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Jewish HistoryFilm & Video

Letters to Afar

Feb 26, 2015–May 25, 2015

Commissioned as the first temporary exhibition at the new POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, the immersive audiovisual art installation Letters to Afar, created by internationally acclaimed Budapest-based filmmaker and video-artist Péter Forgács in collaboration with the New York City-based band The Klezmatics, revisits, rearranges, and recontextualizes rare amateur movies made by Jewish immigrants from the United States who visited their hometowns in Poland during the 1920–30s alongside official newsreels and Polish cinema of that time.

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Filming for their families back in America, these amateur filmmakers recorded relatives and friends in their daily surroundings, capturing everyday moments, bashful laughter, and silly mugging for the camera, a newfangled novelty at the time. The footage, from the collection of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, also includes films made by members of American landsmanshafts—organizations of immigrant Jews from the same locality that often tried to organize assistance for their former communities in Poland. The nearly six hours of film provides a glimpse of the autonomy and richness of Jewish life in interwar Poland, from its cosmopolitan cities like Warsaw to its smallest villages.

What is unsettling about these images is that these smiling relatives have no premonition of what awaits them. A decade or two later, it is likely that almost all of them would be dead. Certainly their world would vanish forever. Ninety percent of Poland’s 3.5 million Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis and their accomplices.

gallery photos
ABOUT Péter Forgács

Péter Forgács is a Budapest-based filmmaker and video artist. His films and installations are created from archival amateur films and found footage shot in twentieth century Europe. His main interest is the tension between official and private history and between the historical and existential dimensions. The artist represented Hungary at the 53rd Venice Biennale, showing the work Col Tempo—The W Project, a piece that reviled the oppressive aspect of film and photography by using material from the private archives of a Nazi anthropologist. 

ABOUT The Klezmatics

The Klezmatics are a Grammy Award-winning klezmer band founded in 1986, based in New York. They fuse klezmer music with elements of jazz, rock, gospel, and other modern musical genres. The music in Letters to Afar is performed by Lorin Sklamberg (lead vocals, accordion, guitar, piano); Frank London (trumpet, keyboards, vocals); Paul Morrissett (bass, tsimbl, vocals); Matt Darriau (kaval, clarinet, saxophone, vocals); Lisa Gutkin (violin, vocals); Richie Barshay (percussion); and special guest: John Mettm (percussion).

image gallery

The catalog for the CJM exhibition Letters to Afar features Budapest-based filmmaker and video-artist Péter Forgács, along with the NYC-based band The Klezmatics, as they revisit amateur movies made by Jewish immigrants from the US who visited their hometowns in Poland during the 1920-30s. Several decades later, Forgács rewrites these "visual postcards."


Letters to Afar was commissioned by POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, with video installation by Péter Forgács and music by the Klezmatics. Patron Sponsorship for The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s presentation is provided by an Anonymous Donor, Gaia Fund, Righteous Persons Foundation, the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture, and Anita and Ronald Wornick. Major Sponsorship is provided by the David Berg Foundation and Siesel Maibach. Participating Sponsorship is provided by Shelli Semler and Kyle Bach.

Major support for The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhibitions and Jewish Peoplehood Programs comes from the Koret Foundation.

Image Credit

Header image: Oszmiany, video; 18min 44sec. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York. Gallery photos: Installation views of Letters to Afar, on view February 26–May 24, 2015 at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Photos by JKA Photography.