Tuesday, August 3, 2010

How They Lived

Working on the Shtetlinks (websites on ancestral town) has the added advantage of putting me in the middle of the information that swirls around the towns I am researching. As I do both research and artwork around family and cultural history, new information often feeds one of those engines.

 I’ve written of the 1937 film I obtained of the town of Radom, Poland.  I recently put about 80 stills from the film on the Radom Shtetlink, a rather laborious process.  As stills the images spoke to me in a way that they didn’t when watching the film. Many are striking imagery, always good source material
for an artist and they will resurface in a different form in these pages. What I took particular note of was the diversity of the Jewish community.  While the stereotypic religious elder can certainly be found in the film, many within the Jewish community looked no different than my grandparents and parents would have at that time in New York. The stereotype of the shtetl Jew told through the stories of Sholom Aleichem and the camera of Roman Vishniac fails to tell the story of many in the Jewish community of Eastern Europe.  That was particularly true of a fairly large city like Radom where one could find merchants, teachers, doctors and lawyers.

Recently I was connected by a fellow Radom researcher to an author whose work is quite evocative of life in those times.  Bernard Gotfryd is a former Radom resident and a survivor.  He worked for Newsweek as a photographer for 30 years and brought his photographer’s eye to his stories. 

Gotfryd sent me a copy of his most recent book I Can See Them in My Dreams, published in Poland.  Stories in Polish and English introduced me to personalities in Radom and told their stories.  One of the things that I seek to learn in my research is what the lives of my family members were like.  With the Holocaust as the end point of their lives, it is easy to focus on their deaths rather than their lives.  Between the film imagery and Gotfryd’s words, I have begun to get a sense of what their world was like.

Intrigued by his recent book, I tracked down a copy of his earlier book Anton the Dove Fancier which similarly paints vignettes of Radom and subsequent events during the Holocaust.  The book won the PEN/Martha Albrand Special Citation for Nonfiction as well as several additional awards.  Gotfryd captures the complexity of human interactions.  It is not a black and white world, but one populated with people thrust into impossible situations, trying to find their way through them while preserving their sense of humanity.

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