THE LOST GENERATION ESSAY




Before starting on „The Lost Generation” project, I had been working on a series of self-portraits for a long time. I was overwhelmed by my own individuality, my body and my eroticism. As an artist I must admit that I constantly watch myself, I am stuck in my own head and I keep looking at myself in the mirror. It is a part of my work. This process has been going on for a few years and my self-portraits reflect that. They were the subject matter of two significant series of paintings that I created and I suppose that some started to associate me with that art work and recognise me for it. Although I still think that I will come back to this subject, my heart and my mind are now filled with a different, more transcendental problem. I would like to explain how I came to it and why it is so important to me.  


Once, after one of my self-portrait exhibitions I had an opportunity to meet an art critic, Mr Krzysztof Jurecki who, probably unknowingly, drew my attention to something very important. We discussed different aspects of my degree work and even thought he showed a significant respect he was also impatient regarding its mono-thematic subject. Although at some point Mr Jurecki agreed with my need for such paintings, he also warned me against a certain risk associated with that theme. “Hedonism is coming to an end” he said. Has hedonism reached the end in my work? I am not certain about that, but this simple sentence gave me food for thought. It made me realise that for a very long time I was focused entirely on myself, even though so many other things are also worth my attention. Apart from the fact who I am and what I am, the fact where I come from became very important to me. I think that one grows into certain things and that one needs to take a journey in search of one’s identity.


I have always been aware of my Jewish ancestry, but I have never dwelled on it. I was proud of my roots, as if history made me to be someone very special, but I treated that fact as a gift which I was owed. Last year, as a result of coincidence, I went to Israel on holiday for the first time. That trip made me think of a few historical facts as well as of some facts from my own life. I could have considered my journey to be just a great way to spend my holiday, and that was my initial idea. To be honest, I was afraid to give my ancestry any deeper thoughts. I have searched for documents relating to my family and found out who survived and who perished. Suddenly I come across records from Yad Vashem, relatives in New York and old photographs of people with sad-looking faces. The source of that information was a wooden box which belonged to my father, who probably did not realise what was inside, even though he has always treasured it and thought of it as the proof of his being. I was afraid of that box, of dust, of death. The first moment was difficult. It was difficult to read the first book on Holocaust, after my trip to Israel. Human beings refuse to think of death and sadness and it is our nature to steer towards life. However, I wanted to know more, I wanted to understand more, and I felt that I should. Spontaneously I reached for „The Girl in the Red Coat” by Roma Ligocka - a book that has been sitting on my bookshelf forever. It awoke some deeply hidden emotions and determined the next year of my creative work. The book became my inspiration. I began to feel the need to contribute. This emotion forced me in a way to create a series of paintings which I would like to tell you about. It is called „The Lost Generation”.  


Inspiration is an incredible thing and it comes in different shapes and sizes. Holocaust is a difficult subject and too serious to experiment with, yet it begins to enter the popular art area. After the period necessary to look directly onto that darkest times of the 20th century history, it attracts not only researchers but also a wider audience. It is worth remembering that it is about people and for people. I really value people who with honesty try to illustrate the facts which should never be forgotten. Steven Spielberg’s „Schindler’s List” is probably the best example of such need in cinematography. It is vivid, exact, intuitive. Paradoxically, it was the film, and not only her memories that provoked Roma Ligocka to write the book. While watching the film premiere in Kraków, on the 2nd March 1994, in seat 22, row 12, Roma visited the places she wanted to forget. Someone’s view of Kraków during the war, cut up by the editor and produced in line with the Hollywood machine suddenly became her memory. By watching the film on the silver screen she surprisingly realised: „This is correct. (…) That’s how it was. He is not lying. It is all right.”  Other people’s intuition became true. The memories from the distant past became alive, like it is only possible in the cinema. It was painful but necessary. Roma Ligocka – a mature lady, an artist and an accidental witness of the Kraków ghetto events – found herself. “Suddenly I know who I was searching for and who I was so desperately trying to escape from all these years, for all of my life. I know who I really am! I am the little, scared girl in the red coat”. Something extraordinary happened there. It was the 90’s in the cinema, but the picture was clear and the memories were the truth that should be told. „(...) Breathless, I watch the whole world getting destroyed on the cinema screen. At the same time there is another film running through my head – my life.(...) I want to tell the story of the little girl, crying deep in my soul, still scared (...) I want to remember. Finally, I want to tell the whole story(...) I want to write a book about it”. We can see two aspects of truth here – the truth as it was sensed and the truth as it was remembered. In my opinion, both lead to creation of something very precious. The concept of history evolving in popular art is, in my opinion, an exceptional phenomenon. Possibly, it is the only way to understand and individually sense the events that should be recognised by all of us. It appeals to me, it encompasses me and provokes me. I am a child of a different generation, but in my veins runs blood of the people from that period. Now I want to say something about that. Not about the truth as it was remembered, not about Roma’s truth which is known only to her, but about the truth as it was sensed, imagined, the truth based on empathy. I am a painter, so I paint. I want the paintings to tell about my awareness and my respect for the past.  


My project is focused on depicting children. It is a trial to recall a Jewish community from before the war. The starting point for the portraits was photographs of Jewish children taken in the 30‘s - some of them anonymous, a lot of them by Roman Vishniac. It is not a homogenous picture of society. I am far from spreading a romantic legend that the pre-war Jewish community was equal and uniform. There were economic and religious differences. They differed but they lived, worked, loved, and started families... Now it is all gone. These paintings are the time that does not exist anymore. The children are children who don‘t exist anymore. That world will not come back. I think about it, I read about it, I watch the movies about it and I want to cry. Just cry. These simple tears are very important to me. They assure me that I am alive; alive and feeling the way I should. This is what I want to say: I feel, I think, I remember. I want to express my nostalgia, Zeitgeist, somehow. In a painter‘s way I focus on the spirit of the times, on the colours, the clothes, the light. I do not emphasise any symbols; I do not mark my paintings with the Star of David. It is not about that. It is about evanescence of memories which I feel when looking at old photographs. It is about historical awareness, sense of time and situation.


„The Lost Generation“ project consists of seven paintings. Seven is not a random number here. It has a symbolic meaning. Seven is considered to be a mystical number and it plays an important role in Jewish culture and religion. In The Old Testament it is considered to be sacred. It symbolises the divine order of the universe. That is why menorah consists of seven branches - six of them symoolizes the capability of human cognition and the seventh branch illustrates God‘s presence in our lives and in the choices we make. In my paintings you can find seven special days - each painting is assigned to a different date. These dates are associated with historical events which, in a way, led to the outbreak of 2nd World War and shaped its course. As in the between Old an New Testament period number seven is an important symbol of Jewish Apocalypses. In my paintings there are seven dates which foreshadow the most fearsome Apocalypse for the Jewish people - the Holocaust. That period, treated chronologically and presented by numbers, has its beginning and its end. It results in an outbreak of uncontrollable evil whose effects are irreversible. This way the symbolic representation of number seven is shown in a twisted lens. The wholeness, the relationship between time and space, is stripped of anything mystical and, far from helping us to approach the divine order of the universe, we are led to its destruction. However, there is still a raw feeling of melancholy, biblically associated with that number. That feeling tells a story about longing for the seventh era, when we achieve the desired repose after the hardship of the current century. Finally, there will be peace, abundance, happiness and prosperity, which is celebrated during the Sabbath. It may be said, that all of us who live and remember participate in that Sabbath. 


While talking about World War 2 and Hitler’s desire to exterminate the Jews, we often forget about the preceding events. The Holocaust did not start with the outbreak of war, but it was preceded by events as brutal and hateful, as horrors of the war. In my project I focussed on the days when the world still seemed normal, although it carried such a strong sense of evil, that the imminent disaster seemed obvious. The dates on the paintings point towards the years 1933-39, when the policy of nationalism, fascism and anti-Semitism was growing stronger. 


I find it hard to describe the sense of frightful awareness that the events of the 30’s must have led to something unimaginably horrible. I have a feeling that people sensed the disaster hanging in the air, but the years of civilisation, apparent peace and culture prevented them from listening to their self-preservation instinct and from becoming cautious of the world which suddenly became hostile, cold and unfamiliar. I can imagine the fear which later turned into panic. I can imagine the demonic menace seeping into multigenerational everyday life. It was the moment in history when the old world order started stumbling, but people still couldn’t imagine its downfall. It was the beginning of a new era, a new chapter in the history of aggression and the final years of faith in indestructible Western humanism. 


I do not want to emphasise the war, conflicts or death. I want to tell you about past times which do not exist anymore and about the spirit of the age. I do not directly refer to commonly recognised symbols, but I try to awaken the emotions and ability to emphasise. I am trying to stop the course of history for a while and to recall those faces, to reconstruct the picture of the past in your imagination – like when you open an old photo album. 


The first date in the domino effect leading to disastrous events is 27th February 1933 – the date of the Reichstag (the German Parliament) fire in Berlin. The fire was most probably set on purpose, but it is not certain why and by whom. Still, it appeared to have significant consequences for the German politics. The historians agree that the fact that this incident was perceived as conspiracy of the opponent parties was the deciding step on NSDAP’s way to gaining full power and to transforming the parliamentary republic into a single-party totalitarian system. Therefore we must remember that due to these mechanisms in place the whole Nazi ideology was prevalent and it became the driving force for that country and for the whole world. The Reichstag fire is also perceived as a symbolic degradation of the traditional face of Germany. The neo-renaissance building constructed at the end of 19th century depicted everything that young Germany hungry for power did not want to identify with anymore. We must remember that not only politics change in Germany, but also the mentality of the people. It was a period of frustration and poverty. It was time for strong nationalist ideas and desire to create a nationalist party based on ethnic homogeneity. The 19th century idea of infallibility of the ruling party was overthrown and the symbols of power were not untouchable anymore. Everything had to be re-evaluated. In my opinion, it was the beginning of the end. 


The next date in our jigsaw puzzle, which is also the consequence of the previous one is 5th March 1933, when after the Reichstag elections Hitler legally came into power. He became the Fuhrer and Chancellor of the Third Reich and, following the act of „Protection of the nation and the country” and of „Plenipotentiary” he was given absolute power. Therefore the people were faced with economic frustration and with desire to compensate for own failures, with the country led by a person obsessed with imperialistic and brutal vision of Germany becoming a world power, at all costs. Hitler won the elections with 90% votes, and he achieved his goals without breach of the constitution. After unsuccessful Munich Putsch he had learned that the most effective way to influence the public opinion was to do it legally. It was easier to adapt the law to own purposes, rather than illegally enforce it on people. As Norman Davies says in “Europe”: “Hitler’s democratic triumph showed the true face of democracy. Democracy itself has little advantages: it is as good or as bad as principles of the people who exercise it. It will bring tolerant and liberal reign when adapted by liberal and tolerant people, but in cannibals’ hands it will bring cannibalism”. It is worth thinking about.


Nazi Germany becomes what it wants to be. Hitler knows how to take advantage of the fertile turf. German capitulation after World War 1 and the great economic crisis filled the country with bitterness and uncertainty. Fuhrer who was decorated with the Iron Cross twice, treated the lost war as betrayal. The concept of betrayal, „a knife in the back” became the basis for Hitler’s agitating speeches at the beginning of his political career.


At the time of general dissatisfaction it was best to find someone to blame, someone who would become the focus for aggression of many millions of citizens. Hitler mastered the skill of apportioning blame. Everyone with different political views as well as Jews become guilty. Guilty were Jews. “The enemy lives amongst us”. It must be remembered that German Jews constituted only 0.76% of inhabitants. It is also important that: “The history of the Jewish community in Germany goes back a thousand years. For fifty years before Hitler’s coming into power, German Jews became fully integrated with the society, took part in social and cultural life. They were proud of being German citizens and that’s why they were astounded to find out that apparently their influence is adverse. At the same time they thought that the Nazi extremities would ease and finally cease to exist.” (Martin Gilbert; Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction). Probably for the first time since so called Golden Age in medieval Spain, the movement for emancipation and assimilation of Jewish minorities caused that living along non-Jews became a real option. The cultures mixed and on the basis of that the Jews together with the rest of the community took part in modernisation and urbanisation of Germany. They considered themselves to be German and paid great attention to their social standing and to their belonging to that country. The Jews showed a great deal of patriotism during World War 1, when they fought together with the Germans and they took the defeat personally. So what is the problem here? As the old Polish saying goes „When one is not certain what the problem is, it is usually about money”. Germany was very poor at the time, dealing with a great burden of post-war repairs, which had financial influence on everyone. I do not know, whether Jews were that much richer then, but it certainly showed. „ Many of them played important roles in science and specialised branches, which made other people envious.”  (Martin Gilbert; „Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction”.) It must also be remembered that anti-Semitism was always a popular concept. 

      

Let’s follow that thought and move on to 15th September 1935. That is when the Reichstag passed a series of laws known in history as Nuremberg Laws. That’s when anti-Semitism became more than just a notion in the society. It became a fully legal element of German policy. It reflected Hitler’s way of thinking that resentment towards the Jews should not be treated emotionally but to be considered a top priority for the whole country - an issue which must be resolved methodically. On the basis of those laws, which were the final step on the way to limiting Jewish rights, the Jews were deprived of Third Reich citizenship. They did not have a country and were not protected by law. They become nothing within the German territory. In order to “protect German blood and honour” marriages and sexual intercourses between Aryans and Jews were forbidden. Unless we think about it carefully, the Nuremberg Laws sound just like a sequence of words, so characteristic for the racist Nazi policy, but in reality they violated all human rights, violated the right to be free and, the more poetic, right to love. They took apart the people and human interactions. So called mixed couples already existed, and what was going to happen to them? Were the partners not allowed to love each other anymore? According to Hitler, all interactions with Jews were “disgraceful to the race”. Such assumption resulted not only sociological changes within the country, but also caused mental crisis. It is incredible how much we depend on the law and regulations imposed upon us. It is even more incredible, how powerful the words can be, when spoken by an individual in power. The laws clearly described the basis of anti-Jewish policy obligatory for the whole nation. The crime became legal. Another paradox of democracy.  


At the time of strengthening Nazi regime, a simple sentence „it is not allowed” became the way to abuse the people. You are not allowed this or that. Escalation of such attitude and more nonsense regulations is described in the diary of 13-year-old Anne Frank in 1942: „(...) The road to hell began for us, Jews. Anti-Jewish laws followed one another and our freedom has been very much restricted. The Jews must wear the Star of David; the Jews must hand over their bicycles; the Jews are not allowed on trams; the Jews are not allowed in cars, even private ones; the Jews can shop only between 3 and 5 p.m.; the Jews are only allowed to cut their hair at a Jewish hairdresser’s; the Jews are not allowed in the streets from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m.; the Jews are not allowed into theatres, cinemas or any other entertainment venues; the Jews are not allowed in swimming pools, on tennis courts, hockey pitches or any other sports venues; the Jews are not allowed to row; the Jews are not allowed to practice any sports in public; the Jews are not allowed to sit in their gardens or visit their friends after 8 p.m.; the Jews are not allowed to visit Christian households; the Jews must attend Jewish schools, etc. That’s how we led our lives, without being allowed this or that.”  Sounds absurd, but it was the reality back then. The reality was grim for those who were not allowed to do things. The others were allowed to torment those underprivileged. 


Now I shall go back to anti-Semitism as such. The origin of hatred for Jews is as old as the world itself. For generations the Jews were resented by other religious groups. One may ask why, even though the question is rather naive, because the answer will never be straightforward. Judaism attracted a strong group of people, it created a monotheistic culture which was exclusive and very characteristic. The Jews were distinguished by their clothes and language, they were unwilling to assimilate and therefore often put aside and isolated from the rest of the community. Ghettos which are nowadays associated with the war and the Holocaust, actually existed in the 13th century and they were where the Jewish minorities lived. The term Ghetto comes from the name of a Venetian district. The Jews were not popular in the Middle Ages, i.e. the age of witchcraft. They were accused of ritual killings of children, black magic and contacts with the devil himself. People love such legends and therefore lynch law of such kind was very popular, it appealed to people’s imagination and it strengthened anti-Jewish stereotypes. Common association of Jews with loan sharks comes from Middle Ages, when the ban on lending money with interest did not concern the Jews. Therefore Jewish merchants acted as bankers and grew rich that way. They were tolerated because they were helpful, but the fact that they were turning over the Christian money was resented. Everything can be logically explained. Numerous expulsions on religious grounds meant confiscation of property by those with financial trouble – it is about money again. The Reformation did not result in any improvements, on the contrary – it promoted Martin Luther who was a sworn anti-Semite. In the new fashionable religion spreading throughout Germany the Jew is depicted as the main enemy. The situation has never been pleasant, but it was bearable. However, the 19th century brought a new dimension of anti-Semitism. It was connected with the birth of nationalism and a new concept of statehood, where the Jews did not fit ethnically and became a burdensome minority. If the Jews do not fit, something must be done. Anti-Semitism has always influenced the Jews’ comfort of living, but in Nazi Germany it formed basis for their extermination. It may be said that at times of specialised civilisation, medieval ritual killings took the form of mass killings on a spectacular scale. 


The Anti-Semite atmosphere in pre-war Germany reached its peak on 10th November 1938on the Night of Broken Glass. In 1543 Martin Luther in his letter „The Jews and Their Lies” recommended to: „Set fire to their synagogues and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honour of our Lord”. It is difficult to associate such words with any religion, but five centuries later they become the religion of Hitler and his followers. Keeping in mind the centuries of anti-Semitism and countless examples of shed blood, the Night of Broken Glass was the first Jewish massacre initiated by the state authorities. „It was not a spontaneous outburst of aggression, but a planned, methodical, general destruction” – according to Martin Gilbert in his book „Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction”. For some time the Nazis had been planning brutal anti-Jewish operations and they were just looking for an excuse to execute them. The first possible occasion was quickly and efficiently blown out of proportion. The Night of Broken Glass was an act of vandalism upon synagogues and Jewish shops, performed by the entire German society. It was a dramatic turning point in perceiving Nazism, as it showed the vast amount of evil in people and primitive ways of stirring them up. It proved that aggression as such is a simple steering mechanism. As Martin Gilbert said: “It must be remembered what these events tell us about people. The Night of Broken Glass, the beginning of destruction of an entire nation, shows what happens when the society gives in to bad instincts.” These events also formed basis for more precise future anti-Jewish acts, emphasising a very convenient fact that almost whole Germany was obsessed with the idea of “the master race”. Evil, as a destructive emotion has always accompanied the human race, but in Nazi Germany it was not considered to be a sin, but a social duty – and this is the difference. The President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, said that it was “almost unbelievable” that such events „happen in the 20th century of civilisation”. The world still wanted to believe in the power of the League of Nations and in the power of peace. Politics of those days was short-sighted, as five weeks earlier a pact was signed between the Reich, Great Britain and France. Neville Chamberlain thought it to be „Peace of our time”.


During the Night of Broken Glass a quarter of men of Jewish ancestry who were still living in Germany were taken to concentration camps. Most of them were sent to Dachau – a concentration camp which was built a couple of years before. Setting up of Dachau on 21st March 1933 is also a date on one of my paintings. The day it was open was the beginning of everything that is associated with the term “concentration camps”. It was built by a decision of Heinrich Himmler and it became a prototype for all other Nazi camps. The layout of the camp was copied in many other places and in 1938 it became a training venue for staff members of other concentration camps. These are historical facts which may be checked in any encyclopaedia. But it is not what I would like to talk about. The pragmatism of the venture seems to be very important here. Someone must have designed the concentration camps, draw up the plans of barracks, elaborate technical solutions for the most effective performance of gas chambers and crematoria. I am shocked by the efficiency of the fascist “design”, effective organisation of highly specialised staff and management of large numbers of people who used to be ordinary citizens and suddenly became ruthless butchers. I keep asking myself – how is it possible? Despite many studies on that subject, I still do not understand and consider it to be an open question. 


A sign „Arbeit macht frei” was installed above the gate, just like in Auschwitz. These seemingly ordinary words haunted Roma Ligocka’s memory. Many years after the war, when she was living in a small German town, these words still sent shivers down her spine. „ (...)Please, do not say these words again – she asked her neighbour – please do not say 'Arbeit macht frei'. This was the sign above the Auschwitz gate. Auschwitz? She has never heard of Auschwitz.” This lethal name does not concern everyone and not everyone has any associations with it. War time and war memories are different for every nation, every generation and for various people who witnessed it. But life goes on. Soon after the liberation Dachau served as migration centre for the people returning to their own countries. It is a poetic supplement of the history flexibility. The very place which used to be the ultimate end has become the beginning for those who survived. The soil is still the same, the landscape is the same. Everything comes into place, although for many people – even the future generations – the phrase “coming into place” does not exist. The Earth will endure everything, but the people are left with the dilemma – what does „everything” mean to us? In German art the year 1945 is called „year zero”. The artists attempt to tackle the horrid heritage of their country. Anselm Kiefer’s very honest and sensitive words “You cannot paint a landscape if tanks drove through it” appeal to people’s imagination. 


Talking about the land we come to a turning point – imperial territorial greed. On 28th April 1939, which is another date on one of my paintings, in Reichstag, Hitler gave his famous speech, which summarised his plans and his way of thinking. He openly declared that obtaining “living space” in the East was going to be the main goal of the Reich policy. According to arguments in „ Mein Kampf” „the master race” was fully entitled to so called „Lebensraum”, therefore the Third Reich needed sufficient land in order to develop and take the leading role as the protector of culture. „It is the duty of the foreign policy of a national country to provide the best conditions for the nation’s existence, by maintaining natural and healthy proportions between the numbers and growth of the nation and the size and quality of the land it inhabits (...) Freedom of existence may be assured only by sufficient space”. (Adolf Hitler; „ Mein Kampf”). According to Hitler, the Aryans were chosen by Providence to carry the civilisation forward and the Jews were responsible for destruction of all culture. That honourable role assigned by Hitler appealed to the German nation, and a copy of„ Mein Kampf”  could be found in almost every household.



As it is often said, Hitler’s deliberations were not logical or original. Passionately and arrogantly he created a sort of historical fiction which appealed to a large number of people. Nazi propaganda used peculiar concepts, created suspicious myths and explained racism with scientific expressions. Hitler was a master of social engineering. In his speeches he controlled public will and emotions in order to gain an army of credulous worshipers. His personal cult within the nation was unlimited. An unfulfilled artist, a loner with inferiority complex, ridden with morbid ambition, ignorance and obstinacy, found his perfect niche. One could say that the politics became a specific kind of art for the unfulfilled painter. He thought of art itself in connection with politics as the best way to influence people. He consolidated two domains unreachable for common citizens into one attractive show. He loved theatrical gestures, he spent hours in front of a mirror, he practiced miming and the pitch of his voice. He modelled himself on acting tricks and copied the gestures of a Munich comedian Fritz Lang. This way he managed to make the mass art and laughing matters into a powerful tool. I could risk saying that the innovative use of popular culture, specific pastiche, and Nazi „pop art” allow perceiving Hitler as a postmodernist figure. It was an avant-garde solution at the time. Norman Davies even compared Hitler’s influential powers with later pop stars. In simple words, this small, unhappy nowhere man was the object of collective hysteria. He is often referred to as “the genius of evil”, but in order not to exaggerate with serious words it would be safer to call him a master of bluff. His behaviour proved the saying that if you repeat a lie three times it becomes true. „In a big lie there is always a certain force of credibility” - he said. It makes you question whether he believed in his own pseudo-philosophy of hate, or whether he deliberately fooled everyone in a peculiar attempt to get rid of his doubts and complexes. He often quoted the famous saying of Frederick II: „Now that I know the people, I prefer dogs”.


In April 1938 during a parliament session, he declared a strong belief that his racially uniform nation needed new land and he officially broke off the Polish-German non aggression pact. It was just before the breakout of World War 2. The following months were like more pieces in Hitler’s jigsaw puzzle, ending in an outbreak of a worldwide conflict on 1st September 1939. This is the date on the final painting in the series. Germany invaded Poland without previous declaration of war. The hell broke loose. Hell with 50 million casualties.


1st September 1939 is a very special date for me and I must say that I treat it very personally. The war and post-war events shaped the country I was born and raised in. At the beginning of the war the spirits were high, in the name of Marshall Piłsudski’s honourable principles, but then the war ended with the need to re-evaluate everything that constituted the country’s atmosphere before 1939. Centuries-old 3.3 million Jewish community disappeared from the face of the Earth, a large part of intelligentsia was exterminated and the whole picture of society changed. I was lucky to be born after the war but that war affected me too. I listened to my grandmother telling me about occupied Warsaw, I was raised amongst monuments for the perished, I walked the new streets ineptly trying to cover the city ruins, in the secret of my origin. The war deprived many people of their homes and their youth. My grandmother, who took an active part in the Warsaw Uprising, told me that it was the most foolish thing in her life. She witnessed her friends die, she watched the city being ruined and later, for the rest of her life she had to live in that cemetery and suffer many times the consequences of her patriotic inclinations. This experience made my Grandmother a pacifist. She had great influence on me - I am also very much against any conflicts and peace is one of the most valuable aspect to me. My Grandmother was one of the most important women in my life – she taught me the love for literature: to read, not to fight, to think, to look for amicable solutions – in my opinion it was a history lesson... We live in the 21st century, we propagate freedom, but is it for sure? The historical events cut my country off from the West, deprived it of the people who had something clever to say, expelled the families who could be mine. Perhaps this approach is too romantic and there are too many „what-ifs”, but in this post-war world I am missing authorities and beauty. There is still too little of it, too many clichés taking us by storm. I am not familiar with politics, but I know that not everything does look bright. In my opinion, there are not enough people who are able to make a change, who use moral judgment. My schoolgirl fantasy is that perhaps the prospective parents of my other half, of the father of my children, perished in that war, perhaps...


Anyway, a lot has changed not only in my own Warsaw, but also around the world. Something has passed irretrievably and brutally. History comes inside unexpectedly and in many ways. Before, I have not thought much about the past, unless it affected me directly. Now I think about other people’s past that influences my reality. There were people who are now gone, there were towns which do not exist anymore, there were traditions which are not observed these days, there were lines not to be crossed; but there was also an unbearable fear, dirt, cruelty, violation. History does not need to be idealised, it must be remembered. I can recall a beautiful sentence by Andrzej Szczypiorski: „ There is no past, there is just memory”. What has happened already can not be revers and it doesn’t even matter for a lot of people. That’s how we forget the people who – through generations – created the things we use today, we forget about the blood-soaked earth that we walk on. If we do not remember them, we will soon forget their faces… It sounds pathetically, but some things in life are. In his work Szczypiorski emphasises that memory is the domain of freedom, a kind of responsibility for others and for humanity. It is our duty to remember those people, and I don’t mean only the Jews who were killed in the Holocaust, but all those before us. I admire the African ancestor worship. They are entitled to that remembrance. And I am entitled to it, too. I have the right to know who I am and where I come from. I have the right to own identity and individuality. For me, understanding and knowledge of myself is the basis for making the right choices. My individual remembrance means something in this puzzle. It is the energy which I would not like to lose at any cost, it determines my role, and that is beautiful.


Until we learn to remember, we will not be able to come to any conclusions or to forgive. We will not be able to respect our differences or to use creatively the inspirations coming from them. The idea of homogeneity has failed. Why are we still afraid of everything that is different? Differences are good. I am convinced that wise people know how to appreciate and respect those differences. We have experienced how easy it is to take someone’s life when you cross certain boundaries, how easy it is to start the spiral of hatred based on misunderstanding, fear and pure ignorance. Why does it keep repeating itself? How is it possible? It can be said that good and bad people have something in common – they all make mistakes. But a good person knows how to admit to his or her mistakes and how to learn from them. That’s why I appeal to the good – perhaps naively – in my paintings. I would like to quote Szczypiorski once more: „There is something inside a human being, which should mean more than own country and more than own nation. It is the sense of responsibility for choosing between good and evil”. This is what one needs to grow into.


I keep asking myself: what is important? What does my memory and my belonging to the Jewish culture consist of? Thanks to the memories, something I have not experienced becomes a part of my life and the most important element of my work. That’s how I understand the attempt to revive the past. I, who grew up with memories and stories told by the people who are now gone, try to go back in time. Out of longing for those days I intuitively recollect the myth of childhood. Returning to childhood is like a symbolic return to the past for every one of us. And that’s how we come to the origin of my project.


Seven dates from history of Nazi Germany are only the background for the portraits; the main characters here are children. They look upon us from the paintings like from old family photographs. Thanks to a simple trick such as putting numbers on the bottom of the paintings, we suddenly find ourselves in a different age. We are looking at the children, who were children in the past century. I hope that this creates a distinct and nostalgic feeling for a spectator. We know what is going to happen next, as we have the knowledge of the following years in history. The knowledge that taught us what people are capable of. Even though the children may have sensed the imminent evil, they do not realise this doom hanging over them. Somewhere far away there is the history of the adults. The only thing the children desire is their right to childhood.


A child can be a metaphor of innocence, but this is not what I mean. The memorable Janusz Korczak’s idea was that children should not be idealised. A child is not thoughtless and mute element in the society. A child is a great individuality, sensitive to cruelty and ruthlessness of the world. It is much more defenceless and more prone to the evil. The children in the paintings are different – they are neither good nor bad. They live in their own world and this is the only world they know, until it gets taken away from them. They have common descent, which I treat implicitly. The most important feature of the children in those paintings is their youth, the life ahead of them. However, the thing that should be most natural and obvious is here like a lottery winning. To a certain extent these paintings are like postcards from paradise – the paradise being the right to grow up. The portrayed children were born at a time when that right was taken away from them and when their youth and lives were worthless to their tormenters.


Survivors keep using one word – LIFE. Like Marek Edelmann, we learned to consider crimes against an individual human being to be crimes against the whole mankind. Life is the superior worth and the child is its symbol. I remember Solomon Perel whom I met in Israel. He told me his story of survival and he said how his father admonished him to remember God and how his mother took him aside and said a very determined sentence: „ You have a life, son.” This élan vital – zest for life is the most important thing, it rises above the divisions and it is typical to all of us. In Nazi Germany the childhood for Jewish children was over and the fight to survive began.


Considering the years of Nazi Reich growing more and more powerful, we need to think about an extremely stressful period, when the sense of safety was non-existent and normal growing up was not possible. In that moment in time children were left to their own devices, they did not understand the politics. Even though they probably felt the evil around them but they did not now why it was happening to them. The history was going on somewhere beyond them, but it was the children who were the first victims. A lot of them witnessed the Night of Broken Glass. This is what Joseph Wohlfarth said: „I remember that the first thing I noticed was a cupboard on the hall floor. On top of the cupboard there were my toy wagons in disarray and my toy tank engine without wheels. This is what depressed me the most. It was probably a normal reaction for a child this age.” Edgar Gold remembers „I remember the noise, my panic and my father’s absolute composure.” In the accounts of the events the generation gap is evident, when a disoriented child begins to be ashamed of their Jewish roots and their dissidence. Children yearn to be accepted, they want to belong to a larger group and to be like other children they watch. The period from  1933-1939 was the brutal end of innocence, the following years were devoted to fast-paced growing up.


Large numbers of Jewish children were taken away from Germany in numerous kindertransports to Great Britain, organised before the outbreak of the war. We must remember that, although it saved their lives, they were taken away from their parents, deprived of their culture and condemned to exile and uncertainty. They won their lives but they lost the right to normal development amongst their loved ones. The “happier” ending meant losing their homes. Depriving the children of their sense of security was, in my opinion, another crime of those times.


Children who were saved from Holocaust and survived the war, were not like other normal children anymore. Some of them experienced everything that was possible at those times, the others had more luck, but all of them had to mature too early. They had to deal with that adulthood on their own in the post-war destroyed world. Recalling Roma Ligocka’s memoirs regarding the first disoriented months after May 1945: „ Children must be good, children must behave. No-one has time for children after the war. As if the war did not happen to us at all. No need to pay attention to children’s feelings, they have to deal with it themselves. Adults probably think that it is hard enough for them to bear it all and to organise the food. (...) They sit around the kitchen table, they talk and cry. They only talk about death.” Life seems to go on, but it is burdened with the memories of collective death. „SURVIVED is the word that constantly rings in my ears. Has he survived, has she survived...(...)A lot of people appear suddenly but most of the people are dead.” Roma, as an adult, confessed: „There are some long and lonesome hours, when I think about where all the dead people are. No-one can answer that question for me.” From the year zero, world desperately began to look for authorities, for peace and solace. The history which happened before the children’s eyes will never end. Let’s ask for the example which these crazy years set for the children. How difficult it was for those children to put their lives in order and to learn how to be happy. Children always try to copy adults. Who should have been their example at those times?


I look at the little girl in the red coat. What would she like to be when she grows up? What did I want to be? I think that I wanted to be exactly who I am and where I am. I was lucky enough to be born in times that were strange, but without having to live by the Nuremberg Laws. I was raised in a melting pot of different cultures in the spirit of humanism. I would call myself more of a European than a Jew, what was probably typical of the pre-war Jewish intelligentsia. But when I look at myself, I can see Semitic features in my face. What does it mean? How does it determine me? Will it be the same for me as for the girl saved from ghetto, described by Szczypiorski in „The Beginning”: „She will be a Jewish woman, one day a Jewish woman in her will wake, she will shake off the strange dust and go back where she came from. Her womb will be fertile and will give birth to new Maccabees.” Is it my destiny? Is it also my land? My promised land? Am I a part of this sunburnt land, is it a part of me? I do not know. However I know that deep inside me is the need to ask about my identity. I also believe in necessity to always be honest in my right to fight for it. Especially in my work. Sometimes I am so afraid that I won’t be able to express it all…


In her poem „ End and Beginning” Wisława Szymborska says:



„After each war

somebody has to clear up

put things in order

by itself it won’t happen.

Somebody’s got to push

rubble to the highway shoulder

making way

for the carts filled up with corpses.

(...)

This is not photogenic

and takes years.

All the cameras have left already

for another war. 

(...)

Those who knew

what this was all about

must yield to those

who know little

or less than little

essentially nothing.(...)”

(translation by Josif Brodski)


This is what we are doing now. We are clearing up after those years of despair. We can either consider what the history is saying about us and what it is trying to teach us, or we can sweep the dust under the carpet and live in ignorance. I do not think that the crimes must be turned over and over. Life goes on and it aims at vitality – it was always like this and it will always be. However, let’s not deny our minds. Abstraction of thoughts can direct the vitality towards creativity. That is how something special is originated. Anne Frank’s faith is beautiful: „Despite everything, I think that people are really good deep inside.” 


These paintings are the time that does not exist anymore. The children are children who don’t exist anymore. That world will not come back. I think about it, I read about it, I watch the movies about it and I want to cry. Just cry. These simple tears are very important to me. They assure me that I am alive; alive and feeling the way I should. It is ok, not everyone has gone crazy yet. This is what I want to say: I feel, I think, I remember. I want to express my nostalgia, zeitgeist, somehow. In a painter’s way I focus on the spirit of the times, on the colours, the clothes, the light. I do not emphasise any symbols; I do not mark my paintings with the Star of David. It is not about that. It is about evanescence of memories which I feel when looking at old photographs. It is about historical awareness, sense of time and situation. The starting point for the portrait was photographs of Jewish children taken in the 30’s – some of them anonymous, a lot of them by Roman Vishniac. It is not a homogenous picture of society. I am far from spreading a romantic legend that the pre-war Jewish community was equal and uniform. There were economic and religious differences. They differed but they lived, worked, loved, and started families. Their tragic fate was decided by the evil of which other people are capable. The world had already been poisoned, and that poisoned stream became an ocean very easy to swim in. It was a social judgment. The judgment passed by people on people, and this should be remembered. However, we cannot lose faith in humanity. Condemnation of a human being obscures the history and starts the spiral of hate. We must learn to come to conclusions and this is what the works concerning the Holocaust should be about. We do not have to find pleasure in demonstrating the feeling of resentment, although it became popular in a way and is rather disgusting. I am very much against that. That is why those paintings are about my personal approach to history, which I hope is the expression of people whose thoughts and feelings are similar. It is an emotion worth sharing. 


I would also like to say that I carried this project out mainly for myself. I feel the need to say something about that period. I do not know whether it is because of my ancestry or if it is just a view of a sensitive person who has thoughts and feelings. In my opinion, it is worth thinking about the issues which affected the reality as we know it. The events I am talking about did happen; the evil nightmare was real. It's consequences cannot be retracted. Most of all I believe in my work, but I also believe that my paintings should talk about important matters. As an artist, I feel the need to touch superior issues, even if they feel superior only to me. The way I assumed was neither a question of inquiries nor a question of coincidence. This project became a great need of everyday, for which I am very grateful to my fate. There is nothing better than respect for your own work and the feeling of fulfilment with what you do. My work of art is complete, it will be shown to the world, and even if it does not gain recognition, I will be happy with my own respect and satisfaction. All I can offer is myself and my work. And I know that it is a lot.


I would like to dedicate this series of paintings to Ms Roma Ligocka who, as the girl in the red coat, is also the main character in the final painting. I hope she won’t mind. 


Małgosia Malinowska


Warsaw, 2011