under the patronage of the German Consulate Generale Cracow

In my work, I examine and compare the signs used in abstract communication systems. These come from areas such as history, ethnology, writing system research, religion or the natural sciences and cover a period dating from prehistoric rock drawings up to modern-day computer flow charts. It is the graphical qualities of these signs, which is most important for me and not the philosophical content or scientific significance.

Before the big emigration to the USA in the middle of the 19th century, 90% of the world's Jews lived in Europe. The majority of them called Poland their home. There had been Jews here since the 11th century. In the 14th century a large wave of refugees came to Poland as a consequence of pogroms in Spain, Germany, Austria and Bohemia during the plague years. King Casimir The Great (Kazimierz Wielki) permitted them to settle and granted them privileges. In this way Poland became the centre of the Jewish diaspora. It was the source of many important contributions of Jewish scholars on religious and legal questions as well as literary and artistic currents, and the formation of Jewish political movements had their origins here. During the Holocaust 90% of the Jewish population was driven from their homes and murdered.

One of the centres of Jewish life in Poland was Galicia, a province of Austria since the Annexation of 1772-1795. The provincial capital was Lemberg, today's L'viv in Ukraine. Galicia was absorbed into Poland when it was recreated in 1918. After the end of World War II the territory of former Galicia was divided between Poland and the Soviet Union (Ukraine).

From 1320-1609 Cracow was Poland's royal residence and coronation city. After annexation by Austria it was the second ranking city in Galicia. Jews were already living here in the 13th century. Casimir the Great permitted Jews to settle under the royal castle (Wawel). They were to contribute to the development of the country's trade and financial services. In the 15th century they were driven out of Cracow and settled in Kazimierz. In this city, named after its founder, Casimir the Great, Jews lived from the 14th century. When they lost their trading privileges in Cracow at the end of the 18th century they began their extensive economic activities in Kazimierz. This has been a suburb of Cracow since 1867 and from that time on until the early 20th century it transformed itself into a typical Jewish quarter. At the beginning of World War II there were 64000 Jews living in Cracow, about 25% of the entire population. During World War II Cracow became the seat of administration for the "Generalgouvernement Polen". In 1940 about 48000 Jews were forced to leave Cracow. The others were resettled in Plaszów, the Cracow ghetto. On 13. and 14. March 1942 the Cracow ghetto was liquidated. Inhabitants who were able to work were brought into the concentration camp in the Plaszów quarter, the others into the concentration camp of Auschwitz. In this way Jewish life and culture were practically fully eliminated in Cracow after 700 years. However, witnesses of this unique urban complex of a former Jewish city have survived until today in large numbers.

The Galician Jewish Foundation with the Galician Jewish Museum are located in the heart of Kazimierz. In the immediate neighbourhood are the Oold Synagogue (the oldest synagogue preserved in Poland), the Popper Synagogue and the Remul Synagogue with the old Jewish cemetery. The Foundation and Museum were founded in 2004. Its work is to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust, to show the traces of the Jewish past in Galicia and to keep Jewish culture alive.

In the Galician Jewish Museum I am showing my series of works on the Hebraic writing. The works for this site-specific project are based on the Square Script. This alphabet, derived from the Phonetician alphabet, consists of 22 letters and is one of the oldest alphabets in the world. It is a holy alphabet. According to rabbinical accounts Yahweh wrote the 10 commandments in black fire upon white flames emanating from his lap. This is symbolized even today by the ritual of writing the Torah scrolls (the five books of Moses) and the holy books with their black square letters (black fire) on white vellum made from the hides of kosher animals (white fire). Only when these two elements are united do Yahweh commandments, and thus Yahweh himself, come into being. The letters are embodied with great creative powers. Yahweh created heaven and earth with his words. When a practising Jew speaks one of the letters of this alphabet, he arouses its divine spark, which returns into the heavenly centre/Yahweh from whence this spark originated. The series of works about the Hebraic script consists of 22 square, individual sheets, each 70 x 70 cm (27-½ in.). The carrier is paper, upon which painted layers of yellow red and grey have been covered with white glazes. The white ground is to refer to the above-mentioned white fire. Additionally, the whitish ground alludes to the desert with its shades of yellow, red and grey. The desert has surrounded the Israelites from their beginnings to the present day. For this reason, white is the colour of the tablecloth used on the Sabbath. It reminds one of the manna that fell from the heavens in the desert on this day. The modified and transformed letters of the Hebraic alphabet appear in blue against this white background. According to the Old Testament Commandment (4. Moses, Chapter 15, Verse 38-41) tassels (Zizith) are to be attached to the four corners of the ancient Jewish robes. These tassels are made of strings, one of which has to be blue. Every time the faithful look at this tassel they are to think of Yahweh commandments and obey them. Blue has ceased to be used in tassels today. The ancient robe evolved into a prayer shawl (tallith) with four white tassels in the corners. Nevertheless the religious significance of the colour blue remained the quintessential Jewish colour, the divine colour and the equilibrium between black and white, day and night and heights and depths. The title of this publication and the exhibition is like the first line of the Torah (Genesis Chapter 1, Verse 1) In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth.


An important part of Jewish life is its religious aspect. It determines almost all areas of life for a Jewish believer. An important part of this religious life is the alphabet. Four letters, JHWH, are the only possible way to represent God in Judaism, because of the biblical prohibition of idolatry and specifically the ban on making images of one's own God: Jehovah is revealed in the word. The letters and colours used in my work can be found, for example in the Thora and the Tallit as symbols of religious thought and ritual actions. Due to the effects of the Holocaust, in Kazimierz hardly any of that is still "alive". Of the eleven synagogues and houses of prayer still existing in Cracow, only one synagogue is still used for religious practices. With my project "IN THE BEGINNING GOD CREATED HEAVEN AND EARTH" I want to make a contribution to recollecting the Jewish tradition in Cracow, Poland and Europe.

Johannes Senf                                                                                                                                                                                         Cologne 2009
                                                                                                                  translation from German by the translations office Denzig Cologne
1996; Kremepigments, acrylic, Archespaper; 22 parts, each 27-3/4 in.

Johannes Senf

One of our ambitions as a Jewish Museum is to show exhibitions of contemporary Jewish and Jewish related art. Among different kinds of exhibitions that we either host or create – photographic exhibitions, historical and educational exhibitions – this is particularly important to present works of contemporary, living artists, because they prove that Jewish culture is a dynamic, ongoing process, not something that only historians can find interesting. In the end it's vitality and diversity of Jewish culture that authorize presence of institutions such us ours. Over the last few years we had the privilege of showing several such exhibitions: paintings collection of Benet Haughton, contemporary Jewish paper cuts of Crakow-based artist Marta Gołáb, an installation of American artist Fay Grajower and now we are presenting something completely different, conceptual works of Johannes Senf.

Mr Senf dedicated his work to signs used in abstract communication systems. Over the past years he created many projects dealing with such signs, ranging from prehistoric stone drawings up to the digitally processed data. Artist modus operandi is always the same. Starting from the graphical quality of certain signs, often not even being able to read or understand them, through getting to now them by detailed research, to de-constructing them, and recording them again in their minimal, most sufficient display format. Doing that, Mr Senf actually lays a ground for comparison between signs originating from completely different systems. One of such projects is hanging in front of your eyes, an exhibition dedicated to Hebrew script, one of the oldest existing alphabets.

This project war originally created to be shown in the former synagogue in Oerlinghausen/Germany which was transformed into a exhibition space of the local Art Society. Choosing to work with Hebrew script, Johannes linked his project with its location, commemorating the place where people met and script was studied. And this is a key aspect of the artist work: his new projects are always conceptually tied with specific venues, like when he was invited to show his works during Photo Fairs in Cologne where he prepared installation based on signs used to mark photographic equipment, thus setting a link between art and place and the occasion.

In the Beginning God Created the Heavens and the Earth can be read on many different levels. It can be limited only to visual qualities – included pieces are fine, simple, aesthetic graphics that one wants to look at. But there also is certain concept behind this works, a story, and hours of research. Getting to know this story, examining findings of this research will answer some fundamental questions, like: why is the background whitish, or why the letters actually appear in blue. In the end there is an expert level, some people can instantly recognize particular Hebrew letters, they can discuss transformed shapes and methods of de-constructing original signs. I reckon all of this approaches are equally valuable.

During installation his work I discussed with Mr Senf widely announced end of written script era, something that philosophers and sociologists and anthropologists refer to as a pictorial turn, visual turn in culture. If this really is the case, it can be that Mr Senf is a chronicler of that passing era whose works will become a library of forgotten signs.

Tomasz Strug (exhibition and event manager of the Galician Jewish Museum Crakow)                                                      Crakow 2010