31 January 2017

Renovations of Abraham Ostrzega’s cemetery monuments in Warsaw, and an exhibition reflecting his life and work at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art

Category: XXw, Albums and photos, Holocaust, News, Social history, Memory studies, Cultural history

The renovation project concerned two dozen elaborately devised prewar monuments in the Jewish Cemetery on Okopowa Street, designed by Abraham Ostrzega (1889–1942). The work was conducted in autumn 2016 by the Cultural Heritage Foundation, financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and the Capital Monument Conservation Officer.


Results were presented on 20 January, at noon in the snowy cemetery. The date commmemorated the 75th anniversary of the infamous Wannsee Conference, held near Berlin on 20 January 1942, after which the nascent Shoah came to be focused on Operation Reinhard and the destruction of Polish and European Jews at the extermination centers of Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka, where Ostrzega was murdered in August of that year. Piotr Gliński, the vice prime minister and minister of culture and national heritage, was involved in statements with commentary by Marek Zając, the noted television journalist and representative of the International Auschwitz Council.


At present, the renovated tombstones are designated by black poles numbered in orange tape. The press and others at the event made use of a pamphlet map that pinpoints the master sculptor’s fifty-six works, over half of which are now cleaned and stabilized. This map remains available at the Zachęta Gallery’s exhibition dedicated to Ostrzega, on view through 5 March in the central city, alongside Piłsudski Square and the Saxon Gardens. The two events form effective links: observing much of Ostrzega’s surviving work in situ, and considering ramifications evoked at Zachęta through exacting focal points presented by four contemporary artists.



In keeping with the elite status of his patrons, nearly fifty of the Ostrzega tombstones are concentrated near the cemetery entrance, in eleven of the sections along the main alley by the Okopowa Street wall. These were designed for an impressive cast of Warsaw society, and provide a synopsis of business leadership, the interwar period’s cultural upper crust and their achievements.


The firm Ostrzega led fashioned monuments for neurologists Otylia Grauberg-Rosental of St. Stanislav Hospital and for Samuel Goldflam, who identified the muscular debility myasthenia gravis (Erb-Goldflam syndrome) and who directed a clinic for mentally ill patients in Otwock, a spa town across the Vistula River. And for Hendla and Beniamin Rykwert, president of the Nożyk Synagogue Foundation, which opened for the Orthodox community as the latest of the capital’s four hundred Jewish prayer houses in 1902 (the Nożyk is headquarters for the chief rabbi of Poland today). And for Francziszka and Herman Fuks, on the board of the Warsaw Production Company of Yeast and Spirits. For Aleksander Berkenheim, Moscow’s deputy mayor after the February Revolution, then head of the Jewish Association of Cooperatives in Poland. Ostrzega was engaged for memorials to Nissan Gnessin, whose story collection Shadows of Life came out in 1904, and Magnus Kryński, publisher and editor of the periodicals Roman Cajtung and Der Moment.


Wacław Waślicki, lower-house member of the first four interwar parliaments and president of the Trade Association’s central office, has columns framing a sweeping relief figure inscribed Usuwał ludziom kamienie z drogi (in distinctive curving lines). A pair of creatures squat beside a menorah on the peak – in deep contrast, in 1967 his spouse, Natalia, received a bare gleaming granite headstone. For Malwina Koenigstein, slim, gracefully draped wings were carved at the perimeter of a broad entablature, which indicates that spouse Henryk was „killed tragically” in 1943 (Koenigsten had died in 1928). The neighboring monument to factory owner Karol Himmelsfarb, with an elegant feathered arch along the right of the dark headstone, has a huge hooded figure collapsed onto the left (Himmelsfarb was a suicide in 1925).


This similar design of inscribed headstone or tablet encased in an elaborate monument appears in several of the renovated Ostrzega works. The twin identifying stones for Felicja Kon (née Korngold) and Fryderyka Korngold are set within spiral columns, below draped urns and a summit relief of a laden fruit tree. An owner of the Extrans shipping firm, Jan Sierota, has a tablet dated 1928, set as if a portal at the base of human-height pillar dominated by the ornately plumed left wing of a beast or angel, in stark profile.


The polished brick base of Teresa Rosenbaum’s monument supports a brazenly asymmetrical design: a single side arch, embedded with profuse vegetation and a radiant sun at the top corner, then a peak flanging steeply over a relief of a three-tier menorah. The effect is at once grounded and ethereal. Towering in section 44 is the renowned mausoleum for writers I.L. Perec, Jakub Dinezon and Szymon An-ski (whose drama Dybuk is matched in intensity by The Enemy at His Pleasure, his harrowing, invaluable journalism about Galician Jewish communities during the onslaughts of the First World War). A low gate and steps are flanked by winged lions, their fur swirls chiseled by expert masons. The sentinel pair gaze imperiously into the high half-dome, where columns set off massive red tablets honoring the three writers.


Ostrzega’s works are centered in the cemetery’s frontal acreage, as noted above. In all, the cemetery on Okopowa Street has over a hundred sections covering thirty-three hectares, with about 150,000 extant tombstones. Tracking the specific renovated works may easily prove but a prelude to wider wandering and further rewards. The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research puts Warsaw’s Jewish population in 1939 at 375,000, nearly thirty percent of inhabitants, down from thirty-three percent in 1921. (Jewish birthrates had decreased, in YIVO’s analysis, while non-Jewish immigration to the capital increased.) Family enclosures spread along cemetery paths through rampant trees, with rusting, collapsing fencing; varied expressive ornaments, iconographies and symbolism abound, colored by lichens and soot, often tipped into neighboring stones or toppled. The cemetery, alongside the city’s main burial grounds for Catholics and other Christian denominations, is also near the smaller Muslim cemetery and the west-side grounds where Poland’s royalty was elected for centuries.  


Across the Vistula, in the Targówek district, is the earlier Bródno Jewish Cemetery – with perhaps 300,000 burials (and some 3,000 remaining tombstones), it’s among Europe’s largest Jewish cemeteries. In a recent article in Tablet magazine for International Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January ("Historic Cemeteries in Ruins"), Suzanne Selengut raises the obvious issue of the deplorable state of most Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe. Selengut focuses on activist efforts in Chernivtsi (Czernowitz) in west Ukraine and Chisinau (Kishinev) in Moldavia.


Warsaw’s environs holds constrasting examples. Across the Vistula, the desolate, razed hillock of Karczew’s Jewish cemetery has only a commemorative gate. It renders indelible the extent of the local community, over generations. At Góra Kalwaria, south of the capital, the Jewish cemetery site, across an intersection from the main Catholic cemetery, was left equally devastated after the German occupation, and is now caringly tended. Góra Kalwaria is a pilrimage site, as the Hasidisic dynasty founded by Rabbi Yitzakh Meir Alter was established there.


In a visit to the Karczew site, a first-timer to Poland apologized for asking the obvious question about the cemetery’s abandoned condition: Why? Yet with a community gone – the victims of genocide, of course, when Europe’s Jewish cemeteries are the concern – who shall tend their ancestors’ hallowed grounds?



The exhibition of work responding to Abraham Ostrzega’s life and achievements at the Zachęta National Gallery in Warsaw shows four projects curated by the gallery’s director, Hanna Wróblewska, and Michał Laszczkowski, director of the Cultural Heritage Foundation, with the Jewish Religious Community in Warsaw.


Along the architrave of the neo-Renaissance building (opened in 1903), the artist’s name is literally in lights. Set by Hubert Czerepok in an elgonated diamond shape beneath Zachęta’s allegorical summit relief, it beams through the day and into night, high above the front stairs and out over Piłsudski Square: white neon-tube letters for „Abraham,” red for the family name, the scheme of Poland’s flag. Czerepok’s electric clarion call manages at once to be the exhibition’s most visible and perhaps least seen aspect – a conceptual coup.


Standing in the first gallery off the foyer is Małgorzata Niedzielko’s plaster recreation of a mock-up that Ostrzega constructed in the 1930s, a proposal for a monumental tower intended for Białystok. The tower was to celebrate Henryk Zamenhof, the opthamologist who led the movement for Esperanto, the universal language. Zamenhof had been born in that city (now near the nation’s east border, then at the northern center of partitioned Polish lands, with immense eastern reaches under Russian occupation). He’s buried in the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery, with a tombstone that needs renovation.  


Niedzielko worked from the sole photo remaining, and imparts the scale of ambition of the period (that of a universal language, and that of commemorating its founder with a twelve-meter tower in his birthplace). Its unrealized pride hints at Vladimir Tatlin’s „Monument to the Third International,” the famed 1919 Bolshevik design meant to exceed the Eiffel Tower. Capping the tower model are five-point stars around Ostrzega’s mythologizing beast, itself reminescent of his tombstone sentinels in the Jewish cemetery.  Niedzielko’s model resonates with the exhibition’s broad intent, alone in a room where the perimeter band in the white-and-crimson floor tiles features myriad tiny six-point stars.


It leads to the second half, and two projects as disparate as they are complementary. Krzysztof Wojciechowski and Katarzyna Rotkiewicz-Szumska work from specific cemetery sources or themes – the material Ostrzega is recalled for today. Though Ostrzega’s diverse activities included participating in and exhibiting with the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts (founders of the Zachęta Gallery) and cofounding the Atelier of Decorative Art, in large part his tombstones survived the occupation and time’s gathering indifference.


However, in both aims and means, the artists’ two installations diverge. Spare and reliant on provocative self-evidence, Wojciechowski’s gallery becomes an installation: a generator, with impact greater than its parts. Facing sets of large-scale photos on two walls: a contact sheet of two dozen numbered cornerstones, each with a tell-tale five-point star (not red, as the contact sheet is black and white), then thirty tightly grouped color prints with grave insignias for Soviet soldiers killed in 1944 and 1945, driving the Germans from Poland.


Another wall holds only the cryptic quote „People reduced to numbers take up less room”; other information is strictly lacking. Inferences, however, multiply, especially today as anticommunist sentiments prevail, with monuments and cemeteries to Soviet war dead being eliminated or at peril in Poland. (From the Chopin Airport outside the capital, taxis and city buses pass the main Soviet cemetery in Warsaw out the righthand windows, which may be where the artist’s material was gathered.) Numbers are tantamount in the cornerstone images. Cyrillic script in the color shots, clipped or flowery, lists what information remains of those who fell, curtly or in paragraphs. Their dates which tabulate ages of 18, 20, 40. On one: 1894–1944. Two-thirds of these images feature bust photos of the deceased; one of these is scoured into oblivion.


Implications and imprecations swell, even at a glance. The brutality of the Eastern Front, to this day largely shunted off by mainstream historiography while remaining deeply contentious where it transpired. A fact both isolated and exacerbated by mechanations of the Cold War, itself instigated and fought in major part from London and Washington, the leaders of which had so willingly conceded so much in order not to have to face what the Soviet military then faced instead. The physical traces of which are now slated for removal, a form of historical reckoning readily utilized as contemporary political advantage. For whom would the installation elicit a discussion? Who’d have it erased from public view, as with Soviet memorial sites that are its subject matter?


The exhibition’s final gallery, its cul de sac, functions in reverse to the abrupt cri de couer of the military-cemetery photos.  Thirty-three portraits (one’s a rather Kafkaesque double canvas) run a fairly even strand on three walls, somewhat uniform at about a meter square, as well as in viewpoint (like the soldiers’ portraits, largely head and shoulders). Unnatural palettes, with surfaces appearing slap-dash or, in the artist’s wall statement, unfinished. Up the fourth wall, motorized cables draw three larger canvases back and forth across a fourth one, each a glimpse of overgrowth (in one, a stack of hewn stone).


The portraits, dated from 2013 to 2017, derive from photos of prewar Warsaw Jews, mostly untitled, with a crease or split evident in the image of Rachela Honig née Diament. Abraham Osztrega is present, brow furrowed, lips full. So is Józef Izbicki, the pen name of Bund member Bejnisz Michalewicz, whose butte-like tombstone, carved offset with sloping inset headstone, has been renovated in the cemetery on Okopowa Street.


One aspect of the effect is two-fold. It comprises a failed denaturing of individual reference or interest. Unless a visitor turns right away, the painter’s images secret themselves in, uncannily, inflating past their initial rude approximations. It’s a process enhanced yet effaced by the mechanics of shifting panels on the final wall (the bilingual title card’s Zarastanie is not translated but may mean „encroachment”). The uniformity of community, shorn of individuality as it appears to be at first, could be reenacting the perpetrator’s prejudice. This may also be taken personally today, with the widespread impact of populism over pluralities, and with a White House proclamation on 27 January commemorating the Holocaust without mentioning Jews.


An inference of Rotkiewicz-Szumska’s installation may be that whoever hadn’t died before the war, such as Izbicki (Michalewicz), or found no other means out, would’ve perished in the ghetto or at Treblinka, as Ostrzega did, where incineration would supplant mass burial. This historical probability is easily available through non-artistic channels – the impact, however, by one’s self or in company or with strangers at Zachęta, is densely layered. Cemeteries are honored as they are feared, nowhere more so than in Slavic culture, where graveyards are perpetually decorated and annual All Souls’ congregations in graveyards render them very public spaces. Attendance is thin then on Okopowa Street, a short stretch from the central cemetery at Powązki. Around the corner of the cemetery, meanwhile, is a dire monument at the former Skra sport ground, to the occupation-era execution site uncovered during housing construction in the early 1980s, as the pulverized former ghetto district was revitalized.


The pamphlet available at the Zachęta exhibition serves a guide to Ostrzega’s cemetery works, mapping them with capsule information on some of the dead, on which this article has relied. On 2 March, the gallery holds a day-long conference, „Around the Life and Work of Abraham Ostrzega,” led by Prof. Jerzy Malkrowski in collaboration with the Polish Institute of World Art Studies. Again, the Zachęta exhibition closes on 5 March. Obviously, Ostrzega’s works renovated in the Okopowa Cemetery, along with his other works there, will remain.


Alan Lockwood

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