the specific point of street art! And Ronen Eidelman is very good at it!) But the questions themselves are not what I expected them to be at all.

I expected the artist’s questions to be accusatory. I expected the artist to want to challenge modern-day Lublin residents to ask themselves how their parents and grandparents—or, if the citizens in question are old enough, how they themselves—could have allowed the Nazis to perpetrate crimes on that level of brutality in their city without rising up in even futile rebellion against what everyone must surely have understood to be evil itself made manifest in their midst. I expected the whole thing to be about blame and the apportioning out of after-the-fact responsibility, but that wasn’t the thrust of the exercise at all. And, in a sense, just the opposite was the case: Eidelman’s concept was not to assign responsibility at all but simply to wonder out loud (and slightly aggressively) how many modern-day citizens of Lublin are the descendants of Jews who managed to survive somehow by managing to pass themselves off as ethnic Poles and then who forgot to turn themselves back into Jews after the war ended. And so the questions have nothing to do with who was responsible for the depravity and barbarism of the German occupiers of wartime Poland, but with the hidden Jewishness of some unknown, and unknowable, percentage of the overtly (but only overtly) Polish citizenry in place in Lublin today. The questions were obviously all posted beneath the photographs in Polish so residents could read them, but the English translations will give you the idea clearly enough. “Have you always felt different from your friends?” “Does your family hide a great secret?” “Does your grandmother mumble in her sleep in a foreign tongue?” And the most devastating question of them all to put to a young Pole who has never even remotely considered that he or she might actually be a descendant of one of the handful of Lublin Jews who survived in hiding: Jakim Żydem Jesteś? “Just what kind of a Jew are you?”

Take a look at the slide show of the exhibition posted on the artist’s website at It took me several viewings to take it all in, but each time I went through the slides I found more to notice and to consider. (I also found more to admire.) And then, just when you think you’re done, comes the unexpected ending most viewers will completely have failed to anticipate as the artist presents about half a dozen slides showing the photographs ripped down, vandalized, and defaced. Clearly, he was pressing some buttons that at least some Lublinites found highly unpleasant to have pressed in public! And at least some of those people responded violently, thus subconsciously (or possibly not subconsciously) playing their part in mimicking the way an earlier generation dealt with the annihilation of the Jews in their city either passively by tolerating their treatment at the hands of the occupiers or else actively by assisting in their eradication. In some ways the final slides showing the photographs mostly missing is the most impressive part of the show because that, almost more than the original images themselves, suggests the reality of Jewish life in Lublin today: the occasional living person surrounded by uncountable armies of ghosts, some fully present but most only, even in ghostly terms, barely there.

Coming to terms with the Shoah—to the extent that any of us can—means confronting the ghosts. We tend to think of the Holocaust in terms of the survivors in our midst. That is surely natural, but it also behooves us to remember that the survivors were the anomalies and that, since we’re talking about Poland, more than nine out of ten Polish Jews were murdered during the war. So even thinking clearly about the Shoah means cultivating the ability to see the ghosts. And that Ronen Eidelman ran with that thought and actually made them visible—even just for a few days in a sunny Polish June sixty-five years after the end of the way—is ample proof of how some things can only really be said meaningfully through the medium of artistic expression, how art can speak profoundly in a way that even the most accurate textbook simply cannot.

Even though, as Shelter Rockers all know, I am not generally afraid of ghosts, I’ve never gone to Poland, land of my father’s people. (I have had many opportunities over the year, including at least one chance to go for free as a kind of chaperone for a school trip.) On my own terms, I’m able easily to welcome the ghosts into the sanctuary for Yizkor. But there is something about confronting them in such unimaginable numbers that keeps me away from the great-grandparents’ shtetl and from the places in which the Jews who didn’t flee in time ended up. Seeing Ronen Eidelman’s exhibition, even on line, made all of these feelings real to me in a way that I generally prefer not to acknowledge. But that too is the point of art, I think: to force just the kind of internal growth that comes from being pried away from one’s comfort zone and forced to look at ghosts from whom one prefers—I should say, from whom one vastly prefers—generally to hide.

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