Chuck Fishman: Roots, Resilience and Renewal—A Portrait of Polish Jews, 1975–2016

Text by Susan Chevlowe, Chief Curator and Museum Director
On view September 17, 2017 – January 7, 2018

In 1975, the young photographer Chuck Fishman traveled to Poland to photograph what he has described “was then a dwindling remnant of a once-vibrant Jewish community on the brink of extinction.”* Returning several times between 1975 and 1983, Fishman’s images provide rare glimpses into Jewish life during a period when Jews in the West had little or no access to their Polish forebears in the post-Holocaust era. Believing his photographs would bear witness to the final days of Jews in Poland, he could not have envisioned, thirty years later, the astonishing rebirth of a people that had inhabited its lands for 1,000 years. His return to Poland in 2013 chronicles a spiritual and cultural “return to identity” that Fishman says “would have been unthinkable before.” His latest work speaks “to themes of resilience and renewal, exploring and elucidating the myriad faces and facets of recovery and re-generation.” Describing the most recent images, Fishman has written:

Each and every subject manifests a collective tapestry of his/her cultural inheritance, offering a rare perspective into this exceptional moment in time: from Poles raised as Catholics, discovering hidden Jewish roots, to children and grandchildren in search of their pasts, transforming families, and reshaping futures with the question: what does it mean, “being Jewish?” The answer—often, ”it’s complicated”—is one that the passing of four decades has radically changed.

Thirty-six black and white photographs made during Fishman’s trips to Poland between 1975–2016 are on view in this exhibition. Although color and digital printing is the medium of choice today, Fishman, in his recent and current work, continues to use black and white fi lm as he had in the ‘70s and ‘80s, intentionally seeking a “cohesive, visual continuity throughout the images, and across the decades.” He both processes his own fi lm and makes his own exhibition prints, and emphasizes that working with fi lm—each of the original negatives—is of primal importance when crafting archival, gelatin silver photographic prints. This provides “an unmatched, timeless print quality for exhibitions,” he points out. When Fishman first arrived in Poland in 1975, he used both black and white and color transparency fi lm. “Black and white was used far more on my people pictures,” he says. “When returning in 1978, and through 1983, I very rarely shot any color fi lm on this project. It had become a very personal work, which I generally keep in black and white.”

Further insights about Fishman’s project are captured in the following interview:

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Woman knitting outside Majdanek concentration camp, wartime forced labor and killing center. Most of the camp’s original buildings and grounds remain intact. The camp-museum is open to the public. Lublin, 1975. © Chuck Fishman

Susan Chevlowe: What brought you to Poland in the 1970s?

Chuck Fishman: I was a college student in the summer of 1975 when I first went to Poland with a writer to hopefully produce a book on the remains of what we could find of Jewish life and culture there. The result was Polish Jews: The Final Chapter, which was published by McGraw-Hill and New York University Press in 1977. The project also became my first professional portfolio of printed photographs, which I brought to New York City six months later. With it I met editors, agents and professional photographers, who helped shape my future as a “new” photographer. One person I sought out, Roman Vishniac, who had photographed Jewish life in Poland and Eastern Europe before World War II, was very kind. His favorite photograph from my original 1975 portfolio was Woman knitting outside Majdanek, (above) included in this exhibition. (We later exchanged prints.) The original portfolio was exhibited in New York City in the late ’70s. SC: What did you find there?

CF: Locked synagogues with broken windows; sometimes desolate cemeteries when they could be found; kosher kitchens in Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw serving a small aging population; some Jewish clubs (Lodz); Friday night or Shabbat services in Warsaw and Krakow; the Yiddish theater in Warsaw—primarily older people on pensions.

SC: How did you locate the Jewish communities? What cities did you visit? How did you navigate through the country?

CF: Crossing Communist East Germany by train, we started from western Poland in the city of Wroclaw. There, through some literature we had, we eventually found the White Stork Synagogue, which was the Jewish epicenter in that city. Attached was also a study house (beit midrash) and kitchen. I then felt, for the first time, that I had a responsibility to show the rest of the world what was still left as I was now “on the other side of the iron curtain.” Seeing the enormity and condition of that synagogue, I was overwhelmed with the realization of what I felt I needed to do. We traveled by bus and train, often splitting up so I could shoot unaccompanied, and comparing notes later on. The larger cities we visited included Wroclaw, Lodz, Warsaw, Krakow, Lublin, and many smaller towns throughout Galicia. This first trip in 1975 lasted about six weeks. I had no idea if I’d be able to get my film out of the country. Alone, I took an overnight train from Katowice crossing through Communist Czechoslovakia to Vienna. I kept my exposed film on the bottom of my shoulder bag somewhat “hidden.” Of course, I was nervous at the border crossings where each time military officials would come through the train to check your passport and belongings. If my film was confiscated, I had only memories and (maybe) notes.

SC: Why did you decide to return to Poland? What year did you first return and what was your intention for that visit? How many trips have you made since then and what did you hope to accomplish?

CF: I returned to Poland three-and-a-half years later in the winter of 1978. My book had come out and I was there as a working, professional photojournalist to photograph the country of the then newly-elected Pope John Paul II. Again, Poland was a Communist country and there was now interest in the west to see this “off the radar” place. As a working photojournalist, one needed to work with the official “Interpress” government agency for access to most areas. Discreetly and with small prints I made to give away, I returned to the kosher kitchens, synagogues and study houses without any official “guide,” and saw some of the people from three-and-a-half years earlier. Some remembered me, especially when I gave them a photograph of themselves. I also saw, and photographed, children learning Hebrew. My next trip a few months later was during a Passover seder in Warsaw’s kosher kitchen. I met a few young Jews (my age or younger), who were actors in the Yiddish theater. I decided that I would not seek to publish any of these “newer” pictures. Under Communism I didn’t want any of my work to possibly have negative effects on the lives of the few younger people in my pictures. I continued photographing Polish Jews during several working trips from 1978–1983, archiving the negatives and contact sheets. I felt I was helping to capture and preserve, for future generations, the last of a 1,000-year history of Jewish life in Poland. I was in Poland to photograph both of Pope John Paul II’s trips in 1979 and 1983, and spent time with Lech Walesa and the Solidarity trade union in 1980. I always, quietly, would seek out the Jewish community to photograph and give small gift prints to those I had photographed before. I thought I would return to Poland someday, when I was much older and the people in my pictures would be gone and the few younger ones assimilated. My thought was I’d photograph some buildings or remains and then take out my older work from the ‘70s and ‘80s to combine with the newer, and possibly seek publication. In 1989 with the fall of Communism, history took a very sharp turn and very slowly there has been a reawakening of Jewish life and culture in Poland.

After a 30-year hiatus I returned in 2013, then again in 2014 and 2016. It’s a fascinating story of renewal that’s going on there now. I’ve photographed in schools, in synagogues, daily life and events, large and small, including a wedding, ritual circumcision (brit milah), funeral, Jewish cultural festival, conversions to Judaism of those who have discovered or are just now discovering their Jewish roots—many aspects of contemporary life today. This body of work now spans four generations of post-Holocaust Polish Jewry: the survivors being the fi rst generation; their children and grandchildren (the “unexpected” generation); and now great-grandchildren, growing up as Polish Jews aware of their heritage.

SC: In your Polish Jews: The Final Chapter, a great many of your photographs were of places—for example, architecture, Talmudic academies, Yeshivas and synagogue buildings, most of them abandoned, and cemeteries. This is quite different from the photographs we’ve chosen for this exhibition; for example, we have only two cemetery images, one old and one new, and the synagogues are now fi lled with celebrations of Jewish rituals and traditions. And there is quite an emphasis on portraits. Can you talk about your interest in portraiture over architecture or landscape in relationship to these images?

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Chess players at the Jewish Club in Lodz. At the outbreak of WW II, one third (230,000) of the city’s residents were Jewish. In 1975 approximately 500 remained, some gathering here to socialize. The mural, completed in 1960 by Adam (Aron) Muszka and no longer extant, depicts the Holocaust. Lodz, 1975. © Chuck Fishman

CF: The book was a collection of all that we could find and document at the time. It was important to show the places and architecture as those could vanish (in fact, the Jewish Club in Lodz did, after I had photographed two men playing chess in front of Adam Muszka’s mural before it was destroyed [above]; the building became condominiums). My primary interest in photography has always revolved around people. I enjoy capturing a specific moment in time when I feel that certain elements have come together in a frame, the nuances of expression and reality that shape a story, and in turn, move the viewer in some fundamental way.

SC: Can you speak to your relationship with your subjects? Were you able to keep in touch? Did you find any of your original subjects when you returned?

Polish Jews 1983
Jerzy Kichler, 36, in his mother’s kitchen. Krakow, 1983. © Chuck Fishman

CF: I have with a few. In fact the picture of Jerzy Kichler with his mom in her kitchen from 1983 (above) was one that I gave him when we met again in Wroclaw at a Jewish wedding in 2014.

SC: Can you reflect on Polish Jews: The Final Chapter? Does the significance of the book change now that Jewish communal life in Poland is in a state of renewal? How does it remain meaningful?

CF: The book’s significance continues, albeit with fresh implications, especially when considering the broader scope of historical context. Its immediate importance lies in the fact that it reveals both the conditions and what was left in 1975, seven years after the final government purge in 1968 of Jews from Poland. That action led to the majority of middle-aged or younger Polish Jews with families leaving the country by giving up Polish citizenship, becoming stateless and declaring they would be going to Israel. They went primarily to Israel, Scandinavia and the US. The remaining Jews thought of themselves as the finale to 1,000 years of Jewish life in Poland. In larger terms, I think that, as much as it is an invaluable chronicle of a vanished past, the book serves equally as a cornerstone of, and a counterpoint to, my recent work, affording me the unique opportunity to revisit what was, by all accounts, an epilogue in Jewish history, to thereby redefine the narrative—a stunning about-face in history—and to illuminate one of hope and future possibilities. The photographer gratefully acknowledges the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture; The Honorable Sigmund Rolat; Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture, and the Polish Modern Art Foundation, which provided support for travel to Poland in 2013, 2014 and 2016.

Checklist of the Exhibition

All photographs in the exhibition are selenium-toned gelatin silver prints processed from the original negatives and printed by the photographer.

Mosses Lekker, caretaker of the Jewish Cemetery. Lodz, 1975. 20 x 24 in.

Chess players at the Jewish Club in Lodz. The mural, completed in 1960 by Adam (Aron) Muszka and no longer extant, depicts the Holocaust. Lodz, 1975. 11 x 14 in.

Mieczyslav Nusbaum, sexton of Lublin’s only remaining prayer room. Lublin, 1975. 16 x 20 in.

Robin Dawidowicz, the last Jew of Lublin’s once Jewish market, and wife at work selling donuts. Lublin, 1975. 16 x 20 in.

Woman knitting outside Majdanek concentration camp, wartime forced labor and killing center. Lublin, 1975. 11 x 14 in.

Pincus Szenicer, caretaker of the Jewish Cemetery, reciting from the Book of Psalms for a recently deceased 74-year-old woman. Warsaw, 1975. 11 x 14 in.

Ludwik Berlinski (left) and Maurycy Jam (right) leaving the Remu Synagogue after the last Saturday service of 1978. Krakow, December 1978. 11 x 14 in.

Roza Bauminger, taking her lunch home from the kosher kitchen. Krakow, January 1979. 11 x 14 in.

Weekly Tuesday morning selling of “kosher” meat in the basement of Krakow’s kehillah, the building where the official Jewish community has an office and kosher kitchen. Krakow, 1979. 11 x 14 in.

Kosher kitchen during Saturday lunch. Warsaw, January 13, 1979. 11 x 14 in.

Shabbat services in the Warsaw beit midrash. Warsaw, 1979. 11 x 14 in.

Saying the blessing for donning the tallit at morning services in the only study house (beit midrash) in Warsaw, adjacent to the unused Nozyk Synagogue. Warsaw, 1979. 11 x 14 in.

The ceremonial washing of hands. Natan Cywiak at a Passover seder in the kosher kitchen. Holding cup and basin is Solomon Klinghoffer. Warsaw, 1979. 11 x 14 in.

Women leaving after the ceremony commemorating the 36th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Warsaw, April 1979. 11 x 14 in.

36th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising at the site of its first armed conflict. POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in April 2013, now occupies a large part of this plaza, facing the Natan Rapoport sculpture, “Ghetto Heroes Monument.” Warsaw, April 1979. 11 x 14 in.

Backstage at the Yiddish Theater. Actress Etel Szyk in hooded shawl. Warsaw, 1980. 16 x 20 in.

Cohanim blessing during Sabbath service in the Warsaw study house (beit midrash) on Shavuot. Warsaw, 1980. 11 x 14 in.

Arriving for Friday night services in the courtyard of the Remu Synagogue. Krakow, 1983. 11 x 14 in.

Jerzy Kichler, 36, in his mother’s kitchen. Krakow, 1983. 11 x 14 in.

Artist Jonasz Stern (1904–1988) in his studio and flat. Krakow, June 1983. 11 x 14 in.

Havdalah/party of Jewish Community Center student club. Krakow, 2013. 16 x 20 in.

Newly-appointed American-Israeli Rabbi Avi Baumol (far right) introducing a Torah scroll to third- and fourth-generation post-Holocaust Jews during his first day teaching Sunday school at the Jewish Community Center. Krakow, 2013. 11 x 14 in.

Piotr Klapec, 35, being congratulated after his immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath) thereby completing his conversion to Judaism. Krakow, September 2013. 16 x 20 in.

Sunday morning services during Sukkot in Nozyk Synagogue. Warsaw, September 22, 2013. 11 x 14 in.

Polish Jewish artists Urszula Grabowska (right) and daughter Helena Czernek eating lunch in the sukkah that Urszula built at her farmhouse/studio in Jedrzejow Nowy, 60 km. east of Warsaw. Jedrzejow Nowy, September 2013. 11 x 14 in.

Damian Nec, 22 (center), joking with Olga Danek, 27 (right), and Kinga Zmyslowska, 26 (left), at a Saturday night Jewish Community Center student club party in Olga’s apartment that she shares with seven people. Krakow, September 2013. 11 x 14 in.

Brit milah of Aaron Josef Kowalski at the Isaac Synagogue. Krakow, 2014. 11 x 14 in.

Jerzy Kichler, 66, at the refurbished White Stork Synagogue in Wroclaw. Kichler, president of Wroclaw’s Jewish Community and of the Union of Religious Jewish Communities in Poland, was instrumental in the renovation. Wroclaw, June 2014. 16 x 20 in.

Burlesque artist Anna Ciszewska (Betty Q), 28, backstage with her mother Joanna. Anna’s Jewish roots are through her mother’s father. Warsaw, June 2014. 11 x 14 in.

Barbara Lesowska (left) and daughter Bogumila. Barbara survived the Holocaust by being sheltered by a gentile woman; she had hidden her Jewishness all her life until confronted by Bogumila. Warsaw, July 2014. 11 x 14 in.

The largest Shabbat dinner held in Krakow since before the Holocaust with between 400-500 in attendance. Krakow, July 4, 2014. 11 x 14 in.

“Shalom on Szeroka Street”—closing night concert for the 24th annual Jewish Culture Festival. Krakow, July 5, 2014. 20 x 24 in.

Eight-year-old Stanislaw Sawicki putting name marker in grave of his father, Adam Sawicki, 60, Chairman of Jewish Community. Lodz, July 21, 2016. 11 x 14 in.

In a private meeting with representatives of Poland’s Jewish community, Pope Francis is introduced by Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich (left) to JCC Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein, all being interpreted from Polish or English to Spanish by Marcjanna Kubala, a young Polish woman who discovered her Jewish identity as a teenager. Krakow, July 31, 2016. 11 x 14 in.

Sharing stories at Sunday brunch (Boker Tov) outside the Jewish Community Center. Elzbieta Siczek (center, with hands on head) discovered she was Jewish 12 years earlier. Warsaw, 2016. 11 x 14 in.

Participants in the fifth annual March of Remembrance commemorating the 74th anniversary of the first massive deportation to the extermination camp Treblinka, passing the Anielewicza tram stop as they make their way through the former Warsaw Ghetto. Warsaw, 2016. 16 x 20 in.

About the Artist

In his 40-year career, freelance photographer Chuck Fishman has focused on social and political issues with a strong humanistic concern.

His work has been extensively published, exhibited and collected worldwide, and has earned him prestigious World Press Photo Foundation medals four times. His photographs have appeared on the covers of Time, Life, Fortune, Newsweek, The London Sunday Times, The Economist and numerous others, and have been selected for publication in the American Photography and Communication Arts juried annuals. Fishman’s work is included in the collections of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery; the United Nations; POLIN The Museum of the History of Polish Jews; The Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona; The Studio Museum in Harlem; and Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University, among many others, as well as in private and corporate collections.

Fishman’s first monograph, Polish Jews: The Final Chapter, was published in 1977 in the US. He has worked on book projects for publishers worldwide, from France to Singapore to Papua New Guinea. Exhibitions of his work include solo shows in the US and Europe, and influential group exhibitions globally, including the International Center of Photography in New York City and the Pingyao International Photography Festival in China.

He lives in New York with his wife, Susan.

All images © Chuck Fishman.

This text appeared in the brochure produced in conjunction with the exhibition Chuck Fishman: Roots, Resilience and Renewal–A Portrait of Polish Jews, 1975–2016, on view in the Derfner Judaica Museum from September 17, 2017–January 7, 2018.

Header Image: Chuck Fishman, Participants in the fifth annual March of Remembrance, commemorating the 74th anniversary of the first massive deportation to the extermination camp in Treblinka from the Warsaw Ghetto, passing the Anielewicza tram stop, named after Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the first armed action of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Warsaw, 2016. © Chuck Fishman

Jointly organized with Jewish Studies at Fordham University.

As a member of the American Alliance of Museums, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale by RiverSpring Health is committed to publicly exhibiting its art collection  throughout its 32-acre campus including Derfner Judaica Museum and a sculpture garden overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades. Derfner Judaica Museum + The Art Collection provide educational and cultural programming for residents of the Hebrew Home, their families and the general public from throughout New York City, its surrounding suburbs and visitors from elsewhere. RiverSpring Health is a nonprofit, non-sectarian geriatric organization serving more than 12,000 older adults in greater New York through its resources and community service programs. Museum hours: Sunday–Thursday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Art Collection and grounds open daily, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Call 718.581.1596 for holiday hours and to schedule group tours or for further information, visit our website at

Additional funding provided by Joseph Alexander Foundation, the Jan Karski Educational Foundation, and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
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This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.


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