Mark Podwal’s art has long focused on Jewish legend, history and tradition. Although he always made images, Podwal never pursued formal art training but rather became (and continues to practice as) a physician. While in medical school, the tumultuous events of the 1960s compelled him to create a series of political drawings that were published in his first book, The Decline and Fall of the American Empire and on The New York Times’ OpEd page. Podwal’s work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Israel Museum, and many others. Two years ago his retrospective Reimagined: 45 Years of Jewish Art by Mark Podwal (Glitterati Inc.) was published. He recently visited Dabrowa Białostocka in Poland, where his mother was born, and produced a series of drawings and watercolors. The prints from this series were on view at the Museum at Eldridge Street in New York and are currently shown at the Yiddish Book Center.
Usually, I interview artists and designers about their recent accomplishments, but in this case Podwal’s own writing (below) explains his experience as well, if not better, than a conventional Q&A.
Although for many years I had wanted to visit Dabrowa Białostocka, the shtetl in Poland where my mother was born, I never planned on creating a series of artworks about Dabrowa. Ultimately, an incentive to go to Dabrowa came from its mayor’s invitation to participate in a conference on the history of the town’s Jews. The visit on May 24, 2016, resulted in this series of drawings in acrylic and colored pencil, completed over the 30 days following my visit. There are 18 images, a significant number, meaning Chai, or “life,” in Hebrew.
In essence, this series is a visual diary of my journey to Dabrowa. The drawings are based on what I saw in the town and what I heard from elderly residents as they reminisced about their former Jewish neighbors while filmed by Tomasz Wisniewski for his documentary The Absent Family: Reading the Ashes Following in the Footsteps of the Jews of Dabrowa. Although Dabrowa was once 75 percent Jewish, no Jews currently live there.
In 1941, the Nazis burned Dabrowa Białostocka to the ground. Yet the images presented in Kaddish for Dabrowa Białostocka do not focus on the Holocaust. Like a kaddish—a mourning prayer—they honor something precious that is gone by portraying a vanished world of Jewish shtetl life in pre-World War II Poland. Incorporating themes characteristic of Poland, this series is the unique artistic imaginings of my Polish roots.
My mother, Dorothy Epelbaum, was born in Dabrowa in 1921, and left there when she was 8. In 1929 she traveled with her mother, Anna, and brothers Julius and Sam to the United States. They settled at 142 Herzl St. in Brooklyn, New York, where her father, Max, had already been living and preparing to bring his family over.
My mother’s brother David was denied entry into the United States based on a mistaken diagnosis of an eye infection. He died during a typhus epidemic at Treblinka, the Nazi extermination camp in Poland.
When my grandmother learned that her son David perished in Treblinka, she became severely depressed and was committed to a mental hospital for the last 18 years of her life. I remember how my mother would visit my grandmother every Wednesday and how I saw my grandmother just once through the hospital’s iron fence when I was child. The closest I ever got to my grandmother was when I helped carry her coffin. I’ve been told that my Uncle David drew very well. I’d like to believe that my talent in art is a gift to his memory.
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