I recently received as a gift a stunning book of photographs by the Jewish photographer Roman Vishniac. The photos were taken in the shtetls of eastern Europe in the 1930s, just before those communities were wiped out forever.
A Vanished World was published in New York in 1983. It is difficult to get your hands on a copy of it now, but the photographs it contains serve as an important historical document.
Vishniac was born in Russia, but was living in Germany in the 1930s. He took the photographs between 1934 and 1939, when the Nazis had already taken power, and when anyone with a camera was at risk of being branded a spy – and in communities where observant Jews did not want to be photographed for religious reasons.
But he had the foresight to see what few others could possibly imagine, that the Nazis would systematically wipe out the shtetls and Jewish communities that had existed and maintained the same way of life for hundreds of years. He made it his mission to not let their inhabitants, along with their occupations and preoccupations, be forgotten.
“I felt that the world was about to be cast into the mad shadow of Nazism and that the outcome would be the annihilation of a people who had no spokesman to record their plight. I knew it was my task to make certain that this vanished world did not totally disappear”, he says in his commentary on the photos.
Vishniac used a hidden camera, at a time when photography was in its infancy and equipment was bulky and unsophisticated. He put himself at great risk, and was thrown into prison for a time, but still he persisted in his mission, constantly running the risk of being stopped by informers or arrested by the Gestapo. He managed to take around 16,000 photographs, although all but 2,000 were confiscated and, presumably, destroyed. He chose to include around 200 in this book, the images that he considered the most representative.
He travelled from country to country, taking in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania, from province to province, village to village. He captured images of slums and markets, street scenes and school houses, from the wrinkled faces of old men and careworn mothers to pale religious scholars and hungry, wild-eyed children.
The images are far from anonymous. Vishniac got to know the people he photographed, he often availed of their hospitality and spent time working and living among them. He slept in a basement that was home to 26 families, sharing a bed with three other men. “I could barely breathe, Little children cried; I learned about the heroic endurance of my brethren,” he wrote.
He spent a month working as a porter in Warsaw, pulling heavy loads in a handcart, in one of the very few occupations still open to Jews during the Jewish boycott in the late 1930s, which forced tens of thousands of Jewish employees out of their workplaces. It was cheaper to have a Jew pulling a cart than a horse, for the horse had to be fed before it would work, while Jews were forced to carry the goods first and eat later, only once they had been paid.
As one reviewer, the American photographer and museum curator Edward Steichen, wrote, “Vishniac took with him on this self-imposed assignment – besides this or that kind of camera or film – a rare depth of understanding and a native son’s warmth and love for his people. The resulting photographs are among photography’s finest documents of a time and place”.
Vishniac emigrated to New York in 1940 and became an acclaimed photographer and professor of biology and the humanities. His only son Wolf died in Antarctica while leading a scientific expedition, and his grandson Obie died at the age of just 10. The book is dedicated to them, as well as to Vishniac’s grandfather. He writes: “Through my personal grief, I see in my mind’s eye the faces of six million of my people, innocents who were brutally murdered by order of a warped human being. The entire world, even the Jews living in the safety of other nations, including the United States, stood by and did nothing to stop the slaughter. The memory of those swept away must serve to protect future generations from genocide. It is a vanished but not vanquished world, captured here in images made with hidden cameras, that I dedicate to my grandfather, my son and my grandson."
Following a trip to Poland in August, I wrote about the revival of the Jewish quarter of Krakow, with its Jewish restaurants, Jewish festival and synagogue renovations. Now attempts are under way to undertake a yet more unlikely revival across the border in Ukraine.
The town of Mezhbizh in western Ukraine is famous as the home of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hassidic movement in the 18th century. Mezhbizh has become something of a pilgrimage site for tourists, mostly Hassidic Jews, visiting from Israel. Some are even returning to the town to live, and renovating the shtetl that was home to around a third of the town’s population before pogroms, emigration and the Holocaust wiped the Jews from this part of the map.
The shtetls of Eastern Europe were once vibrant communities, home to millions of Yiddish-speakers, as I describe in my historical work A Forgotten Land. Numerous writers of the time wrote of the world of the shtetl – brothers Isaac Bashevis and Israel Joshua Singer, Sholem Aleichem (apparently a distant relative of mine, but I am yet to discover our common ancestor), Bella (wife of artist Marc) Chagall and Elie Wiesel to name but a few.
In the Russian empire, pogroms from 1881 onwards prompted waves of emigration that began to decimate the population of the shtetl, a process that culminated, of course, in the Holocaust when the remaining Jewish inhabitants were exterminated en masse. In this part of the world, the process generally involved mass shootings rather than deportation to concentration camps, the most famous being at Babi Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev where 34,000 Jews were killed in 1941 (see my blog post of 27 January 2017 for more about Babi Yar).
Today Mezhbizh is a small town of 2,000 inhabitants, down from as many as 10,000 during the era of the Baal Shem Tov. In those days it was a regional centre and a third of its residents were Jewish. Their numbers swelled every Sabbath and Jewish holiday as devotees travelled from miles around to worship at the Rebbe’s synagogue and express their devotion to the famous Rabbi and subsequent Hassidic Rebbes.
A Hassidic cemetery was built near the Baal Shem Tov’s grave. The illustrious Rebbe’s remains now reside in a white marble tomb inscribed in Hebrew script, which draws thousands of Hassidic pilgrims each year. To accommodate the tourists, infrastructure has been built including a large hotel catering for Orthodox Jewish customs, a kosher restaurant, a yeshiva and Torah institution.
And now an initiative has developed to recreate the Mizhbizh shtetl, renovating old Jewish homes abandoned three-quarters of a century ago. Numerous single-storey houses built of mud and brick or straw stand derelict on the site of the old shtetl, and around a dozen are currently under reconstruction aimed at becoming homes for Jewish families wanting to return to live in the town. Some members of the Hassidic community have already left Israel and set up home in Mezhbizh. In two-to-three years, entrepreneurs claim, the shtetl will have a Jewish-Israeli street with up to three renovated synagogues.
Mezhbizh is not the only Ukrainian town to attract Jewish visitors from overseas. Famously Uman, in central Ukraine, draws tens of thousands of tourists each year for the High Holy Days to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman, the founder of the Breslov Hassidic movement, and a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. Not all are Hassidic believers, for according to tradition, the rabbi promised to intercede on behalf of anybody praying at his grave on Rosh Hashanah.
In Uman too, the rabbi’s grave has been renovated, with funds donated by Jewish tycoons from around the world. Hotels and hostels have popped up and locals have carried out house renovations to provide accommodation for the visitors. A few hundred Israelis have made Uman their home and the annual pilgrimage has become the town’s major source of income.
In 2005 I visited Berdichev, once known as Russia’s Jewish capital with a population of over 50,000, some four-fifths of whom were Jewish. The large Jewish cemetery is impressive, with acre upon acre of beautiful old graves overgrown with vegetation. A path between the graves leads to a new mausoleum built above the grave of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, a prominent Hassidic leader. The tomb has become another pilgrimage site for Jewish tourists.
The cemetery is also home to the rabbis Moshe Mordechai Twersky and Tsvi Arye Twersky of Makarov, in whose rabbinical court my great-grandfather Meyer grew up and hoped to stay forever. Thanks to money sent from abroad, their graves are topped with newly hewn gravestones of slate and marble and housed in a small, painted mausoleum.
Meyer’s own grandfather – my great, great, great grandfather – was advisor to the famous Reb Dovidl Twersky of Talna. Reb Dovidl was the grandson of Rabbi Nochum Twersky of Chernobyl, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. When I visited Talna, now known as Talnoye, we found Reb Dovidl’s grave in a dirty concrete box housed in an old shack covered with graffiti. It lay at the end of a dingy alley that smelt of urine, on the edge of what was once a Jewish cemetery but had become an overgrown wasteland littered with old tyres.
The site has since been renovated, thanks to the editor of the local newspaper who spearheaded a fundraising effort to have the rabbi’s remains interred in surroundings more appropriate to the founder of one of the most revered of Hassidic dynasties.
The story of the renovation of the Mezhbizh shtetl comes from an article on ynet.news.com by Dr Yoel Rappel. To read the full article, please click here https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-5443742,00.html
Ten years ago I travelled with my Dad to America for a family visit. It was the first time I had met most of his first cousins – and it turned out to be the last time I saw his sister, my dear aunt Lil, who died a few years later. One of Dad’s relatives, irrepressible and wonderful cousin Betty, is a psychic and clairvoyant. Betty is much on my mind at the moment as wildfires rage around Los Angeles, forcing her to evacuate her home.
“I know you are a writer, but have you ever thought about doing documentaries?” she asked me back in 2008.
“I’d love to make documentaries!” I replied.
“Well, you will.”
And today, ten years on, the first documentary I have been involved in is being broadcast on the BBC's World Service radio station. It’s a ten-minute piece about the lost Jewish world of the Eastern European shtetl, using anecdotes recounted by my grandmother about her early life back in Ukraine – then part of the Russian Empire.
Mostly when I give talks about my work, I focus primarily on the dramatic major events that affected Russia’s Jewish community at the time – pogroms, World War I, the Russian Revolution and civil war. But the documentary concentrates on more mundane aspects of day-to-day life, such as Sabbath rituals in my grandmother’s house, relations with the local Ukrainian population, the Rabbi’s court where members of my family lived and worked, and a crazy and somewhat comical incident that landed my great-great grandmother in jail, to the horror and embarrassment of the whole family.
The documentary is based on snippets of recordings made by my father back in the 1970s of my grandmother telling stories about her early life in Russia. They are recorded in Yiddish, the language of the Jews of Eastern Europe. It is a language once spoken by around 12 million people that transcended national boundaries, but which was almost wiped out by the holocaust. The vast majority of the Jews killed in the Nazi death camps would have spoken Yiddish as their mother tongue.
Today the language is undergoing something of a revival, in the US in particular. Surprisingly there are still up to two million Yiddish speakers in the world. You can sign up to Yiddish evening classes, watch Yiddish theatre performances and attend Yiddish dance parties. In 2017, the Yiddish Arts and Academics Association of North America was born, with a mission to promote Yiddish language and culture through academic and artistic events and through Yiddish food. “The goal,” says founder Jana Mazurkiewicz Meisarosh, “is to make Yiddish culture hip, modern and interesting.”
In the US, “Yiddish has been trapped within two discrete, hermetic spheres: the ultra-Orthodox sphere, which engages the religious aspects of Yiddishkeit, and the academic sphere, which tends to study secular Yiddishkeit of the past. As a result, Yiddish language and culture … is often viewed as a relic of the past, and fails to find resonance in daily life and modern culture,” she says.
It’s a fascinating and worthy goal, to bring back to life a language that came close to extinction. The culture of the shtetl is unlikely to be reborn outside of the most restrictive Jewish communities, but if it can gain further resonance in today’s world, this is surely something to celebrate.
Listen to the documentary here: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3cswsp3
One hundred years ago
2017 marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution, an event that heralded the country's 1918-21 Civil War and a period of terrible suffering for my family and others who lived through it. This blog began as an investigation of current events affecting Jews in Ukraine today and comparing them with historical events from a century ago. It is broadening to include personal experiences and my exploration into Ukrainian history as my research for a new book, set in the country, develops.