Christian Herrmann, Photographer of Eastern Europe’s Vanishing Jewish Heritage
By Liam Hoare
The German Jewish writer Edgar Hilsenrath once wrote, “The traces were still there. But time would slowly blur them and nothing would be left.” It is this notion that motivates the German photographer Christian Herrmann, who captures the aspects of eastern Europe’s Jewish heritage for his project, “Vanished World,” that can be said to be fading: untended cemeteries and repurposed synagogues. Out in the field in places like Poland and Romania, through photography Herrmann’s aim is to “to recall those places” of vanishing heritage “into public consciousness.” Herrmann “wants to encourage people for the rescue of a heritage we all share.”
I spoke with Herrmann back and forth via email earlier this month, in order to find out more about how his “Vanished World” project got started, what he’s learned during his time traveling in eastern Europe, and how he feels when about the region’s Jewish heritage today.
When did you begin photographing European Jewish heritage sites, and where did you start?
Before photography came travel. At the beginning of the 1990s, I was invited to a summer academy near Krakow. I liked Krakow from the first moment on and wanted to learn more about Eastern Europe. At that time, one already could travel to all those places that were once hidden behind the Iron Curtain, but hardly anyone did. In Krakow’s former Jewish district, Kazimierz, I was for the very first time confronted with Eastern Jewry; the old synagogues at that time began to become a tourist attraction. I realized that I knew nothing about Eastern Jewry – neither about the quantity of the Jewish population before the Holocaust, nor about intellectual and spiritual currents and diversity.
So I started to travel – in Poland, Romania, the Baltic States, Moldova, and in Ukraine – always with a focus on the remaining Jewish heritage. After some years, I realized that people were listening to my stories and showed interest. Photography was a good media to transport what I saw. Since about 2006 I’ve photographed intensively and made the results accessible for friends. Later I felt like I should share the images with more people and also should combine it with text. In 2013, I started my Vanished World blog mainly as an illustrated travel log. It brought me in touch with many who have family roots in the places I visited, other photographers or people with a personal or scientific interest in Judaism, writers and more.
What was it about this notion of a vanishing Jewish heritage that, for you, made it an interesting photographic subject?
Your question touches many dimensions: education, preservation, identity, ethics, and esthetics. The photos may raise questions of how much we know about European history and how we want to preserve its remains. They also invite us to think about what happened and continues to happen to societies of which a substantial part was destroyed.
This is not exclusively a Jewish topic but a subject that touches all of us; it touches questions of identity both in a national and European dimension. Many of the photos show destruction, vandalized or neglected and overgrown cemeteries, synagogues that became warehouses and workshops. It’s a violence that was done to objects, but mainly it testifies violence that was done to men, women and children. It challenges our empathy and our so often praised ‘remembrance culture.’ My photos are also thought to be a recognition for survivors, those who found themselves spread all over the world after the war – mainly in environments where people paid little attention for the places of their origin.
To a certain extent, there are of course also esthetical questions. Sometimes people feel depressed when looking at my photos, they refer to them as a ‘heavy topic.’ I confess that I find many of the places I visited extremely beautiful. This is mainly not because of natural beauty or impressive architecture; it’s the dignity of places that can be increased by nature, weather conditions or the quality of architecture. They still stand; synagogues, cemeteries, schools, houses are still there – despite all the disasters and atrocities of the twentieth century’s dictatorships. This is dignity.
You mentioned “the quantity of the Jewish population before the Holocaust” and the “intellectual and spiritual currents and diversity,” but since 2006, what would you say are the main things you’ve learnt about eastern European Jewry and its heritage, having embarked on this travel and photography project?
Judaism in Eastern Europe covers a huge range from conservative Hasidim to socialist workers; from Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim to those writers, like Bruno Schulz or Paul Celan, who opened the doors to modernity. Also, the diversity of languages is stunning: Polish, Yiddish, Russian, and many more. I’m not a historian, an ethnographer, or a sociologist; my gate to Jewish worlds – next to eyewitnesses – was literature. The Jewish writers from Bukovina, who mainly wrote in German, made access easy for me.
There is also a certain Jewish perspective of being a loyal citizen and at the same time being able to see the limitations of a nation state – no wonder for a minority that was in certain moments threatened by state instigated violence and discrimination. Esperanto was a failed vision for a common language, but also the first vision for a common European currency came from a Jewish philanthropist from the East.
Every heritage interacts with its environment; people do as well. Eastern Europe is often described as a place of pogroms and misery. But if you look closer you may find more of interaction, cooperation and mutual inspiration. The lions and deer represented on Jewish gravestones in Galician small towns are done in a very similar folkloristic style as objects of a neighboring Ukrainian wood carver. It is also wrong to imagine Eastern Europe as ‘Judenrein.’ There are Jewish communities – often small, but alive. When we care about heritage, we should also care for the living and acknowledge their contribution to the present.
That people might feel depressed looking at your photography would be because of the sense of loss attached to Europe’s Jewish heritage, but when you visit these places and capture them, how do they make you feel?
Some places make me feel depressed too, of course. Seeing things vanishing is never a pleasure, especially when you consider why they vanish. But more and more I realize synagogues and cemeteries are not isolated objects. They are part of an urban space or rural environment. People may have their bus stop in front of an old synagogue or a public market on the ground of a former cemetery. Farmers may pass a remote cemetery in the countryside when they bring their cattle back home and others may let their goats and horses graze there.
By broadening the perspectives also feelings get more diverse. They reach from depression to joy when I discover a beautiful gravestone or when I see somebody took the initiative to restore a synagogue. Feelings reach from awareness of sublimity of places to a feeling of normality of daily life; and the feeling of normality may clash with my knowledge of history. Many places are charged with emotions and sometimes I return exhausted from traveling – and this is not from the physical exertion.
This interview has been edited for grammar and style. A calendar for 2017 consisting of Christian Herrmann’s photography of Eastern Europe’s Jewish heritage is available for free download.