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December 14, 2016 1:34 am

Photo Exhibit Making North American Premiere Highlights Erasure of Polish Jewish History Since World War II

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One of the photographs in the exhibit making its North American premier at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersberg. Photo: Lukasz Baksik.

One of Lukasz Baksik’s photographs in the exhibit making its North American premier at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. Photo: Courtesy of the Florida Holocaust Museum.

A black-and-white photo exhibition making its North American premiere highlights the erasure of Polish Jewish history since World War II, the executive director of the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg told The Algemeiner this week.

Speaking about Polish photographer Lukasz Baksik’s works that show how Jewish gravestones in Poland have been stolen and reused for other purposes over the decades — particularly during the eras of Nazi and Soviet rule — Elizabeth Gelman said, “The big thing for us is this has been going on for so long. Generations in Poland have grown up walking on and walking by — and in some cases even dancing — on people’s graves, without thinking about it, without really knowing what they are.”

Furthermore, Gelman noted, “this goes on in all of our communities, to some extent. What aren’t we seeing? What have we pushed to the side and stopped caring about? What are the things in our own communities that are important to recognize but we no longer see?”

Baksik said in a statement about the exhibit, “The gravestones that were turned into everyday objects were still being used as such from 2008 to 2012 when I photographed them. There are still sidewalks and courtyards paved with ‘matzevot’ (Jewish gravestones). Walls, buildings and tools that were made of Jewish gravestones are still being used in public view.”

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His photographs, Baksik said, are evidence of the efforts people have undertaken to “wipe out traces of Jewish culture.”

Gelman added, “Lukasz’s story is really interesting. He’s a gentile. He just saw these ‘matzevot,’ became interested and felt like once he knew about something in his community that was wrong, he needed to find a way to speak out. And he’s artist, so he used his art to do so. And his message is, now you know about it, what are you going to do?”

Last month, as reported by The Algemeiner, an official with a leading US-based Jewish human rights organization said the Polish government was “apparently attempting to intimidate researchers and to rewrite history through a political lens” by threatening to prosecute a prominent Holocaust scholar — Polish-born American historian Jan Tomasz Gross — for claiming that Poles killed more Jews during World War II than they did Germans.

Mark Weitzman — the director of government affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center — said the Gross case bore “all the hallmarks of a political witch-hunt.”

“While this had been customary under Communist rule, it is a clear departure from the vigorous and healthy debate that had been occurring in Poland since independence,” Weitzman noted. “Any attempt by the Polish government to stifle or distort historical research on the Holocaust through legal or other means must be rejected, and the right to pursue historical research free from government interference must be clearly affirmed.”

In an interview with The Algemeiner in August, renowned antisemitism expert Manfred Gerstenfeld said there was no doubt that Poles have not yet come to terms with their country’s Holocaust history.

“On one hand, Poles saved Jews,” Gerstenfeld said. “On the other hand, they killed Jews. The Jews were put in ghettos. Jews fled from the ghettos, and some of those Jews fought with the resistance, and others were murdered by the resistance or delivered to the Germans.”

Two years ago, as reported by The Algemeiner, the local fire department in the Polish town of Rozprzy came upon Jewish gravestones in a remote parkland. Officials promptly contacted “From the Depths,” a Jewish nonprofit whose mission is to restore the headstones at existing Jewish cemeteries, or at other carefully selected places in cases where cemeteries do not exist any longer.

“From the Depths” Executive Director Jonny Daniels told The Algemeiner at the time, “We are receiving hundreds of calls about matzevot used in the wrong context, locations of mass graves and even from people wanting to give back Jewish artifacts such as Torah Scrolls from all over Poland, every week.”

“This really was an incredible act,” Daniels said. “These firemen all volunteered on their only day off, to come with us and help us uncover and restore our heritage and history.”

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