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Since the end of World War II, despite the efforts to revive the Jewish community, there has been no Jewish community that would have been an inseparable part Poland’s everyday reality the way it had been for centuries until 1939. Thus the memory about Jews and about that gone-forever past is located in the lieux de mémoire, such as Kazimierz, the Jewish part of Cracow, Poland, Auschwitz and other death camps, and also the Sandomierz painting. They all became powerful sites of memory.
Yet, memory and associated with it lieux de mémoire necessarily simplify the past, heighten emotions, and mute the past’s different colors, shades and textures. In Poland, the recollection of intensified ant-Semitism during the interwar periodand the destruction of the Jews during World War II influenced the reading of the Sandomierz painting, reducing it to a symbol of a much simplified version of a much richer Polish-Jewish past. The 18th-century representation of blood libels in Sandomierz became tied up with the more recent past, engendering polemics and emotions on all sides. This made it difficult to engage not only with the history of the painting and the events behind it, but also with the larger topic of Jewish-Christian relations.
The Sandomierz painting seems to have made the dialogue between Jews and Christians in Poland more challenging. On the one hand, well-meaning people, many of them devout Catholics committed to Jewish-Christian rapprochement, called for the painting’s removal, and even, in extreme cases, destruction, or at the very least a proper description to accompany its display, informing the viewers that the painting did not represent true events, but rather anti-Jewish fantasies — the last was the position taken by members of the Jewish community. On the other hand, many Polish Catholics, including some high profile members of the clergy, dug their heels, refusing to denounce the events of almost 300 years ago, angering both Jews and Poles ashamed of the dark past in Polish-Jewish relations.
But the controversy over the painting was not really about its 300-year-old past. The long stalemate could certainly be attributed to the fact that for both the Poles and the Jews, the painting was not a representation of a long-gone history, but a symbol of contemporary Polish anti-Semitism. The long-festering controversy over the painting did not make anyone feel good — not Jews, who felt the painting’s presence in a cathedral church without any explanation legitimized historical blood libels and was evidence of continuing Polish anti-Semitism, and not the Catholic church, nor the local population, which became associated with and tainted by the broad notion of Polish and Catholic anti-Semitism.
January 16, 2014 seemed to mark a turning point in the long rankling controversy and the almost two-decade-long stalemate. The celebration of the Day of Judaism and the uncovering of the controversial painting with a proper and prominently displayed description was greeted with a sigh of relief by all. Due credit was given to Sandomierz Bishop Krzysztof Nitkiewicz,and Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich who called the unveiling of the controversial painting and the new plaque “a wise solution,” and emphasized that Jewish-Catholic relations had never been better than they were now. To be sure, those efforts at rapprochement have been taking place since the Second Vatican Council, and for the last two decades or so in Poland, but in Sandomierz, they had never succeeded in breaking the stalemate. And here a case can be made for historians lending a hand in difficult to overcome situations. (Full disclosure, I was one of the participating historians in Sandomierz.)
A year before the historic celebration of the Day of Judaism in Sandomierz, a smaller gathering took place just steps from the Cathedral. Scholars from Poland and the United States discussed questions of the history and historiography of Jewish-Christian relations, Jews in Christian art, and the local context for the divisive painting, in a symposium called “Jewish-Christian Relations in History, Memory, and Art: European Context for the Paintings in the Sandomierz Cathedral.” The symposium was a fruit of an unprecedented collaboration between the Diocese of Sandomierz, and especially Bishop Nitkiewicz, and an American academic institution. After meeting the bishop in the summer of 2012, we began planning the symposium, co-sponsored by my home institution, Wesleyan University. On a cold January day in 2013, when the cobbled streets of the beautiful town were lightly covered by snow, we traced Sandomierz iconography to its Italian roots, notably to the history and iconography of Christian martyrologies, and to the iconography of the most notorious example of a blood libel, the 1475 case of Simon of Trent. What the symposium succeeded in doing was to help untangle the past from the present and find language to discuss the painting openly, as a work of its time and place.
A year later, the young clerics would sing Hebrew songs, and a bishop would deliver a moving homily marking the Day of Judaism 2014 — in the very cathedral that had been a source of tension for years.
Magda Teter is a professor of history and Jewish Studies at Wesleyan University.