Thursday, 1 November 2012

Commemmorating Loss. Warsaw Jewish Community Today

[I was thinking what I could possibly post to resuscitate blog a little, and because it's Nov 1st today, which in catholic countries is the Day of the Dead, I decided to publish this essay written on the occassion of reviewing a Jewish music gig for The Wire #344 10/12. The great photo above is that of Guta Berliner, a beautiful athlete in 1930s Warsaw, who was a promising sport star of the Warsaw's Klub Makkabi but in 1934 decided to migrate to Palestine, which saved her life. Photo was for a sculptor Nathan Rappaport, later an author of the Ghetto Heroes Monument in Warsaw, Guta's sculpture was either unfinished or destroyed by the war...More photos of Guta and Warsaw prewar Jewish sportsmen here]

OHEL – 70. years of the liquidation of Warsaw ghetto
Ircha Gdola + Shofar + From thee to thee

For obvious reasons, playing music in Jewish tradition has in Poland special repercussions. But it must be said: in the last few years especially, the Jewish music has experienced a revival unheard of in this country before, that made this music enter a wholly new level. It is largely due to the rebirth of the Jewish community in Poland as such, which today still counts only around 20,000 in comparison to three million population before the Shoah. It’s thoroughly moving, how the community is growing back, but it is also, as one might expect, quite divided ideologically, namely around the question of Holocaust and Polish anti-Semitism, that did not ceased after the war and continued more or less in communist Poland, leading to the 1968 purges and many people forced to emigration.

There’s no place in an English music magazine to consider the complexities of Jewish identity and its crucial problems today, like relation to its past, politics of Israel and politics of memory, but discussing Jewish music renaissance we also cannot completely by-pass it. Pre-war Warsaw was one of the most vivacious Jewish and Yiddysh centers in the world, where different Jewish cultures and political factions - that of Bund and that of Zionism and many others existed. You cannot overestimate the weight the occasion of the concert: 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, which started July 1942, could possibly carry, in a situation, where Jews are still looked at suspiciously by some groups in Poland, despite their incredible suffering and sacrifices they made for the Polish nation. All three acts that participated in the concert are formed by young musicians in their thirties, that at certain point in their careers decided that their identity it too important to be left out of their music, especially, since there’s quite 'radical' (also in the Zornesque meaning of the word) sense to performing Jewish music, especially today. But the ways of resurrecting this music can be as diverse as the community itself – and lets be aware of the danger of the holocaust kitsch hanging there with great possibility.

The open-air event took place near the center of Warsaw, on the terrain of the ex-ghetto (everyone walking around Warsaw cannot miss it, as the wall is traced with a memorial line on the pavement), from the beginning had an incredibly solemn atmosphere. Between the recitations, the musicians were actually trying to decompress this slightly po-faced seriousness. Ircha Gdola is a Polish-British fusion of the talents of many improvisers: saxophonist/clarinetist Mikolaj Trzaska, Michał Gorczynski, Paweł Szamburski, Waclaw Zimpel, and Ollie Brice and drummer Mark Sanders, Trzaska, experimental jazz musician, known for participation in many dissimilar around-jazz projects, from Łoskot to Milość and playing on polish avant pop records, a few years ago felt he has to pay a tribute to his own jewish tradition, absent form his music. His aim is to play Jewish music, as if the tradition wasn’t suddenly broken with the war, but continued, to keep it alive. And to get it, he goes to ArmeniaTurkeyEgypt or Transilvanian Roma, where you can hear untouched Jewish influences.

The act was based on the melancholic sound of the many clarinets and , with tone predominantly elegiac and longing – I was curious, how the musicians are going to make it more diverse? And this way was supposed to come from free jazz, with which Trzaska, collaborator of the likes of Peter Brotzmann, is not a novice. Discreet microtonal whistles and rustles pervaded the sound, which nevertheless couldn’t overcome a slightly ethnographic tone and Mark Sanders, known for many more outré projects with Evan Parker or Derek Bailey, unfortunately wasn’t trying to intervene too much, being entirely a background to his friends efforts. Simple arrangements and harmonies were sweet, but didn’t really stopped sounding a bit too predictably. Does melancholia have to express itself only as a lament?

Raphael Roginski of Shofar says he wants his music to be a musical equivalent of Talmud; as many traditions there is of commenting the scripture, it should be reflected in the music. Songs come from musicological expertise done in result of research and traveling around UkraineMoldova, former pale of settlement. Roginski, supported by Trzaska and Macio Moretti on drums, bent so low over his guitar you can believe he’s really in a trance. Drastic sounds of electronic guitar spread from his corner, while Trzaska finally dropped his melancholy and Moretti was his equal partner. This project, though too often looses edge in noisy jamming and juvenile garage spirit, at least put a bit of life into this a bit too static event. I’m not entirely sure Rogiński is right, but in that night he displayed Marc Bolan’s groove.

That certainly wanst the case with the last band, From Thee to Thee, which succumbed to all sorts of solemn Schindler’s List kitsch. Dozen of musicians supported by singer Ola Bilińska drowned in pseudo-seriousness, that made them only generate somber, one-note elegy, with pseudo-poetical lyrics vaguely waxing on loss. I instinctively feel this is not the way to do it. The question of appropriateness of commemorating such occasion without becoming sacrosanct, falsely pious is a difficult one. When Schoenberg, such rigorous objector of any unnecessary ornament, composed a very sentimentalist Survivor from Warsaw, his previously biggest proponent Theodor Adorno noted, as a larger stamement on post-Shoah experimental music, that if even him cannot convey thsi experience in a way that is not kitsch, no one could. Up to now, there’s no view of musical version of Paul Celan - poet, who managed to reinvent the language to talk about the trauma - but with the two first acts, especially Shofar, I felt Warsaw community got at least some not entirely embarrassing way of commemorating their loss.
Agata Pyzik



  2. This is interesting- thanks for posting. I was in Poland quite a bit two or three years ago, and trying hard to work out what make it tick (tough job). I'm fascinated by the uneasy Polish attitude to 'outsiders'- which Jews have almost become, incredibly to students of Polish history. I saw Yael Bartana's films, "And Europe Will Be Stunned" a couple of weeks ago ( and it kicked me off on this train of thought again, which your piece nourishes further.