Treblinka’s trees

The "Black and White Forest" exhibition is the first time the Ghetto Fighters’ House museum is showing contemporary artworks.

TREES IN Jerusalem’s Har Adar forest 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Itzhak Rabihiya)
TREES IN Jerusalem’s Har Adar forest 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Itzhak Rabihiya)
Unlike at Auschwitz, there is nothing much to see at the site of the Treblinka concentration camp other than a large monument.
But Ariel Yanai was looking for something else to capture in his lens. The results of the 40-year-old photographer’s 2003 jaunt to Poland are currently on display at the Ghetto Fighters’ House museum at Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot as part of the “Black and White Forest – Two Odysseys to Treblinka” exhibition.
The duality in the exhibition title does not imply that Yanai made two trips to Eastern Europe. Half of the show is about his journey; the other half is devoted to the testimony of someone who was born in Poland and survived harrowing experiences, including a long stint in the Birkenau concentration camp.
“There is my story, as the son of someone who came from Poland, and Havka’s story,” explains Yanai when we meet in Jaffa.
Havka Folman-Raban was 15 years old when the Germans invaded Poland. In 1940, she joined the Dror Zionist movement, whose members would later take part in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Folman-Raban’s appearance and her non-Jewish Polish accent led to her becoming a courier for the movement. One of her missions was to make her way to Treblinka and report back on what was taking place there. She was eventually captured by the Nazis, but as a political activist, not as a Jew, and she spent two years at Birkenau.
Now a sprightly 88 years old, she acts as a guide at the Ghetto Fighters’ House, sharing her Holocaust experiences with visiting students and engendering positive energy, her own difficult early years notwithstanding.
“When you get to my photographs at the exhibition, you can see, at an angle, the part devoted to Havka,” Yanai continues. “It is a mix between her story and mine, which spawns a third element.”
In fact, the synergy is natural, and there are parallels between him and Folman-Raban, even though they are a generation apart. Yanai’s father, who died 18 months ago at the age of 91, arrived in Palestine in 1935. All the other members of his family perished at Treblinka.
Folman-Raban and Yanai Sr. were almost neighbors.
“They lived just one street away from each other,” says Yanai. “I asked Havka if she met my father in Warsaw, but she said she doesn’t know, and that the Jewish community there was very big. Who knows? They may have run into each other from time to time at the corner store.”
The photographer’s works were first unveiled to the public at an exhibition at Tel Aviv’s Artists House in 2011. But he says the confluence with Folman-Raban offers significant added value.
“[The Ghetto Fighters’ House] is not an art museum; it is more an institution devoted to history, so the video interview with Havka is particularly apt for the setting,” he observes, noting that in fact, “Two Odysseys to Treblinka” is a departure for the museum.
“Until now, they displayed works of art by Holocaust survivors, and things directly connected to their Holocaust experiences. This is the first time that [the museum] has shown contemporary art, and works by someone who did not experience the Holocaust firsthand,” he explains.
Part of his motivation for the Polish trip was to fill in the gaps in his father’s story.
“He didn’t really talk much about his life in Poland – and, don’t forget, he did not go through the Holocaust himself, so even if he had told me everything he knew, the picture would still be incomplete. He always said that had he known when he said goodbye to his mother at the train station, on his way to Palestine, that it was the last time he’d see her, he would have left her differently.”
The centerpiece of the exhibition is a spread from the forested area around the site of the concentration camp.
“It’s a panoramic piece measuring 5.5 meters in length, made up of fragments,” explains the photographer. “I didn’t try to play around with the contrast, or the shades, to create the illusion of a uniform panorama.”
The staccato composition of the work, and its position at the museum, are the products of logistics, aesthetics and the dimensions of the human tragedy that occurred in the environs of the depicted site many years earlier.
“I placed the panoramic pieces on a table,” says Yanai.
“It comprises 16 pieces, which I developed manually, in black and white, and each section has its own raison d’etre. In fact, I emphasized the fragmentary nature of the panorama. When you look at the work from above, when you look down on the table, you can never see the whole work in one go. I wanted the work to have presence. It is impossible to take in the whole of the panorama – like the scale of the Holocaust.”
There is a personal element here, too.
“In a way it is like... the fragmentation of families and people’s lives that took place,” he continues. “My father left his family to come here, and they never reconnected.”
Even after going to Poland, and later getting to know Folman-Raban and her incredible story, Yanai says he never attempted to represent the human suffering that took place there.
“It is like my father’s house in Warsaw, which no longer exists, and I am not even certain about the address – there is nothing really tangible there. By the same token, you cannot expect a photograph to convey the reality of the event.
The reality of the Holocaust is the hunger, the cold, the fear and the death. A photograph will only ever be a subjective angle on the actual event and what really happened.”
His choice of subject for conveying the greatest tragedy in the history of mankind was, as he puts it, based on the trees’ ability to project a sense of identity.
“If you look at any form of vegetation, anywhere in the world, you will immediately know where it is located.
If you see a photograph of one of these bushes, here in Jaffa, you’ll instantly know they are in Israel – the shape of the leaves, the limpness and aridity that they project.
The panorama piece in the exhibition is not a shot designed to convey an impression of the landscape – it is a collection of nuances of perspective. And you immediately know these are Polish trees. It couldn’t be anywhere else in the world.”For more information about “Black and White Forest – Two Odysseys to Treblinka”: (04) 995-8080 or