"What horrifies us is that whatever seemed to the drawings’ authors merely a joke (...) only several years later became a fact", Dariusz Konstantynow interview


Dariusz Konstantynow, you designed the exhibition „anti-Semitic cartoons”. What was the goal of this exhibition?

The goal of „The Alien and Unpleasant” Exhibition was to show some selected anti-Semitic drawings from the Polish press from 1919-39. The fact that they were anti-Semitic resulted from the medium in which they were published; I have only selected the ones whose affiliation with the anti-Semitic ideology was unquestionable, since they had been published in the media that made anti-Semitism an important, if not the most important, element of their ideological agenda. By showing the drawings I wanted to point out how important press cartoons were in anti-Semitic propaganda and how frequently they were used, as well as how creative their authors were in translating the anti-Semitic contents into a pictorial language; some of the artists could really boast of an indisputable talent. Finally, I wanted to show that the “rhetoric of hate” does not merely boil down to words, but also images, or more so to a combination of a picture with a word in the form of a headline or an ampler comment.

How have these images been received by the press and the public?

I cannot really answer this question as I did not closely follow the reception of the exhibition. The only review know to me, actually highly positive about the exhibition, has been published in the Catholic “Tygodnik Powszechny” weekly, and following that, in a slightly altered version, in “Kwartalnik Historii Żydów”, a quarterly dealing with the history of Jews. The display was on for several months; I am unaware of the attendance and the reactions of the public.

Is it not complicated and difficult today to show anti-Semitic cartoons in Poland?

I am afraid, or honestly speaking I am sure, that anti-Semitic cartoons from the inter-war period could still find in Poland the audience who would approve of the conveyed views, or at least of some of them, and would accept their authors’ opinions. For this very reason originally the concept of putting up such an exhibition arose doubts and objections that it could be understood wrongly and actually treated by some as anti-Semitic. In order to avoid the possibility of the drawings fuelling today’s anti-Semitic attitudes we decided to refrain from publishing any illustrations in the catalogue, limiting ourselves only to detailed descriptions of the displayed works.

Edmund Heydak, A recipe for crisis (1937).The captions says: "This export will definitely strengthen our trade balance"

Edmund Heydak, A recipe for crisis (1937).The captions says: "This export will definitely strengthen our trade balance"

Anti-Semitic caricature was already present in the countries of Central Europe in the late nineteenth century to the time when the satirical press enjoyed its golden age. Do you feel that the anti-Semitic image production increases in the interwar period?

Two waves of anti-Semitic cartoons can be found in the Polish interwar press. The first started in the early 1920s, namely while the Polish independent state and new Polish society were being formed, and when the so-called Jewish question was one of the major societal issues the Polish reconstructing statehood was challenged by. The second wave occurred after 1935, when the ruling camp was forming following the death of Józef Piłsudski who had opted for a multi-ethnic state; at that point the politicians in power were more inclined to promote the concept of the national state and accepted certain nationalistic ideas previously promoted only by the rightist organizations on the political arena. It was the period when most shocking anti-Semitic images were created, these claiming that a Jew was an enemy who had to be repudiated with all the possible means, neutralized, or even destroyed.

Can we say that the anti-Semitic caricature is omnipresent in the press or do we only find it in specialized journals, and militants of the extreme right?

Anti-Semitic cartoons dominated in the rightist and extreme right nationalistic media for which anti-Semitism constituted an essential element of the political platform. A particularly rich material in this respect can be found in satirical and humorist magazines, mainly those “specializing” in the “struggle against Jews”, such as “:Szabes-Kurier”, “Samoobrona Narodu”, or “Pod Pręgierz”. Anti-Semitic cartoons can also be found in the rightist or rightist-nationalistic periodicals of soci0-cultural or socio-political character, e.g. “Prosto z Mostu”, “Podbipięta”, or “Wielka Polska”. Moreover, they were sufficiently present in the high-circulation dailies affiliated with the national or Christian democracy or nationalistic right wing. These headed by “Kurier Poznański” and “Dziennik Bydgoski”, were followed by “ABC-Nowiny Codzienne” or “Mały Dziennnik”.

Do you feel that the Polish anti-Semitic caricature is clearly influenced by the Nazi anti-Semitic caricatures, including one released by the Streicher newspaper with the drawings of Fips, Der Stürmer?

As much as the Streicher newspaper was available in the inter-war Poland, while copies of Fips’s drawings were published in the Polish anti-Semitic magazines, it is however hard to speak of their clear direct “influence” on Polish anti-Semitic cartoons. Certain similarities can obviously be pointed out: the use of a stereotype of a Jew or showing him in more or less repugnant incarnations, just to name a few; I do, nevertheless, perceive these Polish press anti-Semitic drawings as following some other “poetics”, so to speak. First of all, they were less literal than the German ones; resorting more to allusions, associations, metaphors, spiteful irony, they somehow seemed to play more with images and words. Furthermore, they did not display that eroticism bordering almost on cryptopornography so characteristic of the “Stürmer” drawings.

Polo [Paweł Griniow], Jewish promised land (1936). This cartoon shows the Jews-communists imprisoned in an isolation camp for the opponents of the Polish state in Bereza Kartuska

Polo [Paweł Griniow], Jewish promised land (1936). This cartoon shows the Jews-communists imprisoned in an isolation camp for the opponents of the Polish state in Bereza Kartuska

What impact could have these images had on the public? Can we perceive a correlation between the symbolic violence of these images and physical violence against Jews at the same time?

It is very hard, if not impossible, to find any proof confirming a direct correlation between anti-Semitic cartoons in the press and acts of physical violence against Jews. Still, it is very likely that the drawings had an impact on the ethics and the moral value system of the public, this resulting in the “atrophy of compassion” later observed in the attitude of Poles towards Jews during WW II. However, when looking at this kind of drawings, particularly in such accumulation as seen at the exhibition, and when seeing a freight carriage filled with Jews (in the drawing by Edmund Heydak from 1937) or other scenes in which Jews are subjected to various forms of violence or extermination (e.g. being treated with an insect killer gas), the question whether such drawings could have inspired anyone to carry out such actions seems irrelevant. What horrifies us is the knowledge that whatever seemed to the drawings’ authors merely a joke or a convincing metaphor, only several years later became a fact.

How is the Jewish represented, what are the most recurrent themes?

The drawings first of all showed a Jew as a “stranger”, as a creature that stood out with its appearance: the body and the dress. As much as the latter could be changed, the body with non-removable stigmas of the “Jewish” would always betray him. The presented Jew also displayed a different mentality: what mattered to him were only material goods, whereas the “spiritual” had no value at all. The character of Jews was rendered with comparisons derived from the animal world: in zoomorphic presentations Jews were given bodies of the animals that arise negative connotations, inspiring fear or repulsion. Animalization of the figure of a Jew, just as much as his demonization, were meant to dehumanize him. A Jew would be presented as a devil’s servant or Satan’s companion, an awe-inspiring creature ruining everybody and everything around. Therefore, a Jew from the anti-Semitic cartoons is a creature that does not fit within the “human” order of the world. His image is repulsive in its physicality and mentality, as strange and terrifying as a demon, a monster, or an abhorrence-filling animal. In the discussed drawings, a Jew was entirely dehumanized, depersonalized, and reduced to an anonymous typical representative of the “Jewish race”.

Can you suggest a designer who would specialize in anti-Semitic caricature in Poland as Fips in Germany, Karel Relink in Czechoslovakia or Ralph Soupault in France?

There was no designer in the inter-war Poland who could be defined as “specializing in” anti-Semitic caricature. However, obviously several could be named who tackled the anti-Semitic motifs with particular frequency. Among them mention may be made of e.g. Kazimierz Grus, Edmund Heydak, or Julian Żebrowski; their drawings, sometimes astounding with sophisticated visual rhetoric figures meant to offend, sneer at Jews, and inspiring hostility towards them, can many a times be found in papers or magazines which were ideologically anti-Semitic. Both the drawings themselves and the intensity of cooperation of some caricaturists with such magazines allow for the conclusion that they shared the extreme nationalistic and anti-Semitic views promoted through such press drawings, or at least did not suffer from any moral discomfort when publishing their works in “Samoobrona Narodu”, “Szabes-Kurier”, or “Wielka Polska”.

About Dariusz Konstantynow (PhD, lecturer of art history on the University of Gdańsk), gathered by Guillaume Doizy

Kazimierz Grus,  Effective missiles (1935). This cartoon shows young Polish nationalist shooting the Jews with co-called Chrobry's swords - the sign of Polish nationalists in 1930.

Kazimierz Grus, Effective missiles (1935). This cartoon shows young Polish nationalist shooting the Jews with co-called Chrobry's swords - the sign of Polish nationalists in 1930.

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