War Is (Beautiful) Hell

Jewish Photographers Created Haunting Images of WW II

By Carol Zemel

Published January 24, 2013, issue of January 25, 2013.
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‘Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War and the Holocaust,” on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust through the first week of April, is a must-see exhibition of beautiful photographs taken by Soviet Jewish photojournalists during World War II. Organized by historian David Shneer and curator Lisa Tamiris Becker, both at the University of Colorado Boulder, and based on Shneer’s book of the same title, these pictures are eloquent records of battlegrounds, destruction, victory and death.

To describe the images as beautiful may seem problematic; beauty is not what we expect to see in war photography. On the contrary, we have long come to insist on a documentary aesthetic of pitiless truth and candor, no matter how painful or horrifying the sight. Shneer’s study, in fact, tells such a tale, with detailed accounts of such Nazi atrocities as the massacre of civilians at the Ukrainian City of Kerch and the Soviet liberation of the death camps Majdanek and Auschwitz.

In the museum presentation, however, the Soviet view of the Great Patriotic War is more heroic than hellish. Many of these pictures are almost theatrical in their reportage. Prewar Soviet photography celebrated its revolutionary society through modernist, quasi-abstract designs; this is Mark Markov-Grinberg’s approach in his image of the “Kursk Front” (1943), the photo taken in a trench where a soldier crouches beneath the mechanical bulk of a tank passing overhead. But in contrast to such stark modernist close-ups, much of the work in this exhibition adheres to the formats of Soviet Socialist Realism, a more pictorialist style that promoted the virtues of Soviet citizenship and ideology through broad theatrical views, with dramatic staging and lighting effects and frequent retouching. As a result, many of these pictures seem to wave an unseen Russian flag: The scale is grand and measureless; the mounted cavalry bespeaks a timeless Russian continuity; the people are heroic and enduring. The drama is reinforced by the photos’ enlarged scale; what were modestly sized press pictures destined for pictorial news magazines like Ogonyuk here command museum walls as works of art.

A dark line of Soviet cavalry crossing the horizon in Dmitri Baltermants’s “Behind Enemy Lines, First Guards Cavalry Corps” (1941) punctuates the limitless Russian winter landscape, and in Arkady Shaykhet’s “The Offensive” (1944) Soviet tanks make their way through an expanse of drifts and blowing snow. This is the theater of troop movements, but even scenes of atrocity and death convey a sense of grandeur. Baltermants’s “Searching for the Loved Ones at Kerch, Crimea” (1942) — the title later altered to the more iconic “Grief” — documents a largely Jewish massacre in the Crimean city. With bodies strewn across the mud, the image is both stirring and squalid, as the figure of an elderly woman, a quintessential Mother Russia, picks her way through the corpses in search of kin.

Pictures like these concretize the scale and intensity of the Eastern Front, where after lengthy sieges and more than seven million Soviet military deaths, German armies were turned back in defeat. The long panoramic views combine with foreground details, the haunting figures on the horizon, and the stark black-and-white contrast that is both severe and lush at once: Documents of a terrible history become icons of wartime grandeur.


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