Last updated on February 19, 2024
A few years ago, I was at a lecture on Jewish immigration where someone asked why Soviet/Russian Jewish immigrants were so smug about their academic credentials. The response? Academics was just about the only thing they had to feel good about, since, as a group, Russian-Jews were not well accepted by the established Jewish community. The lecturer went on to talk about the differences between the two communities which had led to much of this resentment, particularly their relative wealth vis-á-vis the Jewish immigrants who’d arrived from Russia several generations before. The grandparents and great-grandparents of most North American Jewry typically arrived in New York from the shtetls of the Pale of the Settlement, with little more than the clothes on their backs. They were the poorest of the poor. In contrast, Soviet Jews were urban and well-educated. They arrived in North America more inclined to take up positions in universities and laboratories than as seamstresses or peddlers.
The fictions created by the shtetl mythos also reinforced an increasingly narrow understanding of what Jewish life was like back in the Old Country. The fallout of our attachment to these images and what they represent still affects us today.
That tension stems largely from the notion that all North American Jewry hails from the impoverished shtetls of Europe – it’s a powerful and pervasive image, underpinned by films such as Fiddler on the Roof. And, thanks in no small part to a collection of photographs taken by Roman Vishniac, a Russian-American photographer famed for his efforts to document the “Vanished World” of Eastern European Jewry. Driven by a premonition that life was about to change forever for these people, Vishniac risked his own life taking photos, often with a hidden camera, eluding arrest, and so on and so forth, over a three year period. Or so went the story.
As it turns out, Vishniac’s version of pre-Holocaust Jewry exists somewhere between innocent sleight-of-hand and outright deception, depending how you want to interpret things. Newly published findings by curator Maya Benton indicate that Vishniac wasn’t quite the hero he’s been made out as. You can read all the details in the New York Times Magazine and at Tablet Magazine online, but effectively, Vishniac manipulated his images to create the narrative of the impoverished but devout shtetl life that has become the bedrock of Jewish nostalgia. He lied about the genesis of his project—he was actually sent by the Joint Distribution Committee to document Jewish poverty and poverty only, as a fundraiser, not out of any personal visionary drive. He lied about his subjects’ ignorance of his presence—Benton has discovered that many of Vishniac’s subjects were aware they were being photographed, so no hidden camera in the coat lapel. And he lied about many of the details in his photo captions, inventing traumas and hardships that didn’t exist. Given the very real and genuine hardships these people were about to face, Vishniac’s deception in this area seems particularly reprehensible, as if he has stolen what little remained of people’s dignity and lives.
Ultimately, Vishniac misled his audience about the nature of Jewish life in pre-war Eastern Europe. Benton estimates that some 95% of Vishniac’s work has never been published, including numerous images that show a more modern, better off, community. Images of empty shops were selected over those with overflowing shelves. Women with stylish ‘dos were also left on the cutting floor. And so on and so forth. Thanks to Benton’s work, what emerges is a much more dynamic and diverse vanished world.
But to start pointing fingers at Vishniac would be unfair to him—given the context of his work, it’s not surprising that the photos become the iconic images that they did. And there’s no denying that the images he chose to share were reality for many, many people. It’s hard to know whether Jewish life would have continued in that manner into this century—the disruptive force of the Holocaust (and in the USSR, of Soviet policies) was such that we don’t know what the so-called natural progression of Jewish life in Europe would have been. Perhaps it was a vanishing world regardless of the Holocaust. But it’s impossible to speculate. Under the force of such a violent rupture, the need for something concrete to hold onto, some memories and stories to salvage out of the wreck of European Jewry (and perhaps driven by North American Jewish guilt to some degree)… well, it’s no wonder that the images have so gripped the imagination, appearing relentlessly in various Jewish-themed settings, from literature to film.
But the fictions created by the shtetl mythos also reinforced an increasingly narrow understanding of what Jewish life was like back in the Old Country, creating an us and them in the process. Which brings me back to the immigration lecture, where the default assumption that Soviet immigrants be poor (like we once were) just furthered the rift between the communities, and obscured any potential for understanding how the Russian Jews of the Lower East Side in the early 20th century became the Soviet Jews of the 1970s and onward. The fallout of our attachment to these images and what they represent is still affecting people today.
Benton’s work has turned “Vishniac-ology” on its head. It’s disappointing to learn that Vishniac, whose work is still an important part, but only a part, of Jewish history in Europe, turns out to have been false and misleading. But it’s also a potent reminder that there isn’t a single inheritance or just one true cultural legacy. We tend to think people were either poor and devout and completely removed from mainstream European culture, or they were completely assimilated. But of course, just as there is now, there were all sorts of people living between those extremes. They just tend not to pull at the heartstrings quite as much. Equally amazing is that even while exposing the deceptions in Vishniac’s work, Benton has also managed to reclaim him as a truly talented photographer, even if he himself chose to share only a narrow part of his talents with the world.
So what next? Reading the reactions to the story on the Tablet magazine site, it’s clear that Benton has struck a chord. The reactions range from applause to outright hatred. For example, one commenter declared that only impoverished, pious Jews are even worthy of our attention, with the corollary assumption that anyone else could only have been an assimilated (and thus less worthy) Jew. The hostility is disturbing, and says a lot about how attached we are to the shtetl. It will be a long time before the images Vishniac bequeathed us can be seen as just one part of a larger story.
I spent hours as a child perusing my father’s copy of A Vanished World, memorizing every image as if that would somehow bring it all back. Benton’s discoveries are disappointing and a little hard to take. But at the same time, I’m excited to see how her work will help expand our understanding of Jewish life, and hopefully, lead to a better appreciation for Jewish diversity.