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Letters to Afar @ Contemporary Jewish Museum

Kaluszyn, video, 13 min.

“Alive as you or me.”  The lyric comes from the union anthem Joe Hill, and though its subject is literally a continent removed from the Holocaust, those words reverberated in my mind as I watched Péter Forgács’ Letters to Afar, a video installation culled from home movies made in the interwar years by Polish-American immigrants visiting their overseas relatives. The song, as those of certain age will recall, tells of a visitation dream in which an organizer, long dead, appears as a palpable visage. 

Similar pangs of recognition may strike when you see how Forgács reactivates the everyday lives of Polish Jews who, as they were being filmed by their American kinfolk, couldn’t have imagined the horrible fate awaiting them.  During the 1920s and 1930s when these films were shot, Poland had Europe’s largest Jewish population.  They numbered 3.5 million before WWII, the culmination of 800 years of flight from other, more hostile countries in Western Europe.  During WWII, the Nazis and their sympathizers murdered 90 percent of them, all but wiping out Jewish culture in Poland.  Seventy-five amateur films documenting the details of that culture have been preserved by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, and it was from that trove that Forgács fashioned this nine-screen spectacle.  It’s accompanied by a decidedly a non-klezmer score from the Klezmatics who, in uncharacteristic form, operate as minimalists, which is exactly the right approach, since the subject already puts us in a state of high alert.  
Kolbuszowa, video, 23 min.
“Hitchcockian” is how Forgács described the suspense overhanging every action in these films.  “We see everything peaceful and lovely and observe the lives,” he told The New York Times, “but we know that every place, every shtetl is a crime scene. You know what happens.  They don’t know.”  That gap — between what we know and what the subjects and the creators of these films seemed to be unaware of– invests the smallest, most mundane details of their lives with a poignancy they might not otherwise have.  What stuns is the ordinariness of it all.  We see well-to-do urbanites strolling the streets of Krakow, looking pretty much as they did in every other big European city of that era.  We see Yeshiva boys mugging for the camera and elderly Hassidim striding purposefully, just as they might have done in Brooklyn or the Lower East Side.  In rural areas, we see farmers in threadbare clothes, suffering poverty just as they would anyplace else where

Dybbuk, 1937, directed by Michal Waszyriski, From the collection of National Film Archive in Warsaw, 20:30 min.

privation rules.  Open-air markets, government buildings, shops, rundown apartments, streets and synagogues – the stuff of shtetl life – form the backdrop to this activity in locales across Poland.  In one notable instance, in a film shot by a travel agent, Gustav Eisner, whose specialty was organizing old country tours, family members who hadn’t seen each other in years, hug, kiss, cajole, dance and rejoice — reuniting for what we sense may be the last time.  Most of the Americans arrived as tourists, but in many cases, they also represented landmanshafts, stateside aid societies formed to help the communities from which they immigrated. 

The raw footage, some of which you can view on YIVO’s website, is riveting even in its unedited form.  Forgács, a 64-year-old Hungarian documentary filmmaker who lost 74 relatives in the Holocaust, transforms it in ways that make it even more compelling; he splits each screen into halves and thirds, displaying both still and moving images in freezes and montages, some of which carry captions.  This allows us to focus on close-ups of individuals or submerge ourselves in the flow of life as it was originally recorded, picking up, in the looped portions, details – like the column of soldiers, marching ominously, in the background of one film snippet — that might otherwise slip by.
Kolbuszowa, video, 18 min.

In other sections of this superbly installed, immersive exhibit, Forgács projects images onto multiple layers of scrim suspended at monumental scale from the ceiling.  In these we see some of the same people shown in the multi-part montages. Only here they appear more vaporous, more shadow-like, more resistant to our efforts to bring them into focus.  In this format they communicate the impending nightmare in a way that the montages don’t; and in the manner of religious art, which mixes beauty and suffering, they convey, in almost mystical terms, the enormity of the crimes — wrapping the victims in a haze that replicates the fog of memory.  The result is a spectacle that is both alluring and horrifying. As such, this portion of the show compels us to reflect even more deeply on the events of the past century, and, by extension, on the Holocausts taking place today.  The exhibition's triumph, in the end, rests with how it visually reframes the existential question has vexed mankind since the end of WWII: how to process events that defy reason?

Letters to Afar @ the Contemporary Jewish Museum through May 24, 2015.
Images: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York 
Installation shot: Johanna Arnold  

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