Excerpts from Artistic Colony in Kazimierz Dolny, Centuries 19th-21st
By Waldemar Odorowski
From Waldemar Odorowski, Artistic Colony in Kazimierz Dolny. Centuries 19th–21st, trans. Joanna Roszak, revised by Halina Goldberg and Virginia Whealton (Kazimierz Dolny: Nadwiślańskie Museum in Kazimierz Dolny, 2005), 60–62.
Kazimierz Dolny nad Wisłą (the full name, Lower Casimir on the Vistula, differentiates the settlement from the historically Jewish district of Krakow, also named Kazimierz) is a picturesque ancient town in East-Central Poland. Known to its Jewish inhabitants as Kuzmir (קאזמיר), the town was home to a large Jewish population for hundreds of years until the Jewish inhabitants of Kuzmir were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust
In the years before World War II, Kazimierz stood out in several ways from other similar Polish towns with large Jewish populations. First, the combination of architectural and natural beauty that characterized the town had attracted artists since the nineteenth century. Second, by the turn of the twentieth century, Kazimierz was mythologized as a representation of an idyllic Jewish-Polish past. Although the founder and patron of this town was Prince Casimir II the Just, Kazimierz was routinely associated with the fourteenth-century benefactor of the Jews, King Casimir III the Great, and his fabled Jewish mistress Esterka. Third, during its artistic heyday, Kazimierz provided an exceptionally successful collaborative space for the Jewish and gentile artists who worked there. Perhaps it was the mythical quality of Kazimierz that enticed artists, whether their background was Jewish or Christian. In his 1939 essay “The Town of Our Dreams,” the Polish-Jewish writer Anatole Stern remarked: “I know people who habitually eat breakfast in Warsaw, lunch in London, and dinner in Paris. But at night they always return to Kazimierz, because it is the town of their dreams.”
Jews were integral to the landscape of Kazimierz. They were also an active force in shaping that landscape. The Yiddish writer Samuel L. Shneiderman, a native of Kazimierz and the author of Ven di Visel hot geredt Yiddish (When the Vistula Spoke Yiddish), remarked that “Jews changed the architectural image of the town through attaching wooden balconies to the half-destroyed stone walls of the houses and adding steep and winding staircases to rooms that were situated one above another, nestlike. Under the Gothic archways the Jews had the little shops (…). Later on, from these makeshift extensions developed a certain Romantic style that harmoniously matched the surrounding landscape.” For the architect Karol Siciński, Kazimierz was a place where “the Slavic soul and the ghetto shook hands, creating a rare example of an architecture: fantastic and picturesque, full of natural grace and enchantment.”
Already in the earliest Romantic images representing Kazimierz, Jews are an integral part of the artistic cityscape. One such example is found in Joseph Richter’s 1830 sepia drawing of the market square. With time, Jews became increasingly common as a subject of artistic scenes from Kazimierz. Artists’ journeys to Kazimierz also presented opportunities for interaction with the local Jews. For example, several artists mention staying at the inn of Lipa Rabinowicz, which in the 1850s offered very basic accommodations, according to the recollections of the painter Wojciech Gerson, but by the 1880s the painter and architect Michał Elwiro Andriolli praised its cleanliness and hospitality.
During the 1920s, when artists started to arrive in Kazimierz in large numbers, they found the Jewish inhabitants of the town to be friendly towards them, although the traditional Jews of Kazimierz typically avoided posing for paintings. On the other hand, the Jews liked to help artists in their day-to-day challenges, for instance by assisting them in finding affordable accommodations. Some of the associations were especially close. For instance, Shulim Nudelman was so strongly linked with Tadeusz Pruszkowski, the professor of painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and the leader of the younger generation of artists connected to Kazimierz, that he was known as “Professor Pruszkowski’s Broker.” In fact, he appeared under this name in one of the satirical szopka plays organized by the Academy of Fine Arts. Perhaps Jews were the first to recognize that the artists’ interest in Kazimierz opened other opportunities. Along with the artists, tourists started to arrive in Kazimierz. The town began to undergo a transformation, and it soon became a popular destination for summer vacationers.
Although as a whole artistic colonies in Europe may seem to have been quite varied, there was one distinct idea that unified them. It was the Romantic ideal of turning to primeval and unspoiled nature. Realizations of this concept, however, took various forms. The earliest was the artists’ settlement in Barbizon; its variations can be seen in any other colony, regardless of its place, date of origin, or duration. Nonetheless, not all colonies followed the same pattern. For example, the Abramtsevo colony—established through the generous aid of a well-off art lover at a location that had not previously been an artists’ hub—was quite different from colonies like the one in Barbizon, which were set up in places already frequented by painters. In such cases, it might be difficult to decide whether a place was already an artistic colony or just a spot where painters liked to come. If painters’ visits continued, and if the pattern of artistic activity was sustained by subsequent generations of painters who themselves traveled to take up residence in a given community, then one can describe a town as an artistic colony in the sense of a place, and not merely as a colony comprised of a bigger or smaller group of cooperating artists.
Kazimierz on the Vistula falls into that latter category of colonies. Painters started coming there at the end of the eighteenth century and have kept up the tradition ever since. Even at this general level, without going into too much detail on how the process of shaping the colony unfolded, Kazimierz might be seen as a unique phenomenon when compared with other European artistic colonies. One reason for the town’s singularity could be that painting in Kazimierz has been a continuous tradition (the artistic results of this tradition present separate issues, which will not be discussed here). Also important is the fact that regardless of any artistic and non-artistic concepts, Kazimierz itself became an idea, or a program, for artists of all sorts who visited the town. Ideas kept changing: some disappeared, others were created. Kazimierz continued its existence independent of the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of artistic currents while providing a safe haven in which new ideas could be realized.
The town maintained its spatial layout, whose exceptional beauty came from its intermingling of nature and architecture. Artists were not the only visitors attracted by this picturesque townscape, although they were the ones who praised it above all. Kazimierz seemed to be “created” to be an artist’s “model.” Each generation of painters reinforced this notion. They kept communing with Kazimierz, regardless of changing trends and styles of painting.
In beginning of the twentieth century, Kazimierz was discovered by Jewish artists. A Jewish community had existed in Kazimierz since the Middle Ages, and this Jewish population grew with every century. At the turn of the nineteenth century, there were 3,000 inhabitants in the town, most of them Jews. In that respect, Kazimierz was similar to hundreds of Polish towns, especially those to the east of the Vistula. Nevertheless, Kazimierz managed to stand out, although at first glance it is quite difficult to say what made it so different. Still, both Poles and Jews observed Kazimierz’s singularity. Of greatest interest is that the common denominator for Poles and Jews was King Kazimierz the Great. The well-known legend about the King and his beloved Esterka, a Jewish girl, was a manifestation of the Kazimierz Jews’ veneration for the great King. The author and poet Konrad Bielski wrote about this phenomenon: “We are royal Jews, they used to say, and I think they believed that Kazimierz the Great himself had chosen them to settle in the town and had given them special secrets to guard. And they were so separate, so different from others.” Another witness to the times, Zygmunt Kamiński, who participated in a painting workshop in 1901, also noticed the very specific nature of the Jews of Kazimierz. He wrote, “Generally, the Jews of Kazimierz were so different, so ancient, old and almost monumental—marked with signs of the past, tradition, and time that had been stopped.” For Jewish culture, Kazimierz had gradually become an archetypical model of the shtetl—a typical small Jewish town. If for Polish culture Kazimierz was a synonym of the state of being Polish, for Jews, Kazimierz became a symbol of Jewishness. Such a perception of Kazimierz by Jews was shaped by Jewish painters and writers. Most of them were those artists who at the beginning of the twentieth century, after the failure of assimilationism, decided to go back to tradition and folklore associated with the shtetl.
The first Jewish artist whose presence in Kazimierz is well documented was Józef Mojżesz Gabowicz (1861– 1939). A great sculptor who was widely known in Europe, Gabowicz created busts of many famous people (among whom was Sara Bernhardt) and was awarded the Legion of Honor order in 1910. In 1901, he settled in Warsaw, and it was probably at that time that he visited Kazimierz. One result of that visit was a small pastel drawing depicting Kazimierz as seen from the Three Crosses Hill. Soon many other artists, some of them relatively obscure today, started coming to the town. After 1910, Stanisława Centnerszwerowa often painted Kazimierz.
Jewish writers started coming to the town at the same time as Jewish painters, and it was not by pure chance that most of them chose to write their works in Yiddish. Sholem Asch’s visit was most significant. He described Kazimierz in his poetic novel A Shtetl (The Village), which was published in 1905. Although the name “Kazimierz” did not appear in this work, it was Asch’s goal in this novel to depict a full year’s cycle in a typical shtetl. Thus he created the literary foundations for the movement in Jewish literature and culture that drew upon the shtetl’s traditions and habits. Acknowledged as the father of Yiddish literature, Isaac Leib Peretz incorporated those traditions into his Folktales (the title itself suggests the theme—Jewish folklore), but this work also had no mention of Kazimierz. However, the town meant much to Peretz, as in 1909, when he commissioned the Jewish artist Ber Kratka to illustrate the book, Peretz specifically requested that the illustrations should depict Kazimierz. Zusman Segałowicz, who was also called “the bard from Kazimierz,” wrote directly about the town in his verse and prose.
The Kazimierz colony was full of life. New painters continued to arrive. Pruszkowski’s students, following in the footsteps of the founders of “St. Luke’s Brotherhood” (an artistic association formed in Kazimierz in 1925, referencing earlier St. Luke guilds), created new artistic societies in the town. In 1929, the “Warsaw School” was formed. Its members were Eugeniusz Arct, Włodzimierz Bartoszewicz (chairman), Michał Bylina, Leokadia Bielska, Henryk Jaworski, Antoni Łyżwański, Władysław Palessa, Jadwiga Przeradzka, Aleksander Rak, Efraim and Menasze Seidenbeutel, and Wacław Ujejski. Among the group members, Teresa Roszkowska especially stood out. She was well-known for her originality in dress and her grotesque manner and sense of humor in painting. Other outstanding artists were the Seidenbeutel twins, who painted their pieces together; they are an unusual case study in the psychology of the creative process. The “Warsaw School” was less focused on old-style paintings and more interested in landscapes.
Along with the “St. Luke’s Brotherhood,” the “Warsaw School” displayed its members’ pieces in the prestigious exhibition in the Rath Museum in Geneva (1931). These groups represented Polish art there. The exhibition was much appreciated and praised by both Swiss critics and viewers. In 1934 in Kazimierz, the group “Freepainting Lodge” (a play on the word freemasonic—wolnomularska/wolnomalarska) was established, and its members included Bolesław Gniazdowski, Hanna Henneberg, Bolesław Herman, Leonia Nadelmanówna, Jadwiga Pietkiewicz, Mieczysław Szymański, Kazimierz Zielenkiewicz, Feliks Topolski, Aleksander Żyw, Edmund Kaniewski, Jerzy Knothe, Antoni Kudła and Bolesław Linke.
Gizela Hufnagel, Elżbieta Hirszberżanka, and Mery Litauer, who in 1920 established the group “Color,” also were connected to the atelier of Tadeusz Pruszkowski. Although their artistic program was in the very name of the group, “Color,” they had much in common with the followers of Pruszkowski. They painted together in Kazimierz. These three female painters were of Jewish descent, which was nothing unusual in the atelier of “Prusz.” Many Jewish artists studied there—Jan Gotard, the Seidenbeutel brothers, and Feliks Topolski are but some examples. The most important thing was that they all wanted to be in Kazimierz.
In the 1930s, the town welcomed more and more Jewish artists, and although painters were not the only artists, they were the most prevalent. Among them were painters of the older generation, like Feliks Frydman, Adolf Behrman, and Maurycy Trębacz, who was a frequent visitor at that time. Another figure who stayed in Kazimierz for months at a time was Natan Korzeń. These artists, however, are not the end of the list. From the younger generation one could mention Mira Zylowa (Silberschlag), Stella Amelia Miller, Izrael Tykociński, Henryk Cytryn, Dionizy Greifenberg, Boas Dulman, Mojżesz Rynecki, Bernard Rolnicki, Henryk Rabinowicz, and Hersz Cyna, and many others. The artists mentioned above were representatives of the Warsaw circles, but at the time, Kazimierz became a link between different Jewish spheres that were looking for contact with each other and trying to unite. Henryk Lewensztadt and Symcha Trachter, two distinguished painters, both of whom studied and lived in Paris in the ´20s, were associated with circles in the city of Lublin.The Łódź circles were very well represented in Kazimierz. Samuel Finkelstein and Natan Szpigiel, both well-known painters from the group “Start,” visited Kazimierz quite often. It is possible that another member of that group—Karol Hiller, a Pole—came with them to Kazimierz. Hiller was one of the most outstanding representatives of the Polish avant-garde. In Kazimierz, he created traditional representations of landscapes. Other figures from Łódź were Roman Rozental, Marceli Słodki and Józef Kowner. The circles of Krakow were represented by Samuel Cygler and Izydor Goldhuber. From Lwów came Marcin Kitz and Maksymilian Feuerring.
These are just a few names, and it is impossible to mention all of them. About many, history remains silent. The times were hard; anti-Semitism was escalating. Kazimierz, however, was different. Here, during shared open-air workshops, the Jews found a refuge and freedom. It is not surprising that the town became not only a place for open-air workshops but also for locations for films. Here, in the ´30s, some of the most emblematic movies in Yiddish were shot. Among these films were Der dibuk, directed by Michal Waszyński, and Yidl mitn fidl.
Jakub Glatstein, a Jewish writer, spent quite a lot of time in Kazimierz in 1933. In his émigré’s perspective—he lived in the United States—Kazimierz became an incarnation of Jewish tradition and history. Glatstein’s expressed this view in his description of the town in one of his novels. Kazimierz became a colony that gathered Jewish artists—not in a community separate from Polish painters and writers but in a fellowship with them. Such communal coexistence was a phenomenon without precedent in Europe. Artistic colonies, due to their ties to nationalistic movements, usually were not particularly appealing to Jewish artists. One exception to this rule was the Dutch Laren colony. During the nineteenth century, many painters of Jewish descent worked there, gathering around Josef Israëls, at the time a well-known artistic authority in his circles. The case of Kazimierz was different, however. The town turned out to be a place of integration and cooperative activity for nearly all artistic circles of Polish Jews.
See related scholarship here.