Farida Zaletilo, the curator for the Mark Rothko Arts Centre in Daugavpils, sat down with The Baltic Times culture editor Jayde Will to talk about the upcoming exhibition Last Folio, a series of photos by Canadian-Sloviakian photographer Yuri Dojc, that will open on Jan. 17.
Why did you invite the Last Folio exhibition to come to Daugavpils?
The Jewish theme is a matter of importance for the Mark Rothko Art Centre and for Daugavpils because we can’t speak about Mark Rothko’s formative years [1903-1913] without a story of the unique phenomenon of Jewish Dvinsk at the beginning of the 20th Century, when 56% of the city population were Jews, and Dvinsk was considered to be one of the leading centre of Jewish thought, culture and debates.
The great Jewish presence illuminated the life and culture of the city. Dvinsk had a special status in rabbinic circles because great rabbis known and respected throughout the world were teaching here. Meir Simcha ha-Kohen – an outstanding Talmudic scholar and public figure, was a rabbi of Dvinsk for almost 40 years. Joseph Rosen, or Rogatchover Gaon, was the head of Dvinsk Hasidim since 1889.
There is also an impressive list of luminaries in different cultural fields who came from the Dvinsk Jewish community: Solomon Mikhoels, a founder and a great actor at the State Moscow Yiddish Theatre and Chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, Oscar Strok, an outstanding musician and composer, Nikolai Poliakoff, Coco the Clown, most famous clown in the middle decades of the twentieth cent. In the UK, there ws Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, lexicographer (revival of Hebrew), who graduated from the Dinaburg Gymnasium where he was sent for further education, as well as other artists like Jacques Chapiro, Maurice Kish and Solomon Gershov.
Sometimes I joke that the roads in the Talmudic world sooner or later will bring you to Dwinsk.
Wow, I had no idea about that many Jewish thinkers and rabbis were from Dvinsk, because I am now going between Riga and Vilnius often, and in Vilnius, so much is talked about the Jewish culture that was flourishing, especially at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, and even for someone who has an interest in the region, for me, a large majority of the things you are telling me are new. I knew about the person who revived Hebrew, but I did not know he was in Dvinsk.
Well, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was not born here, but he came to Dvinsk to get his education and he spent his years studying here. It was during his studies he got the idea to revive Hebrew. His son was the first man speaking Hebrew as a mother tongue. Another person, Sarah Menkin Foner, was the first woman to publish a novel in Hebrew “The Love of the Righteous” (Vilna 1880).
How did the Last Folio movie about Slovak photographer Yuri Dojc documenting old synagogues and books touch you? I got an early viewing of it, and I was so touched by what he’s done.
At the very beginning when I started my journey on the Rothko project, in 2003 we celebrated the centennial of Mark Rothko, his children Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko-Prizel came to Daugavpils for the first time, and they wanted to attend the synagogue. There was only one functioning synagogue left in Daugavpils from the 48 which were here in Mark Rothko’s time, and it was in terrible condition.
The first thing they did - they found old books under the benches were people were sitting while they were praying. Those books were very old, some from the middle of the 18th century. They touched the books and started crying. It was very emotional…
Two World Wars and Nazi destruction drained the soul of the city, and eradicated the Dvinsk Jewish community. From the 55,000 Jews that were here, only 12,000 managed to survive. There are about only 200 people of Jewish origin now living in Daugavpils.
You understand now that I couldn’t miss the chance to bring Last Folio to the Mark Rothko Art Centre!
Very touching. And have you met Yuri Dojc?
No, not yet. But I met Katya [Krausova], yes, we met for the first time in London, and she came to Daugavpils to see the space.
Is there anything you can tell us about the opening on January 17?
We have one very beautiful thing during the opening, because we invited the Ginsberg family who also have roots in Dwinsk, and they will come, and it’s not directly connected to this subject of the exhibition but it’s connected to the Dwinsk Jewish community. They lived right in front of the only remaining synagogue. They split into two branches, and one went to Moscow and the other went to South Africa. The one that went to South Africa set up a tea-making business, and developed Rooibos tea. They will bring documents of the family here. It will be very touching I think, this is about life, not just about wars or disasters. It touches the life of ordinary people. This city had such a tragic fate during both of the wars. If not for that, there would most likely be a different reality now. Dwinsk was multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. But its life was destroyed.
A fourth-generation Ginsberg, Georgia Ginsberg, has sent us a power-point presentation about her family geneology, and based on it will make an exhibition.
I thought for the end of the interview I would also share a quote from Christopher Rothko about the exhibition: “I think the Last Folio exhibition will be very moving and will be a meaningful connection with the mission of the centre.”
Thank you very much for your time.
Last Folio opens at the Mark Rothko Art Centre in Daugavpils on Jan. 17 and will be showing there until April 15.
Later in the year, Last Folio will also be showing at the UN in New York, the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, and the Museum of Tolerance in Moscow. Further information can be found at: www.lastfolio.com and at www.rothkocenter.com.