History is a Teacher We Ignore while Scrolling Instagram
The nine protagonists of this book are objects hosted in Wrocław, Poland and they all share one thing: during World War II they were moved, stolen, forged, broken, appropriated, exploited, or uprooted.
Their stories tell the history of the Silesian people as well as their peregrinations, difficulties, and shared past.
I visited every place where these stories took place, in Poland, Ukraine or Italy. I photographed, collected documents and testimonies: layers overlap, history gets complicated, while versions contradict each other.
Immigrated Pieces is a collection of these stories, a dialogue between me and the young city of Wrocław surrounded by its centuries-old memories.
The volume looks like a standard paperback. It fits in one’s pocket and is made of recycled paper, lots of pages, and cheap binding. Only the design suggests it is just an ordinary essay. When you open it, the overall tone of the text is neutral, almost academic, Wikipedia-like. Sometimes it drifts away. But the oversize typeface is surprising, and pleasant to read. One also feels relieved because the volume, whose thickness made of 310 pages may initially scare, turns out to be faster to read than expected. Like when you approach one of those encyclopedic books, and suddenly realise that half of it is made of notes, appendices, glossary, plates, bibliographical references, etc. Suddenly everything feels less of a burden. So, you start reading this book about a region, you never heard about before, in the south of today Poland named Lower Silesia. You check on your smartphone where Wrocław is and find out that the region has been German-speaking for at least five centuries and suddenly became part of Poland after one of those Risk games politicians like to indulge themselves in. It was 1945 when the major players were Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt, as they appear in a famous picture taken during a short stay in Yalta. Out of frustration, French commander De Gaulle took the picture. Hence, no representatives of the Polish people had to say something about it. Neither the Germans. As a consequence, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to move due to some generals toying with maps, pencils, and rulers; German speaking from what then became Poland and Polish speaking from what became the Soviet Republics of Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania.
First, I wanted to tell the story of these people, the stories of people that were forced to leave everything they owned and ended up crammed in cattle cars which employed three months to go from Eastern Galicia to Lower Silesia. That same trip took me eight hours by car, last November. The relation between abstract information and personal experience is part of the method I apply in my research. During the six months that preceded my residency in Wrocław, I examined the historical background of the region and the story of nine objects which today are stored in public collections in the Silesian city. The shift from the stories of people to the stories of objects has a three-folded explanation. First of all, there is a personal interest in cultural heritage; my work often deals with the exploitation and manipulation of cultural objects based on political reasons. Then comes my position as an ‘external’ viewer who brings his point of view to the people living in a specific context. To which degree is a description influenced by unconscious judgement?(1)
How comfortable is an outsider? Furthermore, the scale of the phenomenon I was investigating suggested that I should consider singular experiences not suitable for providing an exhaustive and accurate representation of this mass movement. Eventually, the risk of sounding pathetic has pushed me to focus on objects charged with (and by) a collective sense of place.
This shift has allowed me to concentrate on what I consider one of the major causes of mass displacements. Rather than single testimonies, I wanted to analyse the cultural, political, and social factors at the origin of these movements. One of the justifications of moving entire populations was the idea of nation. This hegemonic concept, which is rooted in the late 18th century and flourished in 19th-century Europe, is intimately linked with the development of linguistics, ethnology, folklore studies and ‘race’ theories.(2)
While drawing frontiers, politicians were — and many of them still are — unable to think about a territory that would include different languages, ‘ethnic’ types or religious beliefs. How can one explain that populations’ diversity is a common phenomenon? How can we modify a way of thinking that is so ingrained in us?
For example, what would you answer to the following question: ‘Where do you come from?’ I always reply, ‘I was born in Italy,’ because I am not able to say, ‘I am Italian.’ After all, where I come from does not make me who I am though it partly does, and often drives people towards identification processes to arbitrarily defined identities.
What makes the Polish case even more exceptional is the fact that after 1945 the ethnic cleansing carried out by the Nazi regime was fully accomplished by the demographic policy following the end of WWII. The result is that today Poland is one of the most ‘ethnically’ homogeneous countries in the world.(3) In the past, this homogeneity — including the language — would have been in itself an element of cultural koinē. However, this has not been the case of Poland, which, as a nation, had not been on a map for one-hundred-twenty-three years and besides all the romantic appeal of a Pan Tadeusz,(4) this fact had many implications in common life. The discrepancy between an ideal country with its national culture and the actual situation was, even more, patent in the so-called Recovered Territories in western Poland. Objects resisted the national narrative as in Lower Silesia, they were shouting in German, but also whispering in Czech and speaking Polish. A building process was on its way, and though it involved bricks and carpentry, I decided to focus on narratives. Once again, instead of taking into account the several layers of a territory to shape a stratified narrative, the victors decided to build a monolithic story of the Polish nation, which as a result constitutes a forgery.
How should we deal with such massive fabrication? I decided to analyse documents and singular cases. In my book, records are material as much as the narrative that envelops them, just like history textbooks. Differences are to be found in the diversions, in the shaking of the names, in the censored versions, in the pixellated sources that you can see in Immigrated Pieces. All these fractures suggest the reader should assume a more distant and critical position towards the text since it does not tell one what to do or how to feel. Book chapters include specific cases, which provide evidence and put together different elements that, like bricks, shape the building called nation. However, when one gets closer to stories, usually two things happen: caught in the events, one loses sight of the ‘big picture’ and, at the same time, has a disturbing sensation since the overall image is more a collage than a photograph in which each piece has been taken from somewhere else and glued together, thus hiding some things while showing others. The first grand noble-person of Wrocław spoke Czech and wrote poems in German; the greatest masterpiece of the Catholic Cathedral has been painted by a Lutheran German-speaking master; the Jewish community has repeatedly been obliterated since Middle Age; the Austro-Hungarian past has been wiped away as much as the Prussian (5) one.
At this point, if you have arrived so far, try to remember where everything started and where this text has brought you. If there is at least an idea or an information (replace with: a piece of information) you haven’t thought of before, maybe the title is wrong, and, after all, history is still worth something.
(1) Reassemblage: From the Firelight to the Screen, short film directed by Trinh T. Minh Ha (1983).
(2) Martin Bernal, Black Athena, The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation, vol. I (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987).
(3) Alberto Alesina et al. Fractionalisation, 2002.
(4) Adam Mickiewicz, Pan Tadeusz, 1834.
(5) Artur Żmijewski, Erasing, 2016.
Enrico Floriddia (1984) studied Architecture, Modern Literature and Art History at the Università degli Studi di Catania, Italy. Photography MA at the École Nationale Supérieure Louis-Lumière (énsll) in Paris, France (2009-2012). Photography Teacher Assistant at the European School for Visual Arts (éesi) in Poitiers, France (2012-2016). Teacher at Université Paris VIII for the Photography and Contemporary Art MA (2016-now). Participant of the Trauma&Revival (Bozar, Pushkin and kim?) and ENGAGE (Viafarini) programmes in 2017.