November 16, 2018

Photos capture remnants of Jewish life in Poland

The Jews of Poland may be mostly long gone, murdered by the Nazis or escaped to the safer confines of Israel or America, but the echo of their civilization remains, frozen in time for all to see. Jonathan Webber, a British social anthropologist and a professor at the Institute of European Studies at the Jagiellonian University, Kraków, and the late photographer Chris Schwarz spent more than a decade documenting and photographing Poland’s ruined synagogues and cemeteries, and now “Traces of Memory,” an exhibition of their work, is making its West Coast debut at Pepperdine University’s Payson Library, in partnership with the school’s Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute for Jewish Studies. Featuring haunting photographs of eerie, rubble-filled sanctuaries and snow-covered tombstones, “Traces of Memory” seeks to show what a vibrant civilization left behind when it was forcibly snuffed out, and how it has withered — or been restored — in the years since.

To Webber, the idea of using contemporary photographs as a way to look at the Holocaust seemed like a no-brainer. “It dawned on me that there was something more expressive about a synagogue completely in ruins than a plaque saying that a hundred Jews had been massacred here.” Working with photojournalist Schwarz, Webber explored the area of southern Poland known as Galicia in search of places and images that would speak to people alive today. “The whole point was to say to people that this is a contemporary reality, not something so remote and distant that it’s like the Middle Ages. I wanted to ask how we deal with the reality of that past today,” Webber said.

When Rebecca Golbert, the associate director for public cultural programs at the Glazer Institute, heard that Webber had published a book featuring photographs from the exhibit and that it would be traveling to the United States from its permanent display at the Galicia Jewish Museum, she knew she had to bring “Traces of Memory” to Pepperdine. “Dr. Webber was actually my Ph.D. adviser,” Golbert said. She loves the idea of using photography to get students interested in the subject of the

Holocaust. “There’s a direct engagement with a photo that doesn’t require being mediated by a professor … it captures the imagination.”

A beautifully decorated, meticulously restored 18th century synagogue in Lancut, Poland. Photos by Chris Schwarz, courtesy Galicia Jewish Museum.

The exhibition, which continues through April 25, is the first program of its kind for the Glazer Institute; the show and the events around it represent an ambitious slate, the kind of programming the Glazer hopes to continue producing in the future. “Right now, we’re focusing on developing a Jewish studies minor [at Pepperdine],” Golbert said. “We want to make a wider impact through future events as well.”

Pepperdine’s dean of libraries, Mark Roosa, is extremely excited about hosting “Traces of Memory” at Payson. Although the school is a Christian university, Roosa said it’s a place “confident enough in its own beliefs to be ecumenical.” He envisions Pepperdine’s libraries as “a 21st century place of ideas presenting all points of view.”

“Images have a poetic beauty,” he said, “the longer you look at them, the more drawn into them you get.” He hopes that by displaying Schwarz’s photos in a space used by students daily, more students will be affected by the exhibit’s message.

Ken LaZebnik, Pepperdine’s director for library advancement and public affairs, who is Jewish, calls the Payson Library “a place you can take in something unexpected. It’s great to come to the library and make a serendipitous discovery.” In that vein, he thinks “Traces of Memory” is the perfect way to reach Pepperdine’s students. 

Webber agrees. “It’s a topic which offers an opportunity for dialogue across the boundaries of ethnic and religious life,” Webber said. When pressed for what makes “Traces of Memory” special, Webber was quick to answer: “The project is unique. No one has put together an exhibition of this nature, where we can take a contemporary view of how this subject touches us today. What I’ve tried to stress is that it’s multilayered. We’re not saying, ‘Come and cry, come and mourn.’ It’s important to respect victims, but it’s also important to celebrate their culture and their achievements, and how it continues to inspire today.”

“Traces of Memory” will be on display at Pepperdine’s Payson Library through April 25th.  A complete calendar of the events surrounding the exhibition can be found at the website for Pepperdine’s libraries: