This evocative photo essay explores how Jewish communities in Ukraine, Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic are reclaiming their history, rebuilding their communities, and revivifying their Jewish identity following the Holocaust and decades of Soviet domination.
Like a forest recovering from a cataclysmic fire, the Jews of Eastern Europe are drawing on deep roots to regrow their communities in the long aftermath of the Holocaust and decades of Soviet domination. The children and grandchildren of victims and survivors are reconstructing the histories of their families and reviving the forgotten Jewish customs, bringing them forward into the twenty-first century and creating a contemporary culture that would be both familiar and strange to the generation that perished in the conflagration of the Holocaust.
Loli Kantor is the daughter of Holocaust survivors who lost nearly their entire families, and her desire to reconnect with her family’s history first took her to Poland in 2004. As she photographed her parents’ hometowns and grappled with the destruction and grief of the past, her vision gradually widened beyond the personal to focus on the signs of the rebirth of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. Over eight years, she traveled in the Ukraine, as well as Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic, photographing Jews in their everyday lives and listening to their stories in their homes, synagogues, and communities. Her luminous black-and-white and color images eloquently reveal how Eastern European Jews are honoring the past and building the future through such things as revived observances of the holidays, including Passover, Sukkoth, and Hanukkah. They also explore the role that artists are playing in the preservation of Jewish culture, which might otherwise have been completely lost. Polish art historian and critic Anda Rottenberg offers an appreciation of Kantor’s photography and its place in reclaiming Eastern European Jewish identity. Novelist Joseph Skibell celebrates Kantor’s “brave vision, unblinking and unafraid.”
Introduction: Non Omnis Moriar
Non Omnis Moriar
By Anda Rottenberg
Memory gaps are not only the white spots on the maps of our memories. They are also the mute intervals in the narratives of the survivors of the Second World War. Their reluctance to recall the past is indeed amazing: if asked, they give an evasive reply; if pressed, they say but a few words, mentioning the name of some person or place, or a date; if not asked, they remain silent. Remembering is paralyzing: it prevents one from returning to one's own identity, and from taking the risk of fully participating in the postwar reality. Sharing the memories, letting them out, does not necessarily have a therapeutic effect. It often leaves a void, robs one of the will to live. It is only by forgetting that we can see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel and can muster the energy for a new opening, without reference to that world which is irrevocably gone.
The second generation of Holocaust survivors, born into crippled families, inherits the trauma of their ancestors. In most cases, they instinctively avoid asking questions and interpreting facts. They might well not notice someone next door who is "living in the closet," under an adopted name, someone who still identifies with a foreign culture, custom, or religion. They might not see the pattern behind the passing of Primo Levi, Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Améry, or Paul Celan, and, in consequence, might fail to see the link between the deaths of these eminent authors and their writings. This generation consents to a life in the present, focusing on a hinc et nunc that has no roots in the past.
Loli Kantor belongs to that second generation. The daughter of Polish Jews who met and married in Munich after the war, she was born in France and raised in Israel, and has lived in the United States since 1984. Only in maturity did Kantor feel pulled backward in time, to the world of her parents, and as a result she set out in search of her roots. At this point she did not yet have an extensive knowledge of the war or postwar border changes, movements of populations, routes of deportation, or ways of survival. The face of her mother, who died in childbirth, is something familiar only from photographs. Of her father, she knows his place of birth and his short, professional CV, most likely written for the U.S. State Department and thus omitting the details of his war experiences, prior to his marriage to her mother and the births of his children.
And she knew little of the historical landscape from which her parents emerged, the territory of Central-Eastern Europe--stretching from the western borders of prewar Poland to the line connecting Leningrad, Smolensk, and Kursk in the east, Tallinn in the north, and Crimea in the south--and aptly described by Timothy Snyder as the "bloodlands." From 1933 to 1945 this region witnessed the deaths of 14 million innocent people, including women, children, and the elderly. Up until 1948 it also experienced mass forced displacement of whole populations (Jews, Roma, Poles, Germans, and Rusyns), as well as the "voluntary" exile of those who hoped to save their lives or improve their fate.
The children born during these postwar journeys also confront white spots in the biographies of their parents: they do not know the names, surnames, places of birth, or dates of birth of their relatives, just as they do not know the dates of their deaths or the places they were buried. They come from nowhere, always on the move, though it might seem that they lead stable lives. This second generation is uprooted in all possible respects. With a fragmented identity, it suffers from what could be described as a peculiar form of anaclitic depression--which it represses, just as the generation of survivors did, in order to make room for its own children, its new families. Until one day, on a faint, insignificant impulse, one of these individuals decides to reconstruct her identity. That is, she sets out to discover that which was hidden, forgotten, repressed: the look of people and things, the taste of dishes, the sound of languages, the topography and landscape of her "homeland."
And so Loli Kantor began her quest for knowledge. She was armed with a camera, but the pictures from her journeys do not serve as historical documentation. Being an artist, she does not photograph to memorize the objective appearance of an examined reality, but rather to capture and convey the impressions and emotions connected with the process of arriving at a personal truth. "I could communicate better with the camera as my eye," she wrote in a statement accompanying her photographs. The camera sees differently, and remembers differently. Her month.long stint of volunteer work as part of a reclamation project of the former Płaszów concentration camp is represented in this book by a single photograph. It depicts a thick register book written in Hebrew, sitting on a small table covered with a decorative tablecloth. Such a table, such a cloth, and such a book are not characteristic of any particular place; they might be found in any home, be it in Europe or in America. In this sense the objects are, as it were, impersonal and do not constitute a distinctive account.
She might, like many others, have started in Auschwitz, stopped off in Kraków and Płaszów, and continued to Terezín; or she might have traveled to Terezín first, and eventually made her way to Częstochowa, her father's hometown. It is no longer relevant today, when one is following only faint traces. But at the time that the names of these cities and towns were earning their present connotations, the direction of the voyage and the order of the stops mattered: a journey from Częstochowa through Płaszów or Terezín, to Auschwitz, did not mean the same thing as a journey in the opposite direction. In either case, returning home was not an option; but sometimes to leave Auschwitz--to go to Terezín, as Alina Szapocznikow also did, or to Buchenwald, as Imre Kertész did--meant to stay alive.
Kantor's first journey to Częstochowa appears here in only one image. It shows a table set for a light meal. This image marks the beginning of a long series of photographs of tables with food recorded by Kantor during her voyages. The photograph is black-and-white, like all the others from that year. Anne Helmreich has noted that this aesthetic choice of Kantor's points to a connection to the past--a time otherwise impossible to embrace using photography. It would be just as impossible to present the feelings that Kantor experienced as she pored over city archives that held clues to the marriages and births of the numerous children of the Kantor family. Kantor also wanted to learn about the lives of her father's ten brothers and sisters, and where they died. But neither the archives nor the current landscape of Częstochowa offered any explanations. The only trace of the Jewish community is the local philharmonic. Thanks to the efforts of Zygmunt Rolat, a native of the city, the institution was named after Bronis.aw Huberman, a violin virtuoso and founder of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which provided refuge for many musicians.
It is impossible to reconstruct the feeling of loss, just as it is impossible to translate a torrent of emotions into images on photosensitive paper. This is why the artist attempted to capture a sense of helplessness. It was also for this reason that she chose to focus on an unassuming interior with the table in the foreground. The shot is almost as universal as the table in the photo with the register book, or the anonymous yard seen from inside a dark passageway that might once have led to the flat of the artist's grandparents, although there is nothing in its present appearance to suggest that. There cannot be; anyone who tries to picture that past life in today's setting is bound to fail. One finds little more than the surface of things and a feeling of helplessness.
There is also no evidence of the lost and the murdered in the present appearances of Płaszów and Terezín, or Bełżec and Bronytsia, or many other Holocaust sites. There is inevitably a road winding through a forest, a railroad track, and signs. Kantor tries to see these inconspicuous, "harmless" fragments of landscape through the eyes of those people who were being transported: first the track, then the road. Or just the track, or just the road. This is exactly what the black-and-white photographs from the first trip depict--this, as well as steamy car windows and the windowpanes of a train covered in condensation. These are items related to traveling, to traversing space, to distance and alienation, as well as to the impossibility of fathoming the essence: the isolation from "there and then," which is further intensified by an isolation from "here and now."
These two aspects of time would only be merged the following year, in Bełżec, when Kantor's camera captured her own shadow next to a sign saying "Bochnia." Bochnia was the hometown of the artist's mother and a town in the Galician portion of western Poland. Kantor's mother Lola survived the war in Warsaw with the help of a false ID. Most of the rest of the family, including three brothers and sisters, vanished without a trace. They presumably perished in Bełżec, the final destination of prisoner transports from all over Galicia, including Bochnia. The whole camp has been transformed into a massive memorial, with the names of all the towns from which the victims were transported listed on concrete slabs. It was there, in the eastern borderlands of prewar Poland, that the first mass executions of the war took place sometime after June 22, 1941. They were conducted as part of Operation Reinhard, which led to the deaths of half a million Jews from Galicia.
Accidents of history saved Kantor's father Zwi, who was in Lviv at the start of the war. Stalin and Hitler conquered Poland in September 1939 and divided the spoils. Unlike Bochnia and towns in the West, the towns of East Galicia (including Lviv) came under Russian rule. Stalin deported inhabitants of East Galicia to Siberia and Kazakhstan, whereas Hitler forced those in the west into ghettos and camps built on Polish soil. Deportation to Russia became a hidden blessing. Lublin, which he reached toward the end of the war, had already become the seat of the Communist-engineered provisional government of Poland in 1944. Earlier the city had been home to Odilo Globocnik, commander-in-chief of Operation Reinhard, and his staff. Zwi Kantor was therefore not only lucky to be in Lviv when Ribbentrop and Molotov carved up Poland, he was also lucky not to have found himself in Lublin before the Red Army arrived. Many of the very few Jews who, like Kantor's parents, had survived the war escaped to western Europe and eventually settled there or emigrated to America, Israel, or other distant shores.
Loli Kantor knew none of this at the beginning of her research, nor was she necessarily interested in the fate of all victims of the Second World War, nor even the fate of all Polish Jews. She might not even have known the difference between her mother's Galician Jewish roots and her father's more western Polish Jewish background. At first she searched for traces of her own family, and only then for the traces of "typical" Jewish life. But she found none, neither in Częstochowa nor in West Galicia.
Her search led not only to Poland, with its present borders, but also to Ukraine. After the war the inhabitants of the old East Galician towns woke up to a new reality: they were now citizens of the Soviet Union. The small Polish and Jewish enclaves that survived in the region were, historically, marked by a poverty that was now exacerbated by communism. The enclaves survived in a dilapidated Lviv and in the crooked towns known from Marc Chagall's paintings, Bruno Schulz's drawings and writings, and Isaac Bashevis Singer's short stories.
Kantor set out east, then, following a path similar to that of many descendants of Polish and Jewish repatriates seeking to discover their roots. On her first trip she consistently used black-and-white film to capture her observations as an outsider--a stranger to the world around her, perhaps even slightly surprised by what she found. In Lviv, she took a photograph of Holocaust victims presented by their daughter; in Boryslav, she captured a photo from the past sitting on a shelf with books in Russian; in Zhytomir, a man called Leizer walked into the frame of her picture, as though she had released the shutter accidentally; in Uzhgorod, Kantor recorded the hands of a woman called Genia, which were folded on her lap, and a man named Zinger standing on a porch, and a table with food--somewhat less impersonal, less elegant, and yet warmer than the tables in Poland; in Bershad, she took note of the interior of a synagogue and a handful of somewhat surprised locals; in Satu Mare, she photographed the interior of an empty yet apparently not abandoned house of prayer; in Drohobych, she found the famous great synagogue in decay; and in Bronytsia, she captured a road (again) through a forest. In Drohobych, where Bruno Schulz spent his whole life, she portrayed his student, the singer Alfred Schreyer, and a woman named Paulina, her surname unknown, sitting, again at a table, yet this time in a wide shot that allows us to identify the unique mixture of tastes characteristic of bourgeois interiors in this region (including the essential decorated bedspread on the essential couch). During this trip Kantor also made a stop in Kiev--a city in the "bloodlands" which, however, has very few ties to Poland and Galicia--and photographed it from the perspective of an outsider, with random passersby against a backdrop of snow-covered, blurred streets. In this way she made a connection between the look of the city and the landscapes of places marked by tragic memories.
The whole trip to Ukraine and the vicinity of its borders took place in winter. The colors of this season contributed to the aura of observation, and were translated into a restrained palette of whites and grays in the photographs. The artist continued this austere narrative the following year when she visited places connected to her parents (again in Częstochowa and Bełżec). Later she would employ black-and-white film only sporadically, as if making conscious references to the earlier "elegiac series." This is how she recorded her impressions of two visits to Bolekhiv, possibly inspired by the finely constructed narrative of Daniel Mendelsohn's tale of a family lost among six million people--such is the aura that permeates the series depicting surviving buildings and individuals in Tulchyn, Mukachevo, Vinnytsia, and Ivano-Frankivsk (formerly Stanisławów). Deeply atmospheric, too, is the portrait of Veronika, granddaughter of Alfred Schreyer. Interestingly, some photographs shot on color film also seem monochromatic, like the blurred car window scraped by its wiper in different shades of gray (On the Road to Uzhgorod, 2009), and the dark grey or washed-out palette of the series related to the great synagogue in Drohobych, as well as the faded colors of the stairs and passageway in a tenement house in that same city.
Most photographs taken after 2007 are in color. However, the artist was still not concerned with recording the objective appearance of things; rather, she imbued them with the colors of the moments, experiences, and moods she remembered. It would seem that the more time she spends in contact with the exotic reality of present-day Ukraine, the less attracted she is to the past, especially the past of her family. Traveling through increasingly familiar places, retracing her own footsteps to Drohobych, Boryslav, Bershad, Lviv, Tulchyn, Bolekhiv, Vinnytsia, and Mukachevo, she came across fragments of life being reborn in forgotten alleyways, crooked streets, and decaying houses.
She found there what she did not find in Poland: the aura, the colors, and the smells of a shtetl. She was invited to celebrations in houses of prayer and allowed inside the meager kitchens of private homes. She made friends with people who spoke neither English nor Hebrew, at times not even Yiddish, but who were open and hospitable. She watched them preserving the memories of their dead and learning again the forgotten Jewish customs. The palette of her photographs from Ukraine conveys emotions other than those embodied in the traumatic grays of the earlier images. They communicate the mood of intimate meetings and group festivities; illuminate the interiors of houses of prayer as well as the details of people's homes; and capture their openness, their straightforwardness, and their modest level of prosperity, marked by their possession of decorative rugs, red valances, and glittering gold knickknacks. The generous food that is depicted seems at odds with the financial status of these people. And again there are the tables. Their number and diversity, and their vivid, provincial aesthetics-.proof of equally provincial Eastern European hospitality-.testify not only to the artist's particular fascination with this piece of furniture, but also to the way that an "outsider" is becoming familiar with, and being allowed into, the private sphere.
If we superimposed a map of Kantor's journeys on the map of Snyder's "bloodlands," we would see that she was traveling in territories that were the scenes of particularly intense crimes against humanity, perpetrated by Stalin and Hitler alike. It was there, in Ukraine, that Stalin starved to death three million citizens of his own state in 1933; later he murdered thousands of Polish POWs in Katy.. It was also there, in Babi Yar, Bronytsia, as well as in hundreds of forests across the countryside, that the Germans developed effective methods of murdering Jews, before establishing their network of death camps in eastern Poland, reaching from Treblinka, through Sobibór and Majdanek, to Bełżec.
The photographs taken by Loli Kantor do not refer to these facts overtly. New trees have grown in Ukraine, and new life has entered its old houses, now inhabited by descendants of the survivors, and their children and grandchildren. Like Kantor, they do not remember, or in many cases do not even know, the faces of their family members. Their memories might only be contained in a few photographs from the past, and in the traditions they are beginning to revive. The artist contributes to this process by releasing the shutter: she records the slow emergence from the shadows, the search for the old roots, and the new roots that start to grow in places where life was ruthlessly wiped out. She saves from oblivion these tiny fragments connecting the past with the present, and records the look of houses, streets, objects, and people. They will live as long as their images remain on photographic film--and as long as future generations use them to reconstruct the histories of their families, and to reclaim their shattered identities. "I shall not wholly die: large residue / Shall 'scape the queen of funerals," wrote Horace.7 The poetry of photography is capable of transporting the fragments of life beyond its end.
Warsaw, July 2013
English translation by Krzysztof Kościuczuk
“The author’s ability to develop a narrative through images is masterful.”
Fort Worth Weekly
“Kantor has rendered the colors with a consistent softness that’s inviting, even welcoming. These pictures are of daily life, almost like pages from some kind of tribal family album. It’s a present in which the past never feels altogether absent.”
The Boston Globe