‘Through Soviet Jewish Eyes’ exhibited in New York

The First Common Graves, Stalingrad, 1942 gelatin silver print 109/16×155/8inchessheet Loan from Teresa and Paul Harbaugh Photo: CU Art Museum © courtesy georgii Zelma Estate, Georgii Zelma, Russian (1906-1984)

NEW YORK, NY – Although World War II is one of the most documented conflicts of the 20th century, Western audiences know very little about the Soviet Jewish photojournalists who captured some of the most riveting and powerful images of the war. “Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust” on view in New York at the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust on Nov. 16, tells that story for the first time.

“We are delighted that we could bring this remarkable exhibition of breathtaking and heartbreaking photographs to New York,” said Museum Director Dr. David G. Marwell. “These photographers, who are relatively unknown to Western audiences, were the first to record evidence of Nazi crimes.  Their photographs offer stunning proof of the power of photography to document and to inspire.”

Based on David Shneer’s critically acclaimed book about the experience and the work of important Soviet Jewish photographers, the exhibition was curated by Shneer and Lisa Tamiris Becker for the CU Art Museum, University of Colorado Boulder.

Shneer says, “‘Through Soviet Jewish Eyes’ shows that in the Soviet Union, the Holocaust was not primarily about deportations, train cars and gas chambers, but was about empty landscapes and haunted ravines in people’s backyards. The normalcy of the Holocaust, of what it actually looked like, in the Soviet Union radically shakes the viewer out of his or her sense of the expected, and shows viewers the so-called ‘Holocaust by Bullets,’ as it played out in the Soviet Union, where 2 million Soviet Jews were killed.”

This 1942 photo of the Kerch atrocities carried this caption: “Kerch resident P.I. Ivanova found her husband, who was tortured by the fascist executioners.” Photo courtesy of Michael Mattis.

Throughout the 19th century, most Jews in Russia faced limited professional opportunities and were forced to live in prescribed regions located outside of major metropolitan centers such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. The rise of photography—a new, risky profession—in the 20th century offered Jews the opportunity to thrive as artists and documentarians in a cultural landscape that was previously unwelcoming.

“Through Soviet Jewish Eyes” presents more than 50 photographs taken during the Nazi-Soviet war from June 22, 1941, until VE Day on May 9, 1945, by the most important Soviet photojournalists including Evgenii Khaldei, Georgii Zelma, and Dmitrii Baltermants, among others.

These photographers were the first to document the discovery of Nazi sites of atrocity, three years before better-known photographers Margaret Bourke White and Lee Miller chronicled the liberation of German camps. The exhibition includes rare images from the photographers’ archives that have never before been displayed in New York. In addition to illuminating the Soviet war experience, the exhibition also explores how the photographers’ religious and cultural identities informed what they saw and how they documented it.

The photographers merged documentary photography with avant-garde modernist sensibilities, creating works that are notable not only for their rarity and their subject matter, but for their sheer artistry. Visitors will learn that these hitherto unknown photographers have had a profound influence on 20th century art and beyond.

The approximately 3,000-square-foot exhibition will be on view in the Irving Schneider and Family Gallery through April 7, 2013.

The exhibition features dozens of compelling images, including many that rarely have been shown.  Highlights include Dmitrii Baltermants’ “Grief,” which perfectly captures the scope of human loss of the war. In January 1942, Baltermants arrived at a trench on the outskirts of the newly liberated city of Kerch, where he observed older women and families wandering, weeping and searching among dozens of corpses of civilians, who had apparently been brought out to a field and shot en masse.

Baltermants was one of the first photojournalists to photograph evidence of the mass murder of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen, units of the German SS and police, on Soviet soil. Realizing the significance of what lay before him, Baltermants used two rolls of precious film to photograph the scene. The exhibition shows Baltermants’ iconic image, which was published widely, as well as three other versions of the shot.

Another powerful and prophetic photo is “Memories of a Peaceful Time,” by Emmanuel Evzerikhin. The photographer’s most famous image is a symbolic statement on the nature of war. At its center is a fountain bearing a sculpture of children dancing the khorovod, a circle dance common in Russia.

The sculpture stood in a square just in front of the main train station, greeting arriving visitors. Evzerikhin’s photograph turns the sculpture and its message of a hopeful future into a commentary on war, with the city in the background in flames and littered with rubble.

This exhibition was curated by David Shneer and Lisa Tamiris Becker and organized by the CU Art Museum, University of Colorado Boulder. Funding for the New York presentation of this exhibition is made possible through the generous support of the Pickman Exhibition Fund.

Museum of Jewish Heritage 

November 2012

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