‘Not the death but the life’


Alan Metnick’s photography exhibit, “Silence and Stones/Captured by Memory,” continues at gallery (401) at the Dwares JCC through Thursday, April 16. If you haven’t had a chance to visit, it is a must-see. If you’ve already been there, it’s worth a second or even a third look.

As you step into the gallery, there are five photographs on the wall to your left – each a peaceful forest scene, a picture of tranquility...and then you read where these trees stand: Auschwitz, 2004; Treblinka, 2005; Belzac, 2011; Sobibor, 2011; Chelmno, 2011. Five of Poland’s six major extermination camps; only Majdanek is missing from this notorious lineup. The sublime forest beauty captured in the photographs now seems an obscenity; but Mother Nature – in her amoral, nonjudgmental grandeur – knows nothing of our all-too-human capacity for depravity or of our heroic quest to remake ourselves into the image of God. 

Many of the remaining 25 or so images are of matzevot, tombstones. Some of the chiseled Hebrew letters are still legible; but in other cases, the letters are worn away by time and circumstance. Nevertheless and paradoxically, these tombstones – in their strange and striking beauty – testify not to the ultimate triumph of death but rather to millions of Polish Jewish lives lived out in all their rich complexity.

The photographs in Metnick’s exhibit – along with several others taken over this past decade during his 10 trips to Poland – are due to appear by the end of this year in a book to be both published and printed in Poland.  Metnick has been writing an informative and deeply felt commentary to accompany his photographs; a Polish translation will sit alongside Metnick’s English. 

The book will begin with a long introductory poem written by Daniel  Kahn, a songwriter and actor based in Berlin. This is a poem that closely mirrors Metnick’s complicated relationship to the country in which three million of its Jews were murdered, a country which both Kahn and Metnick view as “that holy of holies/that hole of all holes.” Both poet and photographer affirm that the history of Jews in Poland should emphasize “not the erasure but what was erased/not the destruction/but what was destroyed/not the death but the life.” Metnick’s book, then, is meant to be a voyage of discovery. Those who open up its pages should “try to see Poland for the first time/see it as a place/as real as any/unburdened by myth.”

Metnick’s involvement with Poland is profoundly personal; his maternal grandparents lived in the small village of Slawatycze. When he had the opportunity to visit, he discovered – not to his surprise – that there was scarcely a trace of the thriving Jewish community that had lived there prior to World War II. Enlisting the support of organizations that aim to preserve what remains of a once vibrant Jewish culture, Metnick worked to restore Slawatycze’s Jewish cemetery.

While Warsaw is now home to a world-class museum of Jewish heritage, and while the city is once again home to most of Poland’s 20,000-25,000 Jews, the vast majority of Poland’s 38.5 million inhabitants have never met a Jew nor have they any sense of the 1,000-year history of Polish Jewry.  In an effort to overcome this knowledge void in the far-flung rural villages and to help overcome the still smoldering embers of anti-Semitism, Metnick has formed close ties with the leaders of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations and one of its most important projects, School of Dialogue. According to its promotional literature, “The Forum for Dialogue Among Nations is a nonprofit Polish organization whose mission is to foster Polish-Jewish dialogue, eradicate anti-Semitism and teach tolerance through education.” 

By sheer serendipity Metnick happened to be visiting Slawatycze in October 2011 on the very day that the Forum’s School of Dialogue was holding the first of four intensive workshops for 24 students at the village’s middle school. Taught by two specially trained Forum educators, the students “learned the basics of Jewish history and culture.”  More importantly, these students “incorporated their knowledge into the history of their town.” By the conclusion of their special instruction, they were able to conduct walking tours of forgotten Jewish sites in their village, “sharing their findings with schoolmates from other grades.” When Metnick returned to Slawatycze the following October, he met with 18 of the 24 students who were in the School of Dialogue program. Many of them had clearly been transformed by the knowledge that prior to the Second World War, one out of every two students in their school would have been Jewish.

Metnick’s photographs of Poland – solemn, stark, spare – reflect the sensitivities of a gifted observer; what he sees is more than a graveyard haunted by the memories of murdered millions. Through his ongoing relationship with the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations and, more particularly, with the School of Dialogue, Metnick has come to see Poland, unburdened by myth, as a place of possibility, a place of renewed Christian-Jewish understanding, a place where Jews may once again have a future.

To find out how you can help Metnick in his ongoing work with the School of Dialogue, email him at alanmetnick@gmail.com or call him at 401-272-9899.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.