JHE friend, the Cologne-based photographer Christian Herrmann, spends his free time traveling to eastern Europe to photograph the surviving traces of pre-Holocaust Jewish life that still stand across the region. We have highlighted his work a number of times, and his new photo book, “In Fading Light,” was published in September by Lukas Verlag.
Tied to the book publication, Beit Hatfutsot has just published a blog post Christian wrote, called “I have nothing to say, just to show,” in which he reflects on what draws him to these places. It also includes a selection of his photos.
My photos reflect a kaleidoscopic and collage-like echo of a destroyed world. There are different levels that one can discover: the beauty of a destroyed culture, the destructive rage of the German occupiers and their allies, Soviet indifference and denial of history, the presence of the people who today live with the traces of the past, and – after the implosion of communism – the attempts of organizations and individuals to save what can still be saved […] I do not want to teach people how to deal with my pictures and what to feel about them. How a person reacts and what they feel depends on the individual. Some are repulsed, grief-stricken, angry, horrified, or indifferent. I don’t want to make a statement about what the “right“ emotion is. But one thing is common to all these feelings: uncertainty.
The places that Christian photographs — ruined synagogues, abandoned Jewish cemeteries, and other such sites are what JHE director Ruth Ellen Gruber has called “symbolic mezuzahs.”
In her book Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today, published in 1994 when the post-communist rediscovery of Jewish heritage in the region was still in its early years, she wrote:
This book is about mezuzahs. Not so much the little boxes themselves, but rather what they symbolize, and where they were, and what is there now […]
Today, on the doorposts of countless houses in countless townsand villages throughout East-Central Europe, where few if any Jews have lived since the Holocaust […] it is still pssible to distinguish the places where mezuzahs had once been attached, marking these houses as Jewish homes. On some doorposts there are actual scars– empty, often very neat, gouges in the wood left when the mezuzahs were removed. On some doorposts there are nail holes. On some, a faint outline of an oblong shape; a thickening of paint.
More than that, though. In countless towns and cities and villages throughout East-Central Europe, there are today a host of what I call symbolic mezuzahs, too: the hundreds and thousands of synagogue buildings, abandoned Jewish graveyards, and Jewish shtetl and ghetto buildings that still, despite Nazi destruction and Communist-era neglect, denote not houses, but villages, towns, and cities that were once homes to Jews. And in a way, the few remaining Jews themselves are also mezuzahs, flesh-and-blood reminders of vibrant Jewish communities that otherwise have disappeared.
Less tangible mezuzahs linger too: memories. Memories encapsulated in fictional and historical writings; in letters; in superstitions; in folk tales and family stories handed down through the generations; in the archives and artistic collections that managed to survive the war; in the recollections of local non-Jews about their vanished neighbors; in the persistence of anti-Semitism in places where there are no longer any Jews to hate.
Much has changed since she wrote that nearly 25 years ago. But, as Christian Herrmann point out in his own work, much still remains the same.