We Will Never Forget Their Faces

Carolyn Slutsky - Staff Writer

The Jewish Week
22 March 200

Haunting photo exhibit brings together 450 images - and other artifacts - of Jewish life in prewar Poland

This photograph of two unidentified women is a print from a glass plate found in Zdunska Wola.

The photograph is a small, faded triangle of a woman's face displayed on a vast, white background many times its size. The woman's daughter, according to the caption, carried the picture of her mother through two selections by the infamous Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele, one time in her mouth and once on the bottom of her foot.

The photo, like the daughter, survived the Holocaust and is on display at the Yeshiva University Museum's exhibit, "And I Still See Their Faces: The Vanished World of Polish Jews," on view through June 24.

The 450 photos in the exhibit are formally posed and devastatingly ordinary; Jews from throughout historical Poland are shown sitting around tables reading or talking, frolicking at the beach, playing chess, gathered together for family meals.

What the photos do not show is the fate of these Jews shortly after their faces were captured unmarred by terror, fear and war: the smiling boy and girl scouts, the hopeful bride and groom, the men hunched over a book, all would be driven out of their home country or murdered in the space of a few short years after their photos were taken.

Golda Tencer, the leading actress of the Jewish theater in Poland, is the woman responsible for gathering the photographs. In the late 1980s, Tencer started her Shalom Foundation in the Polish city of Lodz with the purpose of preserving vanishing or lost Jewish culture. In 1994, Tencer went on national Polish television and made a public appeal for people to send photographs of the prewar Jewish population, hoping to collect a few hundred pictures.

"I was seeking my lost nation," Tencer said of her plea at a recent ceremony opening the exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York. The photos are collected in a large-format book of the same name, and the exhibition has previous traveled to Boston, Los Angeles, Detroit and Warsaw among other venues.

After showing photographs from her family photo album, Tencer amassed more than 8,000 photographs, the vast majority sent by Poles who had safeguarded the images for more than 50 years after the war.

"The righteous are not only those who save a life," said Tencer, speaking in Yiddish. "This name is also deserved by those who save memory."

Several images in the show depict street scenes from Lubartowska Street in Lublin, referred to by some as the "Polish Jerusalem."

In one photo, a group of sisters dressed as Gypsies pose together near their home. Two men display a Yiddish newspaper in another. In a third, a chorus line of bathers lined up on the beach in Sopot smile for the camera, their arms all poised in the air together.

One photograph shows Lotte Bachner, a mentally ill Jewish woman. Her sister shot her, the caption explains, so that she could avoid a worse fate at the hands of the Nazis.

Bruno Schulz, the Polish writer and painter, is shown teaching in a classroom in his native Drohobycz in May of 1942; a few months later Schulz would be shot on the street by a Nazi officer.

In addition to photographs, people also sent dolls, cameras, a mezuzah and a tzedakah box in response to Tencer's appeal, and these are displayed along with the photographs.

Though some of the photos came from Jewish survivors and their families from around the world, most came from non-Jewish Poles to whom Jews had entrusted their photographs, hoping in this way to be remembered.

Many of the captions suggest this memory has been cemented. People wrote lovingly and with detail about parents, children and friends who, in many cases, they never saw again after the appalling period of the war.

In one haunting photograph, a man peers out of the window of his home, wearing tefillin.

"The praying Jew was our neighbor," wrote the Pole who saved the man's photo and sent it to Tencer.

The exhibition is sponsored in part by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, North American Council, and Boston University Hillel House. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which will detail the rich centuries-old history of Jewish life in Poland, is slated to break ground in June.

When viewing the exhibit recently, Shewach Weiss, the former ambassador from Poland to Israel, said publicly that in the photographs he could see his own family, and all Jewish families.

"Poland became after the Holocaust a lake of frozen Jewish blood," he said. "We will never forget their faces. n

"And I Still See Their Faces: The Vanished World of Polish Jews" runs through June 24 at the Yeshiva University Museum, in the Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th St. For information visit yumuseum.org or call (212) 294-8330.