So a man walks into a ghetto
Israelis and Poles selecting anti-Semitic cartoons together. No, this is no joke. The cartoonists met this week in Tel Aviv to gather material for a new Hebrew-Polish comic book.
On Sunday afternoon, cartoonist Amitai Sandy entered the lobby of Beit Ariella Library in Tel Aviv looking bone-tired. It's exhausting, it's like running a nursery school, he said, descending the stairs to the library's pictures and illustrations department. Since a group of Polish comic artists landed in Israel last Wednesday, Sandy has played the combined role of host, tour guide, events producer and creative workshop emcee. After a few minutes, he returned with a broad grin on his face. He announced to the illustrations librarian that he would soon arrive with a group of Polish guests and would like to examine cartoons published in Eastern European Jewish newspapers and Polish anti-Semitic cartoons from the last century.
"She looked at me and asked, 'are you absolutely certain that this is what you want to show the Poles? Does that seem appropriate to you?'" Sandy said laughing.
Later, as the host and his visitors surrounded a table groaning with purple plastic files containing old, faded cartoons and numerous expressions of anti-Semitism, Sandy said the objective of this collaboration between comic artists was to generate material highlighting common stereotypes of Israelis and Poles. In the context of the endless joking that took place around the table, three members of the Polish mission said the new Polish-Israeli collaboration would finally shed light on ancient stereotypes. Perhaps it will even create new stereotypes, they said.
"Hey! Here's a Communist beating a Jew," Sandy said, looking at a faded cartoon published in 1917. The drawing features a bearded man in a visored cap beating a man whose head is a globe. Comic artist and architect Kuba Szczesny, from Warsaw, volunteered to translate the Polish captions. He said the illustration portrayed Jews as the destroyers of globalization. He turned to Sandy: "I want to thank you for giving us this opportunity to dig our hands into this filthy past."
Another clipping was passed around the table. This time it came from the front page of a satiric Jewish newspaper published in 1919. Sandy expressed his pleasure regarding the paper's surprising title, "Mehabel" ("terrorist" in modern Hebrew). A menacing, scaly dragon winds through the enormous masthead.
"He looks a bit like you," Krzysiek Ostrowski told Sandy. In addition to drawing comics, Ostrowski directs music video and is the front man in a punk band in the city of Lodz.
The meeting of cartoonists from both nations is a project launched by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, which declared 2008 the year of Polish-Israeli collaborative art. In October, five Israeli artists, Sandy, Zeev Engelmayer, Yaron Nisky, Racheli Rottner and Daniel Goldstein, visited Poland. Four Polish artists recently arrived in Israel (a fifth Polish artist cancelled her visit due to illness). The goal of the visits is to produce a Polish and Hebrew language comic book featuring five or six stories; it is slated for release next summer.
In addition to visiting such tourist attractions as the Old City of Jaffa and the Old City of Jerusalem, the Polish cartoonists will travel to places most visitors never get to see.
Last week, for example, they toured the Jerusalem section of the separation fence, guided by a representative of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions; they also met with a member of Anarchists Against the Wall and walked on the rooftops of homes in Jerusalem's Old City. The young Poles also insisted on visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
However, much of the current visit will be devoted to producing the planned comic book. Over the weekend, the Polish visitors and their Israeli colleagues will travel north for three days of intensive planning and collaborative work on the comic book "until we see blood," as Sandy says.
Meanwhile, in the Tel Aviv library on Sunday, Szczesny exhibited proficient knowledge of Middle Eastern political events. He received a yellowed clipping from the front page of the Yiddish satirical weekly "Der Blafer," published in Warsaw in 1929. The cartoon depicts a battle between David and Goliath in which the evil giant, sporting a kaffiyeh, metal shield and sword, faces a slender, short man wielding a stone (described in Yiddish as a Zionist pioneer).
"Yesterday, they showed us a famous photograph of a Palestinian boy waving a stone at an Israeli tank," Szczesny said. "That is actually the current reincarnation of this cartoon."
The inevitable quickly took place: The conversation segued into a discussion of the large hooked nose that typified Jews in these cartoons.
Someone mentioned that the cartoons drawn by Jews in early 20th century Yiddish newspapers also featured noses that were hard to miss. "You have to remember that they lived in ghettos," Szczesny interjected, rousing Sandy and nearly stirring an argument.
"What are you trying to say - that all Jews in the ghetto had large noses?" responded Sandy, grinning wickedly while fanning the flames.
"No, I mean that the ghetto was a closed community," Szczesny answered him, "a community that new people almost never entered."
At some point in the afternoon, Engelmayer arrived, bolstering the Israeli presence in the library. Engelmayer mentioned his trip to Poland.
"Some places there really reminded us of Tel Aviv," he said. "Some of the forlorn quality there is present here as well. Something about the atmosphere in the pubs and the nightclubs makes it seem like the end of the world."
He said he was surprised to discover the extent to which Poles resembled Israelis, and that he found a great deal in common in the two peoples' senses of humor. The Poles said that they felt exactly the same way in Tel Aviv.
"You can't translate all the jokes, but we sit here laughing for hours and we all have a similar sense of the absurd," said Engelmayer. "When we traveled to Poland, we felt that we could laugh at everything."
"Everything but the Pope," Ostrowski said.
"But if he's naked, you can laugh at him, too," Szczesny said. "The Jews suffered so many hardships that they were forced to find a way to survive all of that."
Sandy asked if there were limits to what one could and could not laugh about in public in Poland, and Ostrowski responded that years of legal prohibitions and censorship of Polish artists served to expand their abstract imaginations: "They had to use their imaginations and employ highly abstract terms to say things that could be printed, to sidestep those prohibitions."
The comic artists soon returned to the pile of newspaper cartoons.
"Boring, eh? People sitting and reading in a library," Szczesny said to the writer at his side. "We promise that our comics will have lots more blood and blows."
In a more serious tone, he said the comics he intended to produce for the project would focus on one concept: The need to consciously deny the past. Only thus, he said, would it be possible to avoid sinking deeply into an endless examination of the emotionally charged past shared by both nations and to move on to create new things together.
Szczesny described his current comics project. "Snowflakes fall on the car of a guy in Warsaw. Meanwhile, a childhood friend sits in his office in Tel Aviv. When they were children, the two friends starred in a famous Polish television program. They played two foolish children, and a girl who also starred with them played the smart, resourceful character. Now no longer children and no longer stars - just adults who pay their bills and live their lives, they both receive a letter. The smart girl [now woman] invites them to an institute that she directs in the Alps, which collects lost information.
"There she connects them to machines that extract all their thoughts, memories and ideas that existed in the joint collective past of both peoples - burning houses, a hand holding a knife that attacks a small boy, and the like. Thanks to that machine, the three of them turn into snowflakes that fall on someone else's car in one of the streets of Warsaw. That's it. And all of that speaks to getting rid of all the shit we have in our heads."