“Normally a poster wouldn’t include so much blank space. But any poster about Lublin must contain a blank space,” Robert told me.
I stood in Dom Słów’s printing house or The House of Words in Lublin, Poland, next to visionary printer Robert Sawa in his ink-stained apron, his long graying hair pulled back in a ponytail.
Robert was going to create a poster for an international seminar that I co-chaired with Dominika Majuk for memory workers (people working – often in the cultural sector – to preserve the memory of a group or individual who is not more present) from all over Europe. The seminar was organized in partnership with the German EVZ Foundation, whose mission is to keep alive the memory of the injustice of Nazi persecution and to work for human rights and international understanding.
The House of Words (Dom Słów in Polish) is a printing house and a cultural center dedicated to print. It is part of the Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN, a municipal institution of Lublin engaged in preserving the memory of the Jews of Lublin. They print documents on old printing machines, such as a rare early 20th century German linotype machine. I had worked closely with Brama Grodzka for several years, but I was less familiar with La Maison des mots.
The poster was to commemorate this inspiring gathering of people who dedicate their lives to the memory of the victims of Nazism: Jews and Roma, forced laborers and others.
As we stood in Dom Słów’s basement, surrounded by cast iron, old machinery and the smell of ink and grease, Robert gave me insight into his creative process. He told me that he was surprised by the length of the title of the seminar: “Local Perspectives on Difficult Histories: An Open Exchange on Best Practices in Memory Work”. He described it as a “dramatic and sad situation”.
He decided to relegate the title to the bottom of the poster and leave a large space above with only our logo and quote taking up small portions of that space.
By noting that a “normal” poster would not include so many empty spaces but that any poster about Lublin must contain empty spaces, Robert taught me how deep memory work is in Brama Grodzka. Even the typographer becomes a memory worker.
It was a statement of a profound but simple truth: most of Lublin’s Jewish quarter had been destroyed by the Germans after they deported 28,000 of Lublin’s 43,000 Jews to the Bełżec death camp. . House by house, street by street, the area at the base of the castle was destroyed. Lublin has a hole in the middle of its heart where Jews should be, and a literal empty space where my ancestors and those of my fellow Lubliners lived for centuries. This void must be recognized.
Robert explained that the words in the title of the seminar were like characters in a play and the fonts were the actors playing the roles. The first actor to be cast in a lead role was the word “work”. For this, he used one of the oldest fonts, called Renaissance.
“The Renaissance went through a lot,” Robert told me. “You can see all his scars. Fonts don’t lie. They can’t lie. You can see all their holes and imperfections. They tell a story. Who better to tell this story than these old letters, witnesses of memory?
In Robert’s mind, the word memory is a bit younger than work, but it’s still played by a fairly old, nameless typeface, like so many who walked the streets of Lublin.
The seminar’s logo was the lamp that burns 24/7 in memory of the Jews of Lublin; the lamp at the top of the poster illuminates the empty space. And in very small letters, a quote from the assistant director, actor and storyteller of Brama Grodzka, Witek Dąbrowski: “There is Light because there is Memory. There is light but no life. This quote about light is under the lamp in the empty space.
At Dom Słów, we make paper. The paper is made by a woman named Sylwia – often using materials she finds foraging in the woods and grasslands. Sylwia gave Robert some nice pieces of thick, rough paper that gave him an idea: Why not carve the names of non-existent streets into the blank space? It would create a ghostly presence; street names would only be visible when held up to light at a certain angle, and only if the person viewing had the patience and desire to see them.
Yiddish fonts are part of the Dom Słów collection, and he had the idea to make it in Yiddish, but he didn’t think he had the right or the knowledge to put these Yiddish letters together. None of the people who work at Brama Grodzka are Jewish, so he asked me to help him.
I collected the Yiddish spellings of these Jewish streets from a Brama Grodzka researcher, Pior Nazaruk, who had taken two intensive Yiddish summer courses at YIVO. I don’t know why it was so gratifying to choose the letters one by one to form the names of the streets and places that made up the landscape of the city of my ancestors, Lublin. I took the letters out of an old letterpress box and formed the names in Yiddish, upside down, so Robert could print them forward. Forming names of streets that no longer exist: the one in which my great-great-grandmother Nechama Borensztajn was born: Nadstawna Street. The one where my mother and grandmother were born: Szeroka Street, an emblematic street of Jewish Lublin that no longer exists. In its place is a parking lot.
And the strange Farkakte Brom, or Dung Gate. According to Piotr Nazaruk, “Although officially called Podzamcze Gate, in Yiddish it was known as Farkakte Brom or Fardoste Brom, both meaning the same thing. It is difficult to say why, perhaps it was actually used, even in the distant past, as a place where people dumped their waste. The Polish name Brama Zasrana also existed and meant the same.
There was something sacred about the act of physically putting the letters in place to form Yiddish words in a place where Jewish culture had been wiped out. They haven’t been together in these suits for a long time. I imagine if they knew, they’d be grateful someone remembered.
After tracing the street and place names, Robert printed them out in ink so we could check for errors. Before lowering the lever of the old machine to ink the characters, he said in Polish:
“They’ve been waiting a long time.
“They?” I thought, not knowing if I had understood. “Who was he talking about? »
And then it hit me. He was talking about fonts. These fonts, miraculously leaving Europe and arriving in Israel, had now returned to Poland, thanks to the donation of an Israeli couple, Jacob and Shoshana Schwartz. The fonts hadn’t been used for maybe eighty years. Ironically, the first time they would be used now would be to remember those distant and now destroyed places where our families used to wander. He paused before spraying ink on them.
Referring to the poster, Robert used the term “podzamcze”, which means “under the castle”. This is the area of Lublin where the majority of Jews once lived; it was largely destroyed by the Germans after they sent 28,000 Jews from Lublin to Bełżec to be gassed there. At first I was confused. Why does he say podzamcze and show the poster? Then I realized he was pointing to the empty space on the poster and for him, empty space and podzamcze were synonymous.
Robert explained that the poster with the embossed street names would remain in Lublin and that seminar participants would take home originals on plain, thin paper (each printed by hand and therefore a unique original, not a copy) which did not contain Yiddish street names. They would remember that they had seen the poster with the names here in Lublin; these streets exist only in memory and, unfortunately, that is how it must remain.