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The View from the World’s Last Fotoplastikon

Now showing: images of Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto

Liel Leibovitz
April 17, 2013
Fotoplastikon, Warsaw.(Flickr)
Fotoplastikon, Warsaw.(Flickr)

Inside a small, squat building in Warsaw, past a courtyard populated by stores selling gingerbread houses and other folksy trinkets, across the street from the mall and its Starbucks, lies the world last Fotoplastikon. The cinema’s elegant older uncle, this wooden device, wildly popular late in the 19th century and early in the 20th, is a large drum that spins automatically, allowing the patrons looking in through individual eyepieces to gawk at three-dimensional photos of faraway places. The patrons who crowded the small room in the 1930s would have seen snapshots of Polynesia and other exotic shores; the patrons who come there this month can see photos taken just a few blocks away, in the Jewish Ghetto, between 1940 and 1943.

As Warsaw Ghetto photographs go, those on display at the Fotoplastikon are far from the most devastating specimens. For the most part, the 48 pictures, revolving each 30 seconds or so, portray ordinary life and are thick with merchants and strolling families and other bits of the mundane. But as 1940 gives way to 1941, 1942, and 1943, they grow increasingly more haunting. Because of the machine’s antiquated build, the three-dimensional effect is far from perfect, and when photos of people give way to photos of rubble, the focus blurs and the field of vision is filled with bricks and shards of glass that seem to be suspended in midair. The effect is ghostly: the earth literally seems to drop from underneath the homes and the shops and the streets that were once dense with the world’s most vibrant Jewish community. The photos, then, have more than three dimensions, defying not only space but also time.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.