Some time ago an image of an art installation by Rafal Betlejewski started circulating on the Internet. In the photo a man is seated on a straight backed chair placed on brownish-green, un-mowed grass of a hillside. The man, at ease, legs crossed, his hands folded in his lap, appears to be waiting for someone to sit on the sheepskin hide draped across an armchair beside him.
A building and trees in the background are obscured by fog and a slanted white text is superimposed on the imagery, graffiti on air.
I miss you, Jew ✡ I miss you in Poland ✡ In all these villages and big cities ✡ You left a vacuum there ✡ Both in space and my heart ✡ I just wanted you to know that ✡
On September 26, 2010 theater maker Dea Koert attended Betlejewski's lecture, "Coming out of the Jewish ignorance. The story of a regular Pole" at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.Guest blogger Dea Koert writes:
Rafal Beteljewski, who is not Jewish, was born in Poland in 1969. For me, having been born in the Netherlands in 1947 the paradigm change as presented by this young Pole's ongoing art project Tesknie Za Toba Zydzie (I Love You Jew) was striking.
He paints these words in graffiti style on walls in villages all over Poland. By using this seemingly simple text he reclaims the presence of Jews in his country. Rafal is an unprejudiced, relaxed kind of guy who seeks and longs for a connection with what he misses in Polish daily life.
He'll place an empty armchair with a Kippah (skullcap) on the seat in streets of Polish villages and invites people tot sit down. Those who agree then have their photograph taken.
He asks them: "Jewish people, where are they?"
Betlejewski fights ignorance (about the role the Polish played during the Holocaust) with his empty chair project and with the art installation/ performance ''The Burning Barn" (triggered by a massacre that took place in 1941) which he presented in Zawada in July of 2010.
Members of the audience/ participants wrote their names on a white pieces of paper (symbolizing negative thoughts about Jews that would be burned inside the barn) adding NO to ignorance and NO to further denying of the Polish past. By doing so they acknowledged missing them (the Jews) as well. Like Rafal, they wished for a kind of Utopian connection that should speak to all people scattered around the world.
That a barn burning can be problematic within this context is shown in photographs and videos and was apparent in the small meeting room at JHM in Amsterdam. Some people were really shocked, they could not understand the underlying motive.
"Why burning?" asked a lady who could have been my grandmother. "Rafal, why a burning barn? That burning is problematic for me - when the ghetto of Warzawa was burning, the Polish people pushed us back into the fire."
Rafal explained his intention. I can only hope she understood.
I myself visited Poland for the first time as a student in 1972. Everybody around me was going to the West, so I want to go East. What drew me was a theatre workshop lead by Jerzy Grotowsky in Wroclaw (now Breslau).
Having witnessed the major post WWII clean-up in the Netherlands in the 1950s, I was surprised by the visible remnants of that war all over Poland. A fascinating experience. Everything looked gray. I saw a lot of invalids in odd looking wheelchairs on the streets, ruins of houses, I witnessed an ugly political regime, and unhappy poor people. Poland was a country in mourning. But most bewildering was the total silence about the fate of the Jews. Before 1939 one tenth of the Poles were Jewish. The ignorance was complete, there were no signs, no memorials. The scarce remnants of Jewish burial sites had been transformed into dumping grounds for garbage. People overtly made anti-Semitic jokes. But not a Jew to be seen. What's going on here? I wondered back then.
With a bunch of Russian fellow students in a bus, more or less clandestine (I did not speak one word of their language) I visited the camps of Auschwitz.
I can still hear the echo of their partisan songs amidst the barracks.In 1980 I used my experience in Poland for the theater piece "Nagalm" or Reverberation, a co-production with Jenn Ben Yakov at the Mickery Theatre in Amsterdam.
Now, in 2010, all of a sudden there's a third generation, with Rafal Betlejewski (my gosh, even the word Jew is embedded in his family name) who makes such a fantastic art statement.
This is hopeful, I presume.
Can art change perceptions, can art change the world? If yes, how?
Dea Koert, born in the Noord-Oost Polder, the first reclaimed land province in the Netherlands is a theater maker, actor and drama coach. She's known for both intimate and large scale productions, often triggered by her emotional reaction to injustice.
Sketch of Dea Koert ©Judith van Praag
This work by Dea Koert with Judith van Praag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License