The Holocaust and Vernacular Arts in and beyond Polish Ethnographic Museums
Eastern Europe witnessed 14 million deaths in a period of little more than a decade between 1933 and 1945. The local impact of such widespread and wanton killing as it reverberated in towns, villages, and communities over the subsequent decades is only just beginning to be considered, prompted by new scholarly attention to East European “Bloodlands” (Snyder 2010), the “Holocaust by Bullets”(Desbois 2009), the proliferation of smaller ghettos and camps (USHMM n.d.), and the excruciatingly intimate relations of betrayal, killing, expropriation, and rescue (Tomasz 2001; Tomasz 2006).
It can be assumed that every community produced artistic responses to that traumatic memory, but Holocaust scholarship’s new Eastward and grassroots turns have yet to attend seriously to vernacular arts of witness. In the field of Holocaust artistic production, local, “naïve” artists may actually have been the most prolific group attempting to represent the events they witnessed. Their works, however, remain scattered in folk museum collections, often awkwardly categorized due to disciplinary taxonomies that treat folk art as “timeless” rather than historical, and the reluctance of curators to touch on uncomfortable subjects.
The objects themselves are uncanny: at times deeply moving, at others grotesque, they can also be disturbing for the ways they upend accepted roles of victim, perpetrator, and bystander; impose Catholic idioms on Jewish suffering via symbolic forms like a Pietà or a Nazi crematorium recalling a nativity crèche; and incorporate desecrated Jewish sacred texts – as well as for the erroneous mythologies that may be projected onto them as memorial objects in the present.
Through a survey of objects in Polish ethnographic museums (as well as other Polish and German public and private collections), the creation of a public database, and the development of collaborative, arts-based interventions, we aim to highlight this vernacular art of witness for Polish and international publics. The ultimate goal of the project is to re-frame and draw new attention to this fascinating, under-recognized category of object in order to: (1) broaden what we understand as “Holocaust art”; (2) expand the field of Holocaust memory studies to include a range of “bystander” perspectives; and (3) challenge traditional approaches to folk art and ethnographic museology more broadly.
Our project is in dialogue with larger debates about “difficult heritage” (Macdonald 2008), and the productive possibilities for curating “difficult knowledge” (Lehrer et al. 2011) that challenge received ideas about and relationships to violent histories, using creative, collaborative approaches that engage broad audiences. We seek to support the development of pluralist identities that simultaneously embrace legacies of victimhood, perpetration, and other positions of witness. Recognizing museums as both complex power structures and potentially democratizing sites for cultural knowledge production, we also strive to loosen authoritative approaches to the categorization and curation of culture, and develop new strategies for institutional self-critique by both internal and outside assessments, interventions, and partnerships.
Erica Lehrer is associate professor in history and sociology-anthropology at Concordia University, Montreal, where she also holds the Canada Research Chair in Museum and Heritage Studies. Roma Sendyka is director of the Research Center for Memory Cultures and teaches at the Center for Anthropology of Literature and Cultural Studies at the Polish Studies Department, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland, where she has also founded the Curatorial Collective. The team project described in this text, Awkward Objects of Genocide, also involves curator Magdalena Zych at Kraków’s Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum, and independent photographer Wojciech Wilczyk.
A version of this piece was published in Traces, Volume 1, No. 1, September 2016, pages 6–7.
Contact CMA Secretary Diana Marsh at firstname.lastname@example.org.