A review of the exhibition On the Other Side of the Torah: Wartime Portraits from Tübingen, Galicia Jewish Museum, Krakow, Poland.
The Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, Poland, is in a modern building that was once an old mill before the Second World War. This large space houses the permanent Traces of Memory exhibition, which features photographs of Jewish life “in ruins” throughout Polish Galicia, as well as hosting many events ranging from live Klezmer on Sunday nights, Friday-night Shabbat services for Beit Krakow, a local progressive Jewish congregation, to book signings and lectures.
The Museum’s latest temporary exhibition, On the Other Side of the Torah: Wartime portraits from Tübingen, may only take a half hour to walk through, but it takes at least a day or two to fully comprehend and digest the significance. When you first walk through the minimalist exhibition, which has informative placards on the walls, you are greeted with introductory texts on the Torah, and an overview of the events leading up to the Holocaust, with references to Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass in November 1938) and the increase of anti-Semitism, and the persecution of the Jews.
Two years ago in Tübingen, Germany, fragments of the Torah were found in the house of a recently deceased octogenarian. And the subject of the exhibition is a particular “portrait”. On one side of these Torah fragments, written in Hebrew, there is the part of Exodus which describes how Moses started to write the Ten Commandments and the prohibition not to worship idols. The other side, which has been debated as to whether or not it was intentional, is an upside-down portrait of a Wehrmacht officer and his wife. The officer is smiling proudly and perhaps triumphantly. The question which arises is whether the soldier understands the sacredness of the text on the other side. After all their picture was on the very back of the most sacred text of the Third Reich's most hated people: the Jews. The Book of Exodus is one of the most fundamental books of the Torah, the sacred “good book” which many Jews regard as a cornerstone of their faith.
The presence of audio-visual media in the exhibition depicting responses from Holocaust survivors, members of the Jewish community, and scholars to this relic, help provide perspective. Piotr Nawrocki, a board member of the Jewish community in Krakow remarked that one of his first reactions was “confusion” followed by pain. Even though the Torah is essentially desecrated, he regards it as “art for both sides” in that it is “precious to [the] Germans” and “holy” for the Jews. And it is also painful not just for Jews, but for Christians, as the Torah was also the basis of Christianity.
Monika Stepien, a PhD candidate in Jewish Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, had a similar approach. For her, one side was not more important than the other; both were of equal significance as such a sacred text had never been damaged or “painted in this way” before. But it is moving as it captures your imagination. Connie Webber in her video response ponders the intention of the portrait’s subject. Was it just a text to him, she asked? Or was it done with the intent to harm, with the full knowledge of the sacredness of the Torah?
To give you an idea just how much a Torah is worth or the work it takes to literally make one, here is a short “deconstruction”. A Torah is a scroll consisting of 60 to 80 sheets of parchment with the exact number of 304,805 characters. Each sheet is meticulously written to perfection by a sofer, or scribe, who must adhere to Ashurite script. If the sofer misspells one word or the “a” is too round, he has to start all over again, even if he was one word away from finishing. After all this writing is done, each sheet is sewn together, by hand using sinews. Each sheet must have 42 lines. Not only must this sofer get this job done right the first time, which may take months if not years, but he also has to know and follow the 4,000 Jewish laws which apply to the Torah.
If one were to view this exhibition objectively the way one would view a typical avant-garde art exhibition, then it could be seen with the intention to confront and shock the viewer, which seemed to be at least partially the intention of the curator. Jason Francisco, lead curator, likens the Shoah (Hebrew for the Holocaust) to a “horrible puzzle” and the Torah fragments from Tubingen as “small but potent pieces” which aim to “challenge with bluntness”, yet, at the same time, compel the viewer to take a step further and see more, and to contemplate: when does art no longer become art? Did Herr Mayer, the Wehrmacht officer in question, lack understanding of just how sacred the text was? Or was it just a handy canvas lying around for his portrait?
More information on the exhibit can be found online at http://www.en.galiciajewishmuseum.org/on-the-other-side-of-the-torah-wartime-portraits-from-tubingen.html
Maia Lazar is a student at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and an editorial intern with New Eastern Europe.