Polish Folk Art and the Holocaust: Perpetrator-Victim-Bystander Memory Transactions in the Polish-German Context

Holocaust-themed folk art from Poland constitutes an important and as-yet-unexamined source that offers a unique perspective on the “dispersed” Holocaust that took place outside of the death camps, in full view of local “bystander” populations. Created throughout the postwar decades, carvings and paintings of Holocaust scenes by Polish vernacular artists, who remembered pre-war Jews and witnessed the atrocities against them, have been largely forgotten in the holdings of Polish ethnographic museums or reside in private (mostly German) collections, without ever having been systematically examined as a source of knowledge about post-traumatic memory processes.

This project, funded by the DFG and NCN’s joint initiative “Beethoven,” focuses on such vernacular representations of the Shoah, and their impacts and instrumentalizations in East, West, and reunited Germany from 1945 until today, examining their role in Polish and German memory cultures. The study seeks, further, to determine to what extent German collectors stimulated memory of the Holocaust among Polish artists, and whether Germany’s “orientalist” gaze on Poland influenced the way this art was produced and received in the German states. Finally, the project will yield insights into the ways that Poles and Germans have negotiated their respective collective statuses as victim, witness, and perpetrator.

The project is carried out jointly with Magdalena Waligórska-Huhle, Roma Sendyka (Jagiellonian University in Kraków), and Erica Lehrer (Concordia University Montreal).