Thursday, November 29, 2012

Behind the Scenes Interview with Through Soviet Jewish Eyes Curator David Shneer

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.

MJH: Why do you think so many photographers during this era were Jewish?

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.

MJH: Why are so many of these images not familiar to American audiences?

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.  

MJH: What was the most surprising thing you learned during your research?

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

We Are Giving Thanks

As we approach Thanksgiving, we have a lot to be grateful for this year. We hope you do, too. In this spirit, we would like to share some things that we feel especially blessed having in our lives this season. On the top of this list is, of course, that our Museum family, our building, and our artifacts escaped Superstorm Sandy virtually unscathed thanks to incredible efforts by so many. We would also be remiss if we didn’t mention that we are extremely grateful for our readers, volunteers, supporters, and members today and every day.
From our staff:

In the aftermath of the storm, despite all the chaos, I was grateful that the New York Times continued to deliver my paper to the door step even though everything else was closed. It was the first sign that things would be going back to normal.  Betsy
I’m grateful for—and to—my colleagues, whose dedication to the Museum was particularly evident in the face of natural disaster.  Anita

I am grateful that while my neighbor did a mitzvah by letting her crabby, boring coworker, who was without power after the storm, stay at her apartment, I was hosting a displaced friend who was “fun.” Sharon

I am grateful for my Communications department colleagues who manage to squeeze so much  creativity and productiveness into every single day, fueled only by copious amounts of caffeine, sugar, and dedication. Betsy

I am thankful for: being out of harm’s way during Hurricane Sandy, family, working subway lines, old friends in far off places calling to see if we are okay, and chocolate.  Lisa

I am thankful for all the freedoms we take for granted as Americans. Sharon
I’m thankful for Thanksgiving traditions – such as my parents not having to decide between turkey and sushi because they can have both.  Keika

I am thankful for the extraordinary sunsets that I witness here, reminding me to reflect on the people in my life who bring me joy, and to remember those I have lost.  Abby S
I am grateful to have a warm place to go home to each night. Regina

I am thankful for: being out of harm’s way during Hurricane Sandy, family, working subway lines, old friends in far off places calling to see if we are okay, and chocolate.  Lisa

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob’s twelve sons and one daughter are born. One son who will play a prominent role later on is Judah. This name is derived from the Hebrew word “to thank.” His mother, Leah, explains that she named him Judah, because “This time I will thank God.” Gratitude is fundamental aspect of Judaism and for Jews Thanksgiving is another great opportunity to give thanks for health, family and friends. Paul
Feel free to offer your own thoughts in the comments section, and have a wonderful and meaningful holiday.

 Photo by Sota Dzine.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Giving Thanks to our Veterans

At the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust we are never too far from thinking about veterans, in particular veterans of World War II. When Ours To Fight For: American Jews in the Second World War was on view, there were veterans present at all times and it wasn’t difficult to thank them for their service because they were hanging out in the Irving Schneider and Family Gallery.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are 22,658,000 living veterans, and approximately 950,000 live in the state of New York. Readers of the blog know that I am a fan of our military men and women, especially around Fleet Week and Memorial Day. But I have to say that Veterans Day gives me the opportunity to say thank you to those who have served and fought, those no longer in harm’s way. I have to admit that there is less worry and anxiety inherent in this exchange.
Yesterday I participated in NYC’s Veterans Day parade with the USO. My assignment, along with 30 others, was to walk along the parade route, shake hands with the veterans we saw, and say thank you. Some wore part of their old uniforms; others wore tell-tale signs like hats that said “Vietnam Vet” or “Veteran, Korean War.” Young and old, representing every culture and ethnicity, each one had the handshake of a proud leader. The crowd had thinned out by the time we reached the thirtieth block, but the parade had already been underway for two plus hours. Despite the dwindling crowds, it was an emotional walk up 5th Avenue I will not soon forget. Nor will I forget the strength and determination of the millions who have served our country in war and in peacetime.  Thank you for your service.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

In a Pickle

If you are like me and had to toss out virtually every item of food in your refrigerator because of the hurricane, it may be time to restock and even stay home and do a little cooking. I thought I would share this quick and easy recipe for homemade pickles from the Mile End Cookbook by Rae and Noah Bernamoff. The Bernamoffs will be speaking here on November 28 about their popular Brooklyn deli and their favorite dishes. I can’t wait to see what they recommend for Hanukkah. …

Quick Cucumber Pickles
Makes 8 ounces or 4

1 cup Diamond Crystal kosher salt
2/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
4 teaspoons ground coriander
1 garlic clove, grated
½ English cucumber (about 8 ounces), skin on, sliced very thin, ideally on a mandoline.

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Toss the cucumber with 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of the spice mixture (save the rest; it will keep for months at room temperature). Let sit 10 minutes before serving.

Monday, November 5, 2012

While We Were Out

When the staff was e-mailing with each other last week, I asked people to let me know what kind of volunteering they were doing.  I know many people in unaffected areas dropped off clothes and cleaning supplies, and helped out at shelters, but I was really moved by this e-mail from Amanda Lanceter, Manager of Curriculum and Teacher Programs and a resident of Staten Island.
Once our power was restored on Wednesday morning after a period of about 36 hours with no electricity, I saw on Facebook that a number of my friends here in Staten Island were contributing to local relief efforts. I was inspired by their efforts to do what I could, especially considering that we had been so lucky to have gotten through the hurricane with what really is just a minor inconvenience. I collected many of the food items and water that I bought in preparation for the hurricane (and thankfully did not need), as well as other essential items that I had as backups in my closet. I drove over to a nearby school that was serving as an emergency shelter.
Dropping off the supplies at the shelter was both heartbreaking and heartwarming. Knowing that so many people here lost everything both saddens me and reminds me of how lucky my family and I were to make it through this as well as we did. This crisis truly brought out the best in people. There was a constant flow of cars coming to the shelter, and the generosity I saw from others was incredible. Seeing this community pull together and care for each other, when everyone here has their own Sandy-related problems to worry about, made me hopeful.
At the Museum of Jewish Heritage, we teach students about the meaning of tzedakah, of charity and justice, and its importance within Jewish communities. We tell students about how communities care for each other and support those who are less fortunate. I witnessed many acts of tzedakah over the last few days, and I was inspired by all of them, large and small. It is refreshing to see that in a time of crisis, there is still so much good in people and so much willingness to care for others.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

An Update From The Museum

We express our deepest condolences to those who have lost family and friends as well as their homes in this terrible storm.  Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

Considering where the Museum of Jewish Heritage is located, it is – there is really no other word – miraculous that we emerged virtually unscathed. That is due in no small part to the devoted engineers, cleaners, and security personnel who stayed around the clock to keep the Museum secure. Seeing pictures of a flooded Brooklyn Battery (now Hugh Carey) Tunnel and water from the tracks to the ceiling at the South Ferry subway station, both just a couple of blocks away, is a reminder of how lucky we are.

We remain closed on Thursday. We are without power. And if you’ve seen the new post-Sandy subway map, we are right in the center of the grayed out subway lines in Lower Manhattan. Take a look for yourself. When we do open, it will be our own version of AMAZING RACE.

We are anxious to return to the Museum and welcome back staff as well as our devoted volunteers, members, donors, neighbors, and friends. Keep checking the blog, Facebook, Twitter, and our website for details.

Be safe, be warm, and feel free to tell us how you are doing by using the comment feature below.