Letters to Afar:

By Péter Forgács, music by the Klezmatics

At the Museum of the City of New York

The Museum of the City of New York and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research premiere Letters to Afar: By Péter Forgács, music by the Klezmatics, an immersive video art installation based on home movies made by Jewish immigrants who traveled from New York back to Poland during the 1920s and 30s. Letters to Afar opened on Wednesday, October 22, and remains on view until Sunday, March 22, 2015.

The individual films, interpreted as “letters” and knitted into a single work of art, document poignant family reunions and everyday life in cities, small towns, and villages throughout Poland in the years before the Second World War, capturing a culture on the brink. Internationally acclaimed Hungarian artist Péter Forgács created the audiovisual art installation under a commission by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. With a haunting soundtrack by the New York-based band, The Klezmatics, these films bring a lost world to life in startling and moving detail.


Letters to Afar provides a glimpse of life in Poland prior to World War II, and poignantly speaks to the complex dual identity that is fundamental to the New York immigrant experience and essential to our understanding of the dynamism, creativity and progress of New York City,” says Susan Henshaw Jones, the Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York. “This innovative art installation powerfully evokes the emotional as well as historical reality of Polish New Yorkers who loved both their homeland and their adopted city. It embodies a core aspect of the New York identity, and I am sure it will deeply move and educate the diverse visitors who come to our museum.”

“Drawn from the collections of the YIVO Institute, Letters to Afar is a magical work of synthesis, both history and imagination, a window onto a largely forgotten past whose vibrant and varied existence gave birth to American Jewry,” said Jonathan Brent, executive director and CEO of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Filming for their families back in New York in the 1920s and 30s, amateur filmmakers recorded Polish relatives and friends in their daily surroundings. Unknowingly, they also provided extraordinary documentation of joyous family interactions in interwar Poland. In Letters to Afar, acclaimed filmmaker and video artist Péter Forgács, who specializes in working with archival footage, adapted these home movies or “letters” for the 21st century museum visitor. Avoiding a broad historical narrative, Letters to Afar captures intimate human behavior—a look, a gesture, an interaction—replayed at different speeds set to a score of traditional Jewish music, and accompanied by captions and spoken text drawn from memoirs, letters and literature. As a result, viewers are offered more than a historical perspective on prewar life; they experience the longing and complex forces that drew New York immigrants back to revisit their homeland, family and friends.

At once particular and universal, Letters to Afar documents a lost society while highlighting the immigrant experience of being caught between two worlds. In 2013, the installation opened at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.

Letters to Afar at the City Museum was made possible with the generous support of the Kronhill Pletka Foundation, The Righteous Persons Foundation, The Seedlings Foundation and Sigmund Rolat. Additional support is provided by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

About YIVO

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research was founded in Vilna, Poland, in 1925, and relocated to New York City in 1940 with the mission to preserve, study and perpetuate knowledge of the thousand-year history and culture of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Today, YIVO’s archival and library collections are the single largest resource for such study in the world. YIVO offers cultural events and programs throughout the year, educational programs, scholarly publications, and fellowships. www.yivoinstitute.org 


About the Museum of the City of New York


The Museum of the City of New York celebrates and interprets the city, educating the public about its distinctive character, especially its heritage of diversity, opportunity, and perpetual transformation. Founded in 1923 as a private, nonprofit corporation, the Museum connects the past, present, and future of New York City. It serves the people of New York and visitors from around the world through exhibitions, school and public programs, publications, and collections. For more information, visit www.mcny.org.

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  1. […] The Letters to Afar exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York continues to receive attention, including these reviews in the Forward’s Sisterhood blog and Jewish Image. […]

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