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Murdered Jews, Lost Homeland Frame Israeli’s Utopian Film

Yael Bartana
Israeli video artist Yael Bartana in Warsaw on the set of the second in her trilogy of films focused on the symbolic revival of Jewish life in Poland after the Holocaust. Construction of a mock Israeli kibbutz complete with fencing and watchtower, began Monday in Warsaw. Photographer: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images

April 10 (Bloomberg) -- Israeli artist Yael Bartana is making her New York gallery debut with a video trilogy called “And Europe Will Be Stunned.”

The short films present a fictional group called the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland that calls for 3.3 million Polish Jews to return to their homeland.

The trilogy represented Poland at the 54th Venice Biennale, the first time the country chose a non-Polish artist. It is now on view at the Petzel Gallery.

In the reality of World War II, only about 380,000 of the 3.3 million Jews who had lived in Poland survived the Holocaust, according to the website of the Yad Vashem research group. Bartana’s great-grandparents perished in 1940.

“For the Jews, Poland is a place of the primal sin,” said Bartana, 41, over coffee last week. “I wanted to find a way for my generation to overcome history.”

When she visited Poland in 2006, Bartana says she encountered “the void of the nonexistent Jewish community.”

Her layered imagery suggests the ghetto and the Holocaust as well as the postwar founding of Israel and a kibbutz-like resettlement in Poland sometime in the future.

In the trilogy’s first film, “Nightmares,” a bespectacled young man stands in the middle of an abandoned, overgrown stadium shouting, “Jews! Countrymen! People! Return! And Poland will change, Europe will change!”

Instead of a sports team or marching band, the field holds only a group of kids in red neckties, who mark the ground with ashy powder to spell out: “3,300,000 Jews can change the life of 40,000,000 Poles.”

Barbed Wire

In the second film, “Wall and Tower,” young men and women build a settlement for the returning Jews at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. As elderly locals look on, a tall watchtower is erected and barbed wire is placed on the walls. The structure alludes to kibbutz buildings and death camps.

In the final film, “Assassination,” the movement’s leader has been shot. As his followers pack the city square for the funeral, speeches, slogans and a monumental bust of the leader evoke Soviet-era effigies. There’s a suggestion of history repeating itself in undesirable ways.

Utopian Vision

The closing shot only deepens the ambiguity: A woman with the clothes and beat-up suitcase of a refugee watches children in uniforms using candles to construct the movement’s coat of arms: a blend of the Star of David and Poland’s eagle.

“It’s a utopian vision,” said Bartana. “I look at it as a form of collective therapy.”

At the Petzel Gallery in Chelsea, each part of the trilogy is screened in a separate room. The asking price for the trio is 300,000 euros ($392,550).

The show runs through May 4 at 456 W. 18th St. Information: +1-212-680-9467; http://www.petzel.com

Muse highlights include Patrick Cole on philanthropy, Ryan Sutton on dining.

To contact the reporters of this story: Katya Kazakina in New York at kkazakina@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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