World War II Through Soviet Jewish Eyes

5 minute read

In 2003, a young American historian named David Shneer was conducting 
research in Moscow when he heard about an exhibition of photographs called Women at War. At the time, displaying photography on gallery walls was still a fairly novel concept for Russia, and the exhibit was
 not meant to be a blockbuster. To get inside, Shneer found that he had 
to ring a doorbell at a nondescript building, at which point a raspy 
voice came over the intercom and demanded: “Who are you? What do you 
want?” But the images inside astounded him.

Not only had they been taken with incredible skill—arranging light
 and form in a way that would put to shame many of today’s war 
photographers—but they were from the Soviet battlefields of World
 War II, which made the surnames of their authors seem all the more
 strange. About four out of five of them, Shneer noticed, were Jewish
 surnames. “How is it possible,” he thought, “that a bunch of Jews, who
 are supposed to be oppressed by the Soviet Union, are the ones charged 
with photographing the war?”

As delicately as he could, Shneer put the question to one of the curators, who in typical Moscow style had a glass of wine in one hand
 and a cigarette in the other. “She looked at me like I’m an idiot and 
said, ‘Yes, the photographers were all Jewish.'” It turned out she was 
the granddaughter of one of them, Arkady Shaykhet, and their 
conversation that day is what led to the exhibit that opened on
 Nov. 16 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. It has the
 same title as the book Shneer wrote from his research—Through
 Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War and the Holocaust.

The show explores the way World War II was covered in the pages of
 Soviet newspapers such as Pravda, casting light on a side of the Holocaust that often gets short shrift in western history books. The 
genocide against the Jews, usually associated with images of Nazi 
death camps and gas chambers, was also perpetrated through mass 
shootings across Eastern Europe. Later termed the “Holocaust by 
Bullets,” it took more Jewish lives than the concentration camps, says Shneer, and it was documented most poignantly by the Jewish 
photographers of the Soviet press.

Although none of them are still alive to tell their story, Shneer spent the better part of a decade tracking down their relatives in 
Moscow and collecting nearly 200 works from their family archives. The
 prints were often no bigger than a pack of cigarettes, taken with 
beat-up cameras and two roles of film allotted for each battle. There
 are more faceless soldiers in these frames than intimate portraits of victims, and the most common theme is emptiness, at once bleak and monumental. But given their historical context, what seems most 
striking is the duality that runs through the lives and works of these 
photographers. On the one hand, these are works of Soviet propaganda,
 glorifying the Red Army in the tradition of socialist realism. “They 
needed photos of nurses doing good work on the home front, patriotic
 soldiers conquering territory,” says Shneer. “And their Jewishness rarely appears in that kind of material.”

But it does appear when they go off assignment to explore the Jewish
 ghettos in places like Ukraine and Hungary. There they found survivors 
living among the ruins of Europe, the yellow Stars of David on their 
overcoats still marking them for death. In the Budapest ghetto, the photographer Evgenii Khaldei found the corpses of his fellow Jews strewn about the floor of a gutted shop, a scrap of butcher paper covering the face of a man whose body lies in the doorway. Images like
 this did not appear in the mainstream Soviet press, but they were
 published in Eynikayt, or Unity, the Yiddish-language newspaper of the USSR. “We have this image in our heads that Jewishness was completely suppressed in the Soviet Union,” says Shneer. “But that’s really a
post-war image of the country.”

Antisemitism only became part of Soviet dogma in 1948, the year that 
Israel was founded and Josef Stalin began his campaign against the
”cosmopolitans” — a Soviet byword for Jews. Many of the best Jewish 
photographers lost their staff positions at Pravda and other major 
publications that year, and phrases like “too many Jews on staff” began appearing in the official correspondence between the editors and 
their government censors. Some of the photographers continued working 
as freelancers for the propaganda press, but even after their
 experiences on the front, they rarely embraced their heritage. “None
 of these guys were buried in the Jewish cemetery,” says Shneer. “None
 ever tried to leave for Israel. None learned Hebrew.”

Soviet patriotism and its predilections came first, in their lives and 
in the work they produced. Even long after the fall of communism, when 
Shneer was conducting his research, the last surviving photographer 
from this group refused to meet with him. “He was still living in the
 Soviet world where meeting with a foreigner was scary.” In their style 
and execution, the images they captured are rooted in that world. They document the greatest triumph of the Soviet Union. But regardless of whether they are viewed on the pages of Pravda or a gallery wall, that world does not bind their relevance as monuments and works of art.

Simon Shuster is TIME’s Moscow reporter.

Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War and the Holocaust will be on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage from Nov. 16 2012 to April 7, 2013.

Image: Grief, Kerch, Crimea, January 1942
Each of the following captions contains commentary by show curators David Shneer and Lisa Tamiris Becker. Grief, Kerch, Crimea, January 1942 One of the earliest Holocaust liberation photographs, Grief was originally a news photograph that circulated widely in the Soviet press throughout 1942. At the time it was taken, the photographer, Dmitrii Baltermants, was documenting Nazi atrocities for a traumatized Soviet population. Soviet wire services sent the image around the world, but few news outlets picked it up, fearing that the photograph was Soviet propaganda. The image re-appeared in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union began remembering World War II, or the Great Patriotic War as it was known there, as the great triumph of Communism. Dmitrii Baltermants
Image: For the Motherland, 1943
For the Motherland, 1943 Mark Markov Grinberg photographed the eastern front of World War II for nearly the entire war. This image of Soviet soldiers charging forward in a cloud of smoke captures the sense of optimism that characterized the Soviet media after the Soviet victory at Stalingrad in early 1943. Images like this one, which glorify the Red Army, appeared regularly on the cover of Soviet illustrated magazines like Ogonyok, the most widely circulated illustrated magazine in the country.Mark Markov-Grinberg
Image: Stand Until The End, 1944
Stand Until The End, 1944 The wounded soldier stands stoically with the roar of mortars manned by his faceless comrades firing in the background. This photograph, taken near the end of the war by Emmanuel Evzerikhin, plays with light and dark like the best Soviet war photography. Emmanuel Evzerikhin
Image: Tank in Stalingrad
Tank in Stalingrad, 1943 An image of a tank plowing through snow in the city demonstrates Soviet power. Images of tanks became popular with Stalingrad and reappeared regularly until the end of the war. Symbols of Soviet might, they were always driving forward into the edge of the frame. Here, the half scratched out word “Motherland” on the top of the tank lets the reader know for whom this tank, and the Red Army, is fighting.Georgii Zelma
Image: Aviation Parade, Tushino Air Base, near Moscow, 1933
Aviation Parade, Tushino Air Base, near Moscow, 1933 In a demonstration of Soviet military might, the Soviet Union celebrated air power throughout the 1930s, here in as nationalistic a manner as possible, by having the planes fly in formation as the Soviet red star. Mark Markov-Grinberg
Image: Behind Enemy Lines, 1941
Behind Enemy Lines, 1941 A formation of Soviet cavalrymen is in fact of partisan units, risking their lives by riding out in the open. Baltermants’ photograph edifies the partisans, who played an important role in undermining the German occupation of parts of the Soviet Union. During and after the war, partisans were heralded as the bravest fighters against Nazi fighters, and the only ones living under German occupation untainted by the possibility of collaboration. Dmitrii Baltermants
Image: The First Common Graves, Stalingrad, 1942
The First Common Graves, Stalingrad, 1942 A lonely image of a Soviet cemetery in Stalingrad, one of the many common graves that dotted the war-torn landscape, reminds us of the cost of war. Bedframes mark the edge of this place of death as a makeshift headstone with a Soviet star stands sentinel at the far end of the photograph.Georgii Zelma
Image: Memories of a Peaceful Time, 1943
Memories of a Peaceful Time, 1943 One of Evzerikhin’s most famous images, a symbolic statement on the nature of war, is a grim scene of a fountain on the square just in front of Stalingrad’s main train station. The subject of this classic image of children dancing the khorovod, a circle dance common in Russia, once might have projected innocence and the future as travellers arrived in Stalin’s namesake city. Evzerikhin’s photograph turned that image of innocence upside down and transformed the fountain into a commentary on war.Emmanuel Evzerikhin
Image: Attack on Building by the 13th Radishchev Division, Stalingrad, 1942
Attack on Building by the 13th Radishchev Division, Stalingrad, 1942 This version of Zelma’s most well known Stalingrad photograph shows the utter devastation of the city as Soviet troops bravely move forward through the lunar landscape. Zelma has positioned himself at the center of this photograph, originally a diptych, bravely standing up to capture the action in front of him. Other versions of this diptych show a soldier charging forward in front of the camera and another version shows that same soldier shot dead. Here, with the dead soldier cropped out, Zelma has turned a tragic battle photograph into a sublime image of Soviet heroism.Georgii Zelma
Image: In a Liberated Village, Byelorussia, 1944
In a Liberated Village, Byelorussia, 1944 One of the founders of Soviet photography, Arkady Shaykhet photographed World War II for a special military illustrated newspaper. Here he captures the unambiguous joy felt when families reunited with their young men, who had been fighting, and surviving, on the front. For survivors of the war, liberation meant teary homecomings. Arkady Shaykhet

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