The Orphan Kaddish


    The orphan Kaddish
    Brings back an unrelenting remembrance
    That accompanies me constantly and everywhere,
    And stays with me, stays and stays
    As an inner ash shadow.

                            —A. Léyeles

    With wisdom comes sorrow,
    and whoever gains in knowledge also grows in grief.
    
                            —Ecclesiastes 1:18





IT HAS TAKEN ME AWHILE to formulate the following questions, and I am not satisfied:

Just what do I mean when I say that time “passes?”  The verb is intransitive, as if to suggest that time is a force capable of acting, but has no object on which to act.  And perhaps more:  that time simply—and necessarily?—describes transition, becoming, movement.  Is it incoherent to speak of time without change?

On the other hand, just what do I mean when I say that events occur “in” time?  Am I suggesting that time is a container somehow existing apart from the events it holds, and perhaps more:  that time remains apart from change, transformation, cause and effect?  And how does time “contain” events in the first place?

Either time passes, or it does not pass.  And if time passes, is this to say that time has continuance, or the opposite?  And if time does not pass, is this to say that time lacks continuance, or the opposite?  How to speak of time without begging questions of what it means to suggest that time itself lasts, continues, endures?

Either time exercises dominion over the events “in” it, or it does not.  If time exercises dominion, is this to say that events are “caught” in time—and inextricably?  And if time exercises no dominion, is this to say that time is inherently empty, and comes to be “filled” with events through some other agency?

I KEEP REVISITING my mistakes in looking and in reading.  I do not know where this compulsion comes from, this rummaging through life and books in pursuit of a certain type of question—the kind whose premises are half-tangled.  It is as if a loose knot of ideas is a precious thing to me.  Pull it one way, it tightens ingeniously, and you smile or grimace in recognition.  Pull it another, it unties altogether, and you are left holding the strands.

ARE METAPHORS ESSENTIAL to conceiving the nature of time, or just usefully illustrative?  I am thinking, for example, of Heraclitus, who famously imagines time as a flowing stream, in which “everything gives way and nothing abides.”  And I am thinking of Democritus, who imagines time as a swirling rain getting thicker and thicker, lacking in direction, origin, or destination. 

ACTUALLY, I AM THINKING of something more specific.  I am imagining a hale man I am calling Heraclitus, spending his nights pacing the port on the Cayster River in ancient Ephesus, meditating on the whole of change as it is greater than episodes, events, and moments.  I can almost grasp his meditation.  First he looks at the river, and he studies it in all its particularities.  This looking-at is engrossing, and gratifying in itself.  At a certain point, as his perceptions grow into metaphors, he finds himself looking not just at the river, but into it.  His mind wanders in associative exploration, an experience that is consuming, and pleasurable—something like a child's serious play.

Slowly he becomes aware of how the river and his mind for the river are interdependent, perhaps mutually-constituting, and he enters into the stage of looking through what is before him.  The river appears as the equivalent of language acting against grammar, of nouns becoming verbs and tenses blending.  “It was flowing” itself begins to flow into “it will be flowing,” and “it will have flowed," as "flow flows" joins "flowing flowed" in a confluence of affinities  And in the midst of this contemplation, with the river alive in him, the Heraclitus of my imagination grasps the nature of time:  one's own streaming experience of the world as it meets the streaming world itself.

THE DEMOCRITUS IN MY MIND is an older man, huddled against bad weather in the coastal town of Abdera, in Thrace.  He’s staring into the rain, and it occurs to him that Heraclitus is not wrong to want an explanation of time to go further than the truth of sequences—that “later” succeeds “now” as “now” succeeds “then.”  But Democritus is not convinced that the solution is synthetic.  Democritus feels the drizzle on his head, and he asks himself:  what larger whole do the raindrops together form?  What joins them?  Surely not the wind, which only moves them around.  Surely not the confusion of their motions, which precisely desribes their independence from each other.

In what sense is a storm greater than the sum of its drops?  The Democritus of my imagination is blinking into the wind, wiping the rain from his face, staring through the swirl, and he sees:  moments, periods, eras, each of these as droplets, atoms, globules that are free-floating, intact as against the whole.  Looking through the turbulent atmosphere, he receives the past, the present and the future as distinct events and constellations of events, each cluster of happenings co-extensive and simultaneous with others.  Time, for him, is a mist that hovers, not a river that flows.

WHY IS IT THAT the metaphors “time as a river” and “time as a mist” make more sense to me than the phrases I generate trying to  explain them:  “time as directed continuousness,” “time as impermanence-with-force,” “time as action in blended succession,” “time as co-extensive happenings,” “time as the expansiveness of juxtaposed moments,” and so forth?  Perhaps these abstractions don’t make sense because they insufficiently acknowledge that time is most intuitively conceived in spatialized—imagistic—terms?

PERHAPS THE ABSTRACTIONS FAIL because somehow, for reasons I do not understand, problems about time occur to me as problems about history, and more specifically as problems about the images we turn to in our struggle to handle history.  I am asking myself:  how does time take shape as the image of ethical searching?  What does time look like as repair?

I AM SITTING AGAIN—per my habit—in the Nowa Prowincia café on Ulica Bracka in central Kraków.  For reasons I incompletely understand, this city seems more laden with the problems of time’s once-and-future proximity than other places I know.  Perhaps it owes to the intensity of struggle and death that has occurred here, but the past appears as a live rather than a dead anteriority.  It seems that in Kraków, “what happened” is not incidental to “what is happening."  Rather the past is precisely that particular complex of actualities without which the present would be inexplicable, and inert.

I READ, I STUDY, I LOOK, and I do not understand the worlds of the ancestors.  Perhaps this is why I keep coming to Kraków?  Glimpsing myself as from a distance, I see something like the figure of W.S. Merwin’s “On the Subject of Poetry.”  I am the one who sits year after year watching the wheel that is not there to turn, who prepares for listening by listening, and prepares for seeing by seeing.  I am the one unequal to reasons, who sits and listens and sees from no expectation, at pains not to disturb that which is no longer there to be disturbed.

I AM ALMOST PERSUADED that facts become facts after images recruit them, and not before.  “That they were murdered” turns out to be a complex of images about how they were murdered:  images of hunger and bloat, of roundups and failed escapes, of betrayals and desperate confessions, of screaming soldiers and silent torment.  I venture:  what we call history is the spectacle of discordant image-associations forcing their way into explanatory stories—stories whose leading value is their capacity to stabilize their source images' wildness, impossibility, and insolence.

I AM LIKEWISE all but convinced that persistent errors of understanding release energy ahead of themselves.  These errors are not just accumulations of stray names—per Gaston Bachelard's dictum, “the less we know, the more we name”—but needy beasts galloping forward, mewing and passing and returning with their eyes shut, scattering humans and other small creatures, inciting birds to add themselves to cover and shadow. 

THE REQUIEM I KEEP HEARING is a recitation of what-is-not.  It is not what they built and it is not what the others tore down.  It is not the houses and it is not the spaces between them.  It is not the streets that exist and not the streets that no longer exist.  It is not the memories that pass away and it is not the memories that somehow crack open remembrance itself.  It is not the flesh or the bone of flesh-and-bone, and it is not the words of run-together letters.  It is not what they wrote, and it is not what we have neglected to write.  It is not the faith of trust and wonder, and it is not the faith that somehow avoids destruction.  It is not oblivion construed as good luck, and it is not the rituals that hold oblivion off.  It is not that I am the only one who will die a hundred times before I pass from this world, and it is not that my restlessness will grow calm.  It is not that I am alone in my home, in the square, in the cemetery, and it is not that others are joining me in this path.  It is not that we will find out, and it is not that there is a place set out for those who never find out.

KRAKOW'S MAIN SQUARE—the Rynek Główny, 200 feet from the café—is the center of the chessboard pattern of streets laid out in 1257, around which Jews moved continuously, negotiating the tides of patronage and commerce in what became Poland’s cultural, academic and artistic capital, and the seat of the Polish crown from 1038-1596.  Many sites have strong associations for Kraków’s Jews, though virtually none are publicly marked.  At no. 3 Plac Mariacki, just across from the great St. Mary’s cathedral, is a museum dedicated to showing how the city’s Polish aristocracy lived between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries—amuseum offering a distinctly incomplete picture of the time, inasmuch as there is neither display nor even mention that Jews occupied the ground floor and kept the shops in this very building during precisely these centuries.  Just around the corner, where Ulica Sienna empties into the Main Square, the “Grey House”—famous as the headquarters of Kościuszko’s 1794 uprising and the seat of the National Government in the uprising of 1846—likewise held Jewish shops and warehouses for centuries, as did many of the buildings along the square toward St. Wojciech’s church, though you need to dig this information out  of libraries to learn it.  Nearby Ulica Szpitalna was a street of Jewish-run bookshops for several decades in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, following on decades of informal Jewish book-selling from stalls in the Main Square around St. Wojciech’s (which followed from an 1806 law prohibiting Jews from selling books door-to-door).  The booksellers of central Kraków built a synagogue in the early twentieth century at no. 24 Ulica Szpitalna.  In 1947, Kraków’s Eastern Orthodox community took over the building and converted it into a church, covering over its Jewish origin.  A few blocks away, along Kraków’s historic Royal Path leading from the Floriańska Gate to Wawel Castle, many Jews owned buildings and operated businesses on Ulica Dominikańska and at its intersection with Ulica Grodzka—as I learned from Józef Klimczak, a Kraków Jew who grew up abroad and returned some years ago, and who bought and renovated the building at no. 4 Ulica Dominikańska. 

And it is along Ulica Świętej Anny that the all-but-hidden Jewish history of the Main Square begins.  Though no sign today marks it, at the end of the street was the Jewish Gate of the medieval city walls (where the street today meets the Planty park), and just beyond, a now-lost Jewish cemetery.  No historical marker describes the ancient Jewish settlement along Św. Anny, or the 1407 blood libel pogrom that led to the community’s initial removal, linked to the founding of the Jagiellonian University, whose famous Collegium Maius was constructed on the expropriated Jewish quarter.   There is no public mention of the 1423 pogrom along the same street, or the 1495 expulsion of the Jews from the city, and their resettlement on the neighboring island of Kazimierz—later to become one of the best-known Jewish towns in Europe.

I WALK KRAKOW during the daytime, and I walk it at night.  I hardly know seeing apart from walking.  In the daytime, I walk with the sense that seeing is a practice of ingathering, a project of searching out and co-ordinating all that comes into sight.  In the daytime, the yield of photographing isn’t just photographs, but the experience of thinking-by-way-of-encounter, thinking-by-happening-upon, thinking-toward-the-discoverable-externalities.  At night, the darkness invites a different force of imagination.  I walk with the sense that things appear a little miraculously—as emanations or emergences from behind the surfaces and within the solidities.  At night, the yield of photographing is the experience of thinking-by-implication, and nurturing the passage between perceptions and inner visions, particularly as these might attach themselves to externalities later.  It seems to me that a book of photographs—whose art is to render seeing as a form of thinking—has everything to do with drawing the reader into the dialogue between these psychic states and their verdicts as pictures.

THE VISION THAT COMES TO ME from behind:  a still-warm body whose hooves lie jerking in blood and sobs, and the cracked technical commands—“Wstawać” “Odsunąć!” “Zatrzymać się!”— like bones unsocketed from the corpses. 

IN THE PLAYGROUND behind the school at no. 62 Ulica Limonowskiego, in Kraków's Podgórze district, is the longest remnant of the system of ramparts, walls, gates and barriers that defined the German prison-ghetto for Jews in the years 1941-43.  In a macabre reference, a semi-circular arch characteristic of Jewish tombstones topped each of the ghetto wall’s segments—each arch now a mute crescendo in a discredited politics, each an unpronounceable name for officially sanctioned terror.

I HAVE BEEN STRUGGLING to formulate the following questions, and I am not satisfied:

Inasmuch as collective memory coagulates around shared experience, what in the future will it mean to “share in” the patently unsharable experiences of the murdered, the tortured, the dispossessed?   What mode of contemplation will permit the genocide to resist the forces of non-transferability, non-exchange, non-conjunction with the future?

And is writing itself—with words or with a camera—something given life or the opposite, a carcass of what once lived?  If it is more alive than dead, is its aliveness properly understood as immortality?  And is this immortality precisely a matter of dying and being reborn?  On the other hand, if writing is more dead than alive, is its deadness somehow contingent and non-final, such that the breath of reading and looking can resuscitate it?

Is the difference between the present and the past one of freedom, so that the present is a name for liberated time, as against the past that always already belongs to various forces, agencies, and outcomes?  Is the difference that the present is wild time—or at least feral time (time that has escaped domestication and returned to wildness)—while the past is time subjected to closure, without exception?  Is the present unpossessed time, while the past is time turned into the property of narratives?  And if so:  is this to say that whatever the “free past” might be, it is an exception to the rule, a void within history?

If history’s lessons are substantially rebukes—lessons in despair, futility and meaninglessness—is this to say that a better future must somehow outlive history?  And just what kind of historical understanding offers a way out of history’s prepossessingness?

ABOUT TWO MILES from Kraków’s Main Square is the open space known as Płaszów, a penal forced labor camp constructed by the Germans in the summer of 1942.  Located on the grounds of two Jewish cemeteries—whose tombstones were used as paving material for the camp’s streets and as foundations for its barracks—the size of the initial camp was approximately 25 acres, which grew to 200 acres by 1944.  Surrounded by double live barbed wire fences, the camp contained the former Liban quarry, as well as an industrial zone where slave laborers worked as tailors, locksmiths, carpenters, upholsterers, mechanics, electricians, shoemakers, furriers and printers.  In a large warehouse section, prisoners sorted all manner of valuable objects stolen by the Germans.  Initially, 2,000 slave laborers were held at Płaszów, which grew to some 30,000 by 1944.  In 1943, Płaszów was placed under the jurisdiction of the Majdanek concentration camp in Lublin, and its slave labor operations were expanded, including branches in off-site production plants such as Oskar Schindler’s enamelware factory, a nearby cable factory, a brickyard, the regional airport, and others.  The camp also came to serve as a processing point for captives en route to Auschwitz.  In April 1944, it was transformed into a death camp in its own right, with control over subcamps in Mielec and Wieliczka.  Overall, an estimated 150,000 people passed through Płaszów, mostly Jews from liquidated ghettos in Kraków and other towns from the region—Tarnów, Mielec, Rzeszów—as well as Jews from Slovakia and Hungary.  Life in the camp, such as it was, was notoriously brutal.  Deaths occurred by disease and starvation, exhaustion, sadistic beating, and most notoriously by firing squads, which massacred tens of thousands in open pits that the prisoners dug.  The Płaszów site contains multiple mass graves, at two of which the bodies were exhumed and burned on Himmler's orders as the Germans retreated in January 1945.  The number of deaths in the camp is estimated at 10,000-15,000, almost all Jews.  Today Płaszów remains a hole in the middle of the city, an unregulated space whose history is all but ignored—the inverse of Auschwitz, some 30 miles away. 

THEY KEEP GATHERING us together for having gathered them together—this is their enduring power.  They keep lining us up, the dead and the living, and walking us through plumes of misery and depravity and disgrace at humankind, so that in time we cannot tell whether we are walking in the realm of death or life.  They keep stripping us down for having stripped them down.  They keep splitting our guts for having split their guts.  They keep pushing us toward the frightened bones and the smallest, perishable signs.  They keep refreshing dark images that wander the mind like the refugees themselves.

FOR THOSE who would remember, the following are empty synonyms:

                                    slaughter and survival
                                    grave and garden
                                    writing and revenge
                                    loneliness and blessing
                                    sky and pit

AFTER FORCIBLY RELOCATING 55,000 Kraków Jews to surrounding towns, in late 1940 and early 1941 the German occupiers created a ghetto for the Jews remaining in the city.  Some 15,000 people were crammed into 325 residential buildings in the Podgórze district, an area that previously housed 3,000 people, while displaced Poles were allotted vacated Jewish apartments in other parts of the city.  In Kraków, as in regional towns, and all of occupied Poland’s major cities—Warsaw, Łódź, Białystok, Lwów, Lublin, Wilno, Kovno, Częstochowa—the ghetto’s purpose was persecution, terror, theft, exploitation, and the culling of  "able" Jewish workers for the Nazi war effort. 

Plac Bohaterów Getta, before the war called Plac Zgody—Harmony Square in English—was the Kraków ghetto’s hub.  On its northern end, just shy of where the main road, Na Zjeździe, crosses the Vistula river, stood one of the ghetto’s main gates, through which a tram ran—without stops in the ghetto—and through which columns of Jewish workers would pass during the ghetto’s early period.  The square became the center of commerce in the ghetto’s internal economy.  It was the place to sell and buy smuggled food, to hawk clothing, furniture, jewelry, hierlooms and all manner of possessions carried in during deportations.  It was the place to trade news, rumor, gossip, insight.

Most notoriously, the square served as the Umschlagplatz, the gathering point for Jews rounded up for deportation to the German death camps at Bełżec, Auschwitz and Płaszów.  As such, the square signified the unknown aspects of Jews' miserable destiny in the hands of the Germans.  And as in ghettos across occupied Poland, the square and its surrounding courtyards also prognosticated a great deal about that fate:  they were the places where the very old and very young—those deemed unworthy even of deportation—were publically and summarily murdered during the roundups themselves. 

A single non-Jew was allowed to reside in the ghetto, the Polish Catholic Tadeusz Pankiewicz, owner of Apteka pod Orłem (“Pharmacy under the Eagle”), located at the southern end of Plac Zgody.  Declining the German offer to relocate to the Aryan side of the city, Pankiewicz obtained permission to continue to operate his pharmacy in the ghetto and to live upstairs, and to allow his three female assistants to enter and leave the ghetto daily for work.  Despite continuous Nazi surveillance and the ever-present threat of death, Pankiewicz and his staff shrewdly resisted the ghetto’s regime of death.  Pankiewicz gave great quantities of free medicine to condemned Jews.  He issued false documents, circulated information about hiding places, smuggled food and information, offered shelter for Jews facing deportation, and created a vault under his shop to store Torah scrolls and other religious objects.  The ghetto’s intelligentsia gathered in his drugstore, which became a refuge, an underground salon, a free space in an urban prison.  From the pharmacy, Pankiewicz witnessed the brutal events that took place in the ghetto in June and October 1943, and during the its liquidation in March 1943:

"Plac Zgody resembled a battlefield with thousands of bundles and items of baggage scattered around.  Here and there, a small child played on the asphalt surface soaked with blood.  SS soldiers went about taking the children.  Sometimes a soldier would be leading a few children holding one another’s hands, taking them to killing yard.  Others were pushing baby carriages where a baby was sleeping.  The children would disappear and then a volley of guns would be heard.  In order to save ammunition, often a group of children were shot with one bullet.  They were put in rows and a single bullet would be used.  Several babies would be placed into a carriage, all of them killed with one bullet."

In 2005, Kraków architects Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak turned to Tadeusz Pankiewicz’s testimony as the inspiration for a permanent public art memorial project in Plac Bohaterów Getta, comprised of bronze chairs filling the square in a grid pattern.  The empty chairs recall the furniture and belongings that the to-be-murdered Jews left behind in the square, inviting the future, as it were, to sit with the ruined past.

STANDING IN THE MIDDLE of Plac Bohaterów Getta, facing the the high-rise mirror and the sky it throws back, I am thinking of stories I have learned about the Jewish resistance in Kraków during the German occupation.  On December 22, 1942, central Kraków was rocked by a series of bombings carried out in tandem against the German occupiers by the underground Jewish Fighting Organization, known by its Polish acronym ŻOB.  Jewish fighters attacked the Cyganeria Café, frequented by Nazi officers, the German Officers’ Casino in the National Museum, the Esplanade Café on the corner of Podwale and Krupnicza Streets, the Bisanz Officers’ Club and Café Zakopianka.

The events of December 22nd were not only limited to bombings:  other groups of ŻOB fighters hung Polish flags around Kraków, including on Matejko Square, Batory Street and on the Piłsudski and Dębnicki Bridges.  A few hours before the bombings, groups of Jewish fighters left flowers in the Main Square at the site of Adam Mickiewicz’s statue (which had been blown up by the Germans) and scattered leaflets calling on Poles to resist the occupiers.  The city descended into chaos.  German military and police cars, ambulances and fire trucks rushed in all directions. Members of the ŻOB compounded the confusion with phony calls to the emergency services, reporting explosions and fires in other parts of the city.  An estimated 7-11 German soldiers were killed during these attacks, with over a dozen others wounded.  Conceived as the dramatic beginning of a campaign of Jewish guerrilla resistance in Kraków, the attacks turned out to be the high point of that resistance, which the Gestapo systematically crushed in the months following.

I AM THINKING of a story—not well known—that I learned from my friend, the director of the Galicia Jewish Museum, Kuba Nowakowski.  Kuba tells me:  among the leaders of the ŻOB—all of them Jews in their twenties who were determined to fight and die on their own terms—were the married couple Gusta and Szymszon Dranger, who planned the attacks from the town of Bochnia, not far from Kraków. 

The Drangers had made a solemn pact that if one of them were caught, the other would surrender voluntarily.  When the Nazis hunted down Szymszon in the weeks after the December 22nd action, Gusta turned herself in.  Both  were imprisoned in Kraków, and brutally tortured before being condemned to die with other detainees in a public execution.  During her imprisonment, despite broken hands, Gusta managed to write the history of the Jewish fighters on scraps of toilet paper in elegant, poetic Polish, published in 1946 as Justyna’s Diary.  In April 1943, on the day of the scheduled executions, two transports set out for the execution site at the Płaszów camp, one from the women’s prison and one from the men’s. 

Both the women and the men had carefully planned schemes for escape, which they enacted as the transports were underway.  Remarkably, only Szymszon and Gusta succeeded, and were reunited once again in Bochnia, where they continued planning the Jewish resistance.  Six months later, the Nazis again caught Szymszon, and again Gusta turned herself in.  Gusta was executed somewhere on Jerozolimska Street in the Płaszów camp, likely near the site shown in the second picture of this book, depicting what was once a set of storage buildings in the railyard located at the main entrance to the camp.  In all likelihood her corpose was dumped into the massive pit behind the latrines on the northern edge of the camp, then exhumed and burned by Jewish slave laborers in 1944, as part of the extensive German effort to conceal the traces of mass murder in occupied Poland.  Szymszon was hung from the railroad bridge just beside the beginning of Jerozolimska Street, near the site of the bright red mural commemorating the Polish victory in 1410 at the battle of Grunwald, depicted ten pages ago in this book.  There are no graves in Kraków or anywhere else for Szymszon and Gusta Dranger.

I AM SITTING AGAIN—per my habit—in the Cheder Café in Kazimierz, in the center of the historic Jewish district.  I am thinking about the ways that history’s exceptional situations—what happens in and around war—define the fundamentals of everyday life.  And I am thinking about the ways that the difficult content of these fundamentals overwhelms everyday life, to the point that silence, non-acknowledgement, and even denial become normalized.

IT IS AS IF history’s subject were only itself, and not us.  It is as if acknowledging the fact of foundational violence itself violates an unspoken trust, most of all between strangers, acquaintances and those not already called friends.

I AM THINKING about these things as a Jew, and I am thinking about the ways that it is not enough to remember as a Jew.  Where I arrive:  the communities of memory that matter most to me are those that transcend ethnic particularities, transcend temporal circumstances, transcend the conventional strictures of belonging.  And where to find such communities? 

THE THOUGHT THAT open and progressive communities of memory turn out to be imagined communities—utopian, stupidly quixotic, a thing merely of books—adds weight to an already low feeling.

I HAVE BEEN WRESTLING with the words that might hold together the following questions, and I am not satisfied:

Where—in time—is the savior’s treasury of torment, the glint of the lives unlived?

Where—in time—are the nightmares?  Where are the forests of the dead moons?  Where are the beasts of those forests—laughing through their iron teeth, staring through the patches over their eyes, each carrying a severed hand in its hand?  Where are they rehearsing for the repetition of night? 

Where—in time—are the hymns for the vile enormities, the black whispers that are less than whispers, the air stolen from throats?  Where do the agonies gather after they parade by, one by one?  Where does the blissless god go to count sufferings?  And where is the city as it stood before the winds struck?

HOW, I AM ASKING MYSELF, does loss constitute time in Kraków in a primary sense?  How are the city’s ruptures and casualties not what stand to be overcome in reconstructing an image of the past, but themselves the stuff of the past to be reconstructed?  Or to ask differently, as a photographer might:  in what ways does time in Kraków creep onto the surfaces of each season and hang on the edges of the day like a glow that yearns, even as it spreads the news of impending night?

WHAT I DO NOT UNDERSTAND is Kraków’s hold on my inner visions.  I do not understand how historical time persists subjectively as dream-like states that are not dreams.  I do not understand what force of light is at work to reveal the outer world in inner states.  I do not understand what force of consciousness emulsifies “place” into “what has taken place”—and how Kraków’s dialogue of epochs becomes history within me.

I AM WALKING the architectural patrimony of Kazimierz, famous as a Jewish community from the fifteenth century through the Second World War, and today the best-preserved Jewish district in all of Europe.  I am walking the route of the seven synagogues, all contained within an area about a third of a mile square.  The first of these, the Stare, was built in 1407 with the community’s forced relocation from Kraków proper.  Directly adjoining Kazimierz’s defensive walls, the synagogue’s architecture testifies to the violence of its origin:  the fortress-style building was designed to serve not only a place of religious worship, but a communal safe haven against anti-Jewish mobs.  Some six generations passed before the community built two more synagogues, the Remuh in 1553—seat of the famous Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1525-1572) and his students—and the Wysoka in 1556.  In the following century, the community added the Popper in 1620, the Kupa in 1643, and the Isaak synagogue in 1644.  The last of the town’s synagogues, the Tempel, opened in 1862.  The path of the seven synagogues also includes study houses, schools, community halls, two cemeteries, a ritual bath and dozens of historic homes from several periods.

WHERE CHRONOLOGY FAILS to communicate the history of a place, a physical encounter with it may succeed.  Time may in fact be endowed with a logic, a defining order, as the word “chronology” suggests, but it seems to me that such a proposition stems from a countervailing truth.  We encounter the world—full of the leavings of history—in no given order, which is to say as ordered by our own ongoing tasks and purposes.  Am I wrong to say that if history, by definition, emerges from the scramble of experience, then the challenge is to invigorate and not to eviscerate the riddles, the inferences and the contingencies involved?

JUST BEHIND the Remuh synagogue is Kazimierz’s old Jewish cemetery, dating to 1552.  To walk the cemetery is to come—in no particular order—upon tomb after tomb of famous rabbis.  Most famous is the grave of Moshe Isserles himself, among European Judaism’s greatest rabbinic intellects, whose long epitaph concludes, “From prophet to sage, Moshe to Moshe, none were his equal.”  And then there are the tombs of the Talmudists Joseph Katz (died 1591) and Joel Sirkes (died 1640), and the Kabbalist Natan Spira (died 1633), who “spoke with the Prophet Elijah face to face,” in the chiseled words of his mourners. 

There are the graves of the mystical linguist Mordechai Saba (died 1576), and the doctor and scholar Eliezer Ashkenazi (died 1585), who by legend was swept from Cairo to Kraków instantaneously during a Passover seder, to finish his meal in his new home in Poland.  There are the graves of the scholars Joszua ben Jósef (died 1648), Joszua Heszel (died 1663), Isaak Lewita (died 1799), Gerszon Heller (1654) and Moshe Enzels (died 1694).  There are the tombs of their mothers, daughters, sons and brothers.  There are the tombs of many whose relations have been lost or were never straightforward to begin with.  To see these graves in no particular order is also to face a different truth.  During the Nazi occupation, the Remuh cemetery was decimated—its tombstones sold for paving materials, its walls torn down, and the site turned into a garbage dump.  By 1945, only a dozen tombstones remained, including—by accident or by miracle—the grave of Moshe Isserles.  Some intact tombstones were found, along with thousands of fragments later assembled into a vast mosaic in the rebuilt boundary wall.  Most of the stones visible today are replicas, a small fraction of the former total.  All are in new rows, their proper locations unknown.

THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF PHOTOGRAPHERS:  those who work with pictures, and those who work against them.  I began as the first kind, and somehow became the second.  The poet Ali Ahmad Said Asbar says:  “A coffin wearing the face of a child, a book dwelling in the guts of a crow, a trudging beast holding a flower, a stone breathing inside the lungs of a madman—this is it:  this is the twentieth century.”  As a photographer, I am asking:  how to see the inner shadows that the world’s outer lights cast?

TO SAY A PHOTOGRAPH:  a photograph is a record-of as it is a copying-from, an accounting-for as it is an encounter-with, a reckoning-toward as it is an investigation-into, an exchange-between as it is a dwelling-among, a standing-beside as it is a drawing-near, a pushing-off as it is a reaching-within, a peering-across as it is a maneuvering-through, a seeming-like as it is a remaining-since, a fictive fact as it is an enduring illusion, a finding as it is a making, a window as it is a mirror, a prismatic fragment as it is a foreclosed event.

INASMUCH AS PHOTOGRAPHERS are artists of severance—of time from place and place from time––photography’s deep fascination is the narrative void these severances create, and the capacity of pictures to give that void form and face.  It seems to me that a photograph is an obedient likeness in a double sense—in resembling, and in confirming the actuality of what it shows—but also a doubly disobedient likeness.  Its afterimage lingers uncertainly in the wake of that actuality, and its fore-image hovers in anticipation.  I venture:  fertile conceptions of history lie in this complication.

IF THE EXPERIMENT of this book is plain enough—to interrogate a place in time by putting pictures and texts into overtly inconclusive relations—the place of the experiment is by definition continuously receding.  What whole emerges when that never quite adds up to this?   What remainder is left when this cannot quite be subtracted from that?  What new brightness blooms at the core of the inner experience that death counts as an accomplishment?

I AM BACK at the Nowa Prowincia café, listening through my computer to Rokhl Korn reading in Yiddish.  She is reciting a poem she wrote years after the destruction, "On the Other Side of the Poem."  The translation is my own.

                    On the other side of the poem—a secret,
                    An orchard and a house, a heavy roof,
                    Three pines standing in silence,
                    Three guardians keeping watch.

                    On the other side of the poem—a bird,
                    A yellow-brown bird with a red breast,
                    A bird that returns in winter
                    To hang like a bloom on a naked bush.

                    On the other side of the poem—a road,
                    Narrow, long, razor-sharp,
                    Someone wandering it,
                    Barefoot, mute, lost in time.

                    On the other side of the poem—miracles,
                    Miracles pressed against the lens, against the glass,
                    Miracles even now, on an overcast day,
                    Even now, in the wounded hour.

                    On the other side of the poem—my mother,
                    Deep in thought, lingering in the threshold,
                    Waiting, calling me home, calling as before,
                    "Enough play—don’t you see?  It’s night."

AS FOR ME, I speak the orphan’s kaddish:

I am walking the lines between one page and another, searching for the book whose rock and water lay down horizons, in which image magnifies image, and voice dilates voice.  I am looking for the book of the whole, the book somehow given and still continuously arriving.

But I am wrestling with the bad conscience that issues from the emptiness I feel, my habit of pondering losses and wrong notes, and my sense—it has been with me since childhood—that time is directed against love.  I cannot seem to escape my doubts.  Am I—and is a Jew such as I—simply a raw soul of contradiction?  Perhaps remembering is not, in fact, the ethical art of compassionate intervention into future ignorance, but a technique for burdening ourselves more and more ardently in the name of freedom.  Perhaps, in practice, remembering turns out to be a way of making others feel resentful and ashamed on our behalf, another means of adding to the vast grave that others have dug for us in the air.  Can we slip past the final realities of our age?  Are we trapped even by our best visions of better world—a world of life predicated on an accurate and unending account of injustice and death?  Am I wrong in my suspicion that that the historical sufferings we have inherited are revelations of permanent civilizational disorders?  Are they also revelations of disorders within time itself—to which we are held fast and which we cannot interrupt?  A lot hangs on this word, “escape.”    

I put down picture after confused picture into image-sentences I find hard to decipher later.  The ambiguity is unrelenting, but at times I feel a sense of promise in the intervals, the breaches, the cuts and contingencies in what I have made.  It is as if the realms beyond doubt will somehow emerge as an aspect of the shifting parts of the world’s appearances.  Sometimes my very existence seems to emerge from that potentiality treated as fate.   

I utter my praises:  not unblessed, not unhonored, not unloved, not unapproached, not unwished-for, not unquestioned and not unstated—the name of repair does not confiscate the given facts or the images of dreams, or the nothing in which so much is irreparable, which is our actual situation.  I utter:  the name of repair is not beyond us, though it exceeds all the consolations we give one another, and all truth spoken in this world.  I am walking, uttering, making pictures, asking the name for the sake of the past and the future:  for solace, for refuge, for an unfinished awareness of others in ourselves.

Here in Kraków I speak the orphan's kaddish:   exactly this, no less than this.

For my teacher and friend, Piotr Słomian