By most yardsticks, the Holocaust cut its most brutal swath across Poland, western Ukraine and the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania. Of an estimated 5.1 million Jews who lived in these regions before World War II, over 4 million were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, according to historians.
And after the war, many survivors left for good, immigrating to Israel, the United States and other countries, leaving once-robust Jewish communities empty or nearly hollowed out.
But an Israeli-American photographer who’s spent time in Poland and western Ukraine has found the flame of Jewish life still flickering in some communities — and in some cases finding new strength and purpose.
In a new exhibit, “Beyond the Forest,” the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst is displaying some of Loli Kantor’s work, for which the photographer spent nearly eight years documenting Jewish communities — sometimes just a handful of people — in towns and cities in Poland and Ukraine.
It was both a personal journey for her — Kantor’s parents survived the Holocaust, though few of their family members did — and a cultural one in which she found Holocaust survivors and their descendants still keeping Jewish rituals and traditions alive.
“It was heartening to see there still is Jewish life in a place where there was so much suffering and destruction,” Kantor said during a recent telephone call from London. “And there are non-Jews, too, who are helping to preserve Jewish identity” by maintaining Jewish cemeteries, for example.
Kantor, who grew up primarily in Israel but moved to the United States in 1984 (she now lives in Texas), offers a range of photos: color, black-and-white, and small black-and-white pictures printed with palladium salts, which give the images a dark, brownish tinge to make them appear like aged snapshots.
In the Amherst exhibit, the smaller of two galleries is given over to these latter images (some as small as two by three inches), which are mounted on paper. Though they depict people living in Poland and Ukraine today, they recall the faded look of family pictures of so many people who perished in the Holocaust.
The book center’s larger gallery, though, is full of color photographs and larger black and white images — “life,” as Kantor puts it. From a table groaning with platters of food for a Passover luncheon, to people in a rustic synagogue dating to the early 1800s, to a portrait of a Holocaust survivor with his granddaughter, Kantor’s photos capture the still-beating heart of Judaism in Poland and Ukraine.
As she writes in her book of the same title, from which the exhibit’s images have been selected, “Beyond the Forest” is a testimony to continuing Jewish life in Eastern Europe “beyond the darkness of the forests where in the 20th century many thousands were mass murdered and where others found their refuge in hiding.”A search for roots
Kantor’s project began in 2004, when she went to Plaszów, Poland, once the site of a Nazi concentration camp, as part of a month-long group volunteer project to restore a Jewish cemetery.
In addition, Kantor wanted to explore her family’s roots. Both her parents, who met and married in Germany after WWII, had grown up in that part of Poland. Her mother, though, died giving birth to her, and her father died when she was 14 — and since most members of their families had died in the Holocaust, Kantor says she never learned much about her family’s history.
“My dad had told me a little bit about that and his experience [during the Holocaust], but I had to learn much of it on my own,” she said.
In exploring her family’s roots in Poland and examining various historical archives, Kantor began to make connections with other Jews still in the region. Those people and families in turn introduced her to others as Kantor returned to Poland again and again in subsequent years.
As those relationships deepened, Kantor gained her subjects’ trust: “It was only then I took out my camera,” she said. She also began visiting western Ukraine, some of which had been part of Poland from 1918 to 1939, as she made additional contacts with Jewish communities.
Her photos can focus on intimate details, like an old family photo, likely depicting four people who did not survive the Holocaust, perched on a bookcase. Another shows the ruined remains of a home in a former shtetl in Poland.
But then there’s the interior of the 200-year-old synagogue in Bershad, Ukraine, with narrow wooden pews and tables, whitewashed walls and other venerable touches. It survived WWII and still hosts a small but determined Jewish community: Kantor captures a Shabbat dinner and a Passover meeting there, with both elderly and younger people visible.
She notes that Ukrainian Jews who survived the Holocaust continued to struggle under the rule of the former Soviet Union, which nationalized many properties of faith communities and routinely persecuted Jews who insisted on practicing their religion; many emigrated when the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991.
One of Kantor’s most striking images is of the ruins of a former synagogue in Drohobych, Ukraine, that the Soviets turned into a furniture store following WWII, after the Nazis had murdered most of the city’s pre-war Jewish population. But she says the building is slowly being renovated for reuse as a synagogue, with one room now available for meetings.
A helping hand
Kantor said one surprising but pleasing development she discovered during her project was how some non-Jews in Poland and Ukraine have become interested in Jewish culture and are now helping to preserve local communities and their rituals.
As an example, two of her photos highlight a klezmer band playing at a gathering in Mukachevo, Ukraine. Only one of the band members is actually Jewish, she says.
And one of her most vibrant images is of a young girl, Sonia, perhaps 6 or 7 years old, who’s playing at a Jewish community center in Lviv, Ukraine that Kantor says is also open to non-Jews for various activities.
“It’s encouraging that [non-Jews] have taken an interest in these places,” she said.
Lviv, with about 2,000 Jews, has one of the largest Jewish communities she visited in the region, Kantor notes. Yet before WWII, about 110,000 Jews lived in the city, according to various records — an indication of how the Holocaust, Soviet rule and other factors decimated the population.
Still, Kantor has faith the region’s Jewish communities will hold on. As she writes in exhibit notes, “Although this work involves memory and loss, it also portrays a realistic sense of the present and of survival.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Beyond the Forest” can be seen at the Yiddish Book Center through Oct. 15. Loli Kantor will give a presentation about the exhibit at the center on April 30 at 11 a.m. as part of a free open house. Visit www.yiddishbookcenter.org for more information.