If you were to pick up a copy of “A Vanished World” in a contemporary American Jewish home and turn to the final spread, you would see two photographs. On the left, a man peers anxiously from a window in a metal door; on the right, a boy of no more than 3 or 4 points a small finger across his eyeline. The caption reads: “The father is hiding from the Endecy (members of the National Democratic Party). His son signals him that they are approaching. Warsaw, 1938.” An index at the front of the book, which features additional commentary on the photographs, fills out the frightening tale: “The pogromshchiki” — a lynch mob — “are coming. But the iron door was no protection.”
It is a poignant scene — haunting and full of narrative pathos. But it almost certainly did not happen. The pictures in that spread, it turns out, came from different rolls of film, probably shot in different towns — which means, of course, that its characters were presumably not only unrelated but also most likely did not even know each other.
The article relates the revelation to Maya Benton, who has detailed the discovery of the falsification, that her own family also participated in a kind of familial myth-making.
Sometime in 1989, Maya Benton, then a 14-year-old living in Los Angeles, had an epiphany. The daughter of a single mother, a psychoanalyst who as a child lived for years in a displaced-persons camp in Germany, Benton grew up in a household that was a relative rarity in American Jewish life: Yiddish speaking but cosmopolitan, well off and not Orthodox. As she lolled on the couch of her grandparents’ home, Benton started sneaking chocolate rum balls from a sterling silver box — one of two family heirlooms from, she had assumed, Novogrudek, the historic Jewish town in what is now Belarus from which her grandparents hailed before the Holocaust. As Benton stared at the weighty birthright from the alte heym, or Old World, bafflement struck: she knew, from an interview she conducted with her family members for a history class, that they fled the German invasion, hid in nearby forests, were interned at multiple labor camps and trekked through miles of often snow-covered forest in the east. How on earth, Benton thought as she considered the ornate container, did they manage to schlep this through Siberia? The confusion grew when she considered the second heirloom: a full set of Rosenthal china.
As it turned out, the box and the china had not been in the family for generations, nor were they from Novogrudek. As Maya’s grandmother, Tonia Benton, explained that afternoon, they were among the things that she and her husband bought from impoverished Germans after the war; bartering the chocolate and cigarettes they received in the displaced-persons camp, they were able to buy valuable items that could be used as currency to get the family to America. That day, Maya Benton says, she learned a lesson about people’s need for, and uses of, mythical narratives.
One thing jumps out - that old bugaboo, authenticity.
The concentration of poverty and piety in Vishniac’s pictures in “Polish Jews” created a distinct impression of timelessness, an unchanging, “authentic society” captured in amber.
Benton found a treasure trove in Vishniac's archive - negatives and notes that presented a far more accurate detail of the rich diversity of the life of European Jews before the Nazi horrors. Yet, it was precisely these horrors which made Vishniac's work that much more powerful.
According to the Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer, about 30 to 40 percent of the three million Jews in Poland before the Holocaust lived in shtetls. Many other Jews lived in large, cosmopolitan cities like Warsaw and Vilna and Krakow. And yet in the popular imagination, the word shtetl has become nearly synonymous with pre-Holocaust life — a romantic image characterized by homogeneity and quaintness. This sentimentalization — driven in part by secularized, often prosperous Jews troubled by the sense that their hard-earned modernity may have come at the price of tradition and authenticity — began as far back as the 19th century and traveled with Jews from the Pale of Settlement to the shores of America. At the start of the last century, Yiddish newspapers and plays in America treated the shtetl with both love and condescension — too close a memory not to feel homesick for, yet too obviously backward to reclaim.
But this delicate balance was upset by the Holocaust, which twisted ambivalent affection into paralytic grief. After the war, it became difficult to view prewar images as anything but a prelude to destruction — a backshadowing that distilled the complicated, multifaceted reality of prewar Jewish life into a two-dimensional shrine, one that deserved all the mournful appreciation that could be mustered. In January 1945, the rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel gave a seminal speech at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York about prewar Eastern European Jewish life. It was not a factual exploration of this historical subject but rather a lyrical interpretation of what Heschel claimed was the essence of Eastern European Jewish life: its soul. “Heschel argued that though the Eastern European Jews were destroyed, their spiritual legacy lives on,” explains Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a professor of performance studies at New York University who has done scholarship on Eastern European Jewish culture. “It is indestructible, unassailable — something the Germans could never get their hands on.” In fact, she added, the physical destruction was barely mentioned. At the end of Heschel’s speech, the audience broke into a spontaneous recitation of the Kaddish, or mourner’s prayer.
The question arises, inexorably, almost necessarily: what possible purpose is served by elevating a false myth in the midst of grief? These are questions we face as individuals, to be sure. Yet, this was not the death of one person, but the decimation of an entire population (Poland's Jewish community, the particular focus of Vishniac's most celebrated work, was utterly destroyed by the Nazi machinery of death). With them went their collective memory, their history, both colloquial and collective including all its complications, diversity, and complexity.
Yesterday, I wrote about the rise and fall of the use of spectacle and image in American politics in the age of television's dominance. A particular point, not stressed enough (I fear) was the way so many images used by Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush in particular, presented false impressions. When Reagan spoke at Normandy, in 1984, for example, he managed to convey a sense of his own participation in the great historical event he was commemorating. Certainly he was of the proper age. Yet, Reagan (like another Hollywood conservative, John Wayne), desperately sough to avoid combat during the Second World War. A commissioned officer in the Army Special Services, Reagan performed in Army training films, never leaving Hollywood. Yet, he was able to present to the world the idea that he, too, was a part of what Gen. Eisenhower had called the Crusade in Europe.
Bush's falsification of his own participation in military events was even greater. Photographed striding across the deck of an aircraft carrier in a flight suit, Bush not only recalled his own days as a pilot in the Air National Guard (protecting the skies of Alabama from the North Vietnamese Air Force), but by extension his own military record and that camaraderie that all military personnel feel toward their fellows. He did all this as a prelude to a victory speech at the end of the first phase of the war in Iraq, providing images that, at first, provided images of triumph easily bought. History has a way of turning the tables on people, however, and those same images were used against Bush later.
All of this returns us to that question - Why do we feel the need to create in our memory a sense of the past that, given even a little bit of thought, is false? Why did Vishniac not only present his images as typical, but even go so far as to falsify a pair of images in order to create an impression of menace and danger? Does a reliance on "narrative" as a way of constructing, and reconstructing, our lives, sometimes lead to falsification?
(h/t Talking Points Memo)