Łukasz Baksik’s exhibition Matzevot for Everyday Use premiered at The Florida Holocaust Museum on Saturday, October 15, 2016, featuring photographs of Jewish tombstones that were “repurposed” and integrated into walls, grindstones, roads, and other structures both during and after World War II. As Jewish graveyards were leveled and built over in Poland, the matzevot were recycled as ordinary stone and used for building and industrial purposes. Baksik photographed various remaining matzevot throughout Poland from 2008 to 2012, visiting about one hundred different locations and traveling over twenty thousand miles. His project documents the variety of ways matzevot have been misused, and also comments on the extent to which Jewish culture has been erased, disrespected, and degraded both during and after the war, opening a dialogue about the nature of cultural memory and tradition.
Many of the matzevot in Baksik’s photographs are not in obvious places, or the Hebrew inscriptions are worn and faded, and would perhaps be easy to overlook in everyday life. One series shows a road where a stone has been uncovered, moving in over three pictures to reveal the stone as a fractured tombstone. This physical unearthing demonstrates the work the photographer had to do to even find the stolen matzevot in some cases, and therefore the lengths Polish Jews must go to in order to connect with a culture that’s been suppressed for so long. The fact that what were once monuments to people and their culture have been removed from their original context, broken down, and hidden among ordinary objects serves as a reminder of the challenges and difficulty in connecting to a tradition that others have worked so hard to erase.
Many of Baksik’s photographs feature matzevot appropriated as grindstones; the exhibit also contains one of the actual grindstones made from stolen matzevot. Translations of the remaining Hebrew inscriptions are posted next to the pictures, containing messages of love and remembrance, as well as descriptions of people and their lives. The symbolism of tombstones turned into grindstones is significant – a monument to someone’s life used as an industrial tool to sharpen knives is a stark contrast. The translations of individual epitaphs also serve as a reminder that the Holocaust and its lasting antisemitism affected individual people and families; this wasn’t only something that happened to the abstract concepts of culture, society, or humanity, but something that continues to affect the individual people who make up those groups. However, an echo of all the inscriptions we can’t read is also contained in the translated epitaphs, of the people whose gravestones were destroyed, fractured beyond recognition, or otherwise erased.
Other photographs show matzevot used as Catholic and Protestant gravestones, with new epitaphs inscribed over the original Hebrew in an obvious prioritization of certain religions and cultures over another. The physical intertwining of different languages and traditions represents an inscription of power imbalance and injustice, a clear artifact of antisemitism. These recycled gravestones also raise questions about how different cultures and traditions are supposed to coexist in a society that so clearly devalued one culture and prioritized all others – antisemitism is not the sole fault of every Christian, yet how are followers of that tradition supposed to respond to a shared history that devalued Jewish life in favor of their own? One picture shows matzevot used to build a cemetery for Soviet soldiers, an obvious symbol of disrespect, of using the culture whose graves they destroyed to build their own.
Baksik stated that he left this project with an ambivalent feeling about the “everyday use” of matzevot; according to Jewish faith, the stones can’t be put back since the original graveyards were destroyed, so the appropriated and repurposed matzevot are in some ways the only context we can ever view these matzevot in. The damage of the Holocaust and antisemitism can’t be undone, we can’t go back, but Baksik’s work is something that allows us to figure out how to go forward, how to work with the remnants of such a massively destructive force. This is done partially through documentation and education, but also by asking the audience to consider the perhaps less-obvious effects of antisemitism and showing us how deeply ingrained into society the effects of these insidious ideas are.
The importance of memory is infused throughout Baksik’s photographs; the exhibit calls into question how we remember people and culture, and what it means when symbols of memory are destroyed, disrespected, or forced into a new context. Tombstones are essentially just symbols, but they’re very important symbols that influence how people remember each other, and therefore how people remember their tradition and culture. The destruction of tombstones creates a symbolic destruction of culture, yet it also reminds us of the destruction of graves, a far less abstract consequence of antisemitism. Baksik’s exhibit asks us to consider how physical symbols are tied to cultural memory, what we do with those symbols, and how they impact relationships to people and culture.
Matzevot for Everyday Use is also a testament to the role art plays in history and memory; no one can change historical events, but through art we can shape history by contributing to and developing the narratives and dialogue that turn these past events into history as such. Art can influence what stories are told and how they’re perceived and can encourage people to think about subjects in a new way, to ask new questions and open new discussions.