353 Back to/from Poland

With a family history in Poland and the encumbrance of the Holocaust, Schwartz cannot visit that country like a casual tourist. A professional congress brought him to Warsaw for four days, where his ignorance of his antecedents came back to oppress him. Personal, scholarly and professional feelings become crossed and confused.

There are dozens of seventeenth-century Dutchmen about whom I know more than I know about my own grandfather. That painful realization hit me again last week in Warsaw, where I attended the twentieth congress of CODART. That organization, which I founded with the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage in 1998, brings together hundreds of museum curators of Dutch and Flemish art from all over the (Western) world.

Pieter Saenredam, View across the choir of the church of St. Bavo, Haarlem, 1635. Warsaw, Muzeum Narodowe

Across the screen at the presentations and on the wall in the National Museum appeared paintings by artists I had studied. An artist like Pieter Saenredam, about whom in 1989 Marten Jan Bok and I composed an exhaustive chronology and genealogy.

Concerning my grandfather, Albert Schwartz, before he left Poland for New York in 1907 as Aryeh Schwarzberg, I know next to nothing. About my great-grandfather all I know is that when my grandfather was called up in synagogue for a Torah reading, he was announced as Aryeh ben Pesachya ha-Levi, meaning that his father’s Jewish name was Pesachya (in current pronunciation Petachya).

Irving Schwartz (1918-89), Albert Schwartz (1886-1964), Rose Schwartz née Zucker (1886-1975), Sam Schwartz (1907-49)

When I was growing up in Brooklyn the Polish past of my paternal grandparents was never discussed. They seemed to live in the eternal present – business and belief for my grandfather, family and food for my grandmother. I was closer to them than were the other 24 grandchildren, the oldest of whom are in the photo below, taken I think at my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary in 1954.

In the 1940s three of my seven married uncles and aunts lived within walking distance of one another and of their parents. So did my family. Every Saturday afternoon we all paid our respects to the grandparents. The same was true of my maternal grandparents and their five children, in the same neighborhood, East New York. (By 1960 not a single one of them was still living there. East New York was turning into an urban wasteland and Old Country family clans were going out of style.)

How nice it would be to have a group picture of my family from 1900, to have Polish roots to revisit. Were I to have them, though, they wouldn’t be in Warsaw. That sophisticated city lay in another world than my grandparents’ shtetls in the south, reputedly but still not surely Wola Michowa and Radzyn, or is it the biggish city Rzeszów. Not that this made any difference to the Nazis, who destroyed it all. A tour of Jewish Warsaw brought us only to memory sites with histories too tragic for words; of the shtetls even less of the Jewish past is left.

Could this be one of the reasons I study Dutch art and history so gratefully? The European seventeenth century was not more peaceful than the twentieth. Hugh Trevor Roper wrote of “The general crisis of the seventeenth century,” with bloody civil wars in England and France and a Thirty Years War in Germany said to have wiped out a third of the population. The Netherlands was an exception. No witches were burned here, and the victims of political murder can be counted on the fingers of two hands. The forces of continuity were robust enough to accommodate without bloodshed stressful transfers of power and massive immigration, including Ashkenazi refugees fleeing the Polish Cossack pogroms of 1648-49. Speaking of families, everyone in the country knew who their great-grandparents were, and considered all of their relatives, even a great-aunt’s brother-in-law, “cousins,” people on whom you could call for help and expect it to be offered. This cut across denominational lines; there isn’t a clan to be found that does not include Catholics and members of various Protestant churches. This is a somewhat flattered view, but comparatively correct.

My dearest hope in founding CODART went beyond professional networking and Batavophile boosting. Impressed as I was by the love of Dutch and Flemish art shared by so many communities in so many countries, I cherished the ideal that by bringing the curators together I would also be making the communities more aware of each other. Hundreds of members of CODART from outside the Netherlands are paid by their own governments to study Netherlandish art and present it to their fellow countrymen. The curators themselves know this and work with it. By highlighting the phenomenon, I hoped that Netherlandish art would show museum visitors across the world how much they have in common with each other.

In this regard I must take polite exception to the opening remarks at CODART TWINTIG of the director of the National Museum in Warsaw, Agnieszka Morawińska. She sought to explain the large number of Dutch paintings in the collection as the function of special bilateral correspondences between the Low Countries and central Poland. They are both flat areas threatened by the water, the populace is commercially inclined and open-minded and so forth. The same kind of story is told about why there are so many Dutch paintings in Scotland and in the United States – low church, mercantile bent, anti-aristocratic. These claims for special relations are misguided. There is also a profusion of Dutch paintings in Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy, Cuba and Brazil, multisided countries for which other kinds of just-so stories would have to be made up, fruitlessly. The paintings are there because Dutch painting is appealing, accessible and available on the market for reasonable prices in vast quantities. An attendant quality is that most of it is of human and earthly rather than institutional or supernatural interest. Its grand dispersal should be taken advantage of to stress shared interests rather than exclusive ones.

My successor as director of CODART, Gerdien Verschoor, does have a Polish past. She lived there from 1991 to 2001, enviably learning the language, literature and culture of the country, getting her PhD on a subject in Polish art at the University of Warsaw and serving as cultural attaché of the Dutch embassy. At the congress she spoke movingly and eloquently about her Poland. My younger sister Penny has a new tie to Warsaw. She wrote a book on the spectacular reconstruction of a Ukrainian synagogue in the new museum of the history of Polish Jews, POLIN.

Poland is no longer unremembered. CODART has brought it back into my life, bringing with it not only the never-to-be digested Holocaust but also a slim opportunity, which I intend to pursue, to find out at least something about the centuries of my family history that transpired there.

© Gary Schwartz 2017. Published on the Schwartzlist on 29 May 2017. Images from a montage of family photos made by my late aunt and uncle Rae and Irving Schwartz. For a report on a previous, unforgettable CODART study trip to Poland, see https://www.codart.nl/our-events/codart-zeven/codart-zeven-study-trip/. A highpoint of CODART TWINTIG was the Dutch royal distinction awarded to Hanna Benesz, longtime curator of early Netherlandish and Flemish paintings at the National Museum in Warsaw.

Correction: in an earlier posting of this column, the reconstruction of the synagogue in POLIN was said erroneously to have been financed by an American couple, Rick and Laura Brown. The Browns are American artists and art professors who spearheaded the reconstruction, as founders of Handshouse Studio.

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3 thoughts on “353 Back to/from Poland”

  1. My family too came from Poland, from a shtetl called Tluster. At age 14 my father was sent to Vienna to collect used clothing to send back home for his mother to sell. He remained there, and I was born there in October 1937. Fortunately, my father saw the writing on the wall, and managed by hook and crook to get to Zurich, earning some money to bring his 8 month old daughter and his wife to Switzerland, where we lived until 1941. (I have a travel document with my name and a swastika on the cover–quite unnerving.) Then we took a boat to the USA, thanks to an affidavit from an uncle that we would not become wards of the state. Of course, everything my father owned–which wasn’t much but it was something–was confiscated by the Nazis.

    A few years ago I received an invitation to visit Vienna by an outfit called “The Jewish Welcoming Committee,” which paid for transportation and a full week in that beautiful city. I was able to visit the house where my parents lived, saw the traces of the many mezuzzahs on the painted-over doors, saw the cemetery where one of my relatives is buried, etc. etc. The organization is not run by Jews but by Christian or secular Viennese who wanted to show Jews that Austria had changed. That was only partially convincing, but I did very much appreciate the effort. As far as I know, Poland has not attempted anything of the sort–hmmm.

    As a former member and Chair of the Cook Committee of the Institute of Fine Arts, a committee that invites alumni to give public lectures at the IFA each year, I attended the lecture in April by Nadine Orenstein of the Met on Hercules Segers, followed by a dinner at the home of the Dutch Consul-General in NYC. In a toast he mentioned how grateful the Dutch are to Americans for their intense interest in Dutch art, which has really made the field flourish.

    Anyway, keep up your good work and thanks for sharing this personal history with your readers.

  2. My family were all eastern/central European Jews. All of them came to America between 1907 and 1915. Because of other members of my family, I know a lot about three out of four of them. The fourth, my maternal grandfather who was from Vilna and was active as a Jewish Socialist in the 1905 revolution, never talked much about his, time in the old country except for tales of clandestine printing presses and leaving Vilna with the Czar’s police at his heels. With my other grandfather, who was from Brezezin, near Lodz, I know much more. He kept in touch with many of his “Landsmen” who had also emigrated to NY. After the war, all the survivors in NY, plus others in America, Argentina, Canada and Australia, got together and wrote a “Yizkor” or memory book, as did survivors from many shtetl. This was done precisely to keep the memory of their old home town alive. Many of these are in the collection of the New York Public Library, and all of them are online. Though originally in Yiddish, many have been translated, as was the one for Brezezin–and there was not only my grandfather’s memories, but a photo of his father (your garden variety old Bearded Jew). It makes for interested, if somewhat disjointed reading.

    There’s a lot of data that has survived the holocaust, and organizations like Jewish Gen have a great deal of it, if that interests you..

    I went to Warsaw for one day last spring, (day trip from Berlin), specifically to visit the new Jewish Museum there and was completely blown away. It’s a great, innovative state-of-the-art place. I went there principally to see the reconstructed Gwozdiec synagogue ceiling (I have a fascination for the whole vanished vernacular of wooden synagogues), but ended up seeing all sorts of things that resonated with my grandparents, and what they brought to America. Did you go there?


    1. Yes, Judy, I did, and I too was very impressed and moved. The museum is a one-stop education in Jewish Poland. Gary

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