Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust

Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust

Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust

Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust


Most view the relationship of Jews to the Soviet Union through the lens of repression and silence. Focusing on an elite group of two dozen Soviet-Jewish photographers, including Arkady Shaykhet, Alexander Grinberg, Mark Markov-Grinberg, Evgenii Khaldei, Dmitrii Baltermants, and Max Alpert, Through Soviet Jewish Eyes presents a different picture. These artists participated in a social project they believed in and with which they were emotionally and intellectually invested-they were charged by the Stalinist state to tell the visual story of the unprecedented horror we now call the Holocaust.

These wartime photographers were the first liberators to bear witness with cameras to Nazi atrocities, three years before Americans arrived at Buchenwald and Dachau. In this passionate work, David Shneer tells their stories and highlights their work through their very own images-he has amassed never-before-published photographs from families, collectors, and private archives.

Through Soviet Jewish Eyes
helps us understand why so many Jews flocked to Soviet photography; what their lives and work looked like during the rise of Stalinism, during and then after the war; and why Jews were the ones charged with documenting the Soviet experiment and then its near destruction at the hands of the Nazis.


In the summer of 2002, with the air heavy and warm from days of heavy rains, I wandered into Moscow’s Union of Art Photographers, one of the few galleries in the city dedicated to photography. Once inside, I noticed that the walls were adorned with some of the best examples of Soviet war photography. Although most of the photographers’ names were unfamiliar to me at the time, I couldn’t help noticing—despite my better instincts as a good liberal American trained to resist emphasizing group identity over individuality— that their names, Avrom Shterenberg, Evgenii Khaldei, Max Alpert, Arkady Shaykhet, were undeniably Jewish. Perhaps because I was in Russia, where identity is so often shaped by perceived group membership (usually structured as mutually exclusive categories: Russian or Chechen or Jewish), I didn’t hesitate to approach the curator to ask whether all these photographers were indeed Jewish. the woman, in her midfifties, cigarette dangling out from her mouth, eyebrows curled in that slightly condescending glance that I—the overly inquisitive professor, and clearly too-young-to-be-who-you-say-youare American—often receive in Moscow, said curtly, “Of course.”

That was not the response I was expecting in a country where Jewishness, to this day, is supposed to be an unspoken or hidden feature of a person’s identity, an ethnicity whose name had in the past not dared be spoken. Maybe I was expecting flat denial, perhaps a touch of universalism: “No, our photographers were Soviet, not Jewish,” or “I hadn’t noticed. We focus on art, not on the identity of the photographer.” But a wry, “Of course.” No, I wasn’t expecting that.

The curator and I continued our conversation, at which point she told me that she, Maria Zhotikova, was in fact the granddaughter of one of the most famous Soviet (Jewish; always in parenthesis) photographers, Arkady Shaykhet. She estimated that about 50–60 percent of all wartime Soviet photographers were Jewish. Others, whom I’ve interviewed since the idea for this book on Soviet Jewish photographers was hatched, confirm this number.

One year after my first encounter with the works of Soviet Jewish photographers, I found myself at the enormous World War ii Memorial Complex in Moscow, at an . . .

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