Traditional women’s activities, such as caregiving, gardening, raising, and midwifery are not often given the respect they deserve, despite their essential role in society. As a feminist Jewish artist, I am a caregiver and midwife to difficult memories and Jewish women’s stories. This role has been an inspiration and a struggle in my work.
It all began more than ten years ago. I was putting my children to sleep and, in the darkness, I realized that the same thing that has been hidden within my family’s heritage has also been hidden in the space of Polish cities. This idea took on a life of its’ own, like a growing tumor or a planted seed that has just begun to sprout. I knew that I had to do something about it.
Recalling the way children play, I started to make plaster casts of my own body and would then cover the casts with photographs connected to hidden stories of my family and of my city. Then I would bury them into the ground. I called them Views. The action of making Views plays out between the body and the earth. It is a renewed, documented ritual of giving the earth a cast of my own body, derived from other bodies that are no longer here. Then an unexpected thing happened. People began to come to me with their hidden stories (women, Jews, and other minorities). I saw that underneath, there is a huge sea of untold stories waiting to be discovered. These stories are all connected to each other and interwoven with one another in some way. Now, not only am I travelling the world to pursue my ongoing project, but this has also sprouted my next important artistic development, which is performances I have created with theatre director, Pawel Passini. Together we are incorporating our Polish-Jewishness, in addition to us both being the third-generation of Holocaust survivors, into our creative work.
Photo Credit: Krzysztof Morcinek
I’ve recently finished a book that was birthed by listening to people’s stories. Over the past three years, I have listened to the stories of those who had been children during the Holocaust. I asked them about their mothers. Not only was I able to give these people a voice now, but I also offered a voice to the young Jewish children inside of them who, 80 years ago, were forced to be silent. At last, they finally have been given the opportunity to speak on their own terms.
Book cover design by Mroux
It’s a strange feeling when these same stories begin to feel relevant again in today’s world. Dark times are beginning to fall upon us again here in Poland. In a deeply painful symbolic moment last year, with permission from Polish authorities, the historic Mirabelle plum tree from the former Jewish quarter of Warsaw, which had survived the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, was cut down. Fortunately, its seedlings are currently being grown in the United States, thanks to a pair of Poles who brought three seeds from the historic tree back to their garden in Maryland 12 years ago. I brought some of these seeds back (you can call them third generation or granddaughters of the Mirabelle plum tree) to Poland and together, with a group of artists and activists, we gave the tree and its memory a chance to grow again.
During that same time, New York based artist and Asylum alum Michelle Levy came to Poland. I met Michelle in 2017 during the Poland Retreat for Jewish Artists. She was looking for information about her great grandmother at the Jewish Historical Institute and instead learned of her great grandmother’s niece, Paulina, whose testimony was kept there on file. In a Warsaw café over cups of winter tea, together we discovered an incredible woman with an incredible story. As storytellers, we knew that it was just the beginning for us both. As a result, in September 2018, Michelle came to stay in Poland for 9 months to further delve into her testimony and to find out what is actually behind the text of Paulina. And so, I became a midwife to this story. Together, we will retrace Paulina’s wartime path as a psycho-geographical form of performative remembrance. In my mind I have a lot of questions and feelings about this. I perceive Michelle’s arrival like an ancient mythic tale – the hero comes in from elsewhere, but with a historical connection to the place, and is able to change the course of history. But we will do it together. We find ourselves in the moment just before departure. What will we find? What questions will we ask and what will we be able to answer? Will our meeting with Paulina help people here? Will we help Paulina, whose story has never been told?
Presentation at POLIN Museum in Warsaw, Patrycja Dolowy (left) and Michelle Levy (right)
When I think of what is most important for my art, it’s creating a safe space for listening. I need to hear others and reach out, unveiling what, for whatever reason, has been invisible or omitted. I’m a witness and midwife to stories of others. It took me some time to realize that.