Now that our new exhibition, Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust, is up and receiving rave reviews, we had time to catch up with the curator, David Shneer, for some more insights into his research and into the stunning photographs in the exhibit.
MJH: What first attracted you to the subject of Soviet Jewish photography during World War II?
David Shneer: I was first drawn to the topic when I visited a photography gallery in Moscow in 2002. As I describe in my book, the exhibition, Women At War, seemed to have a large number of Jewish photographers represented in the exhibition. When I asked the curator about this, she looked at me as if I was missing the obvious —most of the Soviet photographers taking pictures of World War II were Jewish. This statement and that day launched a nearly 10 year process that resulted in both the book and the exhibition now on view at the museum.
DS: In 1917 when the tsar abdicated, all of the tsarist era laws that had restricted Russian Jews' access to many professions and to many places in the empire were lifted. It's hard to underestimate the impact this had on Russia's Jews embrace of some form of revolution. Although most weren't Bolsheviks, when the conservative White forces turned to anti-Semitism to support their cause, most Jews either left the country or supported the new Soviet regime. For many young Jews, mostly men, they saw the Revolution and the ability to move as an opportunity to remake themselves and society.
Photography, as a new democratic technology and easy-to-learn art form, attracted Jews, and not just in Russia. In fact, the phenomenon of Jews as photographers took place anywhere with a large Jewish population ranging from New York, where Jews set up institutions like the Photo League in the 1930s, to London, when refugees from fascist Europe set up Picture Post, and included famous war photographers like Robert Capa, also known as Andre Friedmann. So the fact that so many Soviet-era photographers were Jewish reflected both the specific opening up of Russian society, the universal promises of the Soviet revolution, and the social history of 20th century Jewry.
MJH: Can we see “Jewishness” in their work?
DS: I would say rarely, because that was not their job. They were Soviet photographers documenting the building of Soviet society in the 1920s and 30s, and then its near destruction in the 1940s. That said, when one looks at Moisei (born Moyshe) Nappelbaum's hauntingly beautiful portraits of the Soviet intelligentsia, especially figures like Isaac Babel and Eduard Bagritsky, it is hard not to imagine that the fact of their mutual Jewishness and native Yiddish language did not somehow influence their experience of taking those pictures. More specifically, Soviet photographers were tasked with the documentation of the Soviet Union's experiment with secular Jewish nationalism in a place called Birobidzhan. In this case, photographers like Georgy Zelma, exhibited in the show, documented the making of the new Soviet Jew. During the war, they all encountered the fact that the Nazis and their allies targeted Jews differently from other ethnic groups, both in their photographs of liberation of places that had been under German or Axis control, when they saw corpses with Jewish stars on their jackets, or when a figure like Evgenii Khaldei made a side trip to the Budapest ghetto in January 1945 during the city's liberation, to photograph both the dead and the living.
DS: Two reasons have made these images iconic to Soviet audiences and absent from American ones. During the war, the American press was reluctant to publish images taken by Soviet photographers fearing that they were propaganda, by which these American editors meant not truthful and unreliable. After the war, when the Soviet Union and the U.S. were no longer allies, and were the bitterest of enemies, the very fact of the U.S.-Soviet wartime alliance was buried, as the U.S., and to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union hastened to rebuild a relationship with their respective rehabilitated Germanies. Soviet photographs rarely circulated in the postwar period, and if they did, their "Sovietness" was stripped from the image. For example, the iconic photograph of the Auschwitz gate with the euphemism "Work Will Set You Free," an image which many American viewers would recognize, was in fact a Soviet liberation photograph, a point we make in the show.
DS: I was most surprised at the number of Jews photographing the war, a fact that was not surprising to most Russians I spoke to or met. After I got past that issue, most surprising was the stunning quality of the images these photographers took in the most dire of wartime conditions. Frequently with poor quality material, and under fire, these photographers, many of whom were trained in the best of modernist aesthetics, took arresting photographs of the heat of battle and war's terrible aftermath. And even more surprising was the fact that the Soviet press had no problem picturing the horrors of war during the war, something the American press absolutely shunned.
MJH: Which image captivates you the most, and why?
DS: I am captivated by the woman in the city of Murmansk walking amidst the absolute ruin over her city. A lone figure, back turned to the audience, hauls a heavy suitcase through a disturbing image, one made up of hundreds of chimneys, all that remains of the mostly wooden city after the Luftwaffe firebombed the important port in June 1942. It is haunting, because it reminds us that chimneys, which became iconic in Holocaust photography because of the crematoria at extermination camps, were iconic in Soviet wartime photography for radically different reasons. Here, they stand as silent witnesses, bearers of life, as the former hearths of all of those wooden homes, to the mass murder of civilians in fire bombings, a war crime that all allies committed during the war. And that lone woman, whom Khaldei suggests was the sole survivor, wanders directionless and homeless. It is an utterly devastating image of war that has yet to make it to the ranks of an icon.
MJH: What would you like audiences to take away from the exhibition?
DS: I want visitors first and foremost to appreciate the haunting beauty of Soviet war photography and to see that these photographers had deep training in ways that most American war photographers did not have. They put their artistic training to use in the trenches of the Battle of Kursk and at the liberation of Majdanek and Auschwitz.
Through Soviet Jewish Eyes is on view through April 7.
Georgii Zelma (1906-1984)
Tank in Stalingrad, c. 1943
gelatin silver print
23 ½ x 34 inches
Loan from Teresa and Paul Harbaugh
Photo: CU Art Museum
© Georgii Zelma Estate