TO the Westerner, Poland may appear a dismal landscape, muffled behind an Iron Curtain, a bureaucracy beset by labor unrest and chronic shortages. To the Jew in particular, Poland may seem a burial pit, where the Nazis put to death one-third of Europe's prewar Jewish population. But a newly assembled collection of photographs of Polish life in this century, uncovered by the Boston-based Navigator Foundation, penetrates distance and memory to reveal a different, profoundly human Poland. The pictures defy prejudices and stereotypes. They bear eloquent witness to Poland's turbulent history, its beauties, tragedies, strengths, and sufferings.
Recent exhibitions of the collection in the United States, France, and Israel have generated an emotional outpouring. For Jews of Polish origin and Polish expatriates, they offer rare glimpses into a world forever destroyed but which lives in memory.
Navigator president Murray Forbes, a painter in his own right and the individual responsible for tracking down the photographs and bringing them to light, stresses the life-affirming power of these images. ``Although Poland has known war's waste and the Nazis' slaughter of millions of her citizens,'' he says, ``though she mas many graveyards, Poland is not a cemetery. Polish culture is still vital, and, in however reduced a number, Polish Jews continue to strengthen and receive that vitality.''
THE photographs show the continuing fascination of Polish artists and intellectuals with Jewish culture, even after the virtual eradication of the community that produced it.
They chronicle the traumatic events from the Nazi invasion and the deportation of Jews to the general Warsaw uprising of 1944, in which Jewish partisans who escaped from the vanquished ghetjoined with Polish Roman Catholic resistance fighters in a heroic stand against Hitler's occupation.
But the photos also capture, with sensitivity and technical virtuosity, the character of Jewish and Slavic-Polish life in a previous, more peaceful time. The artists' prints utilize a range of photographic techniques, from portraits in a classical realistic style to avant-garde photomontage and photocollage methods.
Some of the most recent works blend haunting, phantasmagoric images from mystical Judaism to convey the disturbing and poetic Jewish legacy in Poland.
This evocation of Jewish life by Poland's greatest photographers, many of them Catholic, elicited a dramatic response when the exhibition was mounted last year at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv.
Shlomit Shaked, the Israeli curator of the show, said this ``aperture on a world laid waste,'' as the exhibition was titled, offered Jewish and Catholic survivors, as well as subsequent generations, an opportunity for mourning and healing.
``The photocollages of the destruction, death, and bereavement in the wake of World War II allow us a special, unprecedented, and awesome insight into the horror of the Holocaust,'' she stated. ``Photographs of the tombstones, the synagogue, and the Jews of Poland today close the circle of silent testimony to a world that was.''
Israelis flocked to the exhibition, overwhelming its organizers. ``Emotionally,'' Mr. Forbes observed, ``the popular response of Israelis to the collection didn't surprise me, because I felt that these feelings were there, just below the surface, and would come out under the right circumstances.'' One visitor, seeing the image of an organ grinder he daily passed on Warsaw's Poniatowski Bridge some 50 years ago, began to flawlessly recite one of the street musician's songs.
BEYOND a sense of solidarity and veneration for the strong Jewish tradition of Poland, many Israelis visiting the exhibition acknowledged the positive contributions of general Polish-Slavic culture to the lives of their relatives, ancestors, and themselves.
Although much of Israel's population traces its roots to Poland and many of its founding fathers - including Ben-Gurion, Begin, and Shamir - were born there, the legacy of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust has long chilled the will for rapprochement with the Polish government.
While official Polish policy, following the Soviet lead, has also been overtly hostile to Israel, Poland's citizens have, on occasion, defied the official line. During the October 1973 war, Forbes recalled, Poles watching reports of the fighting on television cheered the Israelis (``They're our boys!'') and praised their ``Polish'' fighting skills as they repelled the invasion of Russian-backed Syrian and Egyptian armies.
The current warming of relations has been expressed in both diplomatic and cultural exchanges. Last spring, more than 1,000 Israelis and Jews of Polish descent returned to the sites of the death camps in a ``March of Life.'' And in Jerusalem, a scholarly conference of Polish Catholics and Jews born in Poland agreed to abandon the safe neutrality of the English language to pour out their thoughts and feelings in the Slavic mother tongue of the home they once shared.
The Israeli exhibition made a contribution to this growing Jewish-Polish reconciliation and, on a political level, to a normalization of relations between Israel and Poland.
``We wish to unveil,'' said Forbes, ``a whole new vision'' of Eastern and Central Europe and accord its peoples ``artistic and moral recognition for their identities as nations.''
In this respect, according to him, ``photography becomes important not only for its own sake but for the sake of something beyond itself.''
Other photos from the Navigator's Polish collection are to be exhibited in September at the Centre Picto-Bastille in Paris. The foundation also plans to mount shows from the assembled works of Soviet and Czechoslovak photographers.
If the striking pictures from Poland are any indication, the cause of East-West reconciliation may have found a powerful ally in the camera lens. The images of these ``others,'' distant yet somehow familiar, may be capable of opening eyes and healing wounds on both sides of a once-iron curtain.