'Faces' are traces of a decimated culture

Friday, March 23, 2007

And I Still See Their Faces: The Vanished World of Polish Jews

Where: Yeshiva University Museum, 15 W. 16th St., New York
When: 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays-Thursdays through June 24
How much: $8; $6 seniors, students and children ages 5-17. Price includes admission to other exhibits in the Center for Jewish History, where the museum is located. Call (212) 294-8330 or go to www.yumuseum.org.
For the exhibit catalog, go to www.shalom.org.pl.


NEW YORK -- By all conventional logic, "And I Still See Their Faces: The Vanished World of Polish Jews," the photography exhibit currently at the Yeshiva University Museum, shouldn't even exist. After all, hadn't that country's large Jewish population been practically wiped out by the Nazis in World War II, its remains scattered in a postwar diaspora?

Stripped of their possessions and either sent to camps or directly to firing squads, one couldn't have expected much evidence of their culture to have survived. And some 20 years ago, even a visit to the site of the Warsaw Ghetto would have yielded few clues as to what had transpired there.

With the fall of communism in Poland has come a modest revival of a Jewish community. In 1994, Golda Tencer, an actress and singer from the Warsaw Jewish Theater and director of the Shalom Foundation of Poland, put out a call for any photographs that may have survived the Holocaust. Judging by the foundation-organized exhibit, the response to her televised appeal -- more than 8,000 images -- was truly amazing.

The images feature tradesmen, families, social events, school groups and other evidence of once-thriving Jewish culture. Jews apparently had either entrusted their family albums to gentile neighbors for safekeeping until their return or as a way to leave a trace of their existence.

The photographs, some blown up to poster size, come from a variety of sources, including cartes-de-visite ("visiting cards" with small photos), glass plate negatives or, in one case, an extra copy of a snapshot made by a German soldier and secreted away by a camera shop owner.

But anonymous images do not make for a very thrilling exhibit. Fortunately, most of these shots come with stories from the people who donated them. Some stories are naturally somber, like the neighbors who left their albums with friends, never to be seen again. Other recollections include descriptions of families separated in different camps during the war, with only one person surviving. There also are stories of photographs that found their way into people's possession via parents and grandparents, with little or no clue as to the identities of those depicted, other than a single name written on the back of the photograph.
Still, it is enough to make you see just how much the world lost.

Mitchell Seidel may be reached at mseidel@starledger.com or at (973) 392-1780.