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Pictures of the Jewish Past

Though words have always counted for more than pictures in the Jewish tradition, when photography came to Eastern Europe—a bit late, like everything else—the Jews, like everyone else, began to have their pictures taken. The earliest of these photographs are of the high bourgeoisie—the great Jewish bankers of Warsaw and St. Petersburg, the counselors to the Czar, and even some of the more prestigious big-city rabbis and communal leaders, a few of whom sat for the camera as early as the 1860's (though many others, mindful of the biblical prohibition against sculptured images, avoided it for years).1 In those early-days photographs were strictly for important people on state occasions, but as knowledge of photographic techniques became more widespread, and supplies cheaper and more readily available, young Jews of the middle class who were too status-conscious to do manual labor began taking up photography as a genteel occupation. Soon there were photography studios in most areas with a sizable Jewish population, and middle-class and lower-middle-class Jews too had their pictures taken on important occasions.

Mass immigration to America, beginning in the 1880's—at about the time when photography had first penetrated Jewish social life—further accelerated its diffusion among even the poorest Jews. Families separated from one another for long periods turned increasingly to the new technique as a way of bridging space and time, of compensating in part for the lost presence of husbands or children. There were few Jewish households in Eastern Europe that did not boast a collection of family photographs, prominently displayed, of loved ones who had gone off to America or South Africa. Photographs became the symbol and sub-stance of family solidarity.

With the German occupation of Poland during World War I, photography became mandatory, for every document used for purposes of identification was required to show its bearer's likeness. Weeping and wailing, the hasidic Jews, who had been the last holdouts against the camera's legitimacy and who regarded the German regulation as an evil decree, nonetheless obeyed the law of the land. Even the rebbes—heads of the various hasidic dynasties—betook themselves to the local atelier, where, tense and anxious, they looked into the camera's evil eye.

Photography among Jews consisted at first mainly of portraiture, for the East European tradition placed little value on the beauties of nature or the outdoors, and Jews for the most part did not own great estates or precious works of art that might lend themselves to preservation on film. Photography as art, photography in the service of science, were not yet Jewish métiers. Early in the 1900's, however, Jews in Eastern Europe began turning to the new technique for purposes of historical and legal documentation. Many pictures are available, for example, of the pogroms of 1905 and 1906—of the wounded, the dying, and the dead, as well as of their grieving families. These were probably taken not only for their news value—the East European press published pictures with some frequency—but also to serve as evidence in the legal case which the Jewish community, as part of a concerted project undertaken by newly-organized self-defense groups, was just then beginning to mount against its persecutors. The camera was also used in this period for quasi-anthropological purposes. In 1912 the Yiddish dramatist S. Ansky, best known as the author of The Dybbuk, organized a Jewish ethnographic expedition into the Ukraine. Two of its members were able to travel about the Ukrainian hinterlands taking pictures for almost three years—well into the war—before being arrested late in 1914 and charged with spying.

Curiously enough, it was that same German occupation of Poland (from 1915 to 1918) which first revealed the “artistic” possibilities inherent in Jewish subject matter. The Germans came to Poland not only as military conquerors, but also as tourists, fascinated by the strange people and alien cultures they encountered in the Eastern areas of their conquest. Strangest and most picturesque of all—and hence most photogenic—were the Jews, especially the religiously observant ones, in their long coats and wide-brimmed hats, with their bushy beards and curled sidelocks. No fewer than three picture albums of the city of Vilna—featuring many views of the city's Jewish quarter, its synagogues, and its “types,” as the text had it—were published under German auspices during the years of German occupation, and these in turn stimulated a further rash of picture-books about the city when the war was over. The Germans, with the fresh perspective of outsiders, had shown the natives that their town's familiar and commonplace landmarks were worthy of record.

Jewish photographers thenceforth became connoisseurs of beauty, transforming the worn cobble-stones of crooked alleys into austere compositions of light and shade, the iron scrollwork of synagogue gates into striking visual arrangements. Imbued with modernist and populist ideas, they turned away from the high and mighty and began training their lenses on more humble subjects: the water carrier, the street musician, the engaging village idiot. Aesthetic considerations merged with a growing social consciousness to attract photographers in increasing numbers to the lower depths of the shtetl. Focusing their cameras on the distress and wretchedness that had hitherto been hidden from view, they called public attention to the sufferings of the Jewish poor. (Some of the finest photographs we have from this period were commissioned by a Jewish philanthrophic organization in the United States to spur fund-raising campaigns.) By the late 1920's a number of master photographers of East European Jewish life had emerged: Moritz Grossman (ca. 1885-1941), Menachem Kipnis (1878-1942), Alter Kacyzne (1885-1941), and, most distinguished of all, the noted microphotographer, Roman Vishniac, who was born in St. Petersburg in 1897 and today lives in New York.

By 1939, thousands upon thousands of photographs had accumulated which comprised a documentary history of East European Jewry. Perhaps the best source for this material was the Jewish Daily Forward in New York, whose Sunday rotogravure section, begun in 1923, devoted a full page every week to photographs of the old country. Today, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research has a vast collection of photographs of the Jewish populations of some six hundred cities and towns of pre-war Poland, as well as countless other places in pre-revolutionary Russia. With the German destruction of Jewish Eastern Europe during World War II, these pictures—taken in the course of ordinary human pursuits and for ordinary human purposes—have become the artifacts of a vanished civilization.


Can photographs succeed at all in rendering East European Jewish life and culture, which were so quintessentially a matter of mind and spirit? East European Jewry had no architectural glories like Greece's, no monumental grandeur like Rome's. Its monuments were wooden synagogues and tombstones; its greatness lay in its human relations, in its moral values and religious commitment, in its abstract intellectuality and the sheer pulsating will to live which animated every aspect of its existence. Can the camera capture such intense inwardness? And even if the inner being of a single individual can be so rendered, can the same thing be done for a group, for a whole community? A number of recently published picture books of Jewish life in Eastern Europe suggest the problems involved in such an enterprise.

Abraham Shulman's The Old Country: The Lost World of European Jews2 illustrates some of the technical difficulties involved. A collection of over two hundred photographs with an introductory essay on the shtetl (though in fact a good number of the photographs were taken not in small towns but in the major cities of Warsaw, Lublin, Lodz, Odessa, and Vilna), the book's contents are drawn entirely from the old Forward rotogravure section, where they were published during the last three decades. These rescreened, “second-generation” reproductions have darkened considerably, losing much of their original clarity. The resulting lack of definition has been further aggravated by having both photographs and text printed in brown rather than black ink. The sky in these pictures is always overcast, the subject of the photographs is half-hidden in darkness, and the pictures are oppressively melancholy and monotonous.

Turning the pages, and growing more and more depressed, one realizes, however, that the flaw is not merely technical. The pictures seem to have been chosen to gratify the most self-flagellating kind of nostalgia, enshrining that stereotype of the East European shtetl which I have characterized (in The Golden Tradition) as “forever frozen in utter piety and utter poverty.” Picture after picture conveys the same sense of unrelieved deprivation: the outdoors is endlessly signified by muddy stretches of unpaved road or cobbled pavements; the dimly lit interiors transmit a sense of imprisonment. The pictures also exude an air of vagueness and unreality, further compounded by the author's failure to identify most of them as to specific time or place—as though all these streets and houses were the same and therefore interchangeable. This view of East European Jewry is simply too lopsided to pass for history.

To take just one example: there is a single photograph in the present collection which is identified as being from Cracow. In this ancient and beautiful capital of the historic kingdom of Poland, some 25,000 Jews lived at the turn of the century, when the city was part of the Hapsburg empire. During that period, Jewish representatives sat in the Austrian Reichsrat, Jews served in the city's chamber of commerce, and Jewish professors taught at the university. Jewish Cracow, moreover, was a center of the modernist Hebrew revival. Yet all that Shulman shows us of Cracow is a photograph of two barefoot children pumping water from a town well. His book conveys neither the immense diversity nor the striking wholeness of East European Jewish culture—capable as it was of tolerating and finally reconciling within itself the most violently opposed cultural impulses. (One need only recall the great struggles between traditionalism and modernity, between Zionism and anti-Zionism, between Hasidism and rabbinic Judaism.) None of this ferment is evident in Shulman's book.


A more ambitious and professional work is The Jewish Family Album: The Life of a People in Photographs, by Franz Hubmann,3 an Austrian photographer who has previously done pictorial histories of the Hapsburg and Wilhelminian empires. The book consists of over 300 photographs which have been assembled from a great variety of state, public, private, and communal archives in Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, England, the United States, and Israel. It is not limited to Eastern Europe, but attempts a panoramic presentation of Jewish life in modern times; accordingly, it is divided (rather unevenly) into four sections: East European Jewry (mistitled “Ghetto and Shtetl”); West European Jewry (“The Emancipated”); American Jewry (“The New World”); and pre-1939 Palestine (“The Promised Land”). A ten-page history of the Jews plus short introductions to each of the four sections (by Miriam and Lionel Kochan) complete the somewhat procrustean organization.

Aesthetically, the volume is flawless. The large-size format is pleasing, the quality of reproduction and printing is first-rate, the original values of clarity, distinctness, sharpness, and contrast have been marvelously preserved, and perhaps even enhanced in the black-and-white plates. The layout is spacious and at times even elegant, and the pictures are more varied and more interesting than those in Shulman's volume.

Hubmann, too, sees the Jews of Eastern Europe as mainly poor and pious, though they are not so wretched and depressed as Shulman's. There is a rather heavy concentration on pictures of Galician towns, many taken during World War I, and Eastern Poland by contrast is rather sparsely represented, though four plates of wooden synagogues—one exterior and three interiors—are impressive. The Jews of Eastern Europe are shown for the most part in the course of their daily pursuits—at work, in conversation, in religious study, and in the war zone. Perhaps the most interesting single photograph, from the point of view of social history, is one of a Galician family at the Seder table in 1915. There are eight at the table, which is set, as the camera reveals, according to Passover specifications: the festive cloth, the candlesticks, the ceremonial plate, the wine, the matzos, the haggadot, the dishes, and the holiday cutlery. More interesting than these, however, are the two uniformed soldiers of the Austrian Imperial Army seated at either end of the table. One wonders who they are. Family members home on furlough for the Passover holidays? Out-of-town Jews stationed in the town and invited to share in local hospitality? Like a number of other pictures in this section, this one lingers in the mind.

Yet for all the charm, interest, and character of the 60-odd pictures which make up this section, it is inadequate as a portrayal of the social diversity of the teeming Jewish community of Eastern Europe. But perhaps, indeed, such a portrayal was not intended, for Hubmann's perspective on his material seems to have been shaped entirely by one cliché of Jewish sociology: the contrast between the poor and pious Jews of Eastern Europe and the affluent, emancipated Jews of Western Europe. (The section on America, too, follows through on this basic scheme, with the pictures neatly divided between humble East European immigrants and rich German Jews). The particular dichotomy here is a very orderly one, but it is no less a stereotype than Shulman's, and perhaps even more distorting.

In any case, “The Emancipated” dominate the entire album, with two or three times as many entries as any other category. The ambiguities of this section, one might say, begin with the title itself, for it is never quite clear whether it is civic inequality or Judaism from which these Jews have been emancipated; the inclusion of a number of converts from Judaism only adds to the puzzlement. Those whom Hubmann has chosen to typify as the community of Western Europe include philanthropists like Sir Moses Montefiore and Baron de Hirsch, statesmen like Benjamin Disraeli, and members of the great Jewish banking families of Central and Western Europe like Todesco, Wertheimer, Rothschild, Schey-Koromla, Péreire, Camondo, and Sassoon—to name just the most outstanding. From the world of culture and entertainment the list is even longer, and contains in addition to Jews a good number of ex-Jews and at least one bona-fide Gentile—Johann Strauss the Younger, a non-Jew even according to the Nuremberg Laws. Interspersed among these photographs of such stars as Gustave Mahler and Arthur Schnitzler, Arnold Schoenberg and Sarah Bernhardt, Marc Chagall and Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein and Ernst Lubitsch, are also a few run-of-the-mill assimilated German Jews as well as a scattering of lower-class Prague Jews and hasidim living in Vienna's Leopoldstadt—included, one cannot but feel, to point a contrast to the luminaries.

Shulman shows us the Jews as poor and downtrodden; Hubmann, as prosperous and triumphant. Both volumes distort reality in one way or another. Are we to conclude that picture books simply cannot render the institutions, values, traditions, and culture of the Jewish community? Are these simply too elusive to be captured by the eye of the camera?


A third work, Jerusalem of Lithuania,4 a beautiful photographic history of Jewish Vilna, demonstrates that an authentic Jewish pictorial history is indeed possible, though this particular one was twenty-five years in preparation, required the services of dozens of devoted volunteers in addition to the editor, Vilna-born Leyzer Ran, and takes up three massive volumes. There have been hundreds of yizkor (remembrance) books to memorialize communities which perished in the Holocaust, but none to equal the present work in scope and profusion of detail, extending as it does from the earliest settlement for which visual documentation was available, to the final extinction of the Vilna Jewish community. Volumes I and II—folio-size and bound in red cloth—contain over 3,000 reproductions of photographs, paintings, illustrations, documents, maps, and tables, a selection garnered from communal and private collections all over the world. Volume III, octavo and paperbound, contains indices to 1,500 subjects and 4,000 persons, an exhaustive multilingual bibliography on the history of Jewish Vilna, and a listing of picture sources. The several introductory essays and all of the captions are in Yiddish, Russian, English, and Hebrew.

The Vilna immortalized here occupied a unique position among Jewish cities. Though lacking the energy and bustle of Warsaw, Odessa's cosmopolitanism, Lodz's enterprise, or Cracow's elegance, it was indeed—as Napoleon is supposed to have exclaimed on first seeing Vilna's Great Synagogue in 1812—the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” With a Jewish population in the 19th century that fluctuated between sixty and one-hundred thousand—comprising about a third of the total population—Vilna was a center, and often a pioneering outpost, of every major Jewish cultural and social movement. It was the home of the most celebrated Talmudist of modern times, Elijah ben Solomon (the Vilna Gaon), and hence the most authoritative locus of rabbinic Judaism. It was the cultural seat of the Haskalah and of the revival of Hebrew literature, and was also home to the proto-Zionist movement, Hovevei Zion (“Lovers of Zion”). The Jewish socialist movement was born in Vilna and the Jewish Labor Bund held its founding conference there in 1897. The Romm Hebrew printing and publishing house, whose editions of the Talmud were renowned throughout the world, flourished in Vilna for 150 years, and the fame of Vilna's yeshivot matched the repute of its secular Hebrew and Yiddish teachers' seminaries. Along with all this went a great profusion of newspapers, magazines, and journals of every conceivable kind, most of them in Yiddish, for Yiddish was the language of Jewish Vilna, both of its marketplace and of its high literary and scholarly culture.

Small wonder, then, that the story of this city should have taken so many pages to tell. The first volume of Jerusalem of Lithuania opens with reproductions of 15th-century documents and of a 1606 woodcut showing Vilna's main Jewish street and synagogue. The second volume closes with photographs of the destruction of Vilna Jewry and of the war-crimes trials of the Germans responsible for that destruction. Between the spare beginning and the irreversible end, the editor and his colleagues have given us a stunning profusion of pictures in which every facet of Lithuanian Jerusalem is captured and preserved.

Is the reader interested in Vilna's political life? An 1869 photograph shows ten members of a Vilna Jewish commission appointed by the Czarist government and headed by Vilna's eminent Chief Rabbi, Jacob Barit; a 1906 photograph shows the Jewish electors for the first Russian Duma; and there is a whole series of individual and group portraits of Vilna's representatives in the Sejm, the city council, and the Kehilla, as well as of the leaders and members of Vilna's countless political movements, caught in turbulent street demonstrations, with flags and banners aloft, or stiffly posed before the camera.

Is the reader interested in Vilna's communal institutions? There is a fascinating series of pictures of an old-age home, with its residents in both formal and informal poses, and another series on communal health facilities, ranging from the traditional bath house and the hevrat bikur holim (society to visit the sick) to the most modern of hospitals and clinics. My own favorite, in the section on philanthropic activities and societies, is a marvelously detailed portrait of one Deborah Esther Gelfer (1817-1907), a charitable dowager, obviously ill-at-ease before the camera, who sits clutching the tie-string bag from which she habitually doled out gifts and loans to the needy. (A later photograph, posed before her rather ostentatious gravestone, shows a man reciting the prayer for the dead to an assemblage of heavily shawled women—perhaps Madame Gelfer's beneficiaries, feeling the pinch of her demise.)

So far as Vilna's economic life is concerned, there are copious illustrations of street trade and town markets and examples of mercantile enterprise ranging from second-hand dealers to Zalkind's sumptuous department store. The water-carriers and wood-cutters of shtetl mythology are here, but so also are the tailors, carpenters, glaziers, smiths, painters, upholsterers, porters and drivers, tanners, mechanics, bookbinders, bakers and brewers, as well as men at work on lumber rafts, in plywood factories, and in pulp mills. A 1913 photograph of a Vilna beggar out-beggars all the wretched Jews in Shulman's collection, and contrasts with the complacent portraits of Jewish factory owners and members of manufacturers' associations. (An accompanying table informs us that two-thirds of Vilna's industrial enterprises and 60 per cent of its comercial businesses were Jewish-owned.)

Finally, there is Vilna's academic and cultural life, with an array of photographs of yeshivot and secular schools, of children in the classroom and at play, of athletic contests and scholarly activities all the way from kindergarten to gymnasium; Vilna's cultural elite are also pictured here—its scholars and intellectuals, poets, journalists, cantors, composers conductors, musicians, opera stars, child prodigies, dancers, actors (the famed Vilna Troupe), painters, and sculptors.

All of Jewish Vilna, in short, is in these pages, and also everyone of note who ever visited the city: there is a splendid photograph of Theodor Herzl seated in a droshky, with the driver standing at attention like a royal guardsman, and there are pictures of such other distinguished visitors as the Zionist leaders Nahum Sokolow and Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Yiddish classicists Mendele, Sholem Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz, the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, the historian Simon Dubnow, and the novelist Sholem Asch.

Turning the pages of Jerusalem of Lithuania one has the illusion of looking through a kaleidoscope, or watching a kind of slow-motion film. But then one comes, perforce, to the last section—the war, the German occupation, the ghetto, the killings, and the killers. One cannot go on turning these pages, so one goes back, to an earlier place, to a point where the 60,000 Jews of Vilna were still alive, and starts all over again from there.

The Jews of Vilna are gone now, missing from its pictured streets, “. . . pressing their vacancy/ Against the walls . . .” as Irving Feldman puts it in his haunting poem, “To the Six Million.” But in Jerusalem of Lithuania Mr. Ran has given them a ghostly reincarnation, a life eternal in pictorial history. In place of the mere nostalgia which The Old Country and The Jewish Family Album are designed to invoke, we have here the true gift of historical remembrance.



1 A stunning photograph of Jacob Gesundheit comes to mind, taken in 1870, when he became rabbi of Warsaw. The rabbi, in a long satin robe with a velvet head covering, sits on an ornate and finely carved high-backed armchair, upholstered in deep plush. He is posed, pen in hand, at a table with a splendidly embroidered damask cloth; several tomes, seforim, are at his elbow. It is a photograph that bespeaks the status and prestige of Warsaw’s chief rabbi and does honor to the Jewish community.

2 Scribners, 210 pp., $12.95.

3 Little, Brown and Company, 318 pp., $24.95.

4 Privately published by the Vilna Album Committee, New York, 1974; 3 vols., 540 + 470 pp. + Index, $40.00. Available by mail from the publisher at 34-40 93rd Street. Jackson Heights, New York, 11372.


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