The Jewish Press
January 8, 2003
By Richard McBee In Poland there was a vibrant Jewish culture for close to a
thousand years before it was brutally erased by the Holocaust. The years
between the First World War and the Nazi invasion in 1939 were especially
rich in diversity, encompassing traditional shtetl life and a vast
cosmopolitan secular Jewish culture.
After the war, Poland was ruled by a Soviet dominated Communist state, the
Polish People`s Republic. Paradoxically, in the 60`s, 70`s and 80`s there
were periodic exhibitions, performances and plays of Jewish subjects even
though there were almost no Jews left in Poland, especially after a further
expulsion in 1968. Posters specially created for each occasion announced
these events. In a recent exhibition of fifty Polish Jewish Art Posters at
the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in New York, they present us
with an amazingly creative outburst of Jewish art done by non-Jews for an
audience who, for the most part, had never even seen a Jew.
Under the repressive Communist regime, there arose an entirely new cultural
phenomenon, the Polish School of Posters. Before the war, there was a
bustling business in posters of all kinds: political, sports, theater, health
and, of course, performances. But those posters were strictly commercial
broadsides to sell or advertise. Now, under Communism, posters were seen as
an essential tool of propaganda to promote social causes and cultural events.
Like all manner of art, they were tightly controlled by the state and yet
also widely subsidized. The Warsaw Academy of Fine Art taught and promoted
poster design, elevating simple design into a fine art form cumulating in the
1960`s and 1970`s. The Polish School of Posters came to rival the great age
of poster art achieved in France of the 1890`s in fine quality and graphic
Poster Art was encouraged in art collages and in national poster competitions
throughout Poland. As a well-recognized profession, it attracted graphic
artists, illustrators, sculptors, painters and photographers. A major group
of “Cyrk” or Circus Art Posters emerged that cleverly embedded dissident
messages in increasingly surreal and inventive images. All of the artists
discussed here (with the exception of Gorowski) were part of this highly
creative group. Their Cyrk posters are always wonderfully inventive, but it
seems to me that the Jewish works reveal a special probing insight and
questioning singular to this group. Perhaps the most surprising element of
these posters is that under the repressive patronage of a Communism State,
Polish artists managed to create a complex body of poster art about Jews,
Jewish culture and its place in Poland. After 1989, and the introduction of a
free market economy, poster art became increasingly commercial and the golden
age of the Polish School of Posters slowly came to an end.
The creation of Jewish art without Jews in Poland 20 to 30 years after the
Holocaust is perplexing, to say the least. What was occurring here?
I have no easy answer except that these posters exist, created as works of
art to advertise cultural events, at least as puzzling as the works
themselves. The intent of the non-Jewish artists, subsidized by the Communist
State, is unknown and perhaps unknowable. The intention of the creator is
always a problematic element in the meaning of any work of art and these are
no different. In the final analysis, we must let these intriguing works speak
Sholom Ansky`s play “The Dybbuk” summons images of the Jewish supernatural;
anguished souls unable to find rest because of unresolved conflict. The
original story tells of a pair of children betrothed at birth by their
parents. Once they grow up, they meet and fall in love, but their marriage is
thwarted by her greedy father who meanwhile pledged the girl to a wealthy
suitor. The boy desperately tries to win her, but dies in the attempt. His
soul, unable to find rest, becomes a dybbuk and possesses the girl`s body and
can only be removed by an exorcism.
A poster made in 1975 by Marian Stachurski depicts the besieged couple
rendered as a kind of woodcut image surrounded by stark cemetery and
headstone shapes. The graphic contrast between the warm human image of
defiant love and the cold finitude of the grave underlines one of the central
motifs in the play. The couple, Leah and Khonnen, stand united in love
against the cruel realities of life and even death.
The history of the Jews in Poland from 965 to 1990 is the subject of
“Diaspora,” a poster promoting a documentary film by director Leopold R.
Norwak. The haunting simplicity of legions of footprints stretching out
before us into a shadowy darkness summons the vast generations of Jews who
made Poland their home and the tragic end of that legacy. In the middle of
this image of Jewish travail is a cutout figure of a traditional Jew casting
a long shadow that somehow evokes the still visible effect the Jews have upon
Poland, the country of their Diaspora.
“Requiem” is the title to the poster by Leszek Holdanowicz. It announces a
documentary film that is a Requiem for the Five Hundred Thousand. The exact
subject of the film is unclear and yet the image and text reverberate with
historical emotion. The word requiem is Latin for “rest” and is the first
word in the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. Here it is combined with the
quintessential Jewish symbol, the menorah, and perhaps addresses the sorrow
and regret felt by the Poles as they began to face what had happened and what
they had done.
Above a starkly simple seven-branched menorah seven hands raise up flame-like
gestures in a haunting supplication. The only way any people can revisit its
past is through it own cultural forms, and in Poland the language of sin,
guilt, and forgiveness is deeply embedded in the Church. The introduction to
the Requiem Mass intones; “Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual
light shine on them. A hymn becometh Thee, O G-d, in Zion: and a vow shall be
paid to Thee in Jerusalem. Hear my prayer.” As strange and unnerving as it
seems, a requiem for the murdered Jews might not be out of place.
The complexity of Polish-Jewish history and the current inexplicable
fascination with it, is one motif that runs through many of these posters.
Mieczyslaw Gorowski”s “Star of David” expresses a multitude of mixed emotions
and conflicts as a Magen David pushes through a fabric, perhaps of Polish
society, and reveals an eye peering out. The eye is the window of the soul,
here of the Jewish people, and seems to be struggling to see and be seen but
for the oppressive hand attempting to close down the flaps of the star.
Here the artist has encapsulated the struggle of the Polish people with their
Jewish past. The poster promotes Jewish culture as it simultaneously
expresses the contradictions and struggles that the very notion of Jewish
culture evokes in Poland.
The past is not so easily forgotten nor forgiven in these graphic works that
present a brilliant collection of unsettling and penetrating images reaching
us from a unique moment in Polish history. It is the struggle with that
history and the evolving Jewish culture in Poland today that these art
posters, utilizing the simplest of texts and elemental symbols, so
successfully engage and challenge our preconceptions about Poland and the
The Polish School of Posters; Polish Jewish Art Posters Contemporary Posters;
115 Central Park West, NY, NY 10023; (212) 724-7722; Many examples on
Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art.
Please feel free to email him with comments at email@example.com.