The British photojournalist, Chris Schwarz has been working in Poland since the 1980s. In 2004, he founded the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow - an educational centre and exhibition space devoted to Jewish culture and civilization in Polish Galicia.
It is currently home to Chris's photo project, Traces of Memory, containing twelve years worth of work on the Jewish past in Poland. Its aim is to both inspire curious Poles and challenge the thousands of yearly commemorators at the concentration camps in Galician Poland.
On the evening I visited, orthodox Jews gathered for prayer in the café area, sharing the space with readers relaxing with books and ipods. Nearby some employees were chatting, quite accustomed to the peaceful scene of contrasts. Poland might have seen its Jewish population of 3 million vanish, but those that return today find a generally curious generation, quite detached. Young Poles can only remember so much history: most are simply glad about the fall of communism, forget fascism.
Schwartz's photography is meticulous in the sense that he toured even the remotest villages in search of clues to Poland's Jewish cultural past, decimated by Nazi Germany. At the museum's opening, he remarked, "We can either compare everything to the prewar glory, or we can realize that it's amazing that anything survived at all after the ferocity of the Nazi destruction".
The museum also houses an exhibition of Polish non-Jewish heroes who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust at great personal risk. Each photo is a recent portrait of an elderly man or woman with a clear conscience and a profound story.
Quite aside from his artistic talent, I found Chris sensitive, ambitious and extremely industrious. When asked "What next?", he listed a new exhibition, two or three book collaborations, and international missions. "That's enough for this year I think", he added. During our short tour, he mixed questions, thought experiments and humble moralisations in perfect proportion.
Among the highlights was a picture of a golden farm with a bright blue sky pierced by a grove of tall, straight trees. They grow on a forgotten Jewish cemetery, and the farmers sow around the grove. Modern street signs contrast fading Yiddish in the street. Particular ruins and tombstones are photographed for their symbolism, delicately captured by Schwartz.
His objective is clear: to develop inter-communal dialogue and understanding. It's a simple aim, easily obstructed but one that resonates strongly.
- Rafael Broch