An Unfinished Memory

An Unfinished Memory:  Jewish Heritage and the Holocaust in Eastern Galicia

Commissioned by the Galicia Jewish Museum, Kraków, for permanent exhibition

Photographed, written, and curated by Jason Francisco

For a full online presentation of this work, follow the link below, or go to the Curatorial/Galicia Jewish Museum tab at the top of this page.


To speak of the Jewish in Galicia––and in eastern Galicia specifically, the subject of the new permanent exhibition at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków, and its accompanying catalogue––is to speak of both a legacy and an enigma.  It is to speak of a past that is not past, a thousand year old civilization whose recognizeability largely belongs to them, the ancestors, and whose unrecognizeability largely belongs to us, the inheritors.  It is to speak of an annihilated world that is not pulseless, an actuality of devastation that can be traced but not quite followed, whose relics can be found but not recuperated.  To speak of the Jewish in eastern Galicia is to make a path into the paradoxical condition of an unfinished memory.  It is to speak of remembrance and brokenness both endowed with a quality of inertia, and to speak of a special kind of imagination apart from imaginariness.  The things of the imagination are, after all, precisely what is most real in matters of love and grief.

Part report and part visual poem, An Unfinished Memory offers one account of how historical imagination takes shape in an encounter with the everyday world.  The project's goal is not just to gaze upon but to read the social geography of contemporary western Ukraine for the sake of its Jewish actualities––the continued existence of Jewish heritage, the destruction of Jewish life and civilization in the Shoah, and the challenges of remembrance and preservation now and in the future. 

The images here, on this web page, are selected from the first of exhibition’s four parts.  Under the title “Something and Nothing,” they consider the overall situation of Jewish heritage in eastern Galicia.  The clearest and most distinct physical traces of eastern Galicia’s deep Jewish history are its communal patrimony––synagogue structures, cemeteries with at least some headstones standing, and sundry communal buildings.  To say that these traces exist clearly and distinctly is not to say that they are intact.  On the contrary, virtually all are in some state of ruin.  This ruin signals a more encompassing reality, namely the great absence of visible traces of Jewish life in eastern Galicia.  Whatever is clear and distinct pales in comparison to that which is unmarked, unapparent, and effectively invisible.  As such, this section of the exhibition grapples with the core contradiction that defines the Jewish in eastern Galicia today.  It presents a dialectic of traces and tracelessness, ruined presence as against sheer absence, improbable survival as against blunt erasure, something as against nothing.

Or to put the point differently, the Holocaust remains the defining factor of the Jewish present in eastern Galicia.  Without exception, the events of the Second World War wrecked every Jewish community.  During the Nazi occupation (1941-1944), the Germans and their Ukrainian collaborators killed Jews in myriad ways:  some died by gas and some by bullets, some in deportations and some in roundups, some by disease and some by hunger, some by exhaustion and some by fighting.  Jews accounted for over 70% of total non-combat related deaths in eastern Galicia during the war (and almost 95% of eastern Galician non-combat deaths when factoring out the city of Lviv itself), though Jews represented under 15% of eastern Galicia’s total population in the interwar period.  Altogether, of the 656,000 Jews living in eastern Galicia in 1939, over 85% were murdered during the Holocaust.  In the years following the war, most of the Jews who survived emigrated, so that the Jewish population in eastern Galicia in 1959 was just over 4% of what it was twenty years earlier.  Today, the Jewish population in eastern Galicia is estimated at fewer than 10,000 of a total population of approximately 5 million, or .2%.  In short, the effects of the Holocaust––amplified over the succeeding 70 years––are pervasive, and palpable in eastern Galicia.  Effecively they constitute a continuing catastrophe.

What to do with the situation of eastern Galicia’s Jewish past?  I do not have an answer to this question, but I feel that the beginning of an answer lies in another question:  whose inheritance is it in the first place?  It seems essential to me that the problems of Jewish heritage in eastern Galicia be understood not only as a Jewish matter, but as equally as an aspect of Ukrainian heritage, which is to say of a multicultural heritage in contemporary Ukraine.  To read Jewish heritage well is not merely to ask “What Jewish actualities still exist?” but to ask “What are the Jewish actualities with which ordinary Ukrainians are living?”  It is a mistake, in other words, to cordon off the Jewish in eastern Galicia from its contemporary context, and to avoid the difficult questions of how the Jewish is embedded and operating in a world of Ukrainian meanings and values that themselves cohere into what we call everyday life.  The task is not merely to see the ruined Jewish past of contemporary eastern Galicia but to see into it––to discern the power of change and healing it holds within itself.

Jason Francisco

June 2014, Kraków