How a 1976 Exhibit Changed the Way We Think About Jewish History

Today's Museums Owe Debt to 'Image Before My Eyes'

Forward Into The Past: Images of Jewish life before the Holocaust taken by photographers such as Alter Kacyzne (pictured above with his family) were shown as part of “Image Before My Eyes,” a 1976 exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York.
Courtesy of The Jewish Museum In New York
Forward Into The Past: Images of Jewish life before the Holocaust taken by photographers such as Alter Kacyzne (pictured above with his family) were shown as part of “Image Before My Eyes,” a 1976 exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York.

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published May 11, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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Also on view are the elongated forms of wooden synagogues in the Polish hinterland, and the heavily columned, imposing exteriors of urban synagogues; broad boulevards, muddy lanes and crooked streets, as well as the carts and wagons, bicycles and motorcycles that traversed them. Anything but static, timeless and unchanging, the world that unspools before our eyes is as robust, lively and febrile as our own.

Photography holds the key to each of the three iterations in “Image.” Offering an internal, personal and at times decidedly casual perspective in lieu of one imposed from above or fashioned on Broadway, the snapshots and studio portraits, cartes de visite and family albums that figured so prominently in the exhibition, book and film were nothing short of revelatory.

They summoned into being an entire world, bringing its varied inhabitants sharply into focus. It’s not for nothing that Kirshenblatt-Gimblett called these photographs “visual eyewitness accounts,” or, for that matter, that some of the most powerful of subsequent Holocaust displays — the memorial to the Jews of Eishyshok at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum comes vividly to mind — are quite literally a towering display of images of people doing what people do, going about the daily business of life.

The contemporary viewer looks for shadows and premonitions. But the individuals, couples and families captured in these frames are in the moment. Their ordinariness pierces the heart.

In the years since “Image” first saw the light of day, all kinds of advances have been made — in technology, scholarship, the protocols of museology — whose cumulative impact renders this project somewhat dated.

We’ve grown accustomed to such a high degree of intellectual and visual sophistication that the book especially may strike the contemporary reader as static and stilted, even a bit rough around the edges. What’s more, the steady proliferation of museums, publications, exhibitions, films and college courses on Eastern European Jewish life and on the Holocaust has tended to crowd out and ultimately eclipse “Image,” pushing it to the margins of our consciousness.

But right now, as we mark the anniversary of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and celebrate the birth of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, we’d do well to acknowledge the generative role played by “Image” in opening our eyes to, and unclouding our vision of, the prewar Jewish experience.


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