From Moscow to Berlin

An exhibition focused on my mother’s role in Polish history.

By SHULA KOPF
March 27, 2019 15:42
From Moscow to Berlin

VADIM LIDIN ‘A storm of Epic Proportions’ – acrylic and ink on canvas, 100 cm x 70 cm. (photo credit: VADIM LIDIN)

 
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My mother was indirectly blamed for the worst Polish military defeat of World War II, the Battle of Lenino in Belarus, where on October 12, 1943, Polish forces suffered 25 percent casualties. Her name was brought up in a court martial a week later, but she was cleared of all charges.


I would have never known about this incident in my mother’s life if not for the chance discovery in the 1990s of old files in a garbage dumpster in Warsaw. Almost forgotten by history, these files made their way into the hands of a Polish television journalist. They tell the story of the humiliating defeat of the 1st Tadeusz Kosciuszko Infantry Division and my mother’s alleged role. 
 
The research on her military career began during my work on an art exhibit inspired by letters my mother had written to her parents during her army service. My family approached recordkeeping with meticulous care. Every scrap of paper, even in the time of war, was preserved. This left a rich trail of letters and other artifacts that, taken together, gave a highly detailed, firsthand account from one of the first Jews to enter Poland towards the end of the war. 
 
Even five months before crossing the border to Poland with the army, my mother had already learned the tragic fate of Poland’s Jews. In a letter to her younger brother dated February 23, 1944, she wrote: “In this whole wide world, there are just the four of us left. The rest of our family has been murdered in the cruelest way. We belong to that remnant of 3.5 million who are still alive. I will not be able to live here in the future. To walk on ruins of what was once most treasured, on the cemetery of our relatives, a person would need to be heartless. Don’t have any delusions or visions of a faraway fatherland. This is the grave of our people. We don’t have a place here. Take my words seriously to your heart. Meantime our parents don’t know the whole truth yet.” 
 
The project began in the studio a year ago on Holocaust Remembrance Day, when I found myself facing a white canvas. Many artists who are children of survivors will sooner or later grapple with the pain. The painting that emerged was visceral. Torn fragments of my mother’s words embedded in layers awaited the scraping of the palette knife to surface. This initial work grew into what would become a full project. The exhibition, “Moscow to Berlin,” will open in Ramat Gan’s Beit Yad LaBanim on April 28 and run through May 12. It will then travel to Krakow’s JCC where on June 22 it will feature as one of the opening events of the annual Jewish Culture Festival. And so, it will be a posthumous homecoming for Irena Jung to Krakow, the city she fled for her life 80 years earlier. 
 
My mother was hardly a model soldier, as I soon discovered in one of her letters. This one, hastily written, was folded many times over into a small square to be discreetly delivered by hand. She wrote to her boyfriend, Franciszek Derks, a Lt. Colonel in the Polish army: “October 10, 1943, I am staying in the village of Tichloncyna, not far from the 1st Division. I am exhausted. The new commander mistreats me and there is nobody to stand up for me. Today I have free time from 4 in the afternoon. If you want to see me, you have to come in the evening. We live at the end of the village. Maybe in your division there is an extra Russian submachine gun? Please find one and bring it, otherwise I will go to jail. Mine got lost, and I did not report it. In 28 hours, I slept only 3 and walked 25 kilometers. But this a trifle compared with other matters.”
 
Losing her rifle, however risky, turned out to be the least of her problems. 


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