Unusual holocaust exhibition opens in Warsaw

Bialystok 1941, photo: www.aforgottenodyssey.com

Before World War II more than 20 percent of world's Jewish population lived in Poland. They settled mainly in the eastern parts of the country, like the north-eastern city of Bialystok, where in 1937 they made up almost half of the population. But in the Bialystok region today, once home to 300,000 Jews, only a handful are left. Which prompts some to ask - what would Bialystok and other Polish communities - look like today - if it weren't for the holocaust? An exhibition in Warsaw is trying to answer that.

Tomasz Wisniewski is a journalist from the north-eastern city of Bialystok and co-founder of the "In Search of Poland Society" there. His latest idea is "Snapshots of Genocide - what would Poland be like if the Holocaust had never happened". It consists of several dozen pictures from Wisniewski's own collection of 40,000 photos which he acquired over 20 years at flea markets and internet auctions. They were taken by anonymous German soldiers who took their cameras along to Nazi-occupied Poland. Although shooting Jews was part of their daily routine, it was forbidden under German law to photograph or film atrocities. That's why the photographs on show in Warsaw do not show the horror of those times but are rather a portent of the slaughter to come. Tomasz Wisniewski agrees the exhibition may be viewed as controversial:

"I think we live in a very fast world, and we don't have time to stop to think for a moment. Sometimes we visit an exhibition just to visit our friends. If I make this impression on the visitors, watchers, readers, just to stop for a moment, just to think a little, I will be happy. Maybe it's a little provocation, but it's a contrast of a completely sick world like the time of war in a mirror of our time of stabilization, peace. And I rather expect a discussion about this question: what would Poland be like if the Holocaust never happened? Nobody knows."

He has faith that his exhibition will have more strength than pictures from Auschwitz.

"I have been once in Auschwitz. I have seen the crematories, and for me it's enough. I have seen this once and I will remember it till the end of my life because I can't understand how it happened. That's why I think the photographs, showing the situation of Polish Jews the day before, are much more interesting than showing exact crematories or bodies on the streets."

Eleonora Bergman, deputy director of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw had mixed feelings when she looked at the pictures for the first time:

"I don't feel comfortable looking at these pictures because I know who took them. And I know that this is not a normal life. I know that this is the beginning of an abnormal life, and this is the beginning of death and destruction. So, this is maybe a matter of knowledge and a matter of imagination. They make me realize that we are looking at these pictures today."

Could they provide any hint that would lead us to answer the question: what would Poland be like today if the Holocaust had never happened?

"I think this goal is not achieved by these pictures. I don't really find the question appropriate."

The exhibition was opened two weeks before the heads of over 20 countries come to Poland to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, where some 1.5 million men, women and children, most of them Jews, were killed by the Nazis.