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Contemporary Art and the Shoah in Poland.

  • Exhibition
  • Oct 20 2023 - Feb 25 2024

The Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism’s new exhibition Materializing explores the approaches of contemporary Polish artists whose work addresses the memories and material traces of the Holocaust.

The Shoah has been present in Polish visual culture since the 1940s initially in films, paintings, printmaking, and sculptures, and increasingly today also in research-based installations, videos, and performances. The works on display are the result of a range of creative practices, taking the form of documentation, commemoration, and expressions of both grief and anger. Other works focus on rituals or examine politicized representations of events and individuals, as well as the manipulation of collective memory.

The artists Zuzanna Hertzberg, Elżbieta Janicka & Wojciech Wilczyk, Paweł Kowalewski, Agnieszka Mastalerz, Natalia Romik, Wilhelm Sasnal, and Artur Żmijewski & Zofia Waślicka-Żmijewska have devoted the works being exhibited to the multitude of gaps and voids both of a material and immaterial nature that have resulted from the loss of almost the entire Jewish population in Poland. The title of the exhibition makes reference to confrontations with the scant material evidence of the crimes that were committed in the past as well as the search for remnants of the lives that can no longer be lived.

In Poland, the first attempts to confront the Holocaust in art were already underway during the period of German occupation. Holocaust art emerged in works by Polish artists as well as in the Warsaw and Łodź ghettos, and later in ones by survivors of the Shoah. The language employed in these early works evoked strong emotions, it was expressive and yet careful to avoid pathos. The creative act was a form of self- therapy. Other works were related to tragic events that the artists had experienced themselves, frequently only narrowly escaping their own annihilation. Drawings and prints created in the concentration camps often made use of “morbid exaggeration.” Their artistic language had been developed in the midst of a world that was completely disintegrating.

Works created after the war were different. They were seeking to document the crimes committed, to honor resistance fighters, and devise symbols and metaphors for the crime against humanity and the rupture of civilization at Auschwitz. Such imagery was also attempting to convey some sense of the catastrophe one that deeply shook trust in human nature in general and destroyed all previously self- evident truths, whether moral, religious, or civil. Under the shadow of such ethical questions as whether it was still possible to write poetry after Auschwitz, hundreds or even thousands of depictions emerged addressing the Holocaust using a range of artistic means.

The most differing artistic techniques and styles have likewise been utilized in the works on display in the exhibition Materializing. Nevertheless, they all share a common artistic strategy, in that they have been preceded by thorough in some cases scientific, in others also physical research into the subject matter. Most of the works situate the material form referenced in the exhibition’s title in a contemporary context, avoiding any symbolic imagery and metaphors. Located in the Documentation Center for the History of National Socialisms permanent exhibition, each work creates a connection with the Shoah as it occurred on Polish soil.


Artists and Works

Zuzanna Hertzberg, Mechitza. Individual and Collective Resistance of Women During the Shoah, 2019-2022

The Mechitza installation is an excellent example of Hertzberg’s combined activity as artist, researcher, activist, and performer. It involves a variety of imagery interwoven into complex narratives addressing the histories and roles played by Jewish women during World War II, the Holocaust, and in some cases thereafter. The stories of these women demonstrate the strength, determination, and feminist attitudes of the heroines being presented. The Hebrew word mechitza means partition or division, particularly the one used to separate men and women in synagogues.

Zuzanna Hertzberg (b. 1981) is an interdisciplinary artist, activist, and researcher. Her practice includes painting, performance, textiles, and assemblage. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź and earned her doctorate at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. By using archival materials to create installations and collages, Zuzanna Hertzberg’s work focuses on the interweaving of individual and collective memory, in 

the search for identity within the mechanisms of appropriation and restitution of minority heritage, especially women’s heritage. Her most recent exhibitions werepresented at the Center for Jewish History in New York City and in public galleries in Poland.

Elżbieta Janicka & Wojciech Wilczyk, The Other City (Inne Miasto), 2011–2013

The series The Other City originally consists of 28 photographs. Janicka and Wilczyk took pictures from the rooftops and upper floors of buildings using a large-format camera. The result is one of the most important contemporary art projects on the history of Warsaw, relating to both past and present, depicts the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, which was burned and razed to the ground by the German army following the Ghetto Uprising (1943), and which is today an area of intense activity by developers. Executed in a strictly documentary convention, the series is an attempt to visually capture the vast area of the ghetto.

Elżbieta Janicka (b. 1970) is a scholar and an artist. She graduated from Université Paris VII Denis Diderot and the University of Warsaw. Rooted in avant-garde practices of the 1970-s and conceptual art, her photography as her research pertains to the identity and community building function of Polish antisemitism as well as the place and role of the Polish majority in the structure of the Holocaust. She works at the Institute of Slavic Studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Wojciech Wilczyk (b. 1961) is one of Poland’s most influential photographers. Wilczyk graduated in Polish studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and has published poetry, illustrated and photographic books. Being a photographer since the very beginning of his career, he represents a realist approach to photography and his works create a vast iconosphere of contemporary Poland. Wilczyk often works in long cycles of photographs, visiting obscure places, extracting forgotten or repressed memories.

Paweł Kowalewski, Strength and Beauty. A Very Subjective History of Polish Mothers (Polnishe Mame), 2015

In 2015, Paweł Kowalewski created a series of vanishing images. Strength and Beauty. A Very Subjective History of Polish Mothers are large-scale portraits of women of Jewish origin who lived during World War II, including a portrait of the artist’s mother, who took an active part in the Warsaw Uprising. They were printed with a special ink that fades away completely over time, turning the portraits into abstract shadows, the longer they are on view. The works are a commentary on the human tendency to forget, disrespect, or even despise history.

Paweł Kowalewski (b. 1958) is one of Poland’s leading painters and multimedia artists as well as co-founder of the legendary Warsaw based group “Gruppa” that changed the direction of painting in Poland in the mid-1980s. He studied with Stefan Gierowski and graduated from the Warsaw Art Academy. His works oscillate between expressive paintings and conceptual imagery, often exposing the absurdity of mechanisms operating in the world. His works have been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries in Europe and be found in many public and private collections.

Agnieszka Mastalerz, UZ, 2020

The projection refers to a wall painting created by Symche Trachter (1893-1942) in the building of the Jewish Council in 1942. The building and the painting it housed were destroyed during the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, while Trachter was murdered in the Treblinka death camp. UZ consists of a projection of over a dozen echograms, produced by Mastalerz, of the walls of a conference room in a modern hotel in Grzybowska Street in Warsaw. The hotel today stands close to the place where until 1942 the building of the Jewish Council was located. The echograms refer to the last work created by Symche Trachter, depicting the biblical figure of Job.

Agnieszka Mastalerz (b. 1991) is a multimedia artist living in Warsaw. She graduated from Mirosław Bałka’s Studio of Spatial Activities at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, was a student at Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Braunschweig and HFBK in Hamburg, graduating in cultural studies at the University of Warsaw. She works with photography, video, and installations, applying her poetic, subtle style to subject matters charged with underlying emotions.

Natalia Romik, Hideouts. The Architecture of Survival. Vacant lot in the Jewish Cemetery (Warsaw, Poland), 2022

The work is part of a large cycle that shows the results of Romik’s extensive research on the various hideouts where Jews took refuge during World War II in Poland and Ukraine. Romik physically entered and inspected numerous locations. The work on display results from her inquiry into a hideout at the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, where ghetto residents found refuge in 1942. In her artistic practice Romik employs a variety of techniques to create a comprehensive series of work filled with emotion and memories of long-forgotten, dramatic events.

Natalia Romik (b. 1983) is an artist, scholar, and curator. She holds an MA from the University of Warsaw and a PhD from Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London and is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah in Paris. Romik defines herself as a “political scholar, architect, and author of scholarly and artistic projects.” Her art, in her own words, involves “artistic research, which includes architecture, Judaic studies, history, and design.

Wilhelm Sasnal, First of January, 2021 I Ohne Titel Untitled (Ghetto in Tarnów), 2021 I Ohne Titel Untitled (Auschwitz – Alina Szapocznikow), 2021

The three paintings refer to the Holocaust in a sometimes direct or more allusive manner, as often is the case with the artist’s extremely poignant oeuvre, evokingimages embedded in the collective visual memory. 

First of January is part of a sequence of works based on photographs the artist took from a car passing the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp Memorial on the way home from a New Year’s party, together with his wife.

Untitled (Ghetto in Tarnów) is a reflection on a photograph taken in March 1942 in the Tarnów Ghetto, commissioned by the Vienna Museum of Natural History as part of a pseudo-scientific and racist study that attempted to classify the Jewish population.

Untitled (Auschwitz – Alina Szapocznikow) reflects on the more complex act of remembering the Holocaust by referring to official public tenders for architectural art projects, monuments, and memorial projects. The idea originates from a photograph by the well-known Polish designer Roman Cieslewicz, who in turn documented the memorial project for a monument at Auschwitz-Birkenau conceived by the artist Alina Szapocznikow.

Wilhelm Sasnal (b. 1972) is a painter, photographer, poster artist, illustrator, and filmmaker, and one of Poland’s most prominent contemporary artists. Sasnal graduated in painting from the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. His works are to be found in numerous collections, including Tate Modern London, as well as the Guggenheim Museum and Museum of Modern Art in New York. His recent exhibition, Such a Landscape (2021) at the POLIN Museum in Warsaw, focused on the memory of the Shoah.

Artur Żmijewski & Zofia Waślicka-Żmijewska, We‘ve Been Looking in Ashes, 2021–2022

The subject of the photographic and video installation are objects excavated in the area of the former Warsaw Ghetto, during archaeological work carried out on the building site of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Żmijewski and Waślicka-Żmijewska were invited to work with the numerous everyday objects or their remains traces of the lives of anonymous people condemned to death for being Jewish. The objects, physically placed in the context of similar usable items, existing peacefully in today's reality, enable a forceful contrast between the “living” and the “dead.”

Artur Żmijewski (b. 1966) is a multimedia and video artist and one of the leading practitioners of critical art in Poland. He graduated from the legendary “Kowalnia” class at the Warsaw Academy of Art (1995). He recently co-authored the book How to Teach Art (2022). Among numerous other projects Żmijewski was the curator of the 7th Berlin Biennale (2012). Artur Żmijewski is regarded as one of Poland’s most renowned artists and his work has been honored with many awards.

Zofia Waślicka-Żmijewska (b. 1984) is a Holocaust memory researcher, curator of cultural events, and educator. She graduated from the Institute of Sociology at Warsaw University. She is the coordinator of international projects co-organized by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum within the framework of the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, trainer at the Forum for Dialogue Foundation, and educator at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.



Materializing. Contemporary Art and the Shoah in Poland is an exhibition by the Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism.

Director: Mirjam Zadoff
Project Manager: Anna Straetmans
Curators: Piotr Rypson, Anna Straetmans, Mirjam Zadoff
Artists: Zuzanna Hertzberg, Elżbieta Janicka & Wojciech Wilczyk, Paweł Kowalewski, Agnieszka Mastalerz, Natalia Romik, Wilhelm Sasnal, and Artur Żmijewski & Zofia Waślicka-Żmijewska


Accompanying program

October 21, 2023, 3 pm

Spoken word performance by Zuzanna Hertzberg: Mechitza. Individual and Collective Resistance of Women During the Shoah

October 24, 2023, 5.30 pm

Guided tour with the curators: Materializing and More Important than Life, with Anna Straetmans and Ulla-Britta Vollhardt

November 16, 2023, 5 pm

Guided tour with the curators: Materializing, with Anna Straetmans and Lisa Kern (Lenbachhaus)

November 21, 2023, 5.30 pm

Guided tour with the curators: Materializing and More Important than Life, with Anna Straetmans and Ulla-Britta Vollhardt


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