Agnieszka Traczewska: Bracha - Blessing. Back to Polish Shtetls. ACT Jewish Community Centre Gallery | Closing date uncertain, but expected to continue throughout 2021. Open Monday to Thursday, 10am-3pm, except on Jewish holy days.
A fine photographic insight into pilgrimages by ultra-Orthodox Jews is on display at the ACT Jewish Community Centre gallery. Outstanding artistic black-and-white prints provided by the Polish Embassy provide this excellent exhibition of Chasidim (a sect of Orthodox Jews) returning to destroyed shtetls (small Jewish towns or villages) in Poland. The exhibition prints are of a very high quality. What's more the quality of the photojournalism is great.
Bracha - Blessing. Back to Polish Shtetls was first shown publicly at the United Nations headquarters in New York in January 2019. Writing in New York's The Jewish Week at the time, Jonathon Mark quoted the then Polish Consul-General as saying, "This is how my town must have looked [around] 1932, my grandmother's reality." Poland's then UN ambassador told the guests at the opening that there is no Polish culture without Jewish culture. She suggested the photos showed that the traces of the Old World had not completely disappeared, and that Jewish heritage was well and alive in Poland. She did not mention that a community of millions was down to 10,000.
Since then, the exhibition has been displayed only in Dusseldorf and Tel Aviv. Now we are privileged to have it in Canberra for an extended period.
There are no actual permanent Chasidim communities still living in Poland: the Chasidim were nearly completely wiped out in the Holocaust. Pilgrims travel there from all around the world to visit the ancient graveyards of deceased rabbis lucky enough to have graves, tombs and synagogues.
The photographs were taken by a non-Jewish Polish woman, Agnieszka Traczewska, who gained the confidence of some of the pilgrims, enabling her to capture the piety of their activities whilst visiting their ancestral religious sites. As the Chasidic women in particular don't like being exposed, the fact that there are some portraits of women in the exhibition is unusual.
On her website, Traczewska reveals that on her very first journey to Leajsk, Poland, for Rabbi Elimelech's anniversary of death, she had no idea that photography of Chasidim would become her lifelong passion.
All she knew was that there were men there that are part of her country's story, part of her history, and so she had to see, learn, capture and connect.
This exhibition is a testimony to the author's passion and long-term commitment to documenting the descendants of Chasidim visiting the remains of their enduring heritage.
Unlike Traczewska, most of us, even many Jewish people, will never meet any Chasidim and are unlikely to know much about them. That makes this exhibition all the more interesting. The top-class social documentary imagery is very moving and provides us with a little knowledge.
In one particularly powerful image, we see Chasidim withstand a downpour during a visit to a Jewish cemetery.
Another looks down on Chasidim davening (reciting the prescribed ritual prayer).
Others depict ceremonies - such as welcoming a spectacular new Torah and acknowledging anniversaries of deaths.
There are numerous scenes of people in synagogues and graveyards, and some very fine portraits of individuals.
It is the first exhibition held at the ACT Jewish Community since it opened its new multi-million-dollar wing and will be on show for the remainder of the year.