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Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust by David Shneer (review)

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 5, Number 2, July 2012
pp. 88-90 | 10.1353/jji.2012.0025

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On March 2, 1942, the Soviet illustrated weekly Ogonyok published a two-page photo essay titled "Hitlerite Atrocities in Kerch." Eight images of corpses and wailing residents amounted to what was the first photojournalistic account of the Nazi murder of Soviet Jews. The Germans had occupied Kerch in mid-November, but only held the city for six weeks before the Soviet army liberated it, giving journalists and photographers one of the first opportunities to witness Nazi crimes. (And a brief opportunity at that: the Germans quickly retook Kerch, in May 1942.) Among those who arrived in Kerch were three Soviet Jewish photojournalists. Based on interviews with townspeople and witnesses, they ascertained that the dead were Jews. The Ogonyok article only obliquely noted the Jewish identity of the victims. While it did not occlude the particularity of the Nazi genocide of Jews altogether, it universalized the atrocity as a crime against the Soviet population in general and not one specifically against Jews. Still, the photo essay powerfully documented mass murder, and to careful readers it was clear that the victims were Jews.

In Through Soviet Jewish Eyes, David Shneer unearths little-known accounts such as this in his stimulating new book on Soviet Jewish photojournalism. While Shneer focuses on Jewish photography during the Holocaust—and these chapters are bound to be of most interest to scholars—his book stretches far outside the wartime period and beyond Eastern Europe. It moves from the 1830s to the 2000s; from Eastern Europe to Central Asia; from photos of Jewish colonial agriculturalists to an image of Mao Zedong. The book's analytical coverage is equally wide-ranging: it explores Soviet and Jewish narrations of the Holocaust; the historical trajectory of Jewish participation in Soviet photojournalism over three decades; the use of photography to legitimize Soviet Communism from 1917 to 1945; the expression of Soviet and Jewish identities in photography; and the shifting histories of photographs from the 1940s to the present. All the while Shneer analyzes some ninety images, which are reprinted in the text.

What holds these multiple parts together is Shneer's focus on Soviet Jewish photographers, in particular, their role during World War II as witnesses of atrocity, battle, urban ruination, and liberation. Building on the work of historians such as Zvi Gitelman and Karel Berkhoff, Shneer refutes the claim that Soviet officials universalized and subsumed Nazi crimes against Jews into the pan-ethnic category of Soviet national suffering. To be sure, the word "Jew" and the Jewishness of Nazi victims were often absent from the Russian-language press. But this obfuscation was inconsistent and at times subtle traces of Jewishness could be found. Discussion of Jewish victims was especially apparent in the tiny, yet important, Soviet Yiddish-language press, which had much greater latitude to discuss the Holocaust than Russian-language periodicals did. Shneer skillfully situates these differences in coverage within the contexts of time, place, language, and audience, emphasizing that the Holocaust was mediated differently to the Soviet populace and to Jewish readers. He also shows that Jewish editors, writers, and photographers struggled to find the right balance between particularity and universalism in their stories and captions; some Jews wanted to place the genocide of Jews within a broader, universal narrative about Nazi violence against the Soviet Union because they saw themselves as "part of a larger collective, even in times of great suffering." (169)

This last point is important, and it raises a key question: If some Jews viewed themselves more as "Soviets" and less as "Jews"—as it seems many Soviet Jewish photojournalists did—does it make sense to label and analyze them as Jews? Shneer, whose previous work has added much to our understanding of the contextual and fluid identities of Jewishness, is well aware of the problem. In his introduction, he recounts a meeting with the daughter of photojournalist Dmitrii Baltermants, who disagreed with Shneer labeling her father Jewish: "His identity—what a question. He was Soviet. Nothing else. Well, he was also a photojournalist, but he was so totally Soviet. His Jewishness did not matter to him at all." (8) Throughout the book, Shneer remains attuned to this dilemma. Nevertheless, he wants to argue that...

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