Back in the 20th century, a photograph was thought to be a memory made material. But like personal recollections, these traces of light have proven to readjust themselves according to the needs of the present moment.
In the late 1930s, the gifted photographer and biologist Roman Vishniac—a Russified Jew whose prosperous family relocated to Germany after the Revolution and who was himself still living in Berlin—was hired by an American Jewish relief agency, the Joint Distribution Committee, to document traditional life in the impoverished shtetls and ghetto slums of Eastern Europe. Presumably, Vishniac’s photographs were intended for fundraising. But by the time a tiny sampling was published in the slim 1947 volume Polish Jews—a more tasteful, artistic version of the memorial books assembled by survivors of decimated Jewish communities—Vishniac’s images had become something else.
Focused almost entirely on venerable Hasidim and bright-eyed heder boys no older than 10, these photographs no longer documented need but rather aestheticized spirituality. As the scholar who introduced the book put it, “The little Jewish communities in Eastern Europe were like sacred texts opened before the eyes of God”—and, presumably, Vishniac’s concealed Leica. Children of a Vanished World, the fourth selection of photographs from the thousands that Vishniac took, is predicated on a somewhat different pathos. Urban poverty is more evident than religious exaltation in these (sometimes marvelous) snapshots, which, encumbered by neither dates nor captions, are accompanied by transcriptions of Yiddish nursery rhymes. These doomed children are not so much the holy innocents of Polish Jews as the last generation born in the imaginary nation of Yiddishland.
Never mind that this lost paradise—scarcely the sophisticated Vishniac’s own home—was rapidly fading even in the Poland of the 1930s. This sense of a disappearing totality dates back to the 19th century, when Eastern European Jews first encountered modernity. The real “children of a vanished world” aren’t Vishniac’s subjects (their world was tangible enough), but the contemporary audience for his books and other Old World memorials like Poyln: Jewish Life in the Old Country, which collects the photographs of Warsaw Yiddish journalist and writer Alter Kacyzne.
A remarkable polymath (who, among other things, was the literary executor for Sh. An-Sky, the pioneering preservationist and author of The Dybbuk), Kacyzne was hired as a correspondent in 1924 by New York’s Jewish Daily Forward to supply images of Poland for the mainly foreign-born readers of the paper’s Sunday rotogravure. These photographs are virtually all that remains of the prolific Kacyzne’s enterprise. (His archive was destroyed in the Holocaust, as was he—beaten to death in 1941 by Ukrainian adjuncts of the German SS.) Although printed in sepia, the pictures resist nostalgia. Less glamorous and theatrical than Vishniac’s, Kacyzne’s images are laconic recordings of shabby modern streets and muddy, tumbledown villages populated by ancient craftsmen and youthful Zionists, bustling matrons and marketplace idlers. This “Poyln” (Yiddish for Poland) is a realm of contradiction. It is also less a memory than a reality from which, as Kacyzne reminded his American audience, many Jews wished to escape. The concluding images show hundreds of would-be immigrants lined up on the “snail walk,” hoping to obtain visas.
The most curious of Old World memory books is Yiddishland, a dense little volume of Eastern European Jewish ephemera culled mainly from Gérard Silvain’s collection of 20,000 picture postcards—a means of communication invented by the Austrian Jew Emmanuel Hermann, in 1869, that enjoyed its greatest flowering in the early 20th century. Although the accompanying text is sprinkled with errors (the Hebrew-language Habima theater repeatedly described as “Yiddish,” for example), these anonymous, mass-produced images are remarkable in their variety—ranging from photographs taken by German army photographers in Poland during World War I through views of the “Jewish Street” in Lodz and elsewhere to New Year’s greeting cards, notices of theatrical productions, and advertisements for the ersatz Soviet Jewish homeland, Birobidzhan.
A true collector, Silvain includes some anti-Semitic postcards as well as atrocity views that display the corpses of pogrom victims. (The droll observation “picturesque Russia” is scrawled on one in French.) Even then, Yiddishland was a tourist site, if not an imaginary theme park, as evinced by the images of bearded elders captioned “Jewish Types in Russian Poland” or “Souvenir of Warsaw” and the cards depicting the exotic Jewish quarters of Berlin and Vienna, not to mention London’s Petticoat Lane, Paris’s Rue de Rosiers, New York’s Hester Street.
If Yiddishland provides a powerfully artless portrait of generic Jewish life, David Goberman’s Carved Memories: Heritage in Stone From the Russian Jewish Pale is the ultimate collective memorial album. Like many in the first generation of Russian Jewish modern artists, the 88-year-old Goberman took inspiration from the arcane symbols and elaborate patterns of Jewish tombstones. (That the typically tumbledown and luxuriantly overgrown Jewish graveyard was a site understood to be picturesque, as well as sacred, is suggested by the number of cemetery postcards included in Yiddishland.)
Austere and uncanny, Goberman’s forthright studies of these mutely eloquent markers cannot escape the meaning World War II has given them. Indeed, many of Goberman’s photographs—which are currently on exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum—were taken in Ukraine and Moldavia soon after the war. The book notes that most of these stones no longer exist. As richly textured and redolent of eternity as they appear here, the images themselves are the memories of memory.