Agnes Janich

Yes, there was love in the ghetto, Format

Format
vol.63
Yes, there was love in the ghetto.
Agnieszka Gniotek

Upon visiting the exhibition That You Have Someone in the BWA Zielona Gora, I found myself tormented by one question, again and again: can art tackle the Holocaust? The topic is no less difficult than non solvable. I'll sound trite quoting Theodore Adorno that poetry, and art, for that matter, after the Holocaust are impossible to fathom. Art about the Holocaust seems even more impossible. On the other hand, decades have passed and we are still helpless: helpless to talk, to understand and even to imaging the unimaginable. Perhaps only art can get us closer to the what and why of the Holocaust. Perhaps it can speak volumes that survivors can not tell. Perhaps.

There is another issue, as touchy as the former but in a different realm. The topic of the Holocaust in Poland is both queasy and unpopular. The perfect topic to touch when one wants to be regarded trendy. On the one hand, antisemitism in Poland is still present, on the other, we all know we should be politically correct, and so officially there is no antisemitism. To support the latter, Holocaust-related projects are more than welcome. First of all, they pull the wool over our eyes. Second, they are good for the glossies. Why do I think so? Well, think for a moment what sells best. Personal stories with a touch of drama. Holocaust is what sells best. A topic for the tabloids.

Knowing what we know, how should we look at a show done by a twenty-somtheing year old woman who certainly doesn't know a thing about the events in question. She doesn't, for nobody knows save the witnesses. Her young age guarantees the otherness of her experiences. What she knows comes solely from what she got from survivors. Even is she relived it, it still is not enough. Two questions arise: does she have a moral right to create art about the Holocaust and why does she do it?

Agnes Janich's That You Have Someone somewhat resembles Marek Edelman's Yes, there was love in the ghetto. This book sparked controversies in how it talked about everyday life of people in extreme conditions. Life too everyday for our expectations - life with love and even sex. It was far from the martyrological portrait of the ghetto we like to paint. It made the Holocaust real while we would love to keep it unreal, unimaginable. The sole comparison of a young artist which we haven't yet judged - is she dealing with to Holocaust to seem more trendy, or not - and Marek Edelman, a respectable figure and a witness of the drama, seems shocking.

However, both say the same thing, even if basing it on completely different experiences. Edelman talks about what he saw and felt while Janich projects other's testimonies onto her body. Her renderings of female accounts are brief and succint. They work. Anka, a mother of two girls with curly hair, arranged to throw them over the fence. When it came to jumping herself, she resisted. A year later she met a friend, who said: "Now I can't help you anymore. You're in the transport for tomorrow". "I don't need help", she said. All my life I lived for that year with that man.

This is the most horrifying - and the most beautiful - love letter. Agnes is also young and also in love. She is trying to understand the emotions of yesterday's people, yesterday's women. She collocates their words with her images - hers really: of herself and her partner. Though naked, she is trying to put on someone else's skin. A skin of fear. Of love. Of the Jewesses from the ghetto. It works for me. No, I don't find these women in her. I don't see their love and fear in her body. But I see how hard she tried to understand both the love and the nightmare. I treat these images as therapeutic props. As helpers in the process of recovery. Still, it seems to me, similarly as to the author, that I can't understand. I think we, Poles, are divided into two groups, but not these of the tolerant and the antisemitic. I believe the first group to be comprised of those that wonder, from time to time or every so often, how would they behave if they were these Jews in the ghetto. The second has never even considered this. Agnes (and myself) belong to the first. I don't know if this gives her the moral right to do a project about the Holocaust. I don't know if it allows me to comment on it. There's always the question - don't we do this just to seem more trendy.

© 2003 - 2018 Agnes Janich