The Jewish eyes that witnessed the worst of Jewish suffering
My next selection for the Soviet-Jewish Decade Top 10 is Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust, by historian David Shneer.
It may sound strange to say about a history book, but I really loved this book. I read every page in fascination — it’s one of the few books I’ve read about Soviet-Jewish history that completely surprised me. (Another was Olga Gershenson’s book, The Phantom Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and Jewish Catastrophe, which I wrote about for Tablet in 2013.)
Through Soviet Jewish Eyes uncovers the role of Jewish photographers in the Soviet photography industry, reclaiming forgotten names, tracing the evolution of the profession and what it meant for Russian-Jews going back to the early 1900s, still confined to the Pale of the Settlement, and marking the careers of the most prominent Soviet-Jewish photojournalists. Many of us know names like Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman, but what of Evgenii Khaldei, who snapped the iconic photo of the Soviet flag over Berlin’s Reichstag?
Significantly, the book reclaims forgotten truths of World War II — both of Soviet-Jewish suffering under the Nazis, a “Holocaust by bullets” not concentration camps, which has long been overlooked, and of the Soviet role in documenting Nazi atrocities. Did you know that the first specifically Holocaust liberation photos appeared in the Soviet press as early as March 1942, from Kerch, a small Russian village occupied for just six weeks where thousands of Jews were shot by the Einzetsgruppen, a story that was to repeat across the shtetls of Soviet-Ukraine? Neither had I.
From Shneer I learned that many of the iconic Holocaust images we know were taken not by American liberating armies, but by Soviet photographers — and that nearly all of them were Jewish. The Soviets were the first to march into the ghettoes of Budapest and Warsaw; they liberated Majdanek, Sobibor, Belzec, Treblinka and Auschwitz. Jewish eyes took in what they saw and documented it all. They witnessed the Holocaust first through their cameras and then returned home to news of the same. How did it feel to photograph Jewish bodies, dead, across Europe? To have come from the Soviet Union and then to return to that world, and all that was to unfold in the years leading up to Stalin’s death — from the Doctor’s Plot to the silence around Jewish victimhood? Shneer tries to provides a response.
Hauntingly, those responses echo the experiences of many of our grandparents, who fought in the Red Army and liberated Europe only to return to their shtetls and cities to the worst possible news of their own families. Like the role of the Soviets in documenting the Holocaust, the experiences of Jewish participants in the Soviet war effort has long been overlooked. Many were the only survivors in their families — an undefined suffering explored in A Replacement Life, which also appears on my Soviet-Jewish Decade list.
Through Soviet Jewish Eyes came out in 2011, and the history it uncovered still feels poorly understood here in the west. For me, it’s required reading for anyone interested in Soviet, Jewish and/or Holocaust and WWII history.