Gone, but Never
to Be Forgotten
By Dan Gilgoff
On a string of cool October nights in 1942,
22-year-old Norman Salsitz slipped out
of a labor camp in southern Poland
clutching bundles of photographs and
documents from his hometown. By month's end,
he had surreptitiously stowed about 40 packages
that together contained more than 400 pictures in
the thatched straw roofs of nearby barns. He'd
pulled half of the pictures from his own collectionSalsitz owned one of the four cameras in Kolbuszowaand salvaged the rest from neighboring homes that the Nazis ordered him and a crew of
other young Jews to tear down. Each package came
with instructions to mail it to his brother's address
in Brooklyn, N.Y., "if this package is found and I
am not alive." On his final mission, Salsitz
crammed a list of hiding places into a roof. "I
thought I would be killed, or there would be a fire,
or the photos would just stay there," says Salsitz,
now 81 and living in Springfield, N.J.
Posing as a gentile in the Polish Army following
liberation, Salsitz found that each package had survived the war unscathed. But the Jews of Kolbuszowa weren't so fortunate. Of roughly 2,000 Jewish townspeople, nine survived the Holocaust; two
of those were murdered by fellow Poles upon returning to their homes after the war. Today, Salsitz's two albums of black-and-white photographs
form a comprehensive depiction of Jewish life in
his town from before the war through the first year
in the ghetto.
Salsitz's collection is powerful proof of photography's ability to preserve what could have been lost forever. "Pictures taken of Jews before the war, photos of everyday life and family portraits, underwent
a huge transformation," says Jeffrey Shandler, a
Jewish studies professor at Rutgers University.
"After the war, they wound up taking on the monumental significance of documenting the loss of a culture." While the Holocaust wiped Jewish small-town life off the face of Eastern Europe and swallowed nearly two thirds of the continent's Jewish population, a vast catalog of prewar pictures depicting Yiddish-speaking villagers and more-assimilated Western European Jews survived.
When Holocaust survivor and scholar Yaffa Eliach returned briefly to her Lithuanian hometown of Eishyshok after liberation, she found portraits
of her grandmother, grandfather, and uncle hanging on a wall inside a neighbor's house. A local artist had painted halos and crosses on them. "They had made my family into St. Mary, St. Joseph, and
Jesus," Eliach says, simply because they found the
pictures attractive. On picture-hunting expeditions
in the '80s and '90s, a few prewar neighbors made
her buy back family photos. All in all, in a 15-year,
six-continent expedition, Eliach collected 8,000
shots of prewar life in Eishyshok, which lost almost
all of its roughly 3,500 Jews to Nazi death squads
on two September days in 1941. Her pictures make
up the "Tower of Life" exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust
Memorial Museum, a three-story shaft plastered
with enlarged snippets of daily lifesmiling figures riding bicycles and puffing cigarettes. "I wanted to present Jews as ordinary people," says Eliach. "Not as poor victims."
Eliach's mission was a reaction to the work of
many Western and Nazi propaganda photographers, who pointed their cameras toward poor and Hasidic Jews in the years before World War
II. From 1933 to 1939, the Nazis used photographs, especially shots of exotic-looking eastern Jews with long beards and clad in traditional garb, to define the enemy for the German masses. (So successful was the propaganda effort that in 1937 the New York Times reproduced photos taken by an SS photographer without critical comment.) Official photographs taken in nearly every concentration camp formed part of
official Nazi administrative records. Camp commandants and SS officers also put together photo albums in which pictures of drinking parties were
pasted beside those of lynchings and shootings.
A macabre album confiscated from Kurt Franz,
who supervised the final gassings at the Treblinka death camp, is titled "The Best Years of My Life." Despite bans on unauthorized photography, ordinary Nazi soldiers also captured torment and murder on film. "Many are trophy pictures that soldiers sent home," says Raye Farr, director
of film and video at the Holocaust museum. "In them, the soldiers are very often laughing." Some of these pictures, which sometimes circulated as postcards, were eventually used to prosecute perpetrators at Nuremberg and other trials.
Though penalties for Jews caught taking photos
in the ghettos included arrest, torture, deportation,
and death, clandestine photographers persisted.
Mendel Grossman amassed 10,000 images of
Poland's Lodz ghetto, often with the camera hidden under his coat, which was pierced with a peephole for the camera's eye. The negatives survived
WWII inside the hollowed-out windowsills of his
apartment, but the photographer perished in a German labor camp. Salsitz secretly shot pictures for a year in his hometown before smashing his camera as the ghetto was cleared out. As he writes in
his forthcoming book A Harvest of Jewish Memories, "The absence of pictures would help make historians mute and the world deaf."