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Out of Focus

Curator Maya Benton discusses how the image of shtetl life we’ve gotten from Roman Vishniac is a distortion not only of life in the Old World but of the photographer’s own oeuvre

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Roman Vishniac. copyright Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy the International Center of Photography

Girl in plaid dress, Mukacevo, ca. 1935–38. Unpublished.
CREDIT: Roman Vishniac. © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy the International Center of Photography

In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, I profile the work of a young curator named Maya Benton, who has made an extraordinary discovery in the collection of legendary photographer Roman Vishniac, the man credited with creating the last photographic record of Eastern European Jewry before it was destroyed in the Holocaust. As Benton learned, Vishniac released for public consumption only a small selection of the images he took—primarily those that advanced a nostalgic impression of prewar Eastern European Jewish life as “abjectly poor in its material condition, and in its spiritual condition, exaltedly religious,” according to the flap copy of his first book. In this narrated slideshow, Benton walks us through a handful of her favorite Vishniac pictures, revealing how his curating job not only skewed our understanding of this lost world, but also limited the public recognition of Vishniac’s own vast talents.

Vishniac was, in fact, part of what might be characterized as the unwitting, well-intentioned nostalgia industry of the postwar decades—one including but not limited to Abraham Joshua Heschel, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Margaret Mead and her team, Leo Rosten, the editorial staff of Mad Magazine, countless museums, communal leaders, synagogue and organizational staffs, and generations of parents who exhorted their children to revere what has turned out to be a patronizingly provincial notion of prewar Jewish life. In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, this manufactured idea of the “shtetl” may have aided in the unavoidable, overwhelming grieving process. But 60 years later—with countless memorials, annual programs, school curricula, books, films, musicals, a federally mandated Holocaust museum in the nation’s capital, and more—do we still need to rely on a caricature in order to be able to commemorate? If anything, the victims of the lost world of Eastern European Jewry deserve to be remembered in the fullness of the life they led.

So, why won’t contemporary Jews give up the “shtetl” fantasy? Have we become nostalgia addicts?

“Many American Jews don’t want to change their perception of the shtetl,” Eddy Portnoy, who teaches Yiddish literature and culture at Rutgers, told me. “The distinction between them and their grandparents—naïve, uneducated, unsophisticated—is still what makes them feel modern.” Ah, the irony: By misrepresenting our ancestors as backward and unsophisticated, American Jews have managed to create communities that are less Jewishly diverse—and consequently, in some real ways, less sophisticated—than the fabled shtots and dorfs and shtetls of Eastern Europe. Indeed, many who have tried to engage creatively with Jewish tradition have found themselves strangled by the obsession with a misremembered past. “Often when I play in synagogues or Jewish Community Centers, or at functions like weddings, the music is there to act as a signifier of Shtetl Judaism,” said Ben Holmes, a trumpet player with several years of experience in the klezmer world. “There’s a huge temptation to take the easy path and go straight for nostalgia, and relatively little incentive to try to create something new.” In some ways, nostalgia has become an artificial opiate, one preventing the American Jewish body from naturally producing the kind of vital new culture necessary for its survival.

Given the robust organization of the Jewish philanthropic world, it is worth noting that the International Center of Photography, which is acquiring the collection, has struggled to fundraise for the Vishniac project. (The primary gift thus far has been from one of its own trustees, Andrew Lewin, who stepped up to the plate with a donation that he intended as an endowment; it has already been dipped into for operational costs.) As a result, it will be at least another year and a half before ICP has a publicly accessible archive, which is the necessary first step to putting together an exhibition and then book-length catalogue of Vishniac’s best published and unpublished work. This delay isn’t just a pity; it is an embarrassment—and a challenge. The Vishniac archive is indeed, as I wrote, a litmus test of the future of Jews in America: Are we ready to give up our shtetl nostalgia, in exchange for something more real?

Click here to view slideshow with audio commentary.

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Roberta Rosenberg says:

My maternal grandmother’s family lived in Mukacevo for many generations. They were solidly middle-class, financially comfortable even during the depression, pious but modern in thinking. My father was sent to the secular, German-sponsored ‘gymnasium’ rather than the cheder because my grandmother was determined that my dad receive the best education possible. My father and grandmother left in 1937 to join my grandfather in the US. He, ironically, was living the “shtetl” life with his sewing machine, making ties in his airless apartment in the Lower East Side of NY. The only nostalgia my grandmother and father had for Europe was a memory of comfort and family left behind.

Ruth Gutmann says:

The story was that Roman Vishniac went to Poland and other centers of Jewish life in the area because he feared that unless he undertook to document their lives, knowledge (and even understanding?) of them would be lost forever to later generations. Thus I would not call these moving depictions “a distortion” of Eastern Jewish lives or equally questionable, of his oeuvre. These were true lives he chose to document. You could ask why he found the assimilated, middle class,Jews of Warsaw or Lodz, that he will have encountered as well less interesting? I can think of several reasons, and am fairly sure your
readers can too.

Regarding “Are we ready to give up our shtetl nostalgia, in exchange for something more real?” -

I think this is a false choice. We do not need to trade one idea of the shtetl for another. We can feel connected to the more exotic shtetl archetype, while also expanding our understanding of the reality that surrounded it. This will make the connection fuller and deeper.

Perhaps now that our lives are so much more different than ALL Jews in that time and place (and not just the poor ones), we are beginning to find exotic interest in what was once looked at as banal and boring. I do not see a conspiracy to distort reality here. Just an artistically driven decision to show what was more interesting to audiences at the time.

Bryna Weiss says:

I don’t understand the curator’s complaint. These wonderful pictures are no less real and no less true. These were pictures of one kind of Jewish life at that time and in that place.

Fran Trachtenberg says:

A photographer’s job is not complete until he prints his images. A negative is only one small step in the process that also include: identifying a subject; aiming the camera; shooting the image; developing it; printing it. Cropping is another step, as is setting an exposure, deciding what paper and processes to use. Cropping can make the image better, not worse. Selection is key – less is more as the art history world so often hears. Yes, a bustling scene appears more like an image in motion but perhaps that wasn’t the photographer’s primary goal. Seeing additional images – rough ones that they are – is another window into the artist’s vision but not necessarily the one he selected to present to the viewers.

I don’t think it is a distortion… I think he was sent to document life for the JDC. Perhaps they wanted images of poverty to support their fundraising mission. It seems only natural that if I am shooting for Vogue, I will shoot wealth and opulence, and if I am shooting for a charity, the Red Cross, Save the Children, etc., I will focus more on anguish. But I will defintely read the NYT Magazine peice and see the show to learn more. (~ Larry, MyJewishBooks.com)

Mel Tillman says:

Roman Vishniac was a customer of mine in an electronics store (Sound City) that my brother I owned in Midtown Manhattan. I met him few weeks after I accompanied one of my daughter’s Hebrew School Classes to the Jewish Museum, this was around 1980. There was an exhibit of Vishniac’s pictures and they greatly impressed me. I talked to him for quite a while and got the feeling he was prouder of his astronomy than his photography. He appeared to be a genuinely nice guy and I greatly admired him.
A few years later Leo Rosten came into the store and waited on him as well,
my Brother and I were both Yiddish speakers and we must have talked, joke and laughed for about an hour. It was memorable.
Fast forward a few years and my Synagogue hosted a book talk by one of Rosten’s daughters, I forget which one. She edited the Joys of Yiddish and I had nice conversation with her as well. Her mother was not Jewish, but she chose to convert. The daughter told us that her mother’s (Rosten’s wife)
family had come to America on the boat that followed the Mayflower. The connection between Leo Rosten and Margaret Mead was that they were Brother-in-Law and Sister-in-Law. Rosten’s wife was Margaret Mead’s sister.

Sunny says:

Ruth – the photos are a distortion because Vishniac outright lied about almost every aspect of his project. He claimed he was inspired on his own to do this, but actually he was paid by the Joint Distribution Committee. He claimed he used a hidden camera, but that wasn’t true either. And finally, he made up lots and lots of the “stories” behind the photos, like the girl who stayed in bed all winter because she had no shoes (she did have shoes, it turned out) or the father who was hiding and his son who was warning him – not father and son, not hiding, and not even taken in the same town. It’s a deliberately manipulated, distorted picture of what Jewish lives were like before the war. We don’t know what he found more or less compelling, but we do know that he chose not to publish certain types of images. That’s a lie, last I checked.

Perhaps you should ask yourself why you’re reacting with such hostility about assimilated Jews in pre-War Europe? They were Jews too (just ask Hitler, if you have any doubts). Your attitude exactly reinforces the types of nostalgia and lies perpetuated by people like Vishniac and takes away the dignity and free will of Jews pre-Holocaust to have made their own decisions about the types of lives (ie. assimilated or not) they wanted to live.

I’m disappointed about this new information about Vishniac, but also excited to see the extent of Jewish life in Europe. So refreshing!

Josh R. says:

Big ups Sunny, and big ups Tablet…I can’t believe this is in the Times Magazine!

Andrew says:

I actually produced/directed a PBS film on this subject called A YIDDISH WORLD REMEMBERED. SO here is my 2 cents. Ruth Gutman’s comment is accurate. There is a common effort today to minimize the role and magnitude of shtetl life for one reason or another and I think to play into this too much this misses the point of Vishniac’s work. The fact is, while urban, assimilated jews always did exist, their percentages increased in multiples at the end of the 19th century. The shtetl and small town life began to decline in -population-, but before then it, along with the Yiddish language was two of the most defining elements of E. European Jewry. As Jews became more sophisticated and urban and left the villages, and the use of Yiddish began to slowly decline in this large urban areas, the notion of the shtetl was seen ergo, as a place they wanted to get away from in reality and in self-definition. Many urban Jews saw themselves as a step ahead of those living in the villages. If one limits their view of that world to the 25 or so year period between the wars then there is much logic to what the writer asserts, but Vishniac, whether her was a liar or not, captured a singular, all encompassing way of life that had been going on for several centuries. It is notewrothy, that Vishniac calls his main book “A Vanished World” because his images point to a “world” i.e. the shtetl life, that is now gone. Of course the deaths of our ancestors in big cities is horrid and tragic, but in such cases the loss from cities was much more of loss of human life, than a concurrent loss of a way of life that had never existed before, nor has existed since. This is not to minimize or compare the loss of any human life in any way, it is merely to point out the added dimension of cultural and historical loss associated with the destruction of the shtetls and similar places. A loss Vishniac has captured beautifully.

FABIAN NATANOWICZ says:

VISHNIAC WORK IS A MAGNIFICENT REMINDER OF A LOST WORLD AT THE HANDS OF MORBID FANATICS OVER 75 YEARS NOW. OUR ACTUAL YOUNG GENERATIONS SHOULD VERY WELL LEARN OF THE EXISTANCE OF THOSE EASTERN EUROPEAN COMUNITIES WHERE MOST OF OUR FATHERS WERE BORN AND WERE WIPED OUT,BURNED AND HORRIBLY MURDERED AND DESTROYED.IN OUR PRESENT DAYS,WHEN WE STILL HEAR THE DENIAL OF THE EXISTANCE OF THE HOLOCAUST BY SEVERAL MUSLIM FANATICS,AND SEVERAL ANTI-SEMITIC WORDS ALL AROUND THE WORLD,THE VATICAN INCLUDED,WE SHOULD THIS TIME BE VERY CAREFULL OF A COME-BACK PROPAGANDA WHICH SUCESUFULLY DESTROYED THIS JEWISH MISTICISM IN OUR GRANDFATHERS WORLD.

Hannah Rossiter says:

While I agree the pictures are important in that they show a world that is lost. In personal experience of the New zealand Jewish community is of a community that does not accept diversity very well. Like the article mentions they want a community that is the same.

Tamar says:

Why “assassinated” a Nazi? Nazi or not – murder is murder.

billie says:

My mother was from Iasi (a big city)Romania and told me of her family’s life of poverty and the endless anti-Semitic incidents. My father was from Neja (sp?) Russia, but died when I was a little girl so I know nothing of how his family lived although since they came to the US at the turn of the 20th century, I suspect they were, like my mother’s family, escaping poverty and anti-Semitism. My mother and father-in-law left the shtetl of Krinik, Poland right before the Holocaust for Cuba; except for one of my mother-in-law’s sisters who also left for Cuba, their entire family perished in Treblinka. So when I look at Vishniac’s photos, they do not so much evoke a feeling of nostalgia as one of heartbreak when I think of how those communities, poor or not, became the victims of the ultimate pogrom and were erased from the face of the earth. And may I say that I also met highly educated middle class Jews who were smart enough to leave on time because they understood what was going to happen. In a word, there is no need to make distinctions between the 2 communities. Those who left survived, those who stayed, except for a precious few, did not.

Eugen Schoenfeld says:

A comment to Ms. Rosenberg. Between 1918 -37 (one year before Mukacevo or Munkacs was transfered to Hungary there wans’t a German Gymnasium there. There were only three Gymnasiums – the Czech, Russian and the Hebrew Gymnasiun. The latter was a zionist school established by a goup of seven that included my father Henryk Schoenfeld. Hungarian and the German schools were limited to Polgary – a Citizen School that ended with eight grades. In my book “My Reconstructed Life” I discuss the various Jewish sects in Munkacs. There were the Chassidik sects: The Belzer, the Szatmarer, and of course the Munkacser chassidim with a number of others. There were the modern orthodox who attended the shul and many non chassidik ultra orthodox who attended the Beth Hamidrash. THere were a few yiddishest – who each year brought the yiddish theater. The fastest growing group were the zionist: The Shomer Hatzair (socialist) the Mizrachi or Torah V’avodah orthodox zionist and of course the followers of Zsabotinski the Betar the revisinist. I had the privilege to meet Z’ev Zsabotinski in about 1934 when he visited Munkacs. Of course there were the assimilationists, most of them were committed to od Hungary prior to 1918. By 1938 when the Hungarians took over shtetl life as depicted by Medele, Fichman etc. was in its nadir.

Cynthia says:

The author found a way to get into the NY Times – take down Vishniac and his much-admired work in recording the vanished Jewish world in Europe. She is guilty of the very distortion of which she accuses Vishniac. Vishniac DID NOT say that the famous Sara in front of the painted flowers lacked shoes; rather, she lacked heat. “Caption 42: Since the basement had no heat, Sara had to stay in bed all winter. Her father painted the flowers for her, the only flowers of her childhood.” Staying under the blankets in a cold apartment sounds reasonable to me. There is a different girl in Vishniac’s book who has no shoes, and she is in photograph 19. Will there now be a new expose showing that girl, too, with shoes? And Sara standing in front of a shiny new furnace?

I am afraid that there are still too many Jews who do not want to be confronted with the reality of Jewish life in Europe before the war. These people miss the entire point of Vishniac’s work, which was to cover the threatened Jews of Europe, who were overwhelmingly pious and poor. My father was one of those poor, religious Jews from Warsaw who lived in a basement apartment, went to cheder, and, yes, had to spend a winter without shoes and only rags in which to wrap his feet. I am grateful to Vishniac to having preserved a record of that vanished world.

Patty says:

My parents were 1st generation Jews whose parents were from an area in
Belarus. Most of the first generation of Jews of Detroit and the surrounding area spoke fluent Yiddish, as did most of the parents of my friends from New York. I’m assuming that is true of many place in America. They were religious, they founded a conservative synagogue, but not orthodox, well off, but not rich, and cosmopolitan. They were not a “rarity.” They were the norm. My mother translated from Yiddish to English for old people in the hospital. Ms.Newhouse’s research has some basic flaws.

This article gives me a newfound appreciation of Vishniac as a photographer. All photography, like art, is intentional. To have the intention clarified, as it is here (and in the NYT article), provides context and greatly illuminates his work. The photos and commentary have made me see Vishniac as a far more interesting and complex artist and photographer — a man very much both of and ahead of his time. Both the man and the times he captured are broadened and deepened. I look forward to the exhibit. Thanks!

The Art of Blogging says:

Patty, you are an idiot. It’s one thing to misunderstand Ms. Newhouse’s words (clearly, you are not that bright), but quite another to surmise from your misreading that her research ‘has some basic flaws.’ Her point is that it is a rarity, indeed, for someone in her early 30s, as is the curator to whom she refers, who is also a first generation American Jew and secular Yiddish speaker. I doubt that your parents are in their 30s – that is the rarity to which she refers. Perhaps you might try a more careful read before you accuse a writer of flawed research?

Anna says:

What a wonderful story! A beautifully written piece that actually made me relieved, because it lifted some of the unreal, theatrical quality from these photographs, and made them an accurate and insightful depiction of a portion of Jewish life in the shtetl. These photographs, together with parts of Alana Newhouse’s article should have made it to the Viennese Kunsthaus Wien exhibit currently going on, which is entitled “Controversies: Law, Ethics and Photography” which focuses, in part, on photographs that have become symbols of something that they were not originally meant to portray.

Thank you Alana for a very insightful article.

Simon says:

It is so common to rewrite history to make one feel better, but the reality is the reality…there were many shtetels and life as represented did exist…my family was from Warsaw and did not live as in the book, but the reality is that for many people this was their world. It seems that some people just don’t feel comfortable to have to admit that their family was “not the upper crust” and actually lived that way. To them I would say, be proud that they held on to their Yiddishkeyt. Maybe Ms. Newhouse is one of those Jews proudly says, “I don’t believe in the religion, only the culture”. Hey Lady, without that religion, there would be no culture.
Get a hobby.

Cynthia says:

In contrast to Simon, my father and his family in Warsaw lived exactly the life depicted by Vishniac. They were poor, religious, and lived in a basement apartment. The scenes, the people, the clothing, the work they did are all exactly as my father described them. I am grateful that Vishniac recorded their lives, for they did not have the means to pay for photographs themselves. And, to clear up a misconception, these people did NOT live in a shtetl. Most of the photographs in “A Vanished World” are of the Jewish communities in major cities such as Warsaw, Krakow and Lodz. Vishniac recorded how these city Jews lived, and the reality that most of them were quite poor. That is what I found galling about Newhouse’s article: that Vishniac had focused on shtetl Jews, and not on the urban dwellers. She doesn’t like the reality that this is how Jews lived in the big cities, as well.

I once came upon a set of old Yiddish films that were filmed in the communities of pre-war Poland and excitedly told my father that we should watch them together. “I don’t want to see them,” he said. “I don’t want to be reminded of how poor we were.”

Lilka says:

In 2007, I co-organized an exhibit of photographs of Pre-War Jewish life in Poland at NY Yeshiva University Museum – see NYT review:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/28/arts/design/28yesh.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=%22the%20things%20they%20left%20behind%22&st=cse

The photographs, dating from the end of the 19th century until the Holocaust, showed the diversity of Jewih life in Poland and came from original photographas saved by Polish neighbours of Jewish families and Jews themselves. These depicted the “urban” Jewsh who had access to photographers and a lot of shtetl Jews who, most likely, did not go to a photographer but were photographed by others who like Vishniac were on a mission to capture their life. Nevertheless, you can see a lot of poverty and hardship – shoes or no shoes. These are also the impressions of our parents who grew up in Polish shtetls. Ms. Benton’s “dicovery” is trivializing the historical value of Vishniac’s work and his contribution to our understanding and remembering the lost world of Eastern European Jewry.

i think this piece shows that vishniac was a BETTER photographer than his own myth-making and narrative-creation would suggest. maya benton’s audio commentary is fascinating — well worth listening to. (the explanations of how he used cropping and framing as a storytelling tool, and why the pictures of the haberdashery shop and laborers are interesting, are terrific. i have the suspicion that some commenters are responding to the IDEA of this story without even having pressed “play.”) why, exactly, is it bad to acknowledge that vishniac took a much wider range of pictures than the shtetl-fetishy slice we’ve previously seen? and why are we so invested in showing only a tiny slice of what jewish life in eastern europe was like?

Jane says:

Mazel Tov on a great article. It was really fascinating. Your article
combined history, art and culture in one fascinating piece.

Verificationist says:

There is some pretty sloppy and tendentious arguing going on here. The NYTM article doesn’t claim that there were NO poor or pious Jews. It claims that these many poor and pious Jews lived in closer proximity to wealthy, secular, and cosmopolitan Jews than Vishniac’s images would have you believe. Whether he engaged in a deliberate campaign of misrepresentation is anyone’s guess. It’s just as likely that he cropped images and falsified captions merely to encourage fund-raising. (And he did falsify, people — how much more proof do you need than the simple fact that he spliced together a boy and father from two different towns and invented the fact that they were about to come under assault?)
Tragically, the Holocaust made these images final, assigning Vishniac’s falsifications a consequence he didn’t necessarily intend.

Just like a bunch of Jews to have a Talmudic argument about all the nuances of did-he-or-didn’t-he. But there is a larger point, a much larger point, one I care about a whole lot more in the present day (and please refrain from evaluating me for adequate piety toward the victims — my maternal grandmother lost her whole family in the Holocaust, and I am writing a book about her. Good enough?). That larger question is what it means to be Jewish today. And for me, a 31-year-old emigre from the former Soviet Union who grew up essentially an atheist and, after being removed from his homeland at a young age, has been yearning to rediscover a sense of community, it is utterly DEPRESSING how many people derive their Jewish identity predominantly from empty-headed and mechanical nostalgia. It chokes the vibrancy out of Jewish life. There has got to be more to being Jewish than winky-winky cracks about the eternal specialness of the Jews and heartrending moans about the Holocaust! The Jews ARE special, and the Holocaust WAS a tragedy, but there has got to be more! (I assume you can accept that I’m able to mourn the Holocaust and yearn for a more diverse definition of Jewish life all at the same time.)

The things that Vishniac concealed are things that actually made me excited to think about being Jewish for a change: Cosmopolitanism, instead of the insularity of so many Jewish — especially religious — communities; diversity (I want to see my fellow Jews of Kiryas Joel welcome me into their fold); open-mindedness. Maybe I am imagining that last one, projecting into the images. But I would kill to see one thread on this site where someone doesn’t jump down someone else’s throat for not being sufficiently reverent, and refrains from launching into stupid, gratuitous attacks like “Get a hobby.”

There are different ways to revere, people. It’s pathetic if the only way you can get your fix of ethnic self-worth is by putting down the inadequate piety of others. To ask for a more vibrant Judaism today — a Judaism that draws as much from the future as it does from a pathological focus on victimhood and a rosy-eyed notion of history (those poor, poor saintly Jews) — is hardly to insult the Judaism of the past.

Serge says:

Yes, I concur with many of those above. Visniac’s role was to document an aspect of Jewish life that was vanishing as Jews increasingly assimilated into European Enlightenment universalism. He did an excellent job in that role. There was nothing “nostalgic” about it — it was plain historical, and at that time, few saw much romance in it. That Ms. Newhouse confuses the part for the whole is unfortunate, although I am pleased it has helped her career so.

Richard Z. Chesnoff says:

What a mean-spirited article by Ms Newhouse!

Visniac shows the essence of pre=holocaust Jewry. The Yad VaShem exhibition, in its new format, has played down the ethnic, religious characters of the doomed multidudes. The fact that a large minority of the victims were secular, middle-class and assimilated doesn’t define their Jewishness. He was recording the life that he felt was disappearing, secularism and assimilation was surviving

Diane Rabson says:

Thanks to Alana Newhouse for the two articles about Roman Vishniac.

For some years I lectured in the Denver/Boulder area about European Jewish photographers working in the period 1933-1945. To some extent, I viewed Vishniac’s images in the context of the very popular international picture magazines of the day, such as “Life,” which so often featured photographs of Okies and white sharecroppers in dirty clothes and shoeless. The motives of the Joint (JDC), which sponsored Vishniac’s project, were certainly no more didactic than those of the U.S.Farm Security Administration in portraying the bitterness of life in the 1930‘s. And like Walker Evans and others working for the FSA, Vishniac was a street photographer. Poor people are visible; they live and work on or near the street, and their dwellings are easy enough to enter.

Vishniac’s opus was created only twenty years after S. An-sky’s brilliant ethnographic surveys in the Ukraine and Belarus. I don’t think it’s a leap of faith to believe that the poor Jewish “folk” were still seen as the authentic bearers of Jewish-ness (the “real thing”)–even a viable concept today.

Regarding religious Jews, I recently read an interesting comment by writer Raphael Scharf, quoted in Janina Struk’s “Photographing the Holocaust.” In a section about Vishniac’s work, Scharf says that before the war Orthodox Jews “did not appear to us as attractive.” I would go further and assert that view has persisted. Even after the Holocaust, for example, my own parents and grandparents derided traditional Jews as dirty, ignorant embarrassments who were too stupid to have emigrated. Many in their community shared this opinion. At the same time, my secular grandfather kept a copy of “Polish Jews” in his bookcase and perused it regularly.

I believe shtetl nostalgia is complex and deeply ambivalent, much like the Yiddish language, which is simultaneously maligned, appreciated for its humor, and deprived of its well-deserved place in the history of the Jewish people. I heartily agree that the time has come for a comprehensive look at Jewish life in der alter heym in all its stratification and diversity. The many yizkor books written after the war, for example, offer a different picture of Jewish life, even when written through mainly Zionist eyes.

And while I am troubled by Vishniac’s distortions, I continue to see him as a great portraitist and photographer who offered insight into a fearfully deteriorating situation for Jews, especially in urban Poland. His Warsaw porters shlepping wagons of goods will evolve a few years later into Mendel Grossman’s porters of the Lodz Ghetto, hauling their horrific cargo of human excrement.

I look forward to the opening of the archival record and the new revelations offered by the unpublished work.

ilana says:

Just curious, why is A.B. Heschel included in the group of people who were part of “well-intentioned nostalgia industry of the postwar decades”?

I’m currently doing research into the Soviet-Jewish immigration of the 1970s and 80s (before the collapse of communism), and frankly, I’m excited by what Benton’s research indicates about Jewish diversity in pre-war Europe.

Like many Jews in North America (in my case, coming here from the ex-USSR as a baby), I grew up flipping through the pages of Vanished World, hungrily memorizing every detail. It’s hard not to feel a sting reading about Vishniac’s manipulations. But I’m surprised and troubled by the hostility towards Benton for simply telling the truth. It seems there’s a lot of fear about any slight ripple in the fabric of our history. Her findings simply expand our understanding of Jewish life, they don’t negate or undermine it.

The fallout of our attachment to these images and what they represent is still affecting people today, as Verificationist so rightly points out. I, for one, think this is a positive step forward.

I wrote a blog post discussing the gap between our perceptions of Jewish life and the realities, and how it relates to Soviet Jews on my site. If anyone is interested, it’s at http://leazeltserman.com/2010/04/vishniac/.

Kudos to Alana Newhouse for a fascinating story. Beautifully written, sensitively and meticulously reported.

A truly memorable piece of important cultural journalism.

As a professional photographer myself, one who has photographed internationally in very impoverished conditions, none of these new revelations about Roman Vishniac takes anything away from my esteem of his powerful and impactful image making abilities. Cropping and editing are normal tools that photographers use to make a statement. ( I feel that Vishniac’s cropping of the image on the cover of a Vanishing World was masterful and much more powerful than the entire image- sorry to disagree with you Maya). All of us see the world through our own restricted lenses as is evident from the above comments or simply reading the news to see how we all see the world so differently. Vishniac was capturing the essence and spirit of a certain aspect of Jewish life in pre-Holocaust Europe and in his selective editing and cropping, he created a body of iconic images that will stand the test of time despite all these revelations which relate mostly to the historical accuracy of the entire Jewish cultures that existed. Obviously, Vishniac was interested in creating a vision of the shtetl life and not of the other aspects of Jewish society. I am not an historian but it would be interesting to know what percentage of Jews were poor- I grew up on the Lower East Side in NY in the late 40′s and 50′s and I believe most of those people who lived there- and there were many- came from shtetls. I for one had never any romantic notion of shtetl life and personally I am glad to hear that there was a full rich and vibrant Jewish life outside the shtetl. Seeing more of the full body of Vishniac’s work only enhances my respect for him- comments about his lack of honesty are pointless. He had a vision he was expressing and sometimes a tightly cropped image of an emotional face is far more compelling than an objective vision of an entire street scene.

georgiana goodwin says:

I just read your fascinating Times article. What a marvelous thing it is to see these images. I do not feel qualified to question the choices Vishniac made concerning what to release. However tempting it might be to criticize his slant, or his captioning. (My father was there at the same time and he spoke of hidden night clubs where the more affluent Jews gathered to be themselves and try to push away their fear and horror of what was happening.)

It is just wonderful that we now have these previously unseen pieces of history. I am very moved. From a strictly visual point of view I do think the uncropped version of the image on the cover of A Vanishing World is more powerful. The boy in the center just sparkles with liveliness, as do the surrounding children. It is also interesting to note that the child to the right of the boy in the center was “dodged” in the darkroom to appear much paler than in the raw image. This manipulation changes the sense of depth. I cannot wait to see more of these.

David Margolick says:

I’m surprised that in the discussion of Alana Newhouse’s excellent piece, no one has mentioned the book (and the documentary) ‘Image Before My Eyes,’ done by my late friend and mentor Lucjan Dobroszycki and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. What was most striking about that book was how it documented precisely how varied Jewish life in pre-war Poland was, ranging from the shtetl and cheder to highly sophisticated political and cultural associations in the cities. It’s an illustration that not everyone bought into the nostalgia to which Newhouse refers: that all of Eastern European Jewry was something out of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ I’d offer one more reason why that vision has proven so tempting (and an explanation for why ‘Image Before My Eyes’ is so devastating): so long as we reduce the murdered Jews of Europe to impoverished, rural figures, we urban ‘sophisticates’ feel at a certain remove from them. It’s only when we realize how many of the murdered millions were people exactly like us that another dimension of the incalculable horror (and loss) emerges. It’s something not everyone wants to confront. (The same is true for the kind of film that was used to document the Holocaust. As long as it’s black and white, it seems like ancient history, which is why the color photographs from the Lodz Ghetto, in which the yellow stars are actually yellow, are uniquely upsetting.)

4/19/10 @ 3:40 pm
Fascinating photo’s by a great photographer, and a very interesting commentary on them. I’m surprised about two ommissions – the 11th photo which is of a street vendor, or perhaps a vendor’s helper, is notable because of all the herring on display, but is contrasted by Vishniac with the boy’s tattered sleeves (at the elbow). These images are of people (urban-dwellers?), and we don’t see any images of the shtetl, or it’s drabness or not, as we might expect.

Why is it that Jews seem to have this enormous compulsion to examine, analyze, argue about, attack/defend just about everything relating, in any degree, to their own identity? The Vishniak images should be accepted for their beauty and poignant charm, and appreciated as such.
Whether they are historically totally valid is really of secondary importance. But I for one will not forget those faces from the past.

rina castelnuovo says:

Sara’s shoes- No, she probably owned no winter boots made for walking the knee- high deep snow in a freezing Polish winter.

Curator can notice that those light pair of shoes the child is wearing in the image she made available to the NYTimes magazine are not a proof that Vishniac was misleading in introducing Sara.

Those were not roads like 5th Ave. Dear Maya , I’m sharing your enthusiasm about bringing to light the work Vishniac chose not to make available in his lifetime.

Like Chagall, the vanished world of the shteitls was Vishniac personal nostalgia and his legacy. I believe he wouldn’t mind you now publishing other parts of his work or he would have destroyed it but there is no conspiracy here just misunderstandings. There are images around of prewar Jewish life in Eastern Europe – Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem is one – so little is available of the world Vishniac unveiled to us -

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I’d offer one more reason why that vision has proven so tempting (and an explanation for why ‘Image Before My Eyes’ is so devastating): so long as we reduce the murdered Jews of Europe to impoverished, rural figures, we urban ‘sophisticates’ feel at a certain remove from them. It’s only when we realize how many of the murdered millions were people exactly like us that another dimension of the incalculable horror (and loss) emerges. It’s something not everyone wants to confront. Those were not roads like 5th Ave. Dear Maya , I’m sharing your enthusiasm about bringing to light the work Vishniac chose not to make available in his lifetime.

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Indeed when a writing that is delivered from the heart will be pervasive, into the heart of anyone who read it. Very nice, I will always recalls the depth of meaning contained in this paper. Good Job.

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Out of Focus

Curator Maya Benton discusses how the image of shtetl life we’ve gotten from Roman Vishniac is a distortion not only of life in the Old World but of the photographer’s own oeuvre