In the second installment of “From the Academy,” Dr. David Shneer, Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, tells us about his current research and academic work.
My new book project, Bearing Witness: Soviet Jewish Photographers Confront World War II and the Holocaust, looks at the lives and works of two dozen photojournalists who were the first people to document the Holocaust as liberators.
The book moves Holocaust Studies in a new direction by looking at the Holocaust through the eyes of Jews who watched and documented it unfolding, a group with unprecedented access to visual stories of the Holocaust. I can only ask this question about Jews as witnesses by placing the Soviet experience front and center. I can see how Soviet Jews with the power of the camera photographed, responded to, and ended up memorializing events that had personal, familial, national, and universal consequences for each of them.
From a methodological vantage point, I encourage historians to take visual culture seriously by moving photography, analyses of the images themselves, the photographers, and the process by which photography was produced and circulated to the center of our study of narratives and storytelling, rather than simply using images as illustrations of other histories. And I encourage cultural critics who study Holocaust photography to take the photographers seriously and to see photographs not just as images to be read but also as cultural objects that are produced in certain times and places, by individuals operating in specific aesthetic and political universes.
My work on these photographers is also a part of my general intellectual passion to bring groups of Jews, in this case Soviet Jews and the photographers among them, into the general narratives of Jewish history. It is this drive that encouraged my work on the intersections between sexuality and Judaism in modern Jewish society, and on reconceptualizing the Jewish map as a global, rather than diasporic, map in my recent co-authored book New Jews.
When I started working on this project five years ago, I resisted naming it a Holocaust project. In my work and in my teaching I tend to resist tragic narratives, and as a historian of twentieth century Jewish history, itâ€™s pretty hard to avoid.
Itâ€™s not an accident that Salo Baron, the first chair of Jewish history in the country, called the common approach to Jewish history the â€œlachrymose viewâ€? — they oppressed us, they killed us, we survived (letâ€™s eat). My first scholarly monograph challenged the lachrymose view of Soviet Jewish history by examining a group of Jewish intellectuals in the early years of the Soviet Union, whom I call the Soviet Yiddish intelligentsia, who created a new form of secular, socialist Jewish culture.
I told the story of these activists and their cultural and national goals. I also aimed to change the way scholars of Soviet and Jewish histories view the Soviet Jewish past, a history most often told through the lens of tragedy. The members of the Soviet Yiddish intelligentsia, who indeed suppressed traditional forms of Jewish identity, were nonetheless deeply interested in imagining a future socialist Jewish culture.
I studied the creation of Soviet Yiddish culture precisely because their interest in a Jewish language, and in Jewish difference, shows how these dedicated socialist activists were re-envisioning the Jewish nation, not calling for its end. The Soviet state gave them the power to realize their visions, something unprecedented in the history of Jewish intellectuals, well before post-war Stalin-era state anti-Semitism became a policy that has shaped how all histories of Soviet Jews have been written subsequently.
When I began work on Soviet Jews photographing World War II, I realized that I had the opportunity to find a new lens that actually made the Holocaust, where Jews are usually figured as objects, into a modern Jewish story and one that, as much as anything about the Holocaust can, found space for a story of production and creation, rather than destruction and loss.
By focusing on these photographers, their photographs, and the stories both tell, I am accessing new ways of understanding the Holocaust through the literal and figurative lens of those who experienced it second hand. I am accessing Holocaust narratives through Jewish witnesses. Soviet photographers, most of whom were Jewish, were some of the first people in the world to photograph Nazi atrocities from the perspective of the liberator, more than three years before American and British liberation photography.