About The Exhibition
When I was a bit older, my father said:
“Don’t do unto others what you don’t want done unto you.” I’ve stuck to it to this day.
The idea of the Museum of Personal Stories is to collect and preserve the stories of the residents of Osijek through the prism of Osijek’s ethnic minorities. The stories – which seem insurmountable and difficult or banal and meaningless to those who tell them – create a link and a note of recognition in joint culturological narrative at the moment in which they are uttered and heard by another. Furthermore, the more recent paradigms of contemporary theory stress the role of art in communication practices, i.e. prior to its aesthetic categorisation. Osijek, as the intersection of paths, diversity and time, is actually the supreme value of ours, albeit not in the fashionable sense of being a brand. We speak of the genuine value that each genuine faith, constructive policy, inclusive culture and solidary social orderliness considers the highest achievement of the culture of peaceful coexistence.
Someone is there to open the doors for you, you’re not alone.
The presence of Jewish population in Osijek has lasted nearly as long as its official history, from the Ancient Roman colony of Mursa to the present day. Their lives and activities in this space are woven into the very essence of the city – they can be traced through historical records, through cultural, social and political activity, through trade, artisanry, medicine, industrialisation and finance, through houses and buildings which they built and inhabited and, ultimately, through earthly remains at cemeteries. In the late 19th century, Osijek was home to the greatest number of Jews in Slavonia and Croatia, but very few have remained until today. The horrors of the Second World War, the racism and terror of the Ustashe regime, the concentration camps and the Shoah practically obliterated the domestic Jewish population, while unprecedented plundering was carried out through the “nationalisation” of their assets in immovable and movable property, money, securities, artwork, manufacturing businesses, factories and shops. The residents of Osijek, who walk the streets of our town today, pass daily by the remnants of this bygone, perhaps better, and definitely more innocent society. From the Lower to the Upper Town, through the avenues and representative streets of the suburbs and the city centre, the houses remain symbols of its former owners and residents – those who were robbed and taken away. Only a few today know the houses by the names of the people who had built them: Winter, Hiller, Berger, Rein, Kästenbaum, Landsinger, Springer, Schwarz… Even though only a select few are featured in this exhibition, the list runs fairly long nonetheless. The same houses are today inhabited by new people, new families, while the museum collections and storerooms are home to the artwork, furniture and books from them, as silent witnesses to the houses’ first owners. When does oblivion ensue? The vanishing? For, a house is the symbol of family, belonging, home, and of ourselves as the authentic voice of the fact that history lives on through personal stories. It consists of human lives, conceived so as to create something new in the time allocated to them until they end, during which each progress and each rupture leaves a trace.
We knew exactly what and how much we’re eating, and when I asked something, he wouldn’t say a word, I would only see a spoon, actually half a spoon with a number on it. He told me that, when food would be brought to Jasenovac in cauldrons, they were so hungry that they would scrape them. That’s how this spoon had gotten worn out.
In the camp, one of the reasons that can drive a prisoner to survive is the idea of becoming a witness. These are the introductory words of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in the book dedicated to Auschwitz and the meaning of survivors. When we speak of a personal story – or a testimony – subjectivity is rendered indispensable as a category of historic truth. A witness is someone who tells their own truth in first person, and “exorcises” past traumas with own emotions in all their fulness. They speak of themselves, of the Self, and of disclosure. Further along in the book, Agamben quotes Primo Levi, the Italian chemist who became a writer after he had survived the Holocaust: the grey zone is an area in which the bonding chain “between victim and executioner” gradually loosens, an alchemic process in which all metals are fused into the greyness of moral ambivalence. This is the exact same grey zone that can be observed in today’s society in the relativizations and withholdings, in the equalisation of victims and in the precipitous repetition of historic mistakes. On the other hand, German philosopher Hannah Arendt was the first to coin the phrase the banality of evil when she covered the trial of the Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, for the US magazine The New Yorker in 1963. The phrase refers to the manner in which we can, if at all, explain an evil such as the Holocaust – it refers to the thesis that major crimes are not necessarily committed by evil persons with sociopathic personalities, but rather by ordinary, average people, who blend into the crowd – sans own moral judgement – and execute orders that are brutal and deeply criminal in themselves. They are perhaps the most ordinary of bureaucrats who implement regulations without question, neighbours who betray their yesterday’s friends in the name of “orthodoxy,” or camp guards who dehumanise the victims on their watch. They are regular people who were once model citizens and subjects, who “know nothing” after the war and are left without a serious trauma of facing their own actions. This is actually not about the surplus of obedience towards the structures of oppressive power, but rather about an individual’s lack of awareness. In this dichotomy, Arendt described the relations between banality and extreme evil in the grey zone of nonconfrontation.
My father’s entire family was killed, and everything that had been built by the previous generations was taken away from him.
And not only that, he was also accused of stealing, which was a standard accusation at the time.
The exhibition Stories of the Jewish People therefore speaks of the individual life destinies woven into the joint artistic narrative of time and place, through personal accounts of 28 people. Osijek is the very place at which these paths meet, both physically and symbolically, with Judaism as the common link. The exhibition brings us a new kind of testimony when compared to that mentioned by Agamben, since these are the stories of people who are, for the most part, generationally separated from the 1940s. The exhibition Stories of the Jewish People speaks of the individuals who today consider this city a home, and whose lives – just as the lives of those who had lived before them and before us – make up the tissue of this city. We gaze upon their portraits, we listen to their voices. They are our contemporaries who, regardless of this temporal distance, convey with their affiliation to Judaism part of the collective memory of the entire nation, but also of our whole environment. Today, it is necessary – perhaps as equally so as in the 1930s – to speak and pass on memories to others, even to those who are different. In the world that surrounds us, which assumes increasingly cruel outlines and horizons day after day, and has no unique mark of stability in justice and empathy, we require new spaces of gathering and understanding for future. In the world that is once again facing a turning point – to learn from history or to keep repeating the same mistakes – and finds itself bordering on even deeper ideological, national and religious divisions, the free space at which the different and the same can meet becomes one of the last zones of resistance. This zone is one of the natural arenas of contemporary artistic practices, and provides new modes of visualisation of the future – occasionally even in ashes of the past – by stepping outside of the exhibition space. With the exhibition Stories of the Jewish People, we consolidate the space of art as one of the last free zones, since we place the observer into a direct dialogic relationship with the exhibits, i.e. living people and their testimonies. We listen to their voices, we look into their eyes, and profoundly understand the importance of memory and remembering, i.e. we realise how vulnerable we become once we lose them. The observer becomes an integral part of the work when this meeting of personal stories occurs. With this stepping out of the traditional artistic spheres and by entering the intermedia space of direct communication, we resist all divisions based on diversity and all negations of universal and inherent humaneness. Let our and their words be forever heard, and let us remember it forever lest it be repeated.