WARSAW, POLAND — Zuzanna Ziolkowska — sitting at a Warsaw sidewalk café with her long dreadlocks wrapped in a colorful turquoise and orange scarf — said she first learned of her Jewish roots about a decade ago.
Her mother told her casually over lunch one afternoon that Ms. Ziolkowska’s father, with whom she has no contact, was Jewish. Though she was a bit shocked by the news — and her mother’s offhanded mention of it — she said even as a young girl she had been keenly interested and felt a connection to Jewish history and literature.
Since that conversation, the 30-year-old artist has been exploring her identity and what it means to be Jewish in several of her works. Paintings like her 2010 “Nieobecne-minione” (Absent-past), is a black and white depiction of an empty house, which symbolized memories and her “double roots.”
This spring she participated in a group show at the city gallery in Bielsko-Biala; one of her contributions was to paint a column in the gallery in red and yellow to represent the red and yellow synagogue that was destroyed during World War II and was located where the gallery now stands.
“Painting is the way to express perceptions of reality, and for me, it is a way to work the past out,” she said, sipping an iced coffee. “Things like ‘Who am I? How was I brought up? What kind of people have I met?’ all these things are on my canvas in some way. Not all artists are showing this directly but you can find links to Jewish culture in their works.”
Ms. Ziolkowska will be participating in a group show in late June at Warsaw’s Galeria Kordegarda being curated by Miroslaw Balka, a prominent Polish artist.
While Ms. Ziolkowska’s story of learning about her Jewish ancestry is not unique in Poland — since the Communist government fell more than two decades ago thousands of Poles have discovered they have Jewish roots — she is one of a growing number of Jewish Poles in the artistic sphere who are exploring the dichotomy of being both Polish and Jewish in 21st-century Poland.
Writers, playwrights, filmmakers and visual artists are tackling everything from anti-Semitism and the Holocaust to coming to terms with their families’ Communist pasts and issues of identity.
“You cannot imagine Polish culture without Jewish culture,” said Pawel Passini, a Lublin-based director and playwright who last year won two awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for his staging of “Turandot.” “I think most people are conscious of that, the problem is how to say it and let people deal with it.”
One way has been a trend in Jewish festivals that, instead of focusing on traditional Polish-Jewish culture from the past, are highlighting contemporary artistic life both in Poland and abroad.
Last week, the 7@Nite festival in Krakow opened the city’s seven synagogues at night to host everything from a fashion show to an exhibition on synagogue architecture. And Warsaw is host to festivals throughout the year — including the recently held Jewish Book Days and Jewish Motifs International Film Festival — that are highlighting contributions to Jewish and Polish culture.
“In many ways, the idea of Judaism in Poland is frozen in 1939 because that was the last time there was a large visible presence,” said Jonathan Ornstein, the New York-born director of Krakow’s Jewish Community Center (JCC). “There is this idea that Jews only listen to Klezmer music, they have long beards and speak Yiddish. And we are saying, ‘Look at what the Jewish world is about today, it’s hip, and there is a lot of stuff going on here.’ Jewish culture in Poland is evolving.”
By 1950, the Jewish population in Poland had been reduced from more than three million to about 45,000. The population shrank further with the emigration of more than 10,000 Jews between 1968 and 1969 when Polish Communist authorities adopted anti-Jewish policies in response to Israel’s Six Day War.
Those who chose to stay in Poland — estimates for the community now vary from 10,000 to 20,000 — tended to be either staunch Communists or those who had concealed their Jewish roots by living as assimilated Polish Catholics. That meant that Jewish Poles involved in the arts tended to shy away from dealing with the Holocaust and their Jewish past in general.
One exception was Warsaw’s National Jewish Theater (Teatr Zydowski), which did plays in Yiddish focused on Jewish folklore. “It was the only public expression that was allowed,” said Ruth Ellen Gruber, an American writer and journalist. But starting in the late 1970s, Poles from all backgrounds began to explore and talk about the country’s Jewish past and culture.
“In surgery, there is this term of phantom pain, that when you cut off a limb it still hurts where that limb had been,” said Konstanty Gebert, a journalist and founder of Midrasz, a Warsaw-based Jewish-Polish cultural monthly magazine. “Poland was suffering from its Jewish phantom pain, so imagine how fertile a ground this was for art.”
From the late 1980s — thanks to things like the Krakow Jewish Festival that will take place from June 29 until July 8 this year — Jewish culture, or what is perceived as Jewish culture, has become more popular in Poland. Ms. Gruber described this in her 2002 book “Virtually Jewish” as “familiar exotica,” where there is pseudonostalgia for Jewish culture like the theatrical shtetl world of “Fiddler on the Roof” or wailing, clarinet-infused Klezmer music.
Contemporary Jewish artists are broadening the definition of Jewish culture in Poland. Mr. Passini is a case in point, having become one of the most acclaimed young stage directors in the country. He admits that many of his works — including plays like “Nothing Human” about a young girl trying to find her roots and “Tehillim,” which used choreography based on Hebrew letters — have a focus on spirituality.
“When people write about my performances, they find these explanations for my work that they say come from Jewish culture, Jewish literature, that my Jewish heritage explains my view on Polish classic literature,” said Mr. Passini, who will be taking a play, “Puppet — The Book of Splendor,” to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August. “For me it is simple. I do not have this trauma that most Jewish Poles have where they always need to define themselves. I always liked the fact that I am Jewish.”
Mikolaj Lozinski, a graduate of the Sorbonne, said it was through the five-yearlong process of writing his semi-autobiographical novel “Ksiazka” (The Book), that helped give him an understanding of how being Jewish influenced his parents, grandparents and himself. The novel about three generations of a family won the top literary prize earlier this year from popular Polish news weekly, Polityka.
“I started to feel how important for me it is that I have those Jewish roots,” he said. “I think for my generation it is much easier than for my parents’ generation.”
Mr. Lozinski’s friend and fellow writer Mikolaj Grynberg has also explored generational issues in his recently published nonfiction book, “Ocaleni z XX wieku” (“Survivors of the 20th Century”), which is based on a series of talks he had with Jewish Poles, born in the 1920s and 1930s, who emigrated to Israel.
For his 2009 book of photographs — “Auschwitz: What Am I Doing Here?” — Mr. Grynberg, whose grandmother survived the camp, spent five days each month for a year living inside Auschwitz, asking visitors why they had come to such a place. An exhibition of photographs from the book will open in the Swedish Parliament in early June.
“My parents were of the generation where they did not want to hear about the war or to talk about Communism,” he said. “They wanted to work, be happy, have kids. So we had two generations raised without Jewish roots and now I send my kids to Jewish school.”
Slawomir Grunberg is a New York-based Polish-Jewish documentary filmmaker who focuses much of his work on the modern face of Jewish Poles.
“I am doing films on Jewish subjects because I am curious and I am interested,” he said. “What has changed is that it is O.K. to be Jewish in Poland now. Jewish life has become more and more visible.”
graphic courtesy of 7@Nite