Zbigniew Nosowski: An Exhibition That Couldn’t Not Happen

Wojciech Cieśniewski installing the exhibition in the parish hall, Otwock, August 2022.
Photo: Jacek Twardowski

The inspiration for Wojciech Cieśniewski’s paintings were archive photos from The Jews of Otwock FB page, which by definition only seeks to engage people’s attention for a short while. Thanks to the sensitivity of the artist, ephemeral online information about Otwock’s past has been preserved on canvas.

Text by Zbigniew Nosowski, chairman of the Citizens’ Committee for Remembrance of the Jews of Otwock and Karczew, published in the catalogue of the Life, After All. Exhibition of paintings by Wojciech Cieśniewski.

Probably hardly anyone will believe this, but even six months before the opening of this exhibition, the people who spent the last few months intensely preparing for it mostly didn’t know each other, or even of one another’s existence. This is definitely not the tempo for organising serious exhibitions, but even so, thanks to the good will of many people, in this case it worked.

And so, here is this exceptional exhibition, which could just as easily not have happened. But once it took on a viable shape, and it was clear it would be one of the key events commemorating the 80th anniversary of the annihilation of Otwock’s Jews, I thought that it couldn’t just not happen. Someone had painted these pictures, and obviously they couldn’t just stay in the artist’s studio. So someone had to put them together into a whole and show them to the world. I’m happy that I was able to play some part in that.

From the Virtual to the Real

It all started in the virtual world, from the message Beata Twardowska sent on 22 February 2022 to the Żydzi otwoccy/The Jews of Otwock FB page. This page had been initiated by Tomasz Brzostek, photographer and cameraman, creator of such excellent online projects as Swidermajer.info [about the area’s characteristic wooden buildings], and joint initiator of the Swidermajer Festival. Together we run this fanpage, to use the technical term, about the history of the Jewish inhabitants of Otwock. We post cuttings from prewar newspapers, photos dug out from various archives and biographies of ordinary residents.

And so in February we found a request in our inbox, to meet and exchange ideas. We were intrigued to learn from Ms Twardowska that she was friends with Professor Wojciech Cieśniewski from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. This artist, inspired by stories he’d heard from a friend who came from Otwock, had painted a whole series of pictures about local Jews, and his inspiration often came from photographs on The Jews of Otwock FB page. ‘Where can I send photos of the paintings?’ asked Beata Twardowska.

Our answer was prompt. We had to see the paintings ‘in the flesh’, particularly those with subject matter important to us. Along with Sebastian Rakowski, chairman of the Friends of Otwock Society, we set off for Professor Wojciech Cieśniewski’s studio, right by Warsaw’s Old Town Square.

We saw works of art there, which immortalised figures of individual Jews from Otwock. I was particularly delighted that the inspiration for the paintings had been archive photos from our FB page, which by definition only seeks to engage people’s attention for a short while, because in a moment a new window, with a new stimulus, will pop up onscreen. We had come upon an unusual internet user, an artist; Wojciech Cieśniewski would pause at some of the photos and not scroll on, he’d contemplate a particular photograph, inwardly process it and then pour his emotions out onto canvas. In this way ephemeral online information about Otwock’s past got to be preserved on canvas.

So we took up the idea of the Twardowskis, to organise an exhibition of Wojciech Cieśniewski’s paintings in our town (Beata’s husband, Jacek Twardowski, turned out to have gone to the same school as me, the Gałczyński Liceum Ogólnokształcące in Otwock, but being four years younger, he started just after I’d left). However, it’s easy enough to say, let’s have an exhibition, but much harder to make it really happen. To do so you need to find a lot of allies.

The Links in the Chain

The chain of people of good will began with Zygmunt Stępiński, director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Although the museum has plenty of work of its own and its exhibitions are planned several years in advance, Mr Stępiński decided he would collaborate with us Otwock volunteers. In this way we acquired top-notch curatorial support.

The first to acquaint herself with Wojciech Cieśniewski’s work was Joanna Fikus, head of POLIN’s exhibitions department. Very quickly, everyone realised that what we had was a unique approach to artistic output. Professor Wojciech Cieśniewski might be a well-known and recognised artist, but he’s characterised by unusual modesty: he paints a lot but shows little.

Shortly afterwards Tamara Sztyma from POLIN became the card-carrying curator of the exhibition. A notable art historian and experienced museum curator, she has written a professional description and commentary of the work being shown, which you can read opposite. It was she who, in collaboration with the artist, began selecting the paintings for the exhibition and working on its concept.

But where in Otwock can you find a space big enough to show around 30 paintings, some of very large format, where they won’t have to merely hang on the wall next to each other? Someone had the idea that the space in the parish hall of the Church of St Vincent de Paul could be suitable. Parish priest and vicar forane of the Otwock deanery Dr Bogdan Sankowski, agreed without hesitation. No surprise there, given the precedent, which Fr Sankowski himself explains in his piece opposite.

So here was the venue and with it the next question: how to convert an ordinary parish hall into an interesting exhibition space? For this Jacek Twardowski turned to renowned architects, WXCA. One of the partners at WXCA and chairwoman of the Warsaw branch of the Association of Polish Architects, Marta Sękulska-Wrońska, found among the people she worked with a fine architect who actually came from Otwock. This was how Paweł Wolanin came to join the team preparing the exhibition.

I received a wonderful lesson in thinking about art, which – frankly – also gave me a lot of pleasure, listening in on the professional discussions between curator Tamara Sztyma and architect Paweł Wolanin, as they looked for the best (and simplest) solutions for making use of the space in the parish house and ensuring the paintings got the presentation they deserved. You can see the effect of their efforts, ladies and gentlemen, when you visit the exhibition. The hand of a local carpenter was not missing either, in the significant input of Paweł Jażdżewski, owner of the Luksmeble company.

Their Memory will Endure

There would have been no exhibition without its instigators, patrons and de facto main organisers: Beata Twardowska and Jacek Twardowski. It was they who cleared the many paths to the outstanding specialists they engaged in collaboration, thanks to whom we can present Wojciech Cieśniewski’s paintings from the Life, After All series, here in Otwock, in such a fully professional manner.

For me personally, working on this show has brought the added joy of it all happening in my town and in my parish. I was born here, but for a very long time I didn’t know a thing about the Jews of Otwock. I’ve been a member of the parish of St Vincent de Paul since baptism, but for many years I had no idea what the priests of the parish had done for the Jewish community. For over half a century I’ve lived opposite the house where Irena Sendler was brought up, but it was a long time before I found out anything about her. Now I can repay the debt of gratitude to those who, all those years ago, made this town what it is.

The presentation of Wojciech Cieśniewski’s paintings also complements the activities of the Citizens’ Committee for Remembrance of the Jews of Otwock and Karczew by adding a new, very relevant dimension. For over 20 years we have organised many public events: cemetery cleaning, marches of remembrance, educational activities in schools, international meetings for young people, lectures, discussions, meetings with experts and with witnesses of history, book launches, film screenings, historical exhibitions, photographic exhibitions, concerts, theatrical events, guided walks around the town. But this year, the 80th anniversary of the annihilation of Otwock’s Jews, is the first time we’re putting on an exhibition of paintings.

This exhibition reiterates, this time in the language of art, that the memory of our local Otwock Jews will not disappear. For years we have been repeating that there has not been a day that changed the history of our town as much as did 19 August 1942, when the Nazi butchers took half of the people living here to the death camp in Treblinka. Remembrance of these tragic events, like the memory of the lives of our Jewish co-residents, is something completely obvious and indispensable to maintaining the identity of our town.

Remembrance Makes Us Better

And it turns out that this remembering is also changing us, now. Changing us for the better. Likewise, thanks to the paintings of Wojciech Cieśniewski we can look at our town with more attentiveness, we can see more, understand better about where it is that we live and to whom Otwock owes its glory years. And also, as in the case of this exhibition, find further unexpected soul mates, people with whom we can do something good.

Further, because there was never any lack of soul mates when it came to commemorating Otwock Jews. Such different people worked together on this: Jews, Poles, Israelis, Americans, Australians, Catholics, Christian Orthodox, Baptists, agnostics, atheists and many others. This work has the power to connect.

An example of this sort of connection is my transatlantic friendship with the ‘Crazy Lady’, as I call Karen Kirsten from Boston. She is the great great granddaughter of Józef Przygoda, who in 1895 founded the first Otwock ‘diet and hygiene clinic for Israelites’ at 5 Warszawska Street. She discovered her Otwock roots, was instrumental in four Polish people being recognised as Righteous Among the Nations and consciously engages in building good Polish-Jewish relations. She’s ‘crazy’ enough to come to Otwock frequently because she feels she’s needed here.

Karen’s last visit, in May, happened to be at the same time as the Swidermajer Festival. She came to a meeting of volunteers on the subject of the Jews from along the Warsaw–Otwock railway. Wojciech Cieśniewski was there too. Although they didn’t say a word to each other, the artist immediately saw how Karen’s activity was an excellent illustration of the idea behind the series of paintings he was working on. And once he saw this he painted Karen’s picture, using as inspiration the photo Aldona Piekarska had taken after a meeting of the ‘Crazy Lady’ with young Otwock people at the Holy Family School in April 2019. What is in this painting is the joy of life. Life, After All

Translated by Jolanta Scicińska

Zbigniew Nosowski: editor-in-chief of the Catholic intellectual quarterly Więź, columnist and book author. Christian co-chairman of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, chairman of the Citizens’ Committee for Remembrance of the Jews of Otwock and Karczew. Awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Szczecin, and recipient of the POLIN Special Award 2021.

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