I knew my grandfather’s paintings much better than I knew the man himself. After all, I had only met my mother’s father, Moshe Vorobeichic, a few times, and I was barely a teenager at the time of our last encounter. He lived half a world away: I was growing up in Canada, and he lived in Tzfat, in northern Israel, where he had settled in 1934. But several of his paintings hung on the walls in my parents’ house. Some of them featured colorful, highly stylized Israeli landscapes; others showed scenes of traditional Jewish life. To me, they seemed to echo the style of Marc Chagall. He signed his paintings “Raviv,” the surname he adopted in the 1950s.
Moshe spent the final two-thirds of his life painting in Tzfat, where he helped to establish a thriving artists’ colony. This was the Moshe that I remember (hazy as those memories may be)—a man who earned a living selling Jewish-themed paintings to American tourists, up until his death in 1995. (In fact he was more successful than I’d realized, with clients around the world.) But I eventually discovered he was much more than a painter, and a recent visit to his hometown of Vilnius has given me a richer insight into his work—and why it matters today.
Moshe was born in a shtetl just outside Vilnius, the capital of present-day Lithuania. He took art classes at the Stefen Batory University, where his talents were quickly recognized. Soon his ambitions took him westward, into the heart of the European modernist art scene. In 1927 he enrolled at the Bauhaus school in Dessau, where he studied under Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Joseph Albers, and László Moholy-Nagy. He continued his studies in Paris, where he would have felt at home alongside other Jewish artists and intellectuals. Now focused on photography, he took classes at the Ecole Photo Ciné and pioneered novel techniques such as the photomontage, in which multiple negatives are printed onto a single sheet of photographic paper. He earned a living taking photos for magazines and designing posters for theater and cinema. In 1931 he published an avant-garde book of photographs of the French capital, simply titled Paris, under the name “Moï Ver” (a contraction of the French “Moïse” and the Russian “Verobeichic,” which could also be read as “Me-Truth”).
More than a half-century later, I, too, was becoming interested in photography: As a teenager, I took classes, read books, and became an avid 35 mm film enthusiast (only recently switching over to digital). My mother would mail photographs that I’d taken to Moshe in Tzfat. He would write back saying how much he liked them—no doubt he was biased, but I relished hearing his words of praise.
A key episode in Moshe’s life unfolded in the spring of 1929. Still in his 20s, he was living in Paris, enjoying the bohemian lifestyle of a young artist. But Vilnius beckoned, and during the Passover holidays he returned to the city of his birth. He packed his 35 mm Leica I—the camera was state-of-the-art technology at the time—and made his way eastward. Of course, he would see his parents, Shlomo and Shifra, and his younger siblings, but his eyes were drawn to the city’s old Jewish quarter, a few blocks centered on the “Jewish Street” (known today as Žydų Gatve).
Known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” Vilnius was home to a bustling Jewish community that could trace its roots back 500 years. Some were well-off, but Moshe was particularly interested in documenting the poor: the elderly Jewish men with their voluminous beards; the old women selling household goods in the street; the children in their shabby clothing. Moshe’s book of photographs, The Ghetto Lane in Wilna, was published in Zurich in 1931—the same year as Paris. (The meaning of the word “ghetto” would of course change drastically under German occupation.) Moshe’s images are among the very few that bear witness to Jewish life in the city before the war.
Last summer I visited Poland and Lithuania for the first time. I had arranged to meet with some of the curators at the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, and was thrilled to discover that they knew all about my grandfather. Afterward, I walked around the center of Vilnius, a neighborhood that was once the heart of Jewish life in the region. Moshe’s book was tucked safely in my backpack, but I had scanned some of the photos and carried a handful of 8 1/2 x 11 printouts, comparing them to the scene before me. My DSLR was in my other hand. Armed in this way, I strolled along the streets that Moshe would have walked along 90 years earlier. I wandered through busy commercial streets and quiet alleyways; I peered around cafes and under the city’s iconic arches.
I was a tourist. What was my grandfather? Was he a photojournalist? A documentarian? An artist? The novelist Salman Chnéour wrote a preface to Moshe’s Vilnius book, and clearly imagined him playing all three roles—but with an emphasis on art. “With the love of the explorer he [Vorobeichic] enlarged and underlined that which the eternally hurrying passerby scarcely notices,” Chnéour wrote. Moshe noticed not just people but the urban landscape that they occupied. “Truly the accidental and the seemingly unimportant is raised here to the level of art.” Moshe captured the “trembling shadows and joys wavering on the border-line of picturesque past and modern present.”
In my imagination, Moshe’s visit to Vilnius exists precisely on this border, this intersection of worlds. My grandfather’s universe was modern; that of his subjects
was medieval. What was going through his mind as he held the viewfinder of his Leica up to his eye, focusing on a pair of elderly Jewish men engrossed in conversation, or an old woman bent over a basket of potatoes, or a child sitting alone on a curb, hands clasped, looking down at the cobblestones? Likely, few of his subjects even knew they were being photographed, though one or two seem to smile for the camera. Several photos are taken from an elevated vantage point, where Moshe could peer down, probably unnoticed, on the scene below. In one image, a man in a dark coat and cap looks up, perhaps seeing the lens aimed at him.
There is only one thing we know for sure about the Jews in my grandfather’s photographs: Within a dozen years, virtually all of them would be dead.
In Lithuania, the Holocaust was shockingly “complete”; of a prewar Jewish population of about 210,000, as many as 195,000 were murdered. In Vilnius, some 100,000 Jews were marched to the Paneriai Forest and shot; their bodies were thrown into pits and then burned to conceal the crime. Moshe had already left Europe for Palestine when the Jews of Vilnius were slaughtered; he did not personally experience the horrors of the Holocaust. But his parents—my great-grandparents—were almost certainly among the dead at Paneriai, along with two of his siblings.
A visit to Paneriai today can be almost surreal. The area is a park; many come just to picnic. The brutalist concrete memorials erected during the Soviet era generally make no mention at all of the war’s Jewish victims (such a monument was finally erected in 1991). The pits where the mass murders took place are now covered in lush grass.
In Vilnius, meanwhile, I saw a city still struggling to come to grips with its past. Having just visited Kraków, Poland, the contrast was stark. In Vilnius, there is no equivalent of the bustling Auschwitz site, visited by more than 2 million people every year, nor anything like Kraków’s newly-revived Kazimierz neighborhood, with its Jewish restaurants, klezmer music, and (for better or worse) kitschy figurines and souvenirs. In Vilnius, nothing remains of the Great Synagogue, though Moshe’s photos show what it once looked like. (An archeological dig is now underway on the site where it once stood.) There are a few monuments and plaques, many of them only tangentially connected to the Jews and their fate. There are buildings with faded Hebrew signage, many on the verge of illegibility. There’s even a Christian church whose front steps were partially built from repurposed Jewish gravestones. (This year, the stones were finally returned to the cemetery from which they’re believed to have been taken.)
On Žydų Gatve, I tried as best I could to capture the same views that Moshe had documented 90 years earlier. In most cases, the cityscape had changed beyond recognition. Most obviously, actual Jews—North American tourists excepted—are nowhere to be found. In one case, I did at least manage to shoot the same street, from the same spot, facing the same direction, as my grandfather had—a brief and perhaps tenuous link across nine decades.
And then something remarkable happened. As I was taking photos on Žydų Gatve, along came a tour guide, a middle-aged man, with his tour group in tow; in his hand was a copy of Moshe’s photo of the very same street. There we stood, each of us holding a printout of my grandfather’s photograph of the street we were standing on, an image snapped 90 years earlier.
I explained who I was; this took a little time, because my last name isn’t Vorobeichic, it’s Falk (my father’s surname). And then he explained to his tour group who I was, and then all of a sudden they were taking photos of me, the grandson of an almost-but-not-quite-famous artist.
The encounter was over in a matter of minutes, and I wondered if I had dreamed the entire episode. (It was real; my traveling companion, Liz, had the presence of mind to take a photo of me with the tour guide.)
As the trip came to a close, I felt closer to my grandfather than ever before. And his photographs live on. More than two decades after his death, Moshe’s early photographic work is being rediscovered, largely due to the efforts of Yossi Raviv, his son from his second marriage. I was thrilled to hear that the National Gallery of Lithuania will be hosting an exhibition of his photography this winter, and that a new edition of The Ghetto Lane in Wilna is in the works.
I wish I had known Moshe better than I did—but at least I know his photographs, and have walked the streets where they came into existence. His images of Vilnius remind us that the city’s Jews were real people, and not merely numbers in a ghastly table of casualties. Moshe’s photographs gave these men, women, and children a form of immortality, a kind of permanence so very different from the erasure they experienced in the real world. And the faded signage and nearly forgotten history tell of a second erasure; as Elie Wiesel said, “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” And the painful signs of forgetting hang like a dark cloud over Vilnius, and so much of Europe.
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Dan Falk is a journalist based in Toronto. His books include The Science of Shakespeare and In Search of Time. Follow him @danfalk.