Letters From Afar Close Up
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Letters From Afar Close Up

The four side-by-side frames shimmer as if blown by a gentle breeze. Scenes begin to flicker before you, like a dreamscape, some in black and white, some in color. Rock-solid, ageless buildings appear, their stone facades immortalized by light and film.

Then faces, people, children, some holding their gaze directly at the camera, at you, others black robed and bearded, covering their faces and turning away. A James Cagney lookalike with a broad face, pug nose and swept back hair laughs at the camera. A chassidic eyeglass vendor carefully places his wares atop a doily in a display case in front of his shop. A man in a smart suit, complete with pocket square and stylish collar rod, holds court. A block of text discreetly appears. A gathering of intellectuals at Warsaw Jewish Writer’s Union, it reads. I am in Poland in 1938 and I don’t want to leave.

I see scores of Jews but I want to see them all, every one of Warsaw’s 350,000 Jews. I want to touch them, smell them, hold them. Most of all I want to warn them. I want to yell so loud my cry pierces time itself and hearing me, they close their eyeglass shop, shut the Warsaw Writer’s Union, put their babies back in their prams and leave for somewhere, anywhere.

The half-hour long film of pre-war Warsaw is one of a series of home movies made by American Jews who visited Poland in the 1920s and 1930s. About 14 sites are covered, from Vilna in the northeast, to Lodz in the west, Krakow in the south, from Nowogrodek to Kamionka, Kurow to Sokolow.

The films are part of a groundbreaking multimedia installation, “Letters to Afar,” by Hungarian artist Peter Forgacs with original music by The Klezmatics. The exhibit, commissioned by the Warsaw’s new Museum of the History of Polish Jews (where it has already appeared) and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, is now presented at the Museum of the City of New York.

The Warsaw footage is particularly vivid in that parts are shot in in 16 mm color, which was unique for the time. The color takes the images out of the sepia–toned past to the present. Warsaw’s Jews look alive, vibrant, contemporary. They look like us. In a conversation at the opening, Mr. Forgacs explained that he repeated some sequences and slowed down and sometimes even froze images, to better enable a viewer to focus on a detail, a face, a coat, a child.

I gaze at the Warsaw footage looking for my grandparents. Granted, the odds are not great. But if I am alive to look at the film, I have already beaten the odds. Maybe my run will continue. I watch the footage and when it ends I watch it again. I don’t see them but maybe the film reels show others who did. Did my grandparents wear eyeglasses? I don’t know but if they did, perhaps they bought a pair at the shop I saw. I never strolled with my grandparents on Shabbat morning to the Tlomacki Synagogue but I saw the cobblestone street in front of the synagogue and the synagogue’s massive staircase where they walked up Shabbat morning. I send my own letter to afar.

“Letters to Afar: Installation by Péter Forgács and The Klezmatics” is on view at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue (at 103rd Street), through March 22, 2015.

Barry Lichtenberg practices law in Manhattan.

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