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Museum Exhibits Works by Polish Artist Confronting Holocaust

WARSAW, Poland — Warsaw's Jewish history museum opened an exhibition Thursday featuring works by a renowned Polish artist that confront the lingering and melancholy presence of the Holocaust in Poland, where Nazi German forces carried out their destruction of Europe's Jews and other atrocities.

"Wilhem Sasnal: Such a Landscape" opened Thursday at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The dozens of paintings and drawings on display confront the Holocaust in the nation's physical and mental landscape and the difficulty in addressing an unsettled past. 

Sasnal, who is not Jewish, has for two decades been grappling with this history. The 48-year-old described a generational need to confront the past, also because parts of Polish society refuse to acknowledge that while Poland was victimized by Nazi Germany, there were also some Poles who joined in the despoliation and murder of the nation's Jews.

For decades after World War II, such discussions were taboo, with the themes of Polish sacrifice and honor dominating historical memory. But with the new openness that came with the fall of communism in 1989, scholars and artists began studying and speaking openly of anti-Semitism and the participation by some Poles in the German crimes. Each new book or film has touched a raw nerve.

"The history of the Second World War was obscured until 1989," Sasnal said.

It was then "extremely shocking," he said, when scholars began to reveal wartime wrongdoing by Poles, including the 1941 killing of hundreds of Jews by Poles in the town of Jedwabne.

"At the beginning I felt anger and shame," he told The Associated Press. 

"And it's still so difficult to see that people don't want to acknowledge it. People totally refuse, and this is the mainstream Polish government attitude."

Sasnal is one of Poland's most prominent living artists. His works are included in collections at the Museum of Modern Art and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Tate Modern in London and Centre Pompidou in Paris, among others.

Sasnal also acknowledged that Poland is often unfairly judged — that sometimes those outside of Poland lose sight of the bigger picture.

Poland was occupied by German forces who killed millions of Polish citizens — some 2 million Christian Poles as well as 3 million Jews. Many Poles fought the Germans at home and abroad and the state never collaborated with Nazi Germany. Thousands of Poles have also been recognized by Yad Vashem for risking their own lives to save Jews.

Yet Sasnal believes that Poles must acknowledge the bad along with the good.

"Unless we accept such a complex past, we will be judged and we will be misjudged," he said. 

The exhibition comprises two decades of works that touch in some way on the Holocaust — works that Sasnal did while also dealing with other topics.

The oldest ones were inspired by cartoonist Art Spiegelman's Holocaust cartoon stories in his "Maus" books. The newest ones were created this year especially for the exhibition.

There are paintings of former death camps, but they are always contextualized, with Sasnal's bike or his wife looking from inside a car at the gates of Auschwitz — because to depict the death camps alone would be too banal and brutal, he said.

The Auschwitz paintings were produced after he and his wife passed by the memorial site on their way home from a New Year's Eve party on Jan. 1. Millions travel to the site from around the world. But for many Poles — including Sasnal, who lives in nearby Krakow — the presence of genocide memorial sites are part of the landscape of daily life.

A painting of an imagined map of Poland bordering Israel recalls the long co-existence of Jews with Poles in Poland, a Jewish homeland for centuries.

A portrait of Hitler has been covered in black paint and crossed out with a wooden bar, an evil too extreme to depict figuratively.

Paintings that draw on images first created by French painter Edgar Degas, an antisemite, are reminders of the antisemitism pervasive across Europe that created fertile soil for the Holocaust. One evokes a bathing women modeled on a Degas work superimposed with a swastika. 

Paintings of Gypsies or stereotypical images of Africans in the popular imagination show how other groups, along with Jews, have long been considered the "other" in society.

Ahead of the opening, the curator, Adam Szymczyk, braced for the possibility that this exhibition, too, might spark anger from nationalists and right-wingers.

But now that a right-wing party runs the country — and is a co-partner in the museum, which is a public-private partnership — he said he expected the reaction to be more muted.

He said both he and Sasnal were driven by a need to express remorse.

"I think this is our way of saying sorry on behalf of others," he said. "The others don't say 'I'm sorry' so we have to. It's a duty."

The exhibition runs until January 10.

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