People become involved with Jewish heritage — Jewish built heritage — in many ways: as scholars, as researchers, as archaeologists, as documentarians, as genealogists and seekers of family history, as historians, as historic preservationists…. on and on.
Based in Cologne, Christian Herrmann has spent years traveling in eastern Europe (in particular western Ukraine) and photographing Jewish heritage sites, many of them abandoned, and posting the pictures on his blog, A Vanished World — we have shared a number of his posts and pictures on JHE. He has also published a book of his pictures and exhibited them.
In a lengthy interview with Virtual Shtetl, Herrmann describes how he, who is not Jewish, became interested in Jewish heritage and heritage sites; and he speaks about the impact he hopes his work will have.
Here are a few excerpts, but it is worthwhile to read the entire interview.
How he got interested
In Krakow’s former Jewish district Kazimierz I was for the very first time confronted with Eastern Jewry, the old synagogues are very visible there. To my surprise I realized that I knew nothing about it – neither about the quantity of the Jewish population before the Holocaust, nor about intellectual and spiritual currents and diversity. That has a lot to do with the German education system. In my generation, the Holocaust has been treated at great length in the classroom, but the history lessons circled mainly around the question of how a seemingly civilized nation could turn into a gang of murderers. The question is well-intentioned, because it tries to immunize against a recurrence of history. But the result is also that we know nothing about the people who were exterminated. It is frightening how sustainable and successful destruction can be. Millions of people were killed and most of us know just numbers, but nothing about who they were and how they lived.
So I started to travel – in Poland, the Baltic States, in Russia and in Ukraine. […] At some point I felt that just to see and to travel is not enough. I had a need to share my experiences with others and to let them participate. So I started to take pictures. “Started” is actually wrong, but I remembered what I learned about photography when I studied design, and dug out my old analogue camera. The Vanished World blog has arisen from the same motivation. I wanted to expand the images to texts and I also wanted to reflect the context of traveling. It is a great experience, if that works. Suddenly you are in the company of virtual co-travelers, people who share memories, ask questions or give advice. It gives me a lot and it seems I’m also able to give something to others. Both are important experiences to me.
How does he reconcile his artistic sensibility with his wish to motivate preservation of Jewish heritage in Eastern Europe?
Of course, I hope my photos may contribute to the preservation of Jewish heritage, but I also do not overestimate myself, and I am skeptical whether that is possible or necessary at all. As for the aspect of conservation and restoration of Jewish heritage, this process is in full swing and doesn’t demand my photos. What is already well advanced in Poland, is now beginning in Ukraine. It starts because something is changing in the Ukrainian society, because more and more Ukrainians – Jews and non-Jews – realize they have a common history and not two separated histories that took place by chance on the same soil. I therefore hope my photos may make a small contribution to this process of identity building. From a European perspective, one can analyze something similar, even if the question of European identity is much more complex. It would be a big achievement if more people would acknowledge Judaism as a formative influence in a common European culture and Eastern European Jewish heritage is an important contribution to it. […]
A common reaction to my photos is “and they are there just like that?” The viewers want to express they expect synagogues and cemeteries to be maintained, they realize they are unprotected, they perceive the poor conservation status and questions why no one is doing something. Not always this perception is correct, because there are places where neighboring residents care for cemeteries, keep the grass short, and make sure the places don’t get vandalized. But of course, the state of neglect in many places raises the question of what is needed to happen to preserve a cemetery or synagogue for coming generations. The answers will not always be the same. They will range from securing the status quo up to a complete reconstruction, but in some places the last traces may finally disappear soon, because a short-term emergency measure is not in sight.