Capturing Pre-War Jewry in Pictures

Centenary Stories from the Archives

Posted by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 11th September 2014

In this weeks stories from the archive we visit, a – now lost – world of European Jewry in the 1930s as captured by two very different men, Roman Vishniac and George Loukomski, both of whom exhibited their findings at Ben Uri.

Last week I wrote about Abram Games, the great graphic designer who captured the spirit of post war Britain, this week I am focusing on two men who used different media to capture pre war European Jewry, one of whom, Roman Vishniac, was a very good friend of Games.

It is 1935 and anti-semitism is on the rise in Europe particularly in Hitler’s Germany after the passing of the Nuremberg laws.

BU_Event_Doeblin_1935_small
The Tragedy of German Jews (1935). Ben Uri Archives.

At the time of this lecture two men were travelling around Europe drawing and photographing Jewish religious and secular life. The first George Lukomski, was interested in the development and design of the religious buildings of a community which had lived in Europe for many hundreds of years.

George Lukomski: Jewish Architecture

George Lukomski (Loukomski) was born in 1884 in Kaluga from a noble family, he sometimes styled himself Prince Lukomski. After studying art and architecture he began travelling across Russia and Europe drawing and sketching, eventually settling in Kiev becoming Keeper of Fine Art at the Museum. After the Russian revolution, Lukomski helped to turn some of the Czar’s palaces into Museums; in 1924 he went to live in Paris.

George Lukomsky
George Lukomski

Although not Jewish, Lukomski made a specialty of drawing synagogues ranging from grand buildings to ancient wooden structures in small towns and villiages across Europe. He regularly exhibited these drawings and, in 1935 there was a Ben Uri  exhibition of drawings and watercolours of ‘ghetto’ scenes and synagogues built between the fourteen and eighteenth centuries.

Ben Uri exhibition Lukomski 1935
Ben Uri LukomsKi Exhibition 1935. Ben Uri Archives.

The exhibition was opened by the Chief Rabbi Dr Hertz with an introduction by the Jewish historian Cecil Roth. The correspondent of the Jewish Chronicle asked why he had chosen to draw so many synagogues and Lukomski said that he was fascinated by them and it was one of the few areas of architecture that had been hitherto neglected. Lukomski continued on his travels and after having received introductions from Roth went to Portugal and then to Spain. However the Spanish civil war was raging around him and he found himself imprisoned in Grenada. He managed to smuggle out a telegram to Lisbon asking that a plane be sent to rescue the British and French civilians. I don’t know how Lukomski actually escaped but he made his way back to England where he spent the war. Cecil Roth had opened his home in Oxford to many refugees.

After the war Lukomski returned to France continuing drawing, writing and publishing books about architecture including Jewish synangogues. In 1958, some of his works were again exhibited at Ben Uri some described poignantly as images of “destroyed synagogues”. The Lukomski pictures exhibited in 1935 and 1958 were given to public collections in Israel. The first President of Israel Chaim Weitzmann, had two Lukomski drawings of the synagogues in Druyha and Pinsk on his wall.

This picture is in the Ben Uri Collection.

Loukomski Synagogue Interior
Interior of a Synagogue. Ben Uri Collection

Roman Visniac – Capturing Everyday Life

Roman Vishniac was born in 1897 in Russia, to a family of wealthy umbrella makers. As a medical student in 1915 he tried to help some fellow Jews who had been been declared German spies and transported to the Russian interior without food or water. Vishniac himself, managed to escape to Berlin in 1920 when he lived until 1939. For eight years in the 1930s he travelled back and forth from Berlin to the ghettos of Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Lithuania taking photographs of Jewish life, a camera hidden under his coat. He was commissioned to do so by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee(JDC) as part of a fund-raising drive to help support these poor communities. Vishniac developed and printed these pictures in his dark room in his Berlin apartment. Although he believed that he had taken over 16,000 images only 2000 survived. Some of these were smuggled out via Cuba hidden in the lining of clothing of a friend. Vishniac he fled Germany to America (via a French internment camp) arriving in New York in 1940.

Ben Uri Exhibition Vishniac 1983
A Vanished World Roman Vishniac

Two hundred of the surviving pictures were selected by Vishniac in 1983 and published as A Vanished World with text based upon his own memories and knowledge. In order to promote this book in the UK, an exhibition of 66 of the photographs were exhibited at Ben Uri (and then toured around the country). Vishniac wrote the captions and came over to London to give a talk at the Ben Uri. It was, according to the curator at the time one of the most popular exhibitions they had held for many years, despite an exclusive spread in the Sunday Times magazine being a casualty of a printers strike. Not only was the exhibition a window into a lost world but an emotional experience for many visitors who had lost family in the war. One woman recognised a picture of herself as a child.

George Lukomski died in Nice in the early 1950’s, Vishniac survived (although one hundred members of his family perished in the war) until 1990. After his death more photographs were discovered amongst his papers. Vishniac’s collection and archives are housed in the International Center for Photography in New York.

Both Vishniac and Loukomski recorded life in a changing world but neither could have known at the time just how important a record their work was to be.

Ben Uri Holocaust Learning Resource