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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Victory images also exemplify war’s theater. Arkady Shaykhet’s “Firing on the Enemy: The Capture of Braunsberg” (1945) places the viewer just behind the line of attack, as tanks and soldiers enter the smoky, rubble-strewn space of the city square. Such images echo the stylistic strategies of 19th-century pictures like Eugene Delacroix’s heroic “Liberty Leading the People” (1832), where front-line fighters and fallen troops meet in a turbulent battle for Paris. Evgenii Khaldei’s famous photo “Red Flag Over the Reichstag” (1945) best exemplifies this approach. The picture is often compared with Joe Rosenthal’s “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” (1945), the iconic close-up of America’s victory in the Pacific. In Khaldei’s image, however, we have a vast expansive view. Two soldiers climb the parapets of the burning Reichstag to set up their banner. The point of view puts us at their level, among the forces that declare the Soviet victory. The picture was later doctored: A cloudy sky was added, mingling with the smoke rising from ruins as if the heavens, too, participated in the event. And, on a less heroic note, the soldier closest to the camera wears a single wristwatch; a second — looted — watch was erased. While the unruly behavior of the Russian liberators was dreaded by civilian populations, this slightly “cleansed” image aligning Soviet troops with symbolic Reichstag statues perched atop the ruins consolidates the moment of victory.

The Soviet heroics of these pictures may be clear, but their Jewishness is less so, and the exhibition presentation of the work as Jewish documents raises familiar — and vexing — questions about Jewish cultural participation in the Diaspora. Before the 1917 revolution, Jewish access to Russian art schools and other institutions of higher learning was limited. Photography, however, involved experiential training rather than academic study, and many young Jewish men and women apprenticed at photography studios to learn a trade, and many of the best-known press photographers in Russia were Jews. To make the case for a “Jewish eye,” however, is another matter. Shneer’s study, quoting historian Anna Shternshis, claims that “every person from that generation saw other people through the mark of Jewishness, even if they did not acknowledge it even to themselves.” An internalized Jewish identity may have been the case for many Soviet citizens, as was Jewish prominence in the profession, but to seek a Jewish outlook in these images assumes some kind of ethnic determinism, and from the evidence of these pictures, it is not so easily found. The Kerch massacre photographs report the atrocities of the German killing squads or Einsatzgruppen, but there is nothing to indicate that these are Jewish deaths — not the lines of naked victims or corpse-filled pits that the Nazis themselves eagerly documented. Even the pictures of Majdanek and Auschwitz, liberated by the Soviets in July 1944 and January 1945, and photographed respectively by Mikhail Trakhman and Vladimir Yudin, are not marked by recognizably Jewish content.

The one exception is drawn from the series of pictures of the Budapest Jewish ghetto, published in the Soviet Yiddish paper Unity (Eynikayt). Khaldei’s double portrait of a “Jewish Couple, Budapest , Hungary” (1945), confronts us with figures whose identity is marked by their armbands, not their faces or bodies.

As Jewish citizen-survivors, they greet us and define the context of the city street beyond. This, however, is one of the few decidedly Jewish pictures in the show. While Shneer’s study details the photographers’ links to Jewish community, neither it nor the show convincingly demonstrates a Jewish outlook for the images or their makers. We see a Great Patriotic War, but little Shoah; there are Jews behind the camera, but not noticeably so. The exhibition is thus somewhat anomalous for a museum dedicated to being “a living memorial of the Holocaust.” Still, the photographs are arresting and memorable. They testify to Jewish professional and diasporic accomplishment, and to Jewish participation in Soviet culture. And they offer us a stunning view of a devastating history.

Carol Zemel is professor of art history and visual culture at York University, in Toronto.


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